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  1. 'Hindu cosmology's time-scale for the universe is in consonance with modern science'  - The Rediff Special / Carl Sagan
  2. Chidambaram 
  3. SIX THOUSAND YEAR BARRIER - By Glenn R. Smith (Durgadass)

'Hindu cosmology's time-scale for the universe is in consonance with modern science'
The Rediff Special / Carl Sagan

Carl SaganCarl Sagan, the distinguished Cornell University astronomer and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, who succumbed to his battle against cancer on December 15, in fact lived for millions of years in the relative time scale of experience.

This legend in his own lifetime was a first grade philosopher, poet, scientist and a splendid example of human greatness all rolled into one.

His true genius lay in the many esoteric philosophical and scientific endeavours which only specialists can really appreciate. But he became an instant pop science icon when he co-authored COSMOS, a television series devoted to astronomy and space exploration.

A part of that awesome series was shot in India. In the early eighties, Sagan met then Indian diplomat Placido P D'Souza and in a conversation explained the India connection and the relevance of Gandhi.

You have been host of the television programme COSMOS which deals with astronomy and science exploration. And yet India figured in this programme. Could you tell us how India fits into this series?

Let me first say something about the series in general, and something about the Indian part of the series. The television series COSMOS is designed to breach the barrier that many people feel about science. They cannot understand it, and it is foreign to them in approach and content. Our experience is that children grow up with an absolute zest and passion for science, and something happens to discourage some of them - sometimes many of them - from pursuing this interest.

We thought it was our job to excite the children, and reawaken the interest in science of adults. So we will use any approach to gain people's attention, and show them that science is something not just that they can understand, but that they can become excited about and can use as part of the way they view the world.

The series has been extraordinarily successful. It has been shown in a year or two in the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. I hope some day it will be shown in India. The tenth episode of COSMOS is largely about cosmology - the study of the universe in a perspective in which the Earth is like a grain to stand in vast beach or desert - and the way we approach the subject is through Hindu cosmology.

We have done that for several reasons. We went to Tamil Nadu for the festival called Pongal. Like festivals all over the world, it celebrates the changing of the seasons, and remind us that our ancestors were astronomers, who kept calendars and watched the skies. It was essential for extremely practical matters: when to sow seeds and to harvest grain. It was a matter of life and death to be an astronomer.

But the main reason that we oriented this episode of COSMOS towards India is because of that wonderful aspect of Hindu cosmology which first of all gives a time-scale for the Earth and the universe -- a time-scale which is consonant with that of modern scientific cosmology. We know that the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old, and the cosmos, or at least its present incarnation, is something like 10 or 20 billion years old. The Hindu tradition has a day and night of Brahma in this range, somewhere in the region of 8.4 billion years.

As far as I know. It is the only ancient religious tradition on the Earth which talks about the right time-scale. We want to get across the concept of the right time-scale, and to show that it is not unnatural. In the West, people have the sense that what is natural is for the universe to be a few thousand years old, and that billions is indwelling, and no one can understand it. The Hindu concept is very clear. Here is a great world culture which has always talked about billions of years.

Finally, the many billion year time-scale of Hindu cosmology is not the entire history of the universe, but just the day and night of Brahma, and there is the idea of an infinite cycle of births and deaths and an infinite number of universes, each with its own gods.

And this is a very grand idea. Whether it is true or not, is not yet clear. But it makes the pulse quicken, and we thought it was a good way to approach the subject.

And then the Chola bronzes in Tamil Nadu were very lovely to film, and gave us a visual approach to go along with the intellectual approach. It was also a way of de-provincialising our presentation. After all, we claim that science is an endeavor of the human species. To shoot the whole film in the United States or Western Europe would have been extremely provincial. We shot in Japan and 12 or 14 other countries, besides India. Let me also say that the subsidiary benefit for my wife and me is that we had a chance to visit India for the first time, and especially Tamil Nadu which we enjoyed enormously.

