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Maya and "The Matrix": How the West is Being Won

Issue Date: Feb 2006, Posted On: 2/28/2006

By Bal Ram Singh

As "the scientific search for the soul," the idea put forward in Francis Crick's book, (Crick, 1993, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York) continues to heat up among mainstream scientists disillusioned by their search for the most fundamental particles comprising the elements; a mental game theory is taking shape from the ancient wisdom of saints and sages.

Maya has remained such an integral part of Indian tradition that it has almost become synonymous with life's trials and tribulations for most people living in difficult situations in that part of the world. But for some "educated" groups of people, the concept of Maya allows them to retain one's sanity under the most chaotic conditions created by the time and traits of one's surroundings.

While Maya is a refuge mostly for people belonging to the lower stratum of Indian society, I see its value being recognized in the elite and enlightened class of the West.

In 1993, I visited the University of Missouri at Rolla to give a seminar where Professor Oliver K. Manuel, department chair, popped a question about Maya while he was driving me to my hotel from the airport. I recall his question being a simple one.  "What do you think of Maya?" I was stunned, not because a chemistry professor living in the middle of nowhere (Rolla is a countryside town with more than plenty of horses and farms in America's Midwest) was interested in Maya, but because I could think of almost no words to answer his query. I scraped a few words together such as "illusion" and "delusion" in my reply; yet I came to realize that my understanding of Maya was mostly experience, not intellectually based - the kind carried by experts.

Years later, we now see the concept being picked up by the popular entertainment industry to drive a message home to a population that can attempt to make sense of Maya in the midst of the chaotic opulence of today's world, and more important, perhaps in the world of tomorrow.

The success of the Warner Brothers blockbuster "The Matrix," as is also  obvious from the release of its subsequent sequels, seems to be perhaps due to the worldwide resonance of common vibrations within the worldwide human populace. 

Did you notice the chanting of "asato ma sadgamaya" at the end of "The Matrix Revolutions?" That chant from the Upanishads wasn't alone, and it was not by chance that "Matrix" had many more subtle introductions to life based on Vedic concepts.

The voice of the Morpheus reverberates in my head: "To know the path, and to walk it, are two very different things," as I try to visualize and understand the door of which the Oracle speaks of, when saying, "I can only show you the door, you must walk through it yourself."

Returning to the scientific search for the soul, Francis Crick, the Nobel Laureate, celebrated for his discovery, along with James Watson, of the double helix structure of DNA encoding the genes, states that "the scientific belief is that our minds - the behavior of our brains - can be explained by the interactions of nerve cells (and other cells) and the molecules associated with them."

He continues "... the idea of soul, distinct from the body and not subject to our known scientific laws, is a myth. It is easy to see how such myths could have arisen. Indeed, without the detailed knowledge of the nature of matter and radiation, and of biological evolution, such myths appear only too plausible."

Notably, Frances Crick, a physicist by training, was inspired by a series of lectures by another Nobel Laureate, Erwin Schrodinger, on "What is Life" in 1940s to make understanding of biological systems his life's mission.

Schrodinger himself entertained the idea of another real world with the following questions (Schrodinger, 1959, arithmetical paradox. The oneness of mind, Cambridge University Press): "Is my world really the same as yours? Is there one real world to be distinguished from its pictures introjected by way of perception into every one of us? And if so, are these pictures like unto the real world or is the latter, the world 'in itself', perhaps very different from the one we perceive?"

Schrodinger himself termed these questions as an arithmetical paradox: "The many conscious egos from whose mental experiences the one world is concocted." He believed the solution to this paradox would do away with all the above questions.

He propounded the idea of "the unification of minds or consciousness." He continued, "Their multiplicity is only apparent, in truth there is only one mind. This is the doctrine of Upanishads. And not only Upanishads. The mystically experienced union with God regularly entails this attitude unless it is opposed by strong existing prejudices; and this means that it is less easily accepted in the West than in the East."

Schrodinger did not have any illusion about the acceptability of such ideas from the scientific point of view. He stated that such an idea would appear "rather lunatic from the point of view of present scientific thought (based on ancient Greek thought and thus thoroughly Western)."

As predicted by Schrodinger, Frances Crick, despite his inspiration from Schrodinger remained vehemently opposed to any reference to a religion or philosophy (Crick, 1993): "Most of the religious beliefs we have today originated in a time when the earth, while a small place by our standards, was then  thought of a being very large, even though its exact extent was unknown. ... The earth's origins seemed lost in the mists of time and yet the span of time thought to be involved, while it seemed long in terms of human experience, we now know to be ridiculously short. It was not implausible to believe the earth was less than ten thousand years old.

We now know its true age is about 4.6 billion years. The stars seemed far away, fixed perhaps in the spherical firmament, but that the universe extended as far as it does - more than 10 billion light years - was almost inconceivable. (An exception has to be made here for certain Eastern religions, such as Hinduism, that take pleasure in inflating times and distances for the sheer joy of it)."

 An exception, indeed! In fact, one must take an exception to the Hinduism being referred to as the Western concept of religion, because corrupting a scientific philosophy either with malpractice within the tradition, or by branding with unscientific concepts such as religion by outsiders, is injustice to the concept of scientific truth.

Bal Ram Singh, director of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth's Center for Indic Studies, may be reached at bsingh@umassd.edu.

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