Saturday, 21 January 2017


[This post can be read independently. But if you are interested, the story starts here:]

“Hiya Marty!”, Jim called out to Ptom as we stepped into his office. That’s what many of Ptom’s friends in Chicago called him: Marty, short for Amartya.

Ptom: Hey Jim, How’s it going?

Jim: Doing good Marty, doing good. Soo Jung mentioned you were here with your friends and would drop in once you were done shopping.

Ptom: Yeah, she’s being very kind and getting our stuff bagged and billed while we chat. Let me introduce you to my friends who are visiting for the weekend. This is Shriram, that there is Ilan and this is Brij. Guys, this is Jim.

Jim: Hi guys, nice to meet y’all. So you’re here for the fest, eh?

Prosh (smiling): Yeah, and nice to meet you as well.

We all chatted about this, that and the other for a bit. The atmosphere was relaxed and we all felt at ease as we settled into our chairs and sipped on our coffees that Jim poured out for us. I no longer remember much of what we talked about that day but this was a quality that I remember having sensed in Jim right from that first time I met him. One would feel at ease with him right away. There was an alertness about him but it didn’t seem to be accompanied by any intent to make an impression, to come across as this or that, airs of any sort or defensiveness about anything. He was just naturally himself. I always enjoy meeting such people and talking with them.

The other thing that caught my attention within the first few minutes of entering his office were the books. Wall fulls of books, if there is a phrase like that. There were books on Quantum Mechanics, Relativity, Thermodynamics, Calculus, Topology and Algebra. There were also books on different philosophical and mystical systems. There were books by Descarte, Aristotle, Plato and Hume. There were also books on different schools of Buddhism. There were Upanishads and translations of all the four Vedas along with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and texts on higher states of consciousness written by Yogis, meditators and mystics. There were commentaries on different texts by Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya. Then there were books on literature – fiction as well as non fiction, prose as well as poetry. And this was in the office of a grocery store! My mind was completely blown away!

It was at another instance much later when I knew Jim well enough that I asked him the following question:

Say Jim, you have books that belong to completely different schools of thought. And you clearly have been reading them carefully. You yourself are pursuing a Physics degree and have a passion for the subject. But at the same time you seem to also hold an interest in the Upanishads, Vedas and Yoga philosophy and practice. Aren’t these conflicting ways of describing and understanding nature?

Jim (laughing): It doesn’t work like that Brij, at least not for me. Don’t you know that Schrodinger himself drew inspiration from the Upanishads during his work in the area of quantum mechanics? It’s all knowledge Brij. My way is this: I am curious about nature, about the universe I live in, about myself, my mind and my relation with my surroundings. And I keep myself open to pursuits of knowledge from different points of view. I read, I understand, I think, I practice Yoga and meditation. If there are connections between different schools of thoughts and viewpoints, I will see them for myself. If there aren’t and I need to choose one over the other at some stage then I will make that choice. No problem. But as of now I am a seeker. I am seeking truth. Why should I look through only some windows and not through others? In any case my ideal and goal is to be able to hold all of it together in my mind consciously and with awareness. Yes I am pursuing a degree in Physics right now, and I am enjoying the subject thoroughly. After that I might choose to get an advanced degree in Physics itself. Or I might move into mathematics and try and get a clearer grasp of the math that underlies a whole lot of theoretical physics. Or I might decide to move into Philosophy. You do know that science itself used to be called natural philosophy once, right? Or maybe I'll take up applied science and engineering. Applying knowledge to the benefit of humanity and the environment is something I deeply respect. So I’ll make the choice of what I want to study deeper when the time comes and based on my understanding and awareness then.

Just imagine having that conversation with someone who on the surface of it was simply someone who farmed and ran a grocery store. I was so inspired! I still carry that inspiration with me and try and follow Jim’s example as far as I can. Knowledge happens to be my fundamental pursuit too and Jim cleared up something basic for me that day. There really is no conflict as long as I stay alert and aware in my pursuit, keep myself sharp and questioning and keep moving forward with a quiet self confidence. I once heard in a talk that the word Guru is made of two parts: Gu (darkness) and Ru (the remover of). Jim certainly dispelled some darkness in that conversation and has been one of my Gurus in that sense.

