July 15, 2018

Kailash Manasarwar Summer 2018

Kailash and Manas Sarowar are words or rather destinations that send shivers of excitement through many who have grown up in an Indic environment. As the centre of the metaphysical universe and the abode of that innate quality of Goodness, that we identify with and as Shiv, it is the ultimate place of pilgrimage for anyone who lives and believes in the Sanatan Dharma of this land. But before one sets out for Kailash one must understand that this is no comfortable vacation of the kind that you enjoy in hill stations like Darjeeling, Almora or Simla. It is also not an adventure trek -- there are far more interesting and logistically friendly trekking opportunities in, say, Himachal, Ladakh or Garhwal. Kailash and Manas Sarowar is no vacation, no trek, but a place where you surrender your heart and soul at the altar of the Divine.






There are many ways to reach Manasarowar but the most popular route is through Nepal from Kathmandu. On this route, there is no need to either walk or take a pony and one can reach Manasarowar by bus. It is three days by bus from Kathmandu although there is another option of flying to Lhasa and then take a three day bus journey to Manas Sarowar. These three days on the bus allows one to acclimatize to the high altitude, and low oxygen, of the Tibet plateau so that breathing problems are minimised, though never completely eliminated. The other option of taking a helicopter flight, though shorter and more expensive, can lead to severe acclimatization issues and breathing problems. After a day spent on the shores of Manasarowar, one needs to go to Darchen, at the foot of Mount Kailash, again by bus, and then perform the three day circumambulation or parikrama of the mountain. This is a very tough trek and most pilgrims perform a symbolic parikrama around the Yamadwar -- a small passageway with a big bell -- that is starting point of the formal parikrama. Ponies are available for the parikrama but the high altitude, going up to 18,000 feet, causes intense physical distress and many pilgrims need medical evacuation from the parikrama.




In addition to the physical difficulties of reaching Manas Sarowar and Kailash there are quite a few operational challenges as well. Personal visas to enter Tibet are not issued to individuals. Pilgrims must must form groups of the same nationality and then apply for a group visa through one of the many tour operators in India or Nepal. However one needs to remembers, that despite claims to the contrary, these Indian and Nepalese tour companies can only offer services upto the Tibet border. Once  inside Tibet, one is in the hands of the local Chinese guide over whom the tour operators have little control. Hence it is quite possible that in remote regions like Saga, Manasarowar and Darchen, four to six people may have to share rooms that were promised on a twin-sharing basis and there is no scope for any argument there. Food also become a challenge because in many places Indian style food is simply not available and unless one is comfortable with pork or yak meat, one would have to have live on boiled cabbage, boiled mushrooms and rice,  which can be really awful. One would be better of carrying biscuits, dry fruits, chocolates and fruit juices, especially for lunch during the long, eight to ten hour drives bus drives through the desolate, “lunar” landscape.

The final problem is toilets -- that simply do not exist outside hotels in big cities like Lhasa or Shigatse. Most public toilets, including the ones at Manas Sarowar and Kailash are just rooms or enclosed spaces, often with no roof, with just a row of  holes in the ground through which  you drop your load. There is neither water nor toilet paper unless you carry it yourself and there is no way to flush away the sewage that simply accumulates! And of course there is no privacy -- everyone is in the same room, squatting side by side, though men and women have, thankfully, different rooms.

Given the Government of India’s focus on Swachchha Bharat, there is a good scope for our Ministry of External Affairs to explore the possibility of  extending this concept to Swachchha Manas and Swachchha Kailash. Thousands of Indian pilgrims will be benefited if one or two Dharamshalas can be built by the Indian government, even if these just provide a basic dormitory accommodation and proper Sulabh Sauchalay type toilets.

July 09, 2018

Highway from Kolkata to Lhasa

The Belt and Road Initiative, China’s quaintly named initiative to redraw trading routes around the world may have many shortcomings but if adopted intelligently can certainly usher in a new age of economic prosperity in Eastern India. China has a huge East-West spread and its western part, the Tibet Autonomous Region, while rich in resources has no access to the sea. Russia’s Siberian treasure house, which is similarly landlocked will gradually get opened up as the Arctic polar cap melts and the Arctic ocean becomes navigable but there is no such hope for Tibet. China knows this and also knows the importance of a route to the sea, which is why it is investing so heavily into its all-weather ally, Pakistan. The Karakoram Highway, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Gwadar Port are all pieces of the puzzle that China is trying to put together at great cost. But the cost is not much as in money as in the the way it is forcing a great power like China to accept the dictates of Islamist terrorists like Masood Azhar. China knows that it cannot push a trade route through Pakistan without the blessings of the Islamists and even as it surely knows the terrible price that the Islamists will extract through the Uighur militancy in the far western Chinese province of Xinjiang. China is caught between the need to pander to the devil of Islamist terror and the need of a deep sea port to relieve the claustrophobia in landlocked Tibet. Is there an alternative? That is what we explore in this article.

