Choosing the Road Less Travelled

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Reading the interview of Dr Karan Singh in last week’s issue of this paper took me several years down memory lane into the past: January 1996 to be more precise. The India International Centre, situated at Lodi Road in New Delhi, was holding a three-day workshop on ‘Culture and Development’.

I was in town at that time, and decided to attend the opening ceremony, mainly because I had seen in the invitation card that the keynote address would be delivered by Ilya Prigogine, a Nobel Prize winner.

Never having seen let alone met a Nobel Prize winner, I thought this would be a great opportunity to see one in flesh and bone as it were, and listen to him. I was interested also because I was already in possession of a copy of his book Order out of Chaos, written jointly with his colleague Isabelle Stengers, and had flipped through it for later reading – as I do with many books that I buy. I am glad to report that I am catching up on my backlog by the by. But what better than to hear the master himself?

And so to the IIC I went on that beautiful, slightly misty winter morning. As I entered the compound, I noticed that the manicured lawns were still covered over with an extensive, diaphanous sheet of dew, glistening and silvery. There was a slight haze that hung about, blurring the colour of the flowers that were just waking up to the spreading rays of sunshine. The air was crisp, with a slight chill. But inside, in the packed auditorium, it was nice and warm, and soon enough the programme got going, with Dr Karan Singh, President of the IIC, presiding the session.

He was still as imposing as he was when I met him for the first time nearly 20 years earlier. Then Minister of Health in India, he was on an official visit to Mauritius, which included a trip to SSRN Hospital where I was then a junior doctor. I remember how the staff, including our great nurse-mentors of those days (late Mrs Cangy, bless her soul, comes to mind), had lined up to greet him. I had the privilege of accompanying him to visit the medical wards, and subsequently attended an official reception that was given in his honour.

Ilya Prigogine spoke for nearly one hour, to an audience that listened to him in almost pin-drop silence. Suffice it to say that Prigogine was a leader in the fields of nonlinear chemistry and physics, whose research helped create a greater understanding of the role of time in the physical sciences and biology. He developed the concept of ‘dissipative structures’ to describe the coherent space-time structures that form in open systems in which an exchange of matter and energy occurs between a system and its environment. He received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1977.

Prigogine viewed the arrow of time and irreversibility as playing a constructive role in nature. For him the arrow of time was essential to the existence of biological systems, which contain highly organized irreversible structures – and which, of course, also includes us human beings. He extended the concepts found in these systems to complex social and economic systems, and is considered one of the founders of complexity science. That morning he transposed that model to the development of human society and civilizations, which to me was a very original way of looking at the world, and I thought had many interesting lessons for our future survival and sustainability on the planet.

Dr Karan Singh next took over to congratulate and thank Ilya Prigogine for his refreshing expose, and after commenting that the latter had, like the dissipative structures he had elaborated upon, tread on new ground instead of the beaten path, recited from memory the poem of Robert Frost entitled The Road Not Taken. I will quote the most relevant lines, found in the last stanza:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I suppose that for Prigogine the difference meant a Nobel Prize…

In his interview, Dr Karan Singh said that his main source of inspiration is the Vedanta – something which is well known to those who have kept in touch with his work and writings. In fact, in a small booklet of his published in 1996, he sets down the five key concepts of Vedanta:

1. The all pervasiveness of the Divine, Brahman – ‘that which, shining, causes everything else to shine’;

2. The potential divinity, Atman, present in every human being;

3. The vision of the entire human race as a single extended family –Vasudaiva kutumbakam;

4. That there are many paths to the Divine – Ekam sad viprah bahudha vadanti; and

5. That we must all work for the welfare of all beings and the environment.

He concludes by affirming that these concepts, ‘taken together, represent a global holistic philosophy which can sustain us in this tremendously important period of transition and turmoil through which humankind is passing. It is a philosophy that stresses convergence in place of conflict, cooperation in place of competition, holism in place of hedonism, and an interfaith dialogue in place of inter-religious wars.’ But he also warned that ‘It is not an easy path… that we need a great deal of courage and compassion to reach the goal.’

Alas, how far we are from the goal!!

* Published in print edition on 19 October 2012

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