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thoughts on gymnastics and Hinduism

Gymnastics has started up again, I am super excited about that. They got rid of Saturdays for the summer, and I'd been waiting all summer for the fall to come so I could start going again. Went the first time on Saturday, and... oh so good. It's funny, I've been thinking a lot lately about what I want out of life, and have been realizing how totally lost I am. But when I sit down and try to figure it out, I always come back to the only thing that I know for absolute sure I want... which is to be able to do gymnastics every day of the week. I can't accomplish that in the town I'm living in--the YMCA is so sick of me bugging them about it, they no longer even return my phone-calls. And the other gymnastics programs in town are similarly kids only. I don't mind driving up to Chicago once per week for the time being, but I will eventually need more than once a week. I'm ok with waiting though. But as a long term goal, I do hope to move toward that within the next 10 years.

I spent 10 hours on Sunday reading Wikipedia articles on Hinduism. I've had this happen to me before, reading too much Wikipedia in one day--I've noticed it's one of the few things lately that I'm somewhat dangerously addicted to. I broke for 30 minutes to eat lunch, although for some of that half hour I just brought my food over to the computer to read while I was eating! Literally, when I get interested in a topic on Wikipedia, I find it's almost impossible to pull myself away from the computer, I just keep saying "1 more click, I have to read this link and then I'll go do something else!" Fortunately, as opposed to most weekends where I've got lots of stuff I wanted to get done, I really did have enough time to relax that weekend, and reading Wikipedia is one of the most relaxing things for me. Normally, 10 hours of Wikipedia reading I would consider "way too much" but it was only slightly too much this time because I got a lot out of it and enjoyed it.

The more I read about Hinduism, the more I realized how much more complex it is than any other religion I've encountered. Just trying to find all of the names of the various sacred texts involved took me through at least 10 pages alone, and I'm not quite sure I've found them all (and certainly don't remember them all). The main ones that stick out in my mind though are the 4 Vedas, the Upanishads (there's about 200 of them!), the Brahma Sutras, and the Puranas. This only scratches the surface though, and as I say, I don't even remember most of the names of the texts that I read about, and I didn't even read any of them directly (although I did briefly open up one of the Upanishads to see what it looked like). I also don't think I even scratched the surface on getting a handle on all the different variants of Hinduism. Unlike much simpler more narrow coherent religions like Christianity, there is so much more variation within it. For example, there are monotheistic sects of Hinduism, there are polytheistic sects, and there are atheist and/or pantheist sects. There are dualist versions of Hinduism, and also non-dualist versions.

So far, the one that stands out as the most resonant with me and interesting to me, is Advaita Vedanta. (Although that's not to say there isn't some other version that would be better that I haven't found yet.) This interpretation actually makes so many of my confusing thoughts about how to view deities make more sense. In Advaita Vedanta, Brahman is absolute, ultimate reality... the continuous whole that has no attributes, boundaries, form or shape of its own. In physics, you'd call this the "unified field theory" or the "theory of everything". Pantheists would call this "God" but not regular monotheists since it is not a someone but a something. The problem is, Brahman is an abstraction that stands for everything but as such has no properties or attributes to distinguish it from anything else... since there *is* nothing else. So how can you possibly comprehend it? There's not really any way to actively meditate on it or to worship it. The solution, according to Advaita Vedanta, is for humans to personify Brahman by projecting animate qualities onto it, which then becomes an omnipotent being called Ishvara (essentially, the same as God or Allah from monotheistic religions). But this still leaves Ishvara mostly formless and personalityless. So you have to project more qualities onto Ishvara, which then splits Him into the holy trinity (or as Hindus call it, the Trimurti)... Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (creator, maintainer, and destroyer... in physics, these are called "creation operator", "propagator", and "annihilation operator"). These three deities then each have 11 eminations, 11 different even more concrete ways in which they can appear to humans on earth. (On a side note, it's a somewhat interesting numerological coincidence that string theory (well, really M-Theory) requires 11 dimensions of spacetime, and the Qabalastic tree of life involves 11 Sephirot; I'm not sure if anyone has tried to line either of these up with the 11 forms of each Hindu god though). Similarly, there are 3 goddesses, the Tridevi: Lakshmi, Parvati, and Saraswati. The female counterparts of the holy trinity. They also each have 11 eminations. This leads to a total of 33 gods and 33 godesses, although it's interesting that this interpretation sort of combines atheism, pantheism, theism, and polytheism all into one unified theory. It makes a lot of sense to me posed in that way. The abstract formless attributeless Brahman is more true but less useful than if you split it into more concrete manifestations and worship those individually. (Note: some of the specifics on how the gods and goddesses divide up I may be confusing with other versions of Hinduism, but putting together lots of different stuff I've read, some a while back, this is the most coherent picture I can come up with.)

