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. Puṇya returns to home, feeding her calf and letting him know what happened and bidding a tearful goodbye after entrusting his care to others in the herd. When she returns to the tiger and offers herself to be killed, the tiger listens to puṇya in disbelief, touched by her integrity and moved by her compassion. He lets her go, awareness dawning on him, that when one maims a soul as gentle and pure as puṇya kōti, your own soul shatters irretrievably into innumerable pieces. No sooner had my grandmother finished telling me this story than tears were rolling down my yogurt varnished cheeks, also provoking them down hers, a unison of mirror neurons that was not what she had bargained for in her plot to make me eat lunch. Over the years, my grandmother and I were as close to each other as puṇya was with her calf, and it was as if compassion and empathy had taken a human avatar in her form.
Compassion and the Great Interstellar Dance
The earth’s moon is a large one, only about a hundred times smaller, compared to say Mars, which is sixty millions times larger than its largest moon. The moon’s gravitational pull on our planet not only keeps our axis stable, but also slows it’s spin, laying conditions for stable temperature and atmospheric patterns that have in part enabled evolution to work its course. No one knows what the odds for life might be given a moonless earth, infusing mass into the reality that the moon does not exist solely for the delights of the nightly sky, to cement lovers and animate artists.
Jupiter, a planet three hundred times as large of our own, has a gravitational force to strong that it further helps stabilize our axis at twenty-three degrees, preventing whimsical wobbling of having the desert sun over the poles in one season and over the equator in the next. What is more, Jupiter’s powerful gravitational pull beckons comets and asteroids like a magnet, taking hits to spare us the cataclysmic impact events that might make the asteroid-impact extinction of dinosaurs look like a storm in an English teacup – the equivalent of several hundred atomic bombs mercilessly and acerbically reducing everything in its path every hundred or thousand years before evolution could ever conceive of saying hello.
We Are Barely Here
My great friend, Joost Bonsen also pointed me to notes in the work on existential risk, a Zwicky box of catastrophic events by scope and intensity which describes in some detail the great earthly and cosmic forces from which we are currently protected from, and how deluded we are as a species in our collective gloat, our seemingly impregnable hubris, that we continue to shackle ourselves in petty local minimas. We are separated from the corona-level heat that sits beneath us in our planet’s core, from the biting cold just a few thousand kilometers above us, or from an impact event from a mere teensy sneeze from Jupiter. As Joost stated in eloquent brevity, we are barely here. We are barely here, separated from complete oblivion by the life-affirming cosmic dance of compassion, this deep graph-theoretic manifestation of conditions, delicate and subtle, too profound in scope to comprehend and yet too easily taken for granted.
Recent work shows that non-zero sum paradigms are evolutionarily more stable than zero-sum paradigms in game-theoretic models, which posits this question: why have we been using non-zero sum games to models international trade, geopolitical strategies and economics in general? If it weren’t for a misunderstanding of evolution or that evolution itself can sometimes be stupid without mindfulness, one might characterize it as a kind of producer-consumer semaphore deadlock between evolution and mindfulness, for our collective lack of mindfulness means that we have allowed our most base and contemptuous traits, remnants of a bygone era, to hold sway. Poverty, pandemic diseases, climate change, moronic catastrophes such as wars, wall-street bankers, vulture capitalists, lengthy axes of discrimination and hierarchy – our gullible penchant to peddle these even in the face of incontrovertible evidence is ample proof of our aggregate lack of mindfulness and present awareness.
When I sent him a song from the revered classic Carnātic singer Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi, Gunther Weil, (a protégé of no less than Abraham Maslow himself) sent me an article on another Indian classic singer. It described his singing as a voice whose “absolute control over pitch and tone constituted a kind of esoteric science, a bridge between the singing of the Vedic Gods at the origin of time and the cosmic, vibrational physics and neurochemistry of the future-shocked freaks”. Something happens to me when I listen to and sing with Subbulakshmi in Sānskrit, and I cannot describe it completely in words. Listening to this great soul sing is experiencing the flow of delicate and ethereal waves, awakening the awareness of layers upon layers of consciousness, an ornate orchestration of compassion; an ascending improvisation of virtues, and a cascading unlocking of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin gates in the brain. A voice formed not just by anatomical goodness, but also by the rigor and discipline of the mind and a spirit as deep as the deepest ocean and as liberal as the sapphire blue sky.
My grandfather used to say that my grandmother looked a lot like Subbulakshmi, an oft-acknowledged fact independent of his biases by the entire neighborhood. But in my case, Subbulakshmi’s voice reminds me so much about my grandmother. My grandmother was and will always be the personification of compassion. And by transitive closure therefore, it suffices to say that as was the case of puṇya kōti the basic framework of the entire cosmic expanse is deep and indivisible celestial compassion.