The ancient south Indian city of Madurai, shimmering like a polestar in the divine firmament and inspiring an eternally compounding repository of knowledge, music, and art from time immemorial, reverberates with pristine generative energy. For more than two and half thousand years, this celestial land has woven the study of the self, carnatic music, and art into a tapestry of the most ancient spirituality, defying definitive description by even the most erudite of scholars, and transcending material concern & transient emotion. A beacon of resplendent temples, to take a walk inside this city is to immerse the self in a universe parameterized by the deepest of aesthetic emotions and sublime bliss, igniting the subtle consciousness and be transported into an abode of supreme peace.
A state of consciousness epitomized by a withdrawal of all bodily sensory functions, a state of deep-felt alertness; reminiscent of wielding the sharpest of swords and yet feeling as tranquil as an eternally unperturbed ocean. The wheel of time first spun backward, and then forward, until it was impossible to decipher which direction it spun anymore. I strayed beyond all concepts and precepts of time and space, thrust into a dimension of the pristine in what seemed like a jettison of immutable wholesomeness and profound compassion. There are many journeys in one’s life. Most of them are borne of the necessities, vicissitudes, and vagaries of being a life form on this planet.
Resplendent and nourishing clouds of compassion gather around the work of stellar figures in an ancient lineage of wisdom spanning almost four thousand years. Sanskrit, a language of studying the mind, mathematics, a language of science, and music, a language of the human spirit congregate at a triumvirate focal point that embodies profound meaning and indivisible bliss. A focal point above which stands the choicest of all virtues with bolts of brilliant lightning that signify a shattering of illusion, now receiving the quenching downpour of compassion. A sanguine replenishment of energies, soothing and moving, in stark contrast to the drought of the mindless decadence of ego.
The immeasurable gift of music, inspiring and soothing in its emotive content, woven around the fabric of devotion: the ancient and glorious tradition of carnātic music, while defying definitive descriptions even by the most erudite of scholars, is perhaps closer to the meloexpression of aesthetic emotion or bhāva than to a rigid, inviolable musical structure. Inseparable from the concept of bhakti bhāva or fervent devotion to the supreme reality of the cosmic race, carnātic music has been enriched for thousands of years by gifted saintly composers, preserved and nurtured by a quality of selfless dedication that has transcended material concern and transient emotion.
Of all the stories narrated to toddlers, the story of puṇya kōti is a special one. I was four when I my grandmother recited it to me the first time, in a tactful dual act of simultaneously making me eat and think. The protagonist, puṇya kōti, wanders astray during a grazing trip and finds herself trapped by a hungry tiger. She pleads with him to let her go momentarily, telling him that her calf needs feeding, and that she would return to him soon after. Keeping the young calf in mind, the tiger lets puṇya go, asking her to return soon or risk the obliteration of the entire herd in her village.
The sagacious Joost Bonsen once tried to outline his theory of multiplexing ideas, a chapter in his vast treasure-trove of constructs on engineering creativity in my first year at MIT. I found his elucidation to be coherent, almost like an Occam’s razor. But as with most constructs in life, what we deem fathomable in theory are but a train of shadows in practice. The vagaries of the real world, with its messiness and its formidable distribution of noise give us a dose of reality at best and encumber our optimism at their worst. I wanted to completely imbue Joost’s advice into my thoughts, but I found it too daring.
My dear Dustin, I don’t know what has happened to this world, and why things work the way the do. While my spirit is broken, and my heart bleeds, I still feel your your friendship and your warmth.
When I first arrived at MIT, I didn’t know what to expect and was nervous about many things. You welcomed me like an old friend, and made me feel at home. I remember talking about 6.864, and how Barzilay had just announced that EMNLP was happening in Stata that year. We attended the conference together. It is then that I realized that you were a most unusual chap.
I’ve begun to write again is a bewilderingly good foretoken. Of unexpected signs of thaw from a long, almost cruel winter of deep freeze and bitterly cold headwinds. This past week I spent almost an entire day with Eric Horvitz, one of the best minds in all of artificial intelligence and computation ; a kindred spirit whose fierce and polymathist intellect is matched in equal by his geniality. We talked about approximate posterior inference, of Bayesian theories of human cognition close of those of Sigmund Freud, of stochastic privacy amongst other things. We walked a fair bit that day, oscillating between facing the cold Cambridge wind head-on at times and orthogonal during others.
There are times when the forces of the universe conspire to teach you lessons that you might have otherwise ignored. Ignored or taken for granted. Complicit and a level of naivety that only becomes clear in hindsight. Over the past month I have seen both the best and worst of human behavior.
There’s something extraordinary about those that love us unconditionally. We often take them for granted, but they are the ones whose kindness and sagacity protect us from harm when we are in crises. No loops of enumeration are enough, no lexicon sufficient to describe the depth and bliss of having them in our lives.
Many a time we are simply oblivious to what lies in our surroundings. Blinkered by the vagaries of every day life, we attach ourselves to sub-optimal thoughts. Fettered by our desire for instant gratification, our habits follow a dotted path mired an endless circle of need and more need. Our poverty of attention, our inability to focus, and our brazen unwillingness to pause makes us less human. They make us less gratified and definitely far less effective than we would like to admit. What is it like to constantly miss the forest for a tree, to ignore the variables directly under our control and to try and alter those that aren’t?