Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Moon is made of Swiss Cheese

I don't often post about the sadhu (holy man, supposedly) phenomenon in India, but I get a lot of vocal opposition every time that I do. My view, simply, is that the sadhus and babas aren't to be revered, and we are fools to follow them. Every time I have this discussion with someone, I get the very same types of opposition.

The biggest grudge that people have is that I don't know any spirituality. Fair enough, I never claimed I do. But is this really relevant to analyze the sadhu phenomenon? I would argue not, for many reasons.

Primarily, being a sadhu is not a meritocracy itself. When you come across a person wearing saffron or white clothing, and walking around spouting all kinds of "wisdom", do you stop and ask them of their qualifications? I doubt it. Even if you did, what do you expect: a Masters in Spirituality? Let us be clear of it from the start: there is no meritocracy here. I would be thrilled if these sadhus graduated from some well-known ashram, but even that is too much to ask. So if you ask for my credentials when I comment on the sadhus and babas, you should first prove that you yourself are qualified on these grounds. Secondly, you should provide sufficient proof that the sadhus are themselves qualified.

I do know of at least one school that teach Hindu divinity, and I have met a person who studied in such a place. I also know of places that teach either meditation, or yoga, and I know of plenty of people who have attended such places. But not a single one of these claims to be the all-knowing holy man dressed in saffron or white. These people are usually fairly sane, and knowledgeable. Does the satya sai baba have any of these qualifications?

Moreover, if there really is so much wisdom in what the babas say, it should be trivial to refute my arguments. After all, I know so little (and I don't deny it), and they know so much, so it should be fairly easy to educate me with some well-founded arguments. On the other hand, if I can come across with a cogent criticism, with my definite lack of knowledge, then perhaps the sadhus and babas aren't really all that spiritual.

To take an example from one of the comments in the previous blog entry: if you have a criticism of particle Physics, you should make it as public as possible. Two outcomes could emerge from this:
  • Your criticism is valid, and nobody will be able to deny it. So your criticism helps our understanding of particle Physics. You will be a rock star, as cool as Richard Feynman plus Eric Clapton, and irresistible to all young people of the opposite sex.
  • Your criticism is invalid, and somebody will immediately tell you why.
In either case, you are encouraged to criticize and evaluate for yourself. Nobody in particle Physics says that you cannot comment on their field because you don't have a PhD in the topic. If your comments are true, they are valuable regardless of your degrees. And if your comments are worthless, then even a university degree cannot undo it.

In my work, for instance, all the code is online, and I welcome both comments and criticism. But I digress.


Saying that a person is not qualified to criticize something reeks a lot of a system of nobility. Quite a lot like the perennial "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin" argument that the western church is fond of having. The only people authorized to comment or discuss the issue are a select group. This has never been a system of achieving any knowledge. It is a system bent on keeping dissent under control. The biggest single factor contributing to the opening of thought was the mass printing of the Bible in English. The copies were of extremely poor quality (compared to the copies sitting in the Vatican), but they allowed people access to the jealously guarded secret. They were now able to question what their priests told them.

Science is full of criticism from outsiders. Our view that the planets go around the Sun was due to Copernicus, who was very much an outsider. His view was also fairly bizarre, and completely against "commonly held belief" at the time. But he was right, and even today, he is remembered. Copernicus was able to furnish proof, and his theory explained a lot of mysteries, which is why his idea was accepted. Another, more recent example, is the Indian mathematician Ramanujan. He didn't have a higher degree in Mathematics, and was able to prove some very deep results about Mathematics. Today, if you said you don't believe in Ramanujan's results because he was a school dropout, people would consider you an idiot. Two schoolgirls recently showed conclusively that a commercially sold beverage had no vitamin C, despite the advertising that claimed it did. The counter-argument is not: "but you are stupid little girls". The counter-argument is, "Damn, we're sorry."


Eventually, this boils down to the time and tested method of winning the argument by attacking your opponent personally. Like children whose arguments quickly degenerate into personal attacks, there is no gain in these arguments either.

The existing belief is that the Moon is made of Swiss cheese. I say that the Moon is not. And the most common defense is, 'You are an idiot. How dare you question our Swiss cheese hypothesis?'