The nineteenth century saw the British empire locked in the Great Game with imperial Russia as both jostled for influence across the vast spaces of Central Asia. As a part of this international political maneuvering, Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of India decided to send a British Mission under Col Younghusband to Lhasa in Tibet. This departed from Calcutta in 1903, crossed over from Sikkim to Tibet at Nathu La and after many wars and other adventures later came back, apparently victorious, in 1904. The political outcome of this British Mission to Tibet is no more of any relevance in the twenty first century but the fact that army of 3000 people along with another 5000 odd camp followers could actually cross the highest mountain barrier twice should be an eye opener to anyone who dreams of trans-Himalayan trade routes.


Not having access to the vast resources of the British Empire, but seeking to recreate Younghusband’s route and relive his adventure, this author fired up Google Maps to see if there exists a motorable route that could take one from Kolkata to Lhasa. A straightforward request for directions obviously returns a negative and Google admits that it cannot find a route from Kolkata to Lhasa. But a little tinkering with the map reveals a few interesting facts. First, there is obviously a motorable road that connects Nathu La to Gangtok in Sikkim, then through NH10 to the highway network in India and eventually to Kolkata about 800 km and 20 hours away. Second, the border post of Nathu La abuts the Chumbi Valley, just next to the Doklam Plateau of Tibet where the Indian army has been in confrontation with Chinese army over the construction of a motorable road, but if we ignore this confrontation then there exists a motorable road on the Chinese side. Third, this Chinese highway, S204, that currently terminates at Yadong is a part of the Chinese highway network and connects Yadong to Lhasa which is about 400 km or 10 hours away. Finally, the distance between Nathu La, the last motorable point on the Indian side and Yadong, the first motorable point on the Chinese side is, as per Google Maps and “as the crow flies”, a miniscule 15 kms. These four facts put together mean that the 1200 km road from Kolkata to Lhasa is almost ready except for a 15 km ( or say 30 km, since we cannot fly like a crow!) stretch between Nathu La in Sikkim and Yadong in Tibet! [ See map  on next page]

From this perspective, should we in India object to China building a road in Doklam or should we encourage them to do so? And create a great highway that connects Lhasa to Kolkata …

The benefits of such a highway are obvious. For the Chinese it means an immediate access not just to India, but through the Kolkata-Haldia dock system to the main shipping lines that connect Europe and Africa to the far East. For Bengal and Kolkata this could a veritable blood transfusion for the rejuvenation of its ailing and anemic economic landscape, because Ray, Rabindranath & Rossogolla notwithstanding, maritime trade has always been the lifeblood of Kolkata and South Bengal.

Long, long ago, long before Kolkata or even Bengal existed, this part of the country was known for its maritime trade. Both Faxian and Xuanzang (whom our old history books would refer to as Fa-Hien and Hiuen Tsang) who came to India from China during the time of Harshavardhan have left glowing reports about the great port of Tamralipta, which is identified with modern Tamluk in East Midnapur, on what is now known as the Rupnarayan river. With the siltation of the Rupnarayan, the port shifted to Satgaon, modern Saptagram, located on the Saraswati channel that broke off from the current Hooghly river channel at Tribeni and flowed through Singur - the tragic location of the aborted Tata Nano factory. Singur is perhaps where Bijoya Singha had set sail from to reach, occupy and rule Sinhala or modern Sri Lanka. Subsequently, with the closure of the Saraswati channel, the Ganga waters switched back to what is now known as the Hooghly river and the British set up their trading post first in Hooghly, on the west bank,  and when this was devastated by a cyclone they moved to Calcutta -- and the rest as they say is history. The KG -- King George’s -- dock system of Calcutta became the heart of the vibrant economy of Bengal and eastern India till it received a body blow during the Partition of India. Calcutta’s  pre-eminence as a centre of trade and industry survived for another quarter of a century till it was finally done in by the Communists who not only killed all industry but also devastated its educational institutions leading to a near complete exodus of intellectual capital. Commerce in Calcutta, now called Kolkata, is now dominated by an industrious tribe of up-country traders and in a fortuitus turn of events, it is these people who are best placed to leverage a new trade route if it were to open up between Kolkata and Lhasa.

Some may be apprehensive that a highway like this would facilitate a Chinese military attack on India. These is unlikely in the 21st century. If the Lhasa-Kolkata highway were indeed to open up as a new “Silk Route”, the biggest beneficiary would be trade but there could be a positive strategic dimension as well. If China sees this as a safe and secure route for its products to reach the sea, then its dependence on Pakistan will reduce and it will have the freedom to take a more honest view of the Islamist mischief that is being spawned at its western edge. A strong and powerful flow of money across the Himalayan border will automatically lead to a reduction of military hostility across the same because the interests of the trading community will have a moderating effect on the militarist nationalism of fringe groups.  Chinese angst over the its current border along the McMahon Line in Arunachal may also be assuaged and its leadership would not lose face over its inability to occupy what they believe is Southern Tibet.

Would it lead to a increase in Chinese exports to India and have a negative impact on the balance of trade between the two countries? This is also unlikely. While trade is certainly facilitated by the ease of movement and cost of transport, the real driver for trade is the topology of demand and supply and this will certainly not be impacted. The Kolkata-Lhasa highway may impact traffic on other, longer, sea based routes, but its impact on the overall volume may not be significant. On the other hand, given the lack of agricultural land in Tibet, there may be a market for the reverse flow of food products and fresh vegetables and this may give a fresh impetus to agricultural income in eastern India. Vegetable farmers in Bengal and Bihar may see a huge new market opