Views | The ghost in the machine

Views | The ghost in the machine

I am a member of a facebook group of alumni from a “premier" engineering college. Like all such clannish hangouts, it’s a closed group: you have to be an alumnus—and you have to be invited by a member—to be part of it. The group has more than 1400 members, though the large majority of them are passive—they are merely observers to the discussions going on. I am also one of that (almost always) silent majority.

One interesting aspect about this group that consists wholly of engineers, architects and science graduates, is how many of the members are deeply spiritual. They write regularly about the various levels of yoga (not to be mistaken for the physical exercise part of it), about awakening the kundalini, about being one with the Supreme Spirit, vedanta and dharma. Before anyone jumps to any conclusions, let me clarify that none of these people have any strong party-specific political views. Each of them appears to be on a purely personal journey of trying to make sense of a truth that he (and it’s overwhelmingly he) feels lies beyond anything that can be computed or expressed in terms of the scientific knowledge he gleaned from his formal education process.

A few of them have of course tried to synthesise the mysterious theories of quantum physics with the idea of a consciousness that flows through every nook and cranny of the universe. Neither do I claim to understand the mathematics that they cite, nor am I interested enough to read and examine these arguments closely. A few other members post about concepts like the prana, and how, awakening the kundalini, which one member claims to have experienced, can nearly kill a normal human being.

Of course, the spiritual discussions form only a small part of all that is posted in the group. There is much nostalgia about the good old hostel days, references to incidents and antics which these pillars of industry would never reveal in public, sharing of music as also information about scientific discoveries and theories, arguments about issues ranging from Anna Hazare to the world economy (the group is completely global, with members based in every continent on earth) and a steady flow of math and physics-based puzzles. Those who have no spiritual bent of mind—or are unwilling to get into any discussions about it—stick to what interests them and comment rarely on the posts about the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

Some months ago, I had got irritated when the number of posts about the connections between quantum physics and the God principle reached a flood, and wrote that I was quite sick of it. That received quite a few “like"-s, but also a couple of firm admonishments reminding me how freedom of expression and tolerance for a multiplicity of views had been the hallmark of our hostel lives, that I could always block the person if I didn’t want to hear what he had to say, and that, if I started blocking anyone who I thought was a waste of time, I would over time end up blocking everyone in the group, and be left with just myself. I have kept quiet since then.

What is clear is how years after being ejected into the world (all the spirituals in the group seem to have graduated at least 20 years ago), filled with scientific knowledge and the certainty that one correct answer existed for every problem that the world offered, people have dug deeper in a quest that their education, far from encouraging, did not even acknowledge. As students, it was almost an unspoken code to avoid all things spiritual (other than liquor) and even feel some contempt for those of us who followed any rituals or many overt show of anything to do with invisible and “higher" entities. We were the cool dudes, and we had no place or time for God. I have no idea about the life experiences of the spiritual people on the facebook group (I know most of them only through their postings) but the world has certainly sheared off much of the hubris we felt when young. And after that one annoyed outburst and the criticism it got, I too have learnt my lesson. The power of argument to solve anything is given too much credit. It’s so much better for everyone—and this is what I’ve learnt in all years after graduating as a brash young man with the so-called scientific temper—to just let people be and find their own ways to a philosophical chill-out.