2 August 1986
Well, first of all, I just thought I’d read you a little bit of a clipping. It’s 1973. It refers to the famous story repeated by a number of authors in antiquity, that when the Roman Navy came into the port of Syracuse, held by the Greeks, the Greek scientist, Archimedes, set their fleet afire by concentrating the rays of the sun with mirrors onto the Roman boats.
In 1973 a classic book on optics and wavefronts was published [‘Applied Optics’]. In the appendix to this book, the author, Stavroudis – whose book was very favourably reviewed in Nature as the future classic textbook on optics and wavefronts – he, in this appendix, said that most unfortunately for this traditional story, it can’t possibly be true. Because, even if it’s true that the walls of the harbour were high, even if Archimedes had lined up 150 soldiers, say, and had concentrated the light of the sun with mirrors on to a Roman boat, they could only have raised the temperature by 2 or 3°C. They couldn’t possibly have set it alight. That is the conclusion of this now famous textbook on optics.
Shortly after this, a commander in the Greek navy, who evidently had not very much scientific education, persuaded the naval administrator to try the experiment. They lined up 60 Greek sailors at Skaramangas Naval Base near Athens, and they aimed large mirrors, reflecting the rays on to a wooden boat 160 feet away. Smoke appeared within seconds, and very quickly the boat was on fire. You see, he wasn’t a scientist, and didn’t know that it couldn’t possibly work. [laughter] What made it worse still, he tried it again, and it worked again!
Well, in any ways, this story – anybody can get caught out, if not his own subject – but one shouldn’t be too overawed by people who tell you, “Oh, it must be this, and it must be that,” looking at the thing with what’s called the beady eye of science from outside, because the thing is to do the actual experiments. My teacher recommended us to study science and said it produces clear thinking, and it’s a valuable contribution to training the mind, like the study of metaphysics as this study; and the practice of art and music are a valuable training of the feelings and also the will in the discipline.
He didn’t care so much for people who were artistic; he wanted people to be artists; not to be professional artists, but to be able to sketch just a little bit something that appealed to them. He didn’t care so much for people who were just musical. He said, “Learn to play a few simple tunes on some instrument so that you are a musician. Then your appreciation will be very much greater, and you will be expressing something, not simply passively receiving.” He used to give many examples from the scientific and the mathematical field and also from the field of history, which he studied in great depth.
For instance, he studied the history of the Crusades from the Arab side. He could read the accounts of the Arabic historians, not only from the Western side. One thing he remarked was as to what a very much higher civilization it was, the Saracen civilization, though that was not what used to appear in our history books when I was at school.
Now, one of the examples of meditation; there can be an analogy in some of the little bits of scientific knowledge that the layman is now expected to know. One of the experiences people have in studying or trying to practise anything spiritual is that they practise, or they go to some holy place and they come back, with a feeling of exultation and with a feeling of purification. For quite a time afterwards, there’s a sort of faint radiance at the back of the mind, but that’s all. It doesn’t last. It fades away, and then something is done again and again. There’s a sort of faint radiance, and then it goes. When one’s young or when one’s at the beginning of a path, one thinks, ‘Oh, well of course it’s going to get better. It will last longer and so on.’ But it doesn’t. Finally, people can get very depressed and disappointed. They feel, well, this is all there is. There are little spiritual touches, so to speak, but it never actually leads anywhere, and it doesn’t help you when you’re in real trouble.
If you’ve seen uranium at an exhibition, say, a bowl of uranium, say in the sunlight, you’ll see a faint radiance on it. That’s a bit like the faint radiance that comes from an interest and an occasional practice of a spiritual path. That’s all. Now, these spiritual practices or these exercises we do, or an act of virtue or an attempt to enquire into reality through meditation and through metaphysical analysis, they leave a dynamic impression in the roots of the mind, that is dynamic. It has a sort of radiance, which it emits, or can emit. While there are only very few of these or comparatively few, they stand by themselves.
[An example is given here [drawn on a sheet]. There’s a little bit of uranium which has been purified but still not very much of it, and here are three of the uranium atoms. Now, a neutron comes and strikes one of them. Without going into the whole process, that one that’s been struck releases, in this case, four neutrons. Here, you can see these arrows. They just go off into space. It’s they that produced this faint radiance. It doesn’t hit another atom then another atom there, but of course it misses them. This one went a little bit close, but it was travelling very fast. It never touched the atom here.
