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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

No correct answer

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

This is the first of two essays on the need for harmony among people. This essay outlines my premise. The next will be on some suggestions. I thought that this theme is appropriate for the Holiday season.

From reading various philosophical texts from the east and the west, it is clear that the fundamental questions we ask about the universe and life are the same. There are only three fundamental questions. They are: How did this universe and our world come about? Who am I and how did I get here? Now that I am here, what should I do with this life? But the answers range a wide spectrum. Obviously, there is no one final correct answer.

There are ten known theories of human nature and human condition. How did we come about? Is there a “creator”? If there is a creator, does He determine everything? Is there something called free-will? Is there something called karma? Why do good people suffer? Why are human beings cruel to each other? There are several different answers to these questions. Again, there is no one final answer.

Joseph Campbell quotes Adolf Bastian, a cultural anthropologist who pointed out how the same images and same themes are constantly appearing in the mythologies and religious systems of various parts of the world. When you read comparative mythology, you find that every culture has its own creation myth? Many have a mythical story about a great flood. Myths about mountains and trees are also common. The names are different; the metaphor is the same.

If you look at religious rituals, all of them will have a place for water, fire, earth, sound and of course, an altar!

Cultural anthropologists tell us that all cultures have to deal with the same set of universal problems in dealing with nature, human nature, family unit, work, and time. There are only a limited number of options to deal with each one of these universal realities. For example, there are three options to deal with nature - learn to live with nature, control nature or live in awe and fear of nature. Similarly, to deal with time, cultures may emphasize the past or the present or the future. There is no “right” or “wrong” option. But, each of the options comes with certain advantages and disadvantages. Of course, each culture has to deal with the advantages and disadvantages of the mode it chooses.

The option that is chosen will vary from one country to another and will change over time. For example, the western culture chooses control over nature, whereas some cultures live “with” nature, not trying to control. The advantage of having “control of nature” as the mind-set is that various technological revolutions such as manipulating the elements, flying into space, conquering cancer become possible. The disadvantage is that nature cannot be always be controlled. For example, death! Therefore, frustrations and associated stress become part of the way of living.

All of this leads me to conclude that all different answers to the same questions, all different interpretations of natural phenomena and all the rituals were developed millennia ago when men lived in isolated communities. They did not even know the existence of other lands and other people. With increasing travels and increasing exchange of information, we are now able to study various cultures and their associated myths, legends, philosophies and practices. When we compare these myths, traditions and philosophies, it becomes clear that all cultures faced the same problems in dealing with nature and human conditions. They came up with different solutions appropriate to their geography and to their value systems prevalent at that time in history. Now that the world is shrinking and we can study each others' practices, we can see the similarities and common elements.

All of these ideas and practices belong to the same family – the family of humans.

It is time to acknowledge that our species has common roots, common aspirations, common fears, common hopes and common questions. Our ancestors came up with different solutions to common problems, but the differences are superficial.

And there is NO ONE Correct answer for our philosophical questions about the universe and about the human condition. Variety is the answer, like a garden in spring. All the flowers, even the so-called weeds, are beautiful. Let us enjoy them.