06 August, 2016

The algebra of harmony

Recently, we were visiting Malaysia and in our hotel room, we found this magazine talking about local cultural events. One specific entry caught my eye -- the "Mek Bungo" dance. Here is a portrayal of the dance:
The apparently "storyless" dance feature
As one might see, the dance is about a girl and a boy who fall in love. And that's it.

This apparently "storyless" dance feature was familiar to me at a deep level, and it took me back to my childhood, when we were taught something unique in our homes -- celebrating harmony.

We were taught to see systems comprising of multiple, interacting elements, regardless of what abstraction level we were addressing. Be it the human body or societies or the climate or atoms -- they are all systems comprising of multiple interacting elements.

Systems are characterized by states of stability or "harmony" where some aspect(s) of the system is (are) optimal. In traditional Indian thought, such stable states are called "dharma". Dharmic thought sees systems everywhere. Even static objects like a stone for example, are seen as systems that are in an extreme state of apparent inactivity. Ayurveda for example, views our body to be a state of "harmony" or a stable interference pattern, formed by several interacting forces. There are several interference patterns that are stable (primarily three) -- these are called doshas. Illness is seen as disharmony, which needs to be rectified by bringing back the body into its natural state of harmony.

In my high school, I used to have a chronic case of sinusitis. It frequently led to infections and high fever. Several medical interventions gave me only symptomatic relief. It was finally, a course of Ayurvedic treatment that helped me out of chronic sinusitis. The doctor who treated me explained this to me: Allopathy (Western medicine) treats the disease, while Ayurveda treats the patient. His argument was that my stressful lifestyle (because of school and exam worries) had led to a state of systemic imbalance, which manifest as several chronic illnesses, including sinusitis, fibromyalgia, etc. His treatment addressed these imbalances rather than treating the chronic sinus itself (also, primary treatment was not required as there was no infection).

As humans, all we had to do to lead a life, was to realize systems that we are part of, or that affect us -- systems within and systems outside of us and systems that subsume us. We need to then work towards bringing the system to a state of harmony (dharma). In order to keep harmonizing more and more complex systems, we will need to evolve ourselves physically, emotionally, intellectually, philosophically and spiritually. Finally, we liberate ourselves from this task of harmonization to attain a state of detachment (moksha).

This is exemplified by a quote by Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagwad Gita. Krishna first explains to Arjuna why the war was necessary to bring the system back to a state of dharma (which is why the Mahabharata war is called a dharam-yudh), but then goes on to suggest the following to Arjuna to do after the war (verse 66):

सर्वधर्मान परित्यज्य मामेकं शारणं व्रज ।
अहं त्वाम सर्वपापेभ्यो मोक्षयिष्यामि मा शुचः

"Abdicate all dharma and repose in me, I will wash away your sins and bring you to moksha"

The notion of dharma has been variously translated as religion, ethics, duty, etc. which in turn, gives the above statement several weird meanings. Think of the above getting translated as, "Abdicate all ethics and come to me.." or "Abdicate all religion and come to me.." (like as though, I am the only true religion). Interpreting dharma as harmonization of a system, gives it a much clearer interpretation.

A system may have several states of harmony or stability. Each state of harmony is a state of local optimality. Think of a mountain range like the Himalayas. Each hill top or a plateau or a mountain peak constitutes a state of optimality -- we cannot go any higher from there in any direction. Not all peaks are at the same height, and each state of optimality results in different characteristics of the system.

Hence, upholding harmony is not a simple task at all. When we bring the system to a low state of harmony -- it appears stable, but it may soon get saturated. Establishing harmony at a higher level of fitness requires one to deeply understand the system and its dynamics, as well as face the wrath of forces in the system that want to settle down at a state of harmony that has a lower level of fitness (and may be prone to saturation or is no longer tenable).

When I was suffering from a chronic illness, my body had settled down to a lower level of harmony -- a lower peak if you will. I was intellectually optimal with my schools and exams, but was emotionally sub-optimal. In order to perform well, I had to subdue all questions in my mind that were not in the exam syllabus. As a 14 year old, I had lots of questions that pained me -- including questions about the world in general, and questions about the changes happening in my own body. All these were irrelevant to the board exams and entrance exams coming up and had to be stifled. I was also nutritionally sub-optimal with my daily diet insufficient to keep me working at the desired level of intellect.

My doctor, in addition to offering medicines -- basically diet supplements -- also helped me address these systemic issues within me. Such efforts encountered internal resistance, as trying to find a greater level of harmony required me to give up on what was currently working. This process was hence gradual and deliberate, requiring me to recognize myself and work towards a better state. (Unfortunately, this doctor died in a freak road accident after a few months, and I've not found anyone else since then, who was so clear in his concepts.)

Another element of upholding harmony is to recognize and celebrate it explicitly. By celebrating the harmony we seek, we turn greater attention from ourselves or from the collective to the desired harmony, rather than fret on the current state of disharmony. Larger attention towards a possible harmonious state can help manifest such a state by making it replace the current configuration (especially in an evolutionary setting -- it is always better to convey to the next generation, the desired harmonious state, rather than elucidate them on the details of the current state of disharmony).

This is what characterized several art forms in such a paradigm. Art was pure expression, with no explicit message. Celebrating love, nature, happiness, seasons, rains, relationships, and just about anything. 

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