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?

Background

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,
    asuph

    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! 🙂