What The Hell Is Divinity?

A few blog posts and con­ver­sa­tions with friends have made me unqui­et about the con­cept of Divin­i­ty: What is Divin­i­ty and what does it mean?


My friend Asuph wrote about Divin­i­ty in 2004, when I had not even start­ed blog­ging. He uses Pirsig’s Meta­physics of Qual­i­ty from Zen and The Art of Motor­cy­cle Main­te­nance to describe what hap­pens when we expe­ri­ence divin­i­ty. In my opin­ion, Pirsig’s Chau­tauqua is anoth­er exam­ple after Immanuel Kant, of how phi­los­o­phiz­ing can lead to gen­er­al unin­tel­li­gi­bil­i­ty if you con­tin­ue to seek meta­phys­i­cal truths with­out get­ting your epis­te­mol­o­gy right. Leav­ing Pir­sig aside, Asuph makes inter­est­ing obser­va­tions and asks very per­ti­nent ques­tions.

The dis­course has recent­ly been over divin­i­ty in art and specif­i­cal­ly, in music.

In Music Divine, Atul describes music that makes a direct con­nec­tion to the divine, and pon­tif­i­cates about the role of divine inter­ven­tion in the cre­ation of such music and art in gen­er­al. If you read my response, or are famil­iar with my blog, you can see that I dis­agree with the con­cept of divine inter­ven­tion lead­ing to the cre­ation of any­thing, let alone artis­tic works. This idea essen­tial­ly harks back to Evo­lu­tion vs. Cre­ation­ism at the meta­phys­i­cal lev­el.

Asuph then elu­ci­dates his take on divin­i­ty in music in the beau­ti­ful post – The Musi­cal Lan­guage. He says that for him, the form­less, name­less ter­ri­to­ry of divin­i­ty is ruled by music alone. If it were pos­si­ble to con­sid­er an objec­tive per­spec­tive on divin­i­ty, the ques­tion in my mind is: how do deaf (and fur­ther, blind) peo­ple expe­ri­ence divin­i­ty?

Sud­heen­dra Kulka­rni has touched upon a sim­i­lar theme in a recent col­umn: Why Sachin’s bat speaks to him. He uses the San­skrit tan­may and talleen (self-immersed, engrossed) to describe the same things that Atul and Amit describe in their posts. Sur­pris­ing­ly, leav­ing his right-wing ide­o­log­i­cal back­ground, Kulka­rni turns to the work of psy­chol­o­gist Mihaly Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi who archi­tect­ed the the­o­ry of “Flow: The Psy­chol­o­gy of Opti­mal Expe­ri­ence”, and calls it a “psy­cho­log­i­cal the­o­ry of kar­ma”, what­ev­er that means.

Using An Epistemological Razor on Divinity

What, then, is Divin­i­ty? As Wikipedia cor­rect­ly notes, it is a loose­ly-defined term. One should be extra-care­ful with loose­ly defined con­cepts since they are a slip­pery slope from an epis­te­mo­log­i­cal per­spec­tive. Ein­stein played on this slope when he wrote to Max Born that “He does not throw dice”, a phrase com­mon­ly para­phrased in oth­er words.

Con­tin­u­ing with the Wikipedia entry: The root of the word means “God-like”. It is used to refer to pow­ers or forces that are uni­ver­sal or tran­scend human capac­i­ties or to qual­i­ties of indi­vid­u­als who are con­sid­ered to have a spe­cial rela­tion­ship to the divine.

In essence, any­thing that appears to tran­scend human under­stand­ing in gen­er­al appears divine to us. This is what remains after apply­ing the razor.

Experiencing The Divine

Are divine expe­ri­ences lim­it­ed to the sense of sound as they seem to be for Asuph?

Does a new­born baby expe­ri­ence divin­i­ty in its mother’s bosom? Did quan­tum physics sci­en­tists expe­ri­ence divin­i­ty when they observed sub-atom­ic par­ti­cles defy­ing all known laws of the uni­verse? Can divin­i­ty be expe­ri­enced by touch? Can you feel it when you see some­thing?

I believe the answer to all the above ques­tions is a resound­ing yes, because by def­i­n­i­tion, what we think lies beyond human under­stand­ing is a sub­jec­tive inter­pre­ta­tion.

Oth­er than the com­mon divine musi­cal expe­ri­ences, I expe­ri­enced divin­i­ty when I had my first sex­u­al orgasm. I felt it when I saw the Androm­e­da Galaxy for the first time through a tele­scope. I felt it the first time I closed my eyes and dipped a fin­ger into liq­uid mer­cury, awed at how such a met­al ele­ment could remain in a sta­ble state in nature. I lived in it for many days dur­ing my trip to the Himalayas.

What is Divinity?