While there’s a certain amount, a limited amount, of spiritual practice which has put down a limited amount of these dynamic impressions, then there will be a faint radiance and our lives do have a sort of savour, a spiritual savour about them. But that’s all. When the amount of uranium reaches what’s called a critical size, then there’s a change. Now, here we’ve got the same situation but there are many more of the uranium atoms. A neutron comes and it strikes this atom and as before it releases, knocks out four other neutrons, this one up here. Now, before, it missed. There was only one uranium atom anywhere near. Here, although it misses that one, it strikes that one. This one will release two more neutrons. Then this one, out here there was nothing. It just went off into space, but here it strikes the uranium atom, which in turn will release two more neutrons which will strike other atoms because there are so many atoms. This one here struck this.
This one which missed this atom but here is striking the long stop. Then you get what we’re told is a chain reaction. When one is struck, it releases and that strikes others and that’s released, and that strike still others until the whole mass of uranium, as they say it, has reached critical side, it’s gone critical. Then it begins to emit, as you know, this tremendous radiance which is controlled to make nuclear power. If uncontrolled, it can make an explosion. Purification and then there has to be intensification. Then there will be this unlimited energy from the nucleus.]
Matter looks dull and inert. The mystics had a glimpse of this, they knew this, the Sufi mystics. For instance, Rumi, the great Sufi mystic, says the earth has a dull and sour face, but there is a laughter and a radiance at the heart of every atom. We know about the radiance now; the laughter, we haven’t yet seen. We don’t know about the consciousness, but we know about the radiance. Then this power has to be harnessed and controlled and then it can lead to the radioactive isotopes, which are now so important in medicine. It’s a little bit parallel to the ‘critical size’ in meditation practice.
It has to be done long enough for enough of the dynamic impressions to be laid down so that when one emits a radiance, it doesn’t just go off into space, but it strikes another and then another, and then another, till the whole thing begins to blaze in the form of the object of our devotion, the object of our meditation. When there’s this explosion of wisdom and energy – we’re now leaving the limited physics and going on to the Yoga – there’s an explosion of wisdom and energy. This produces, first of all, inspiration as to the things of the world, if that has been one of our main interests, which it is for most of us; and then gradually, we shall play our part in the world. And if we play it as a part – as an expression of the will of the Lord for us – then the Lord will reveal Himself in His true aspect in our own hearts and in our own conduct. This can happen with any life which has become pure and is then concentrated unselfishly; then this moment of inspiration will come.
Now, I just quote two [examples] from famous scientists, although I know how impatient one can get, because one feels, ‘Well, I’m not an Einstein.’ Rutherford in 1903 [made his experimental discoveries] and had the new concept of radioactivity, and discovered how to split the atom and the transmutation of the elements. Kelvin was the great classical physicist at the time, who vigorously opposed all these ideas – vigorously. He had more letters after his name from universities and other places of distinction than any other man living, so it was a very brave man, who opposed him.
I have seen, as a matter of fact, Kelvin’s copy of Rutherford’s book published in 1905, I think. In every case where Rutherford has written, for instance, that the atom is split, Kelvin has struck out the word “atom” in pencil and written in the margin “molecule”. Where Rutherford has said, “And this is the conclusive proof of so and so and so.” Kelvin has written in the margin, “No proof at all”. He never changed his mind, but Rutherford introduced these entirely new and revolutionary ideas, which had been partially predicted by a Japanese mathematician named Nagaoka – but Rutherford demonstrated them experimentally, not simply as a prediction.
One of the most remarkable things, to describe it in Rutherford’s words, they were shooting particles through a foil. He said it was as if you were shooting 15-inch shells through tissue paper. Now he gave the most extraordinary order to one of his assistants named Marsden. “Check whether any of them are bouncing back.” Well, historians of science and the biographers of Rutherford, found this very embarrassing. Check, whether 15-inch shells are bouncing back from tissue paper, that’s what it corresponded to. It’s something absolutely impossible and yet Rutherford gave that order. It’s never been explained; some few were reflected back and that gave Rutherford the clue that the nucleus to the atom was very small instead of large as it had been thought. But the order was given under inspiration.
If we look at Rutherford’s life, we find he was totally devoted to his particle physics, as it would now be called. He said, “I sometimes seem to know what the little alpha articles are going to do.” He had an intuitive idea of what would happen. He had extraordinary purity of motive. A young graduate student once suggested to him that he should attempt to patent some of his ideas and make a fortune and he said, “Rutherford sprang up. I thought he was going to attack me, and I ran out of his office.” Rutherford never sought to make a penny, and he evidently thought that any commercial interest would somehow impair the purity of his research. Well, I just mentioned that.