You mentioned the Chola bronzes and I see also that in your book COSMOS one of the chapters called 'The edge of forever' begins with a picture of Nataraja. Could you say something to explain its relevance in that chapter?
The traditional explanation of the Nataraja is that it symbolises the creation of the universe in one hand and the death of the universe in the other - the drum and the flame - and after all, that is what cosmology is all about. So in addition to being artistically exquisite, the Nataraja provides exactly the kind of symbolism that we wanted. The Nataraja that is photographed in the book COSMOS is in a museum in Pasadena, California, but it will be returned to India at some specified time within the next decade.

What were your general impressions about India?
I was absolutely delighted with Tamil Nadu. First of all, there was the sense of an intact cultural framework. I did not have the sense of people greatly alienated from their society - you certainly see a great deal of that in the West. I had a sense of people caring for each other, an intact social fabric, and technology coming along quite fast. Not just large industrial parks.

In a way what impressed me most was the widespread use of the bicycle, not only for carrying agricultural products and manufactures from one place to another, but also as a means for young people to visit neighbouring villages, and a sense of exuberant communication, because now people are not closed in a small village. They have a much wider range of places that they have access to.

We spent some time in Madras and in Bombay. But these were slow stages to get us to Tamil Nadu. We saw mainly tourist things which were certainly pleasant, but we did not have the sense of getting to know the people. We could have, but it did not work out that way, whereas in Tamil Nadu we got to know the people.

I will give you an example. Here we are at 6:30 or 7 in the morning - a group of us consisting of cameramen, soundmen, writers, directors, producers and me, who go marching single file by a pond in which there are lovely lily and lotus blossoms. Going to two small temples of the bull god (Nandi). A boy, less than 10 years old, saw us coming, looked at us, dove into the pond and came up near a lotus flower. He then swam back with it, climbed out of the pond, went up to my wife, gave her the lotus blossom and introduced himself, saying "Hello, my name is…" I forget what his name was. It was done with such elegance and charm and with no thought of reward, but just a sensibility which I found very impressive. Anyway we loved it. How colorful it was…

I must also say the sari is a kind of work of art, especially seeing hundreds of them all together. Also, women washing the saris gives a kind of swatch of color to the landscape… I thought it was wonderful… I had a sense of a healthy society. I didn't know to what extent this is characteristic or not, but I was very impressed and would love to have a chance to go back…

Well, you know you have a standing invitation to visit India…Was that your first visit?
Yes. I had been invited before by a number of people, including J B S Haldane, a British biologist in Bhubaneshwar. I knew him well in the last few years of his life. He even made me promise to visit him in Orissa, but he died before I had a chance to do so.

Watch Carl Sagan and Hindu cosmology – video

Did you know any other Indian scientists?

Oh, yes. I knew Vikram Sarabhai who spent a year at Cambridge, Massachusetts, when I was on the Harvard faculty. I was a student of the world-renowned astrophysicist Subramanian Chandrasekhar at the University of Chicago. An old friend from the graduate school days in Kameshwar Wali, now a Professor of Physics at Syracuse University. For 17 years a close colleague who has been working with me in laboratory experiments on the origins of life is Bishun Khare. So I had a succession of fairly close friendships with Indians. I have always felt some natural affinity, I suppose.

Have you seen the Gandhi film?
Yes. It well deserved the Academy awards. I though it was splendid on many different levels. One is the idea that there are ways for the people to move governments by unconventional approaches including civil disobedience - but not only civil disobedience - at a time when, in my view, the people of at least some countries have much more sensible views about the nuclear arms are than their governments. They can affect the policies of governments that seem to be slow-moving, intractable and riddled with a bureaucracy that is decades behind the times.

Also, the American civil rights, movement, of course, was powerfully influenced by the degree to which Martin Luther King, Jr admired Mohandas Gandhi, and I think that it is important for us, Americans, to remember that connection… of the time when events in India were relevant to events in the United States. That kind of thing seems to me to be extremely important.

