Tuesday, 22 January 2008

In Pursuit of Truth: Insights beyond whales and dolphins

She had never high aspirations for herself as a scientist. Although she liked cetaceans and felt an affinity for them, she knew it was not just for the animals that she did what she did. As with many of her peers, she had been drawn to field biology as much for the life it offered as for its intellectual content – because it allowed her to be on her own, to have no fixed address, to be far from the familiar, while still being a part of a loyal but loose-knit community. This would not change any of that; for the most part it would be the usual grind of writing applications, trying to find funding and so on. Whatever came of it in the end, it was a certainty that it was not going to create an upheaval in science. But at the same time, who would have thought that it would be so intensely satisfying to have your future resolved, to know what you were going to be doing next year and the year after that and so on and son on, until who knew when? And yes, it was true that whatever came of it would not revolutionize the science, or even a minor branch of them, but it was also true that if she were able to go through with it – even a part of it – it would be as fine a piece of descriptive sciences as any. It would be enough; as an alibi for a life, it would do; she would not need to apologize for how she had spent her time on this earth.

The passage was taken from Amitav Gosh’ The Hungry Tide (2004), page 126-127, as Piya the heroine contemplated her way of life onboard a simple and rustic fishing boat. Piya was an Indian-descendant American, a cetologist, who did research on riverine dolphins in the Sundarban, the great mangrove forest regions in the Bay of Bengal, between India and Bangladesh.

Interestingly, the book is not only about the life of a cetologist who is out of place in her own ancestral country. In line with Gosh’ previous book (The Glass Palace), the book also talked about India’s socio-politics, notably during the problems of India and Bangladesh way back in the 70s. But Hungry Tide is not merely about social conflicts. It’s also about respect, showing how Hindus and Moslems of the Sundarban worships similar deities while retaining their traditional believes. It’s also about love that bloomed between Piya, a woman of science and Fokir, a man of the sea, an ordinary crab fisher, with the modern and dashing Kanai – typical smart Indian guy he was – in the middle. 

I admit that The Hungry Tide is one of my favourite books, though it took me some time to fall in love with it. I bought the book two years ago in Australia, and I kept it on my shelf without even reading a bit of it. Then, several months later, when I was very busy doing the thesis writing, I somewhat picked the book again, out of curiosity and boredom perhaps, and started to read the first two chapters. 

And then, I could not put it down. Not only because Gosh observed Dr. Isabelle Beasley, a good cetologist friend of mine during her tenure in Mekong River, and used her as the model for Piya. Not only because it talks of India and cetaceans, the two subjects of the many subjects I love.

For as I read the book, I felt like looking into the life of a girl I have known for years. A girl who loves whales and dolphins, who did her research in the magnificent land of India. And for an Indian/Asian/Indonesian aficionado cetologist like me, the book becomes the Bible.
Yet, I write this post not only to present what Piya thought of her life. Rather, I would like to share some things that I’ve felt recently, as of late, about my contemplation on science and spirituality.

My friends always asked me why I studied whales and dolphins, as if I have nothing better to do. I can answer with many strategic replies, but the truth? I don’t know. It’s as if I’m attracted to the cetaceans as a lover meeting her loved one. I don’t know. Perhaps the songs and the social play. Perhaps their loving gestures. Perhaps their playful nature. Surely because of their intelligence. But there’s always something more whenever I come across them, particularly the whales. Something that makes me believe that I am meeting another intelligent sentient, who is perhaps wiser than human, for it does not destroy the Planet it is inhabiting. For that very reason, is it not enough that I salute them and try my best to protect them from my fellow species?

And here’s what I have learned about science and spirituality since a few days back. I owe my new friend Gurudev in explaining many things about the subject. Here’s my conclusion:
Science should be in pursuit of Truth. By extension, research should be a Re-search; i.e. a subset of the Search. Search for Truth.

Science should be in line with Spirituality. It should be a subset of Spirituality, something that Lord Krishna called as ‘Jnana Yoga’ or self-inquiring.

Science should be a self-inquiry towards the inner path, towards self-development. For the betterment of humanity and the Planet, and to understand the purpose of our existence in this Universe.

I also believe that humankind should be the caretaker of this Planet Earth. Not her ruler, let alone her destroyer. We, humankind as a species, are given a very holy job of safeguarding the Planet. If we fail, humanity fails, then our role will be taken away. The Universe will bestow the responsibility to another, more capable, species.

And I do not wish that to happen. Humanity once shone around 8,000 years ago during the Vedic Civilisation. Something went wrong then… our own stupidity made the technological wheel set to zero again. We did not learn then. Surely we should not fail in learning now.
And that’s the very essence of Science as a subset of Spirituality. Science should work towards the understanding of our purpose in Life, and not merely a sceptical attitude. Sure, sceptical attitude is needed. But I believe, it should still be in the pursuit of Truth. And somehow, inexplicably still, studying whales and dolphins help me getting closer to the Truth.


Gurudev said...

Very well said :)
Yes, science will finally lead to what had already been discovered by our ancestors! Quantum mechanics is the first step in that direction.
Hope sense prevails this time and we dont end up in another nuclear holocaust like Mahabharatha. Let us wish and work towards making this planet a better place to live for all species.

Icha said...

Thanks a lot Gurudev! I can't tell you how deep your site has affected my understanding on the position of science in spirituality. I have known about it for a long time of course, with the concept of Jnana Yoga, but never it sank so deep as it is as of late.

And yes, together we can safeguard the Planet for all species!