Asuph cor­rect­ly iden­ti­fies divin­i­ty as a state of mind. And that is what it is. Like many oth­er aspects of the human mind, there is a lot we still don’t under­stand about it. I sus­pect it has a lot to do with a state of mind where the amyg­dala and the tem­po­ral lobes of our brain are in har­mo­ny, but those are hypothe­ses best left to neur­al sci­en­tists. I’m com­fort­able know­ing what we don’t know at present.

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  • > In essence, any­thing that appears to tran­scend human under­stand­ing in gen­er­al appears divine to us. This is what remains after apply­ing the razor.

    And that which ‘uplifts’, or ‘lib­er­ates’, or bright­ens, or light­ens … The thing is, deep fear can also elude human under­stand­ing, or extreme cru­el­ty? Divine has to be be, by def­i­n­i­tion ‘bet­ter’, which could again be loose­ly defined :).

    Prob­lems with razors is that they’re flat. Sharp but flat. So they cut out any­thing in the path that’s caus­ing a prob­lem to smooth­ness ;-).

    The thing is, giv­en a choice between a chem­i­cal­ly induced state that makes me ‘feel’ divin­i­ty, and feel­ing the same, through some­thing like music … The razor will put them down on same lev­el. I’m not sure I’m com­fort­able with that … How­ev­er much my ratio­nal­is­tic lean­ings …

    A typ­i­cal ‘mahen­dra’ post: ana­lyt­i­cal, well researched, and clear.

    Greate read,

    PS: I’m sure music does not have a monop­oly. It’s very per­son­al thing for me.

  • Asuph:

    Didn’t peo­ple con­sid­er earth­quakes and plague as divine inter­ven­tion to com­pen­sate for man’s evil deeds?

    I can under­stand if you apply the term only in a pos­i­tive sense, but I don’t think this restric­tion applies to every­one.

    The epis­te­mo­log­i­cal razor is a tool to arrive at the essen­tial traits of con­cepts — it doesn’t pro­vide the full mean­ing and con­text, only the essen­tial char­ac­ter­is­tics.

    I did not under­stand where the ‘chem­i­cal­ly induced state’ part came from.

    By iden­ti­fy­ing human beings as mam­mals only iden­ti­fies an essen­tial trait — it does not ‘put them down’ to the lev­el of all mam­mals.

    Re: PS: yes, I under­stood that per­fect­ly.

  • Every state of the mind/brain is chem­i­cal­ly induced — the result of a vast array of neur­al tran­sit­ters and ions mov­ing in and out of the neu­rons through bil­lions of synaps­es 🙂

    A must read, if not read already — the con­ver­sa­tion between Ein­stein and Tagore on truth and beau­ty in the con­text of music, reli­gion, and sci­ence. And, my take on it here.

  • TRF: A fas­ci­nat­ing exchange of ideas between Ein­stein and Tagore — thanks for shar­ing. It real­ly doesn’t sur­prise me that these ques­tions have engaged thinkers for so long.

    The “take-away” for me from that dia­logue is Tagore’s liken­ing of lines/colors to melody/harmony — a very inter­est­ing, apt anal­o­gy.

  • Mahen­dra, you have start­ed writ­ing real­ly heavy posts nowa­days! Not to take away from the post, because it is thought­ful and very good in fact. Its just my state of mind at present. Dif­fi­cult to think of these things!

  • Nita, blame that on Atul and Asuph! 🙂

    But if you need what we call an “utaara” in Marathi, mean­ing a light break, just read the pre­vi­ous post!

  • Hi Mahen­dra,

    Once, when I hiked a hill and saw the entire Machu Pic­chu site before me, I expe­ri­enced some­thing that I had nev­er felt before. For exam­ple, I feet trans­port­ed away from the real world, and sud­den­ly things like car and cof­fee don’t mat­ter. Due to a lack of bet­ter word, I sim­ply called them divine.

    Divine inter­ven­tion, along with words like des­tiny, luck and bless­ing as ‘acts of God’ makes no sense to me. These fac­tors rel­e­gate every­thing to exter­nal, unex­plain­able agents and are often used as an excuse, by many, to absolve them­selves of their mis­deeds.

    I like your Mahendraish con­clu­sion. 😛

    • Priyank, exact­ly the same thing hap­pened when I saw Man­asarovar in the Himalayas! 🙂

      You have expressed it much bet­ter in your com­ment — about rel­e­gat­ing every­thing to exter­nal, unex­plain­able agents.

      I don’t exact­ly under­stand why the “typ­i­cal Mahen­dra post”, “Mahendraish con­clu­sion”, etc., but I take it as a sign that my posts are reflect­ing me. That, in turn, is a good sign for me, because it indi­cates that my writ­ing is get­ting more trans­par­ent. So, thank you! 🙂