His Story

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Redefining progress

Let’s make things people better
“To hear the India’s space mission – the crowning glory of India’s scientific accomplishments – being called a waste of time is intolerable to me,” Amit poured out, as soon as we sat down for our meeting “I had also felt like that a dozen years ago,” I smiled reassuringly. “Amit, I too loved space research since my childhood. In fact, when I was studying engineering,I decided to change my career, do a post-graduation in astrophysics and pursue scientifically my childhood fascination.”

Amit’s eyes opened wide: “What happened then?” As I contemplated on how to answer, my mind spontaneously went back to a fateful meeting some thirteen years ago, a meeting that had changed my life’s direction.


One of my classmates told me about his brother, Rabi,who was a double PhD, working as a scientist at University of Astronomical Research*. I was excited, almost awed, to meet him. He had achieved what I was dreaming of: a grad degree from IIT,two doctorate degrees from eminent American universities, and a respectable position in a leading research institute.

Rabi was a tall, fair, bearded, bespectacled young man in his thirties. He introduced me to his wife Razi, a scholarly-looking, fair young lady with thick glasses: “We met in America during our college days. She’s done her PhD in Mathematics and we are working together at UAR.” (Rabi and Razi, I later learnt, were ‘cool’ versions of their traditional names, Rabindranath and Raashi).

Rabi lighted a cigarette nonchalantly as we walked. I was taken aback, but I put aside my emotion. Over snacks, we talked for hours about their work and their life. I was pleasantly surprised to see how friendly they were. Perhaps my classmate had told them that I had bagged the top rank in GRE in Maharashtra that year and so they saw me as a promising future colleague.But one thing spoiled the relish;the cigar never left Rabi’s hand--he seemed a chain smoker. Razi said casually, “You know, he smokes too much. I have told him to decrease, but he just can’t.”Her facetious tone and the mischievous look in her eyes puzzled me, but it didn’t prepare me for what came next.

Razi opened her purse, took out a thin cigar and started puffing. Our meeting soon ended.I couldn’t sleep that night. No, I was not gazing at stars in the sky. I was trying to make sense of the stars that had fallen in the sky of my heart.


Since early childhood, I had seen science as an ennobling, uplifting search for the higher truths of life. The pleasures of the scientific quest would raise me far above the petty desires and demands of the body and the mind.

During my college days. my dream was attacked by seeing the self-destructive indulgences of my co-students; even the brightest among them were slave to bad habits, but somehow I had held on to the dream. But this particular meeting had dealt a fatal blow to that dream. I was appalled. How could those who saw through the enigmas of science not see through the illusions of bad habits? Rabi and Razi were nice, clever people. They were not the typical foolhardy street smokers and drunkards that I had encountered in my childhood town. Why could those who were relishing the intellectual pleasure of space research (which, to me, represented the highest of all scientific pleasures) not give up the self-destructive pleasure of smoking?

As we returned to the discussion, Amit added soberly, “From my life in IIT, I know that students use their net connections far more to download porn than to do academic research.”

I then qualified our observations: “Of course, both of us know scientists and intellectuals who lead sensible, regulated lives. But the number of intellectually brilliant people leading reckless lives is distressingly high. This contradiction – brilliance in professional life and recklessness in personal life – bewildered me for years till philosophy revealed the answer.”

“What was that answer?” Amit asked eagerly.

“Our modern society operates on a fundam entally flawed notion of progress,” I began. “This notion of progress is distilled in Phillips’ slogan: Let’s make things better.

The Vedic notion of progress can be expressed as: Let’s make "people" better. Or, more pragmatically, let’s make "ourselves" better. Today, a society is considered progressive when it helps develop things, facilities, gadgets, for its people. In this paradigm, a society is considered progressive when it helps develops qualities, virtues, in its people.”

“That’s an interesting way to put the difference,” Amit remarked.

“This difference leads to imbalanced, lop-sided development,” I explained. “Let’s consider America, the country thought as the most developed according to the modern paradigm. There, a major cause of health disorders is obesity. Now, obesity does not need any hi-tech gadgetry for detection; a simple weighing machine is enough. Nor does it demand any ultra-sophisticated technology to be cured; regulation of diet is enough. With the current one-sided idea of progress, the machines for measuring weight are becoming smaller and smaller, but the people who are measuring their weights on these machines are becoming "bigger and bigger". The AIDS menace – aggravated doubly technological progress that makes sexually agitating material easily available and absence of any training in sexual restraint – is a glaring example of misdirected progress. Another tragic example is the series of American school shootouts. Children get easy access to guns due to technological progress, but get no training to value other's lives and so indiscriminately shoot others when frustrated.”

I summarized, “Albert Einstein put the problem well: ‘It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity’.”


I paused as Amit pondered on our discussion. He asked thoughtfully, “Science helps develop our technology, but how do we develop our humanity?”

“Your question brings us to the topic of what constitutes real progress,” I replied. “All of us have a higher self and a lower self - and sometimes, there is a tug of war between the two. The higher self inspires us to be selfless, broad-minded, principled, whereas the lower self incites us to be selfish, mean-minded, opportunistic. The higher self is who we actually are: pure and divine, whereas the lower self is who we think we are:our ego,bodies and minds, which cover and pervert our true nature. Among all the species of life, the human form alone offers us the opportunity to conquer the lower self with the higher self. The victors in this inner battle attain the ultimate goal of life: a life of eternal, enlightened, ecstatic loving harmony, with our own self and ever increasing pleasure. Therefore, a truly progressive society facilitates its people to nourish the higher self and starve the lower self.”

“But modern society deems the facilities that feed the lower self as signs of progress,” said Amit, catching on.

“Exactly,” I replied, delighted to see his perspicacity. “With this notion of progress, our society directs all human energy, even scientific energy, principally for catering to the desires of the lower self. But the lower self, filled as it is with insatiable desires for selfish enjoyment, causes people to act in ways that harm them individually, socially, and globally.

Normally the lower self is regulated by the higher self. But nowadays, people, being preoccupied with ‘progress’, spare little, if any time, to nourish their higher self, resulting in the deterioration of whatever little good qualities they have. And we end up with the contradiction that we discussed earlier, of people who are walking encyclopedias, but living failures. Thus, the modern notion of progress, by pandering to our lower self and distracting us from our higher self, perpetuates our suffering.”

Let us conclude with a quote by the British scholar C S Lewis: ‘We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.’India, with its profound philosophical wisdom and ancient spiritual culture, has the unique opportunity to lead the world in turning back from the road of unbalanced materialistic progress. Turning back doesn’t mean giving up all material progress, but giving up the undue emphasis on material progress and focusing on holistic progress.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post. I think you make a valid point about 'walking encyclopaedias, living failures'. I've seen many of in the category. And your idea about the idea of progress could definitely be one reason but I don't think it is the only reason. There must be more, hopefully we'll come across them soon.