I have observed recently that I don't tire of telling students in my classes to get excited about pursuing knowledge. I would give this advice to anyone without any hesitation: If you can, ignite the fire of knowledge within you. Ask deeper questions: Who are you? There is all this intelligence in you that you are able to use to understand things, navigate through life, overcome difficulties, make decisions. How does this intelligence function? So many thoughts and emotions arise in you. Where do they come from? Are you in charge of your life or are these tossing you around like a boat on a rough sea? What is the nature of your mind? You experience the world around you through your senses. What is the nature of this world, this universe? Become a seeker of truth. That will consolidate you and give you direction like nothing else.

You choose your principal path as per your interests: it could be science, it could be philosophy (science itself is a branch of philosophy called natural philosophy), it could be understanding the scriptures and contemplating over them, it could be Yoga and meditation, it could be music or dance (I don't know enough about music and dance forms from across the world to comment but I've been told that Indian classical music as well as dance can be, if interpreted and practiced correctly, paths towards self knowledge and not limited to forms of entertainment). Its your choice.

But at the same time respect other paths and stay open to learning from them. To not do so is shallow.

And remember that you can seek knowledge and truth regardless of the profession you practice to earn your livelihood. You might be a lawyer, a bureaucrat, a politician, a doctor, a nurse, a farmer, a businessman or businesswoman, a mechanic, a plumber, a carpenter, a tailor, a cobbler, an archeologist, a historian, a security guard, an auto or taxi driver: it doesn't matter. If Jim can seek knowledge and truth being a farmer and grocery shop owner, so can you and I. And once you are far enough in your journey (no stopping till you reach the goal!) and are able and inclined towards transmitting knowledge to others, by all means become a teacher or a professor.

As Swami Vivekananda once said: "Pleasure is not the goal of man, but knowledge". Its another matter that Knowledge perhaps bestows a magnitude of pleasure that perhaps nothing else can.

Finally, do I feel any conflict between the pure and applied aspects of knowledge? No I don't :). I'm comfortable with and interested in both. I'm digging deep and going after complete enlightenment but at the same time I also like to apply whatever I know to improve the human condition and make this planet a more beautiful, bountiful and purer place to live [which is different from working with a "profit at any cost" mentality - that's a level I have never stooped to and am committed to keep it that way].

Soo Jung walked in after a while and joined us.

Soo Jung: All your stuff bagged and stuffed in your backpacks guys. Here’s the bill Ptom. I’ve put the amount on your tab. You can go ahead and pay the total amount at the end of the month as usual.

Ptom: Thanks so much Soo Jung. This was really kind of you.

Soo Jung: Not a problem Ptom. You are very welcome. (Looking at us all) That’s quite a variety you guys have picked up today. So many different fruits and vegetables. You guys planning a feast?

Ptom: Yeah, I think we’re gonna lay out a big table today, what with so many chefs in the house. Come to think of it why don’t you two also join us? It’ll be fun.

Jim (smiling): Would’ve loved to Ptom, would’ve loved to. But will take a rain check on this one. It’s been a while since I took my missus out for a date. We’ve been so busy at the store and I’ve also been caught up with my studies a lot recently. So today I’m taking her out to the fest and then for dinner.

Married for years and raising three children, yet he could make Soo Jung go pink in her cheeks! She was smiling.

Ptom: Sure thing. You both have a wonderful evening. We’ll do something together another time. Say guys, should we head home? Sonali will be back soon and I guess we better throw together a light lunch by then. We can head to the fest earlier that way.

Ilan: Yeah, sounds good. (Turning to Jim and Soo Jung) It was really nice to meet you both. Hope we meet again some time. And thanks again Soo Jung.

Soo Jung: Don’t mention it. You guys have a great day. I’m sure we’ll meet again.

With that we said our goodbyes, picked up our backpacks on the way out and started our stroll towards home.

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