Now, a parallel one, which is not well known, is Fermi, who won the Nobel prize for physics. He gave an account of one of his major discoveries. He said, “We were getting results that made no sense. Suddenly, I had the idea of putting a piece of lead in the path of a neutron beam.” He said, “It’s very extraordinary. Normally, I would just have put a bit of lead in, but instead I had this piece of lead, very carefully machined and then I rejected one or two of them.” He said, “I can’t imagine why. There was something in me that didn’t want to put that lead in the path of the neutrons.” Then he said, “Finally, when it had been machined for the third time, I had to do it. But as I was walking up to do it, suddenly the thought came, ‘I don’t want a piece of lead there, I want a piece of paraffin’. So I got any bit of paraffin I could lay my hands on – just a little bit and I put it in.” That solved the particular problem he had and the results he got from that. Now, he says there, there was no previous clue at all. There was no preparatory logical thinking of any kind. It was like a flash. He gave, like Rutherford, this extraordinary order. In Fermi’s case there was this extraordinary check and then there was sudden inspiration, ‘No, I want paraffin’. He didn’t know why he wanted it, but it led to that discovery.
We can find a number of other such cases in the life of Pasteur. My teacher said, “Any of you in this room, can think the thoughts of Plato.” Some of his pupils used to think, “Well, the things the teacher sometimes says. Really!” He said, “I admit not all of you can construct dialogues so brilliant, but the Divine mind can inspire you with those same thoughts.” He sometimes said as regards poetry that the same could happen. Now, we think, “Oh, no, somebody like Goethe, from a very young man verse was coming into his head, rhyming lines were coming into his head all the time, this tremendous lead. How could anyone without that initial advantage, without the training that he had in the literary circle, how could they dream of producing poetry like that?”
Some of these statements by my teacher, formed a sort of riddle for some of us. He used to say, “Search history. When you’re reading history, search for some of these things.” It struck me and I did keep my eyes open for such cases. You want a case of a man with no literary training, not too well educated, who produces some poem which is a tremendous masterpiece, and has influenced a tremendous mass of culture. That would be a demonstration, wouldn’t it? If we look in history, we can find such cases.
One example is St. Francis of Assisi. He called himself a jongleur. A jongleur is what we would now call a busker, a street entertainer. It was miles below the troubadour. The troubadour sang in French, came into Italy and he sang these elegant, refined songs in French, which the aristocrats understood and spoke, and the populace followed to some extent. The speech of the South of France at that time was not too far removed from the Umbrian dialect of northern Italy. There was no Italian language, there were only a few dialects. There was no Italian literature at all. There wasn’t a language.
At the very end of his life, St. Francis, who had written nothing, wrote the Canticle of the Creatures. It’s generally called the Canticle of Brother Sun. It’s only 12 verses. If you look at the original Italian, it’s rather poor poetry, very few of the verses rhyme. The lines don’t scan – any teacher of literature would have written this off as a poem. It was the very first poem in what we would now call the Italian language. Anybody with any literary pretensions at all wrote in French. The Umbrian dialect was extraordinarily vulgar and crude, and it just wasn’t developed enough to write poetry then. This is the first poem; very short. It began to be imitated by a few of the, mostly, members of his order after he died.
Gradually, the custom of writing poetry in the Umbrian dialect, which then became Italian, led to Dante about nearly 100 years later. The Italians proudly say that the education of Europe, in the Italian language up to the Renaissance, when the education was very nearly complete, was done through Italian. Now, the literary critics say that, by any standards of literature, this crude poem of Francis is still one of the very best poems in the language, although it lacks entirely any of the technical or literary graces or techniques. This is an example of spiritual inspiration, working through an instrument which was almost totally unprepared.
There is a saying in a Japan, “The master calligrapher doesn’t choose the brush.” He has a number of brushes. When he’s going to write, he just picks one up. Whatever it is, he can adapt to it, he can write a masterpiece with it. The same is said of the Buddha. When one of his disciples said to him, “How is it that the Buddha wisdom and truth is declared on this tiny Earth, which is only one speck in the infinity of the heavens?” The Buddhists knew of the galaxies. The Buddha said, “Get me a reed. I want to write something.” Ananda brought him the reed. The Buddha said, “How many reeds do you suppose there are on the Ganges?” Ananda said, “They are uncountable.” “How many reeds do you suppose there are in all the rivers? Yet, this one reed is now held by the Tathagata, by the Buddha, who is writing with it.”
My teacher told me that his teacher wrote with a cut reed. They were very poor. He said, “We would bring him several. He would pick one out of them. We didn’t know why he had chosen, there seemed to be no reason why he should choose that one, but he would choose one. The same way he said, “The Lord, the Divine Mind can choose anyone. Whether the brush is very silky and very beautiful, made with camel hair, or whether it’s crude and rough, the hand can write a masterpiece.”
