Does science displace myth? And if so, should we care? Chandrayaan discovered water on the fifth largest satellite in the solar system and all of us in Bangalore—home to Isro—are over the moon.
Lunar musings: Chandrayaan’s find is a watershed, but don’t kill the romance. HO/NASA/JPL/AFP
While I marvel at India’s magnificent achievement in the space programme, a part of me is also a tad sad. This, I guess, is where the arts and the sciences diverge. The arts are about imagery and storytelling; myth and mystique. The sciences are about the pursuit of truth. The truth is irrelevant to storytelling; and storytelling is anathema to fact-based science.
It is not often that an object attracts equal attention of both artists and scientists. Atoms, for instance, fascinate scientists but are of little interest to poets. Ditto for global warming, biochemistry, epidemics and DNA, all of which made recent headlines in science journals, but scarcely made an appearance in the arts. Economics is the wild card as David Hare’s play, The Power of Yes, on the global financial crisis eloquently proves.
The moon, I would argue, is the exception to this art-science dichotomy. It has fascinated scientists and philosophers, astronomers and astrologers, poets and politicians. In demystifying the moon, are astronomers reducing it from a poet’s allegory to a mere astronomical object?
For a minor celestial object, the moon’s “mystical veil” is the stuff of myth and legend. The Japanese held moon-viewing parties that Lady Murasaki described in what some call the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji. Chinese poetry is full of metaphors about the moon—as a friend to the lovelorn and as an illusion that disappears after a drink. Li Bai, an ancient poet of the Tang dynasty, talks about raising his cup and beckoning the moon. “My shadow included, we are a party of three,” he said.
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The moon, when you think about it, is a minor player in the galaxy. Comets, black holes and meteors are more complex and convey more force and influence. The reason the moon is important to earthlings is because of its nearness; and the fact that we have always fantasized about colonizing it. The moon’s size and its dynamism make it compelling. It does things: waxing, waning, disappearing, reappearing. It is huge when compared to the stars and planets, and even though we know that this is because the stars are farther away, we still cannot comprehend this galactical distance. Most of all, the moon is beautiful; so magnificent that the poet Rumi wanted to surrender to its being. It is distinct—easily spottable in that vast eternity that is the universe. So we worship it, stare at it, dream about it, keep healing crystals under its benevolent light. The moon is cool—both literally and figuratively. We chart our travels based on it; propitiate ancestors when it disappears; map tides and a woman’s hormones according to it.
For all these reasons, the moon occupies a disproportionate stature in poetry, music, verse, theatre, paintings and our own psychic space. So much so, that when Greek philosopher Anaxagoras first suggested that the moon fed off the sun’s light, he was imprisoned and later exiled for removing the romance from the heavens. In partial apology, astronomers named a crater on the moon after him. Vedic astrology, if I am not wrong, is based on the lunar calendar. This unpredictable tractable creature that Vedic sages called Soma—son of Atri and Anusuya—created many myths ranging from Rahu swallowing the moon to Ganesha cursing the moon.
Other scientific disciplines may invite controversy but not the level of romantic nostalgia as the moon does. Genetics, for instance, is drilling into our bodies and discovering that the north-south, Aryan-Dravidian divide is a myth. We are—contrary to caste and religious predilections—all mixed up. This recent landmark study by a team of Indian and Harvard scientists offers provocative conclusions but inspires little romance. The moon, in contrast, is the ultimate romantic tool. Health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad said that television could reduce population growth. But how to control desires that waxed and waned on a coir bed under the light of the moon?
Until television became babysitter and distraction, much of India was fed under the moon. Crying infants were taken outside, securely tucked around the hip of an obliging aunt. Unenticing morsels were then thrust into the reluctant infant’s lips using the moon as distraction. “Ambuli kaati amudhu padaithu”, goes a famous Tamil dialogue and it means “I showed you the moon and fed you nectar”. Today, Tom and Jerry play that role.
Even though science is taking it apart and revealing its cratered secrets, the moon might defy the odds. It may be the Black Swan and retain the mystery that made us gaze at it in the first place. Just as Vikram and Mrinalini Sarabhai coexisted, perhaps the arts and sciences will coexist with respect to the moon. So I want to ask Messrs Annadurai, Madhavan Nair and Kasturirangan: When you gaze skywards at what Chandrayaan conquered, do you see craters and terrae or do you see what D.H. Lawrence said, “brings a fresh fragrance of heaven to our senses?” Please, I would add to them, view this not as a challenge, but rather, an extended overture for debate.
Shoba Narayan thinks that “a cow jumped over the moon” is just as compelling as water on the moon. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org