It has been argued that this kind of movement is all right in a colonial situation and in very special circumstances, but when you have functioning democracies, is it valid to adopt what could be considered extra constitutional measures?
Right… or the opposite question: in a country like Nazi Germany, would civil disobedience have in any way been effective? Would the leaders of civil disobedience not have been executed and nothing would have changed? They are both good questions, and my answer is that the approach of Gandhiji is not precisely applicable in every political situation. However, the reminder that there are conventional ways of affecting the perceptions of masses of people on issues of the greatest importance is very important reminder.

In democracies - you talk about functioning democracies - there are traditions. For example, the approaches to the nuclear arms race are institutionalised, and progress is made very slowly. Armaments are increased easily, decreased with great difficulty, and people think about historical analogies of Munich in 1938 and so on without fully having come to grips with the fact that the invention of nuclear weapons has changed everything. And for that reason I think that something other than politics is necessary when all nations and the human species are faced with the extremely grave possibilities of a nuclear war.

I am not saying that civil disobedience is necessarily the answer. But one thing which was so impressive about Gandhiji was the way he was able to communicate to large numbers of people and to excite people's passion and courage. There was a great deal of courage needed to have followed him, especially in the early days of his movement.

I think something along those lines is needed worldwide if we are to break out of this impasse in the nuclear arms race.

Also, I thought the movie was beautifully filmed, and in many places, extremely moving. Maybe the most moving for me was the scene toward the end, in which Gandhiji says to the despairing man who has killed children in a riot: "I know a way out of hell". I found that an enormously moving approach to the problem, that the way for a Hindu, to make recompense for participating in the riots, is to raise a Muslim child as a Muslim and vice versa.

I thought it was a superb movie and well deserving of the acclaim it has gotten here and elsewhere.

It has certainly made an impact, and moved people to think about Gandhi and India. To the extent that it has made people think a little, it has served its purpose.

I agree, it demonstrates that extremely unconventional approaches are practical politics. Surely Gandhi has made major achievements in practical politics by methods that the British discounted immediately, and were proved wrong. It is good to remember that…

Placido P D'Souza is a former member of the Indian Foreign Service and currently editor of New India Digest.

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Chidambaram, the site of Shiva's cosmic dance, has been the center of Shaivite art and thought for over a millennium. Its great temple, built by successive southern Indian dynasties between the 8th and 12th centuries A.D. is dedicated to Shiva Nataraja, and is said to be the site of his legendary dance in the presence of his consort Parvati. Shiva's dancing icon resides in the Golden Hall, a symbol of the nucleus of the atom and of the center (bindu) of the universe. The Upanishads, Vedas, Puranas and other sacred Hindu texts are represented by parts of the temple complex, the temple as a whole standing for the totality of Hindu knowledge. Shiva's dance to Parvati is celebrated in a great festival in December. 

Significance: Chidambaram is one of the most ancient and most celebrated of shrines in India. It is of great religious as well as historic and cultural significance. Chidambaram is associated with Nataraja, or Shiva in his Ananda Tandava pose (the Cosmic Dance of bliss) in the cosmic golden hall and the hall of consciousness (Chit Sabha). Shiva is also worshipped in the "formless form" of the Chidambara Rahasyam, while the temple is known for its Akasa Lingam, an embodiment of Shiva as the formless Space. The word "Koyil" or temple in the Tamil Saivite tradition refers to none other than the Chidambaram Nataraja temple.

Antiquity: The origins of this vast temple are buried in antiquity. Literature talks of a tradition of Shiva (Nataraja) worship in existence even as early as the Sangam period (very early on in the Christian era), and the Tamil Saints have sung its fame when an established worship tradition was in place. The later Chola Kings (Aditya I and Parantaka I) adorned the roof of the shrine with gold, and the other Chola Kings treated Nataraja as their guardian deity and made several endowments to the temple as temple inscriptions testify. The Pandya Kings who followed them, and the later Vijayanagar rulers made several endowments to the temple. There is a stone image of Krishnadevaraya in the North Gopura which he is said to have erected. In the wars of the 18th century, this temple was used as a fort, especially when the British General Sir Eyre Coote unsuccesfully tried to capture it from the Mysore Kings. During this period, the images of Nataraja and Sivakamasundari were housed in the Tiruvarur Tyagaraja temple for safety.

Muthuswamy Deekshitar, one of the foremost composers in the Karnatic Music tradition sings the glory of this temple in his kriti 'Ananda Natana Prakasam'. The Alwar Poems of the Naalayira Divya Prabandam sing the glory of Vishnu, whose image is also housed in this temple, and his shrine is referred to as 'Tiruchitrakootam'. Adi Sankara is said to have presented a Spatika Lingam which is still under worship in this temple. Sekkizhaar's Periya Puranam, describing poetically the life of the Saivite Saints (63 in number) was composed in the 1000 pillared hall, and was expounded by the author himself in the presence of the Chola emperor Kulottunga II, who had comissioned the work, amidts great festivity and fanfare.

Each of the four most revered Saivite Saints (Appar, Sundarar, Sambandar and Manikkavacakar) has worshipped at Chidambaram, and the bulk of Manikkavacakar's work is in praise of Shiva at Chidambaram. Accordingly, their images are placed in the temple entrances corresponding to their points of entry into the temple. (Sambandar - South, Appar - West, Sundarar - North and Manikkavacakar - East).

Legends associated with this temple

Aadi Sesha, the serpent (couch) of Vishnu, heard from Vishnu the grandeur of Shiva's cosmic dance. Filled with irrepressable desire to witness this dance in person at Chidambaram, Seshan descended to the earth as Patanjali (the one who descended). Vyagrapaadar, another devotee of Shiva prayed to obtain the tiger's claws so that he could obtain with ease the sacred Vilva leaves meant for Shiva's worship at Chidambaram. At the appointed hour, Shiva (with Sivakami) granted to Patanjali and Vyagrapaadar, a visual treat in the form of his Cosmic Dance of Bliss, to the accompaniments of music played by several divine personalities in the Hindu pantheon. This Dance of Bliss is said to have been witnessed by Vishnu, and there is a Govindaraja shrine in the Natarajar temple commemorating this. The dance of bliss of Shiva, is also said to have been enacted upon Shiva's (Bhikshatana) victory over the married ascetics of Daruka Vanam.

Yet another legend, commemorating the dance duel between the doyens of dance Shiva and Kali is associated with Chidambaram. Shiva is said to have lifted his left foot towards the sky in the Urdhuva Tandava posture, a definite male gesture, which out of adherence to protocol, Kaali could not reciprocate, thereby causing Shiva to emerge victorious, delegating Kaali to the status of a primary deity in another temple in the outskirts of Chidambaram. This legend is portrayed in the Nritta Sabha, one of the halls within the Chidambaram temple.

There is another recent legend associated with this temple. The sacred Tamil works of the Nayanmaars had been missing for several years, and it was during the period of Raja Raja Chola (the builder of the Grand temple at Tanjavur) that formal research was initiated to trace these fine works of devotional literature. These works of the Saivite Saints - rich in musical content were recovered in a dilapidated state in one of the chambers in this vast temple, after the monarch brought images of the Saint trinity in procession to the temple.

In Hindu cosmology we are all manifestations of the divine, playing at life, forgetting, as children forget themselves in the middle of a game, that we are aspects of divinity at play. In the game, as in the delusions from which the Buddha of legend hoped to free the world, we experience ourselves as distinct personalities; to be liberated is to understand that the game, the personality, our individual suffering, are not the big picture. That we die and are reborn with each moment that passes. That death and birth are aspects of one another, just as creation and destruction are both embodied in Shiva, a single Hindu deity. That we are not separate from the great cosmic dance.

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Did You Know

A Celtic Deity

Like their Indo-European Hindu counterparts, many of the Celt's Deities are depicted in full lotus posture, as on this enamel piece. The stylized swastika pattern on the chest is identical to Hindu versions. Even the vocabulary is amazingly similar. The following are just a few examples:

Sanskrit Old Irish
arya (freeman)  aire (noble)
naib(good) noeib (holy)
badhira (deaf) bodhar (deaf)
names (respect)  nemed (respect) 
raja (king)  righ (king)

The ancient Irish law system, The Laws of the Fenechus, is closely parallel to the Laws of Manu.

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