Another example is this: Japan is a nation of poets. There are five million poets in Japan today. There are something like 400 or 500 magazines devoted to nothing but poetry. It has been developed enormously. In the early Middle Ages in Japan, a great general named Ōta was hunting when there was a sudden shower of rain. He sent one of his attendants to go to the nearby small farm there and get a straw cloak, which keeps out the rain. The attendant came back with a girl from the farm, and she had a tray. On it, there was a sprig of a plant called the yamabuki. She simply bowed. There’s a picture of it. She bowed in front of the general and held out the tray with the yamabuki flower on it. He just dashed it aside and he said, “The girl’s a half-wit! Oh, come on, let’s get back.” They trudged through the rain to the castle. There he talked to one of his chief ministers, and he said, “They’re peasants, you know. Really, they’re not much better than the animals with which they live.”
Then he told him this story. “I asked for a straw coat to keep out the rain. She comes back, for goodness sake, with a tray and yamabuki flowers on it. Half-witted.” The minister said, “Oh, my Lord. Oh, no. There is a poem. The yamabuki flower is so beautiful, but it has no fruit. ‘Mi no nai’. ‘Mi’, is fruit; ‘no nai’, has none. ‘Mino’, also means a straw coat. ‘Mino nai’ also means, ‘There is no straw coat’. She didn’t want to refuse you directly. She brought the yamabuki flower thinking that you would recognize the poem and accept it.”
It’s pleasant to record that Ōta Dōkan was so ashamed at his own boorishness, and so admired the culture of the peasant girl, that he changed completely and began to study and encourage poetry; and did in fact himself, become a well-known poet. That girl had an inspiration and it led to a great change in Ōta Dōkan’s extensive dominions. The inspiration can be direct like that, or it can be simply through conduct.
Now, these two instances: a man had an important political position in the local community. He had great ability but sometimes it happens because of his great ability and his success he became the target of a lot of slanders and vicious rumours, put out, invented by people who were jealous of him and who wanted power for themselves. Sometimes he thought that he couldn’t stand it. He could do the work, but all this venom was pouring on him all the time. The story runs that in the town there was a great saint, a man of meditation who had been granted the divine boon of proclaimed wisdom. That’s to say not merely the gift of wisdom but the ability to proclaim it. As the people of the town were such terrible gossipmongers he’d taken a vow of silence, so he never spoke.
One day that politician was in the street and there was a terrific rainstorm like a monsoon. When that happens, you all huddle under the eaves and you get wet. You feel somehow you’re being sheltered, but actually you’re not. It comes down your neck and goes all over. He was huddled there with the others. He saw this saint walking down the middle of the street through this pouring rain – walking calmly down through the street. He was going to visit someone who was sick, and he simply walked smoothly down the street. That formed a picture in his mind, that man walking through this pouring rain without any sort of cover. He said that it sort of attracted his mind. He found himself often dwelling on that picture and then he began to find a change in himself. He began to feel there was something in him that was walking, that could walk, and was walking calmly through the shower of venom and lies and jealousy without being disturbed; simply walking calmly. That saint had not uttered a word, but the wisdom had been proclaimed.
The town was near a desert. If you live in a town near a desert, when the wind blows from a certain quarter in the dry month, everything gets loaded with sand. All the leaves, the trees, and the bushes are full of sand. Then the wind passes, and it leaves everything. There was a man in the town who had undertaken an important job which was endless. It would take a very long time to do. He began to find that his perseverance was failing. He worked very hard for a week, but he didn’t seem to make any difference. There was still some vast amount to be done. Then he’d get fed up and he’d do nothing for a week and then it was still the same. He was still in the middle of this huge task, and he was getting depressed and beginning to think that he’d give up.
Now, one day after a sandstorm he was walking, and he passed the saint’s little house. He saw the small gardens where all the bushes were laden with sand. Everything was covered with sand, and he saw the saint with a little tray and a little brush. He was sweeping sand from the leaves. He thought, ‘Good Lord, it’s going to take him weeks to clean his garden like that.’ He looked at the house next door and saw a little boy who was playing with the sand. He was building it up into a tower and then it would all collapse when it got to a certain height, and he would laugh. Then he’d build it up again. When he looked at the two of them, the little boy playing and the saint with the little tray and brush, he could see they were both playing. They were both enjoying it. This made a picture in his mind: that little tray, that little brush sweeping. Gradually he found he could go back to his enormous task and simply do the piece for that day without thinking of the vast amount that remained to be done. Simply to do it in the spirit as it were of joy or of play. That again was proclaimed wisdom, this is one of the traditional stories.
There is a split between what I want and what I know I should do. People think, “Well, yes, you may get inspirations – but can you do them? The composer Berlioz who specialized, as you know, in these marvellous orchestral tone poems or pieces, he woke up one morning and in his head there was blazing, in full orchestral colour, a wonderful piece. He knew this was an inspiration, a great inspiration. Then he thought of all the labour of getting it down, of orchestrating it. Suddenly, he felt, ‘Oh no!’ and he turned over and went back to sleep again. He said it came once more and again he turned his back on it. He thought, “No, I can’t face it. It’ll take months,” and he turned his back on it, and it never came again.
In the Yoga, the inspiration comes with its own energy – not that it’s an ‘ought’ and a ‘must’ because then there’s a split, there’s a duality. The inspiration and the energy come together as a form of joy and play. When people play, they’re able to go on. One fellow disciple of my teacher, he records this. He lived as a beggar, but he was often invited to the courts of kings and he never stayed more than a day. He said, “The atmosphere in the palaces is terrible.” On one occasion he saw the royal princes playing tennis in the heat and they were absolutely pouring sweat and they were obviously very tired. Evidently it was a close match, and they were going on. At the other end of that little park there were some workmen who were digging the ground to perhaps lay a new tennis court or something like that. They were covered with sweat too, but not so much as the princes. They were obviously fed up, tired and bored and just wanted to complete the day so they could get off home. He compared those two cases of fatigue. He said, “The princes were actually more tired, they were rocking on their feet, but it was joy and play to them, so they didn’t feel the fatigue. But for the workmen, it wasn’t their own purpose, they were simply doing it for the money, so they felt the fatigue much more intensely.”
The presentation by Patanjali is that this world is something like a theatre in which a play is being put on. The extension by Shankara is that the audience gets drawn into the play, so to speak. It’s as if we were actors in the play who didn’t realize any more that it was a play but took it as real. We can say ridiculous, ridiculous, ridiculous; but if you look back through history you find cases of it. There was an actor, whose name was Macready. He was a very talented and popular actor, but he did sometimes get drunk and this had a deteriorating effect on his mind. He was Macbeth on one occasion, and they had stout wooden swords and when the actor playing Macduff challenges him in the final duel combat, Macready, got the idea that Macduff was actually trying to kill him. He leapt at him and actually drove Macduff down into the stalls; that’s to say, he forgot the part he was playing – although that part was a life and death match, he took it that it was actually life and death and he entered too much into the part.
Our teacher said we must be able to play the part well, but remember it’s a divine play and that we should play this part without passion but play it well – without being individually identified with the character, and yet having sympathy with the character and being able to play in that sense. There’s a divine purpose in the world which those of us in the ordinary state don’t see. We have our own purposes, and our own purposes clash. There’s another hidden purpose. Our teacher used to say, “Search history for examples.”
An example is this, after Atatürk Kemal, Mustafa Kemal, had established a ruthless dictatorship in Turkey by substantially eliminating opponents, he must have been a very enlightened man, finally – because then he founded a parliament and he followed the model of parliaments. He discovered that there’s an official opposition. There had been no opposition when he was establishing his rule – any opposition was eliminated. How was he going to establish the idea of an opposition? It’s on the records – he got one of his closest friends and supporters to join with him without saying a word to anybody. Then Kemal made a speech advocating certain proposals and everyone assumed that this was what would go through, of course. But, to everyone’s amazement, this close supporter and loyal friend of Atatürk got up and began to oppose and criticize what had been said. There began to be cries of anger, “This man’s a traitor.” Kemal quieted them down, said, “No. He must finish his speech.” The opposition critical speech was finished and then everyone sat back to wait for this man to be arrested and, finally, executed. Kemal walked forward, shook hands with his friend, and said to the house, “Here’s what we need, constructive criticism,” and they walked out arm in arm. On the surface, this was opposition. Opposition was not expected at that time and it was thought to be a treachery if there were any opposition. He had an inner purpose, which was shared by both of them, to get the people used to the idea that there could be opposition without deadly enmity between them. So, he carried that out.
We can say, “Well, where will we get these inspirations from?” The answer is always it’s through purity of our worldly attachments, and then concentration and devotion. The example of the radio is very good, which our teacher gave. The radio must be purified. The connection must be good otherwise there will be crackling, continuous crackling which will come from the radio, not from the station. In the same way, if I meditate and pray and my mind is too ambitious or selfish, there will be a crackling inside. I may think the Lord is angry with me, but it’s from myself. Attempts should be made, to some extent, to purify. Then concentration. Then, faintly, through the crackling we can hear.
Well, thank you for your kind attention.