Atanu Dey On India's Development

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, first you must invent the universe

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Happy Carl Sagan Day. Today it would have been his 76th birthday. So off I go to watch some favorite episodes of COSMOS on Hulu.com. Episode 10 is one of my favorites: The Edge of Forever. See below for the video.

He talks about the Hindu conception of the universe (beginning around the 35 minute mark.)

From an interview he gave in the early ’80s (published in Rediff at some unspecified time.):

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.

Talking of the Nataraja, I recommend this piece which explains the symbolism of Shiva as Nataraja dancing the Tandava, the dance of creation and destruction.

  • Varun

    The hulu link did not work, hence a google video link.

    • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

      Thanks, Varun, for the google video link. The hulu link works in the US, but I believe that it does not work in India. Are you in India?