Another thing I really like about Advaita Vedanta is that it's explicitly non-dualist. There are other versions of Hinduism (for instance, Dvaita Vedanta) where they succumb to dualism, and believe--as Descartes mistakenly did--that there is both a spirit world and a material world, or at least both of those different kinds of substances in the world. This is something I think modern science has pretty thoroughly refuted. I knew that Buddhism for the most part was non-dualist, but it's encouraging to see there are threads of Hinduism that are as well. Unfortunately I get the sense that most people who believe in Advaita Vedanta are more like idealists than materialists, but in some ways that seems like a minor difference compared to the difference between dualism and monism. (After all, in some ways you could just view it as different take on what the best word is to call the single substance that makes up everything... and admittedly there are good reasons why really neither of the two standard choices offered are quite right. I just happen to think that materialism is the clear cut answer if you had to choose one or the other).

Also, I really like the phrase "Ayamātmā brahmā", something from the Mandukya Upanishad. It means "This Atman is Brahman". Atman is the soul of an individual, and Brahman is the whole universe (or God, in the pantheistic sense). It identifies part with whole in a very holographic way. I haven't had this thought about any phrase since I got my first tattoo, but suddenly I had the thought that this would make a really awesome tattoo! Not that I would get it without doing more research into what it really means and how it connects to other things. But it's a neat idea, and very parallel to similar thoughts I've had over the past few years. Strange that all of this was just sitting here all of the time, and I never read it until now... putting these different pieces together.


( 31 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 14th, 2010 06:31 am (UTC)
Hinduism is a giant and very old open-source project. It's been forked numerous times, and the various forks are sometimes completely different from one another.
Sep. 14th, 2010 01:55 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that was the main thing I got from my readings. But letting something be a body of work that evolves with the times and is open to new ideas seems so much more healthy than the way most religions work (closed and fixed for the most part, until there's a violent revolution of some kind and a sect splits off and declares the rest enemies).
Sep. 14th, 2010 05:00 pm (UTC)
Except that if you think that there's a fact of the matter about things, then when it forks you have to think that at least one of them is getting things wrong. Of course, most religions seem to deal with the problem of "the other guys are wrong" with a level of violence that is clearly uncalled-for. But I don't really understand the notion of religious tolerance - if you believe in one of these things, then you think that everyone else is totally wrong about the most important thing in the world!
Sep. 15th, 2010 04:30 am (UTC)
This was well put, and I completely agree. (Although I'd also emphasize that there is a middle ground between having to accept all branches as true and having to reject all branches but one... keep the most fruitful branches that seem the most promising, and let older branches that didn't work out wither).

My main point is that a body of knowledge that has never had any forking because it includes in it the axiom that anything put in there from the start is unquestionably true has no chance of being right. It will never even get off the ground. Whereas a body of knowledge that has at least explored different possibilities and grown in response to them stands at least a chance that one or more of the branches is onto something. Granted, it may take a while to sift through the branches, but I'd suspect that the ones that were far off the mark in obvious ways have withered over time anyway.

It seems sort of like the difference between trying to design an AI from scratch versus letting one evolve in response to its environment. Also, I should mention that one of the first things I noticed about your profile was that you tried a lot of different political viewpoints on at various points. I view that as an indicator that you may have some knowledge of politics, compared to someone who has remained a lifelong X all their life, and insists that they knew all along from birth that there was only one correct political party. This is the difference I'm noticing between Hinduism and most religions I'm familiar with.
Sep. 14th, 2010 05:06 pm (UTC)
I always wondered what my name meant! (The "s" is really halfway between an "s" and an "sh" in English - Sanskrit and most other Indian languages have three sounds where we have two, and this one is supposed to be the one in the middle. Similarly, the "w" is really halfway between a "w" and a "v" - most Indian languages have only one sound where we have two. The initial vowel can be spelled as "I" or "E" or "Ea" or "Ee". And I think there are many words where the "a" or "an" ending are just alternates in different dialects.)

Also, with these "parallels" between Hinduism and quantum physics, are you just joking? These seem to be parallels on the level that people might use in books like "The Tao of Physics" and so on, but it doesn't seem to me that it captures at all the relevant interest of the physical concepts.

Also, I find it interesting that in all these interpretations it always seems like Brahma or Brahman is the most important deity, and yet in practice the biggest cults in India seem to be the cult of Shiva and the cult of Vishnu.
Sep. 14th, 2010 07:56 pm (UTC)
Neat--it didn't even occur to me that ishvara and easwaran were the same word.

I think you're making a mistake though in identifying Brahma and Brahman. From my readings, I got that they refer to very different concepts. Nevertheless, I am not sure of that and it does make me wonder why the words are so close... also, the phrase "Ayamātmā brahmā" I mentioned supposedly translates to "this Atman is Brahman" which would seem to indicate they are the same. But I don't think they are--will have to read more on that to figure it out.

I also wondered why Vishnu and Shiva have their own branches of Hinduism (Vaishnavism and Shaivism, which overlap other divisions of Hinduism) and are so widely worshipped, whereas Brahma does not have his own branch... although there are versions of Hinduism that view them all on the same footing.
Sep. 14th, 2010 07:57 pm (UTC)
I think some of the confusion is that there are many different case endings on Sanskrit words, and the same word will sometimes end with a vowel and sometimes with a nasal or something else. "Brahma" and "Brahman" may differ in other ways as well.
Sep. 14th, 2010 08:02 pm (UTC)
Regarding the parallels to physics, joking seems like the wrong word. Although in the case of the "11" coincidence it is purely for entertainment... it seems "neat" to me that they happen to be the same, but rationally I cannot think of any reason why this could have been a case of anticipation.

The other stuff is more serious. In particular, I really do think there is a sense where Brahman is being used to mean the same thing that's meant by TOE or unified field. Nevertheless, as I said I think the main difference is that Brahman has a more idealist connotation while TOE has a more materialist connotation. I think I have lots more thinking on that to do, though, as sometimes I'm not quite sure how to phrase what the distinction between these two is.

I have to admit, that while I've always assumed that the people who write those quantum - Eastern metaphysics books (like Kapra) were full of crap, after finding out this stuff about Advaita Vedanta, I'm struck by the parallels enough to actually kind of want to go read one of those books to see what they say.
Sep. 15th, 2010 12:11 am (UTC)
Is the sense in which Brahman is the same thing as a unified field just the sense that it is a single thing that is identical to the world as a whole? Basically like Spinoza's idea of God? (Which was considered heretical by most European theologians.) It seems to me that there is some similarity between that and a unified field (and in fact, I know some philosophers that are currently arguing on the basis of quantum field theory that the universe is really one indivisible whole and that all objects we're familiar with are dependent on it, rather than the whole being dependent on the parts), but I don't see the connection to a theory of everything. In particular, I don't see how it gives rise to a theory.
Sep. 15th, 2010 03:12 am (UTC)
By the way, just found an interesting blog, on the so-called "Mathematics of Spirituality". It's all about Advaita Vedanta, and how supposedly it can be made mathematically rigorous:


also, cross-linked with it is the "Advaita Math blog":


Unfortunately, the actual papers they link to look kind of like BS to me. But it's still interesting that someone would even try to do this. Well, I suppose Frank Tipler did publish a book called the "Physics of Christianity" but I feel like that was nonsense on a much more ridiculous scale. This seems at least half serious, if crackpot.
Sep. 15th, 2010 06:56 am (UTC)
There is a large genre of this stuff, claiming that the Vedas already contain all of relativity and/or quantum mechanics. I believe that a lot of it is also connected to the revisionist history that claims that Indo-Aryan languages are indigenous to the sub-continent and were spoken in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro rather than coming with Indo-Iranian invaders, and this is all connected to right-wing Hindu nationalist politics. Not in all cases of course, but it seems to get pushed by those politicians, because of its nationalist appeal.

At least Frank Tipler does really know the physics...
(no subject) - spoonless - Sep. 15th, 2010 02:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - easwaran - Sep. 15th, 2010 05:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 15th, 2010 03:24 am (UTC)

Is the sense in which Brahman is the same thing as a unified field just the sense that it is a single thing that is identical to the world as a whole? Basically like Spinoza's idea of God?

I haven't read Spinoza firsthand, but for some reason the descriptions of Spinoza's idea of God never made me think of physics, whereas reading the descriptions of Brahman make me go "yup, that's exactly it". I'm not sure how to say what the difference is though, but yes... they are supposed to be pretty similar.

I know some philosophers that are currently arguing on the basis of quantum field theory that the universe is really one indivisible whole and that all objects we're familiar with are dependent on it, rather than the whole being dependent on the parts), but I don't see the connection to a theory of everything. In particular, I don't see how it gives rise to a theory.

In physics, the terms "unified field theory" and "theory of everything" are usually treated as synonyms.

Although I suppose when I try to consider what the words mean logically, I could imagine that the words "theory of everything" is a bit more general. In principle, I suppose it could refer to any theory that accurately describes the world, but usually the emphasis is on the idea of unification, that all of the two main field theories used to described the world--the classical field theory called general relativity, and the quantum field theory called the Standard Model--are somehow both contained in a larger, single field theory. This is either referred to as the "unified field theory" or the "theory of everything", where those are usually just two ways of referring to the same thing.
Sep. 15th, 2010 06:51 am (UTC)
The distinction I'm after here is between the field, and the theory of that field. I would have thought (from the very quick description here) that one might compare Brahman to a field, but not to a theory of the field (perhaps Hinduism, or a particular branch of it, might play the role of the theory).

And of course, you could theoretically have a "theory of everything" that didn't have a unified field (there might just be two irreducibly distinct fields that do different things) and you could have a theory of a unified field that wasn't a theory of everything (just because a field unites gravity and electroweak doesn't automatically guarantee that it includes everything). Though that's not the worry I was on about.
(no subject) - spoonless - Sep. 15th, 2010 02:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - easwaran - Sep. 15th, 2010 05:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Sep. 15th, 2010 06:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - easwaran - Sep. 15th, 2010 05:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Sep. 15th, 2010 06:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - easwaran - Sep. 15th, 2010 06:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Sep. 15th, 2010 11:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - easwaran - Sep. 16th, 2010 12:02 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Sep. 16th, 2010 12:18 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Sep. 16th, 2010 12:07 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - easwaran - Sep. 16th, 2010 12:15 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Sep. 15th, 2010 06:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - easwaran - Sep. 15th, 2010 06:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Sep. 16th, 2010 12:12 am (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 15th, 2010 03:32 am (UTC)

In particular, I don't see how it gives rise to a theory.

Perhaps I didn't actually address this directly. You're right, nothing in Vedanta as far as I know gives rise to an actual TOE, it just claims that one exists.

In some ways, you might think the idea that there exists a "Theory of Everything" is trivially true. Although in other ways, it's a specific hypothesis, a claim about the nature of reality. I guess it just depends on how narrowly you define the phrase. Usually it's used in a more narrow sense than just "some theory that describes the world". I think there is in particular a sense that there are no individual objects that interact with each other (aside from the approximate concepts our minds construct), and no precise way to separate any part from the whole.
Sep. 15th, 2010 12:49 am (UTC)
The Upanishads are well-worth reading, IMO.
( 31 comments — Leave a comment )


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