When people are ‘lucky’, they tend to reflect on their good luck and tend
to thank providence profusely for it and reach conclusions such as “Life is
I always wonder if life is indeed beautiful – and, even more pertinently,
how valid an argument it is to reach that conclusion when one happens to get
“lucky” by chance.
I recall numerous instances of people who survive natural disasters
thanking the Lord for letting them live while others died. Without citing any
particular incident, let us just think for a moment how fair that is – to thank
God for letting you live. How about the others who died? Were they at fault
somehow and deserved to die? The recent serial blasts in Jaipur killed many
people. Did the good Lord decide that these people were unworthy of living and
so deserved to die and so the terrorists were in fact agents of God. So, why
spend so much resource in trying to find them and punish them?
The September 11, 2001 attacks in the US were carried out by people who were
convinced that they were explicitly messengers of God and carrying out God’s
work. So, perhaps those who died in the twin towers of WTC and in the Pentagon
and the passengers in the planes were all somehow being punished by God for
The kids who died in the Bhuj earthquake a few years back on the Republic
Day were also scheduled to die that day and the earthquake was merely the tool
that God used to take their lives – is that it?
What about the Asian Tsunami? May be a case of when God wanted to end the
lives of a couple of hundreds of thousands of individuals and the tsunami
seemed to be a handy way to achieve that “target” quickly and efficiently.
Earthquakes relentlessly ravage different nations of the world.
Then, there are the kids who are suffering from chronic and acute leukemia
– kids destined to die at the age of 5 or 6 or 10.
What can be more tragic than kids dying – whether it’s from malnutrition
or cancer or earthquake or some other natural calamity.
It’s like the end of a life before it has even begun properly. It is like
a flower bud getting plucked before it has had an opportunity to grow to become
a complete flower.
So, dear folks, do you really think that there’s really the hand of
providence at work when all these natural calamities strike us and people get
killed randomly and others survive equally randomly.
How justifiable is it to shower glowing praise for letting us live – and
equally unjustifiable to blame superior powers if our loved ones get killed. Of
course, the best course is to imagine ourselves in the place of the parents of
the kids who die in these disasters or to put ourselves in the shoes of parents
whose kids have been diagnosed with cancer or may be, even less dangerous
diseases, say, Down’s Syndrome.
Personally, I don’t believe in all this spiritual stuff. And I also find
the “I am spiritual but not religious” thing to be pretty crazy as well. It’s
like being half pregnant.
If we make even a superficial study of the recent history of humanity, we
will realize that as the reach of science has expanded to embrace new phenomena
of nature, the role of religion has receded from our lives.
Now that science is trying to extend the envelope of its understanding
even further, we see this occasional
clash between the guardians of various faith systems and scientific leaders.
I have in mind the perennial debate with respect to the use of birth
And the rising tide of clamor as scientists who are involved with
embryonic stem cell research try to delve ever deeper into the mysteries of
life to try and understand what makes us who we are while in the process hoping
to understand why we develop various neurological and other disorders such as
Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and cancer. Out of research such as these, these
scientists would try to discover the Fountain of Youth or may be learn how to
make us immortal.
But, various religious leaders object to scientists trying to delve too
deeply into matters which these so-called god men consider to be in the domain
of the Gods.
Indians are particularly susceptible to these “miracle-mongers”. We have
all these assorted folks who claim to be able to cure every disease from
rheumatoid arthritis to cancer and AIDS.
I can’t understand how anybody can take these charlatans seriously – let
these “super doctors” first try their hand at curing us of simple diseases –
such as a blockage in the arteries, or a broken bone, or a cataract in the eye
or a tumor in the brain. And once these new fangled healers have shown us that
there is really no need for all these multi-crore super-specialty hospitals in
this country and they can be trusted with the country’s healthcare system, then
they should think of taking up bigger challenges like cancer and AIDS –
fearsome dragons that modern medical science is yet to slay.
And let there be a price to pay – if you make a claim, you better be able
to substantiate that claim. If you’re really able to cure one AIDS case or one
cancer case, you should be able to repeat it without fail to cure millions of
similar cases. There is no point in going to town about having cured one AIDS
patient or one cancer patient.
But that’s sort of beside the point. We all need to question the fundamentals
ourselves in a deep and thoughtful manner and reach conclusions that have a
It’s not enough if our parents are alive and well – we need to look at
others and think about whether their parents are alive or not.
It’s not enough to be thankful to God if OUR kids are all right – we need to bother about
other kids who are NOT ALL RIGHT and put ourselves in the shoes of their
It’s a difficult route to take admittedly – to study world history and
literature and astronomy and biological and other sciences. Because, indeed we
need to study all these and make ourselves aware about all these diverse human
endeavors. It’s only then that we will become qualified to talk about the “big”
How can you not study astronomy and astrophysics if you want to learn about the true
size and extent of the visible universe? Does it matter to you that the Sun is
a star that is basically a fusion reactor that has been working since the last
5 billion years and will work for another 5 billion years.
The fact is that our Sun is but one of some 400 billion stars that make
up the Milky Way galaxy.
The Milky Way galaxy spans some 100,000 light years across. And there are
some 100 billion galaxies in the visible universe that spans 15 billion light years.
There are literally more stars in the visible universe than there are grains of
sand on all the beaches of planet Earth.
What a majestic vista that is?
Carl Sagan had mentioned in one of his books that “we are star stuff.”
That is literally true. The molecules that comprise our body were originally
made inside stars. As a first generation star nears the end of its life, it
grows to become a red giant and the carbon molecules combine to form heavier
elements all the way up to uranium and that’s the way all the elements
comprising the Periodic Table that we are all familiar with from our school
days were formed.
So, that’s another wonderful thing to realize, I think.
If we study about Darwinian evolution, we’ll realize how it is possible
to have the diversity of life on the planet that we have. The geologic fossil
record is full of clear evidence that points to the sustained effectiveness of
this Darwinian mechanism. We were not created by a Creator on an As Is basis –
we have EVOLVED to be what we are. We are products of an evolutionary process
that has been ongoing for many millions of years. It’s a slow process and so
not observable over the period of one human lifetime. Dinosaurs did indeed roam
the planet for some 150 million years.
How long have we been here? When do you start counting? That depends on
who is it that you define as human. Were our Neanderthal ancestors human? Would
we be able to live in a village with a bunch of them? Oh, they didn’t live in a
village – they were hunter gatherers who roamed the jungles and hunted.
Forget a hundred thousand years, we have traveled such a long distance in
a thousand years – indeed, we have traveled light years technically in the last
And what is the future that we can foresee if we extrapolate this rate of
advancement into the future? Where will we be in a hundred years from now? A
thousand years? Ten thousand years? Hundred thousand years? Million years. . .
Even a billion years if we want . . .
Is there life elsewhere in the
universe? I think that is the
single most important question that is facing science and scientists today. We
are only today acquiring the tools and learning the skills and technologies to
be able to look for planets around other stars in our neighborhood. We will
need to keep expanding this capability drastically to enhance our reach far
beyond this tiny region of the universe.
I have tried to touch upon the many wonderful options that science opens
up for us. But, it’s a difficult route to follow – there are no certainties on
this route. We are building this road as we go.
Then, there is this other route – of religion and spirituality. This
route provides readymade answers – formed in antiquity – to all the difficult
or deep questions of life. There is comforting certainty to be found down this
route. We are told that there’s someone looking after us and our near and dear
ones. We are told that the dead aren’t really
gone. Who doesn’t want to out-live their death and meet up with the parents in heaven? So, it’s
understandably easy to be persuaded to go down this route.
And through our history, religion and spirituality have provided
comfortable shelters. It’s a tough task to let go of those certainties and well
trodden paths and choose to chart new routes in an unexplored jungle.
The choice is up to all of us.
The certainties of religion or the uncertainties of science – what do you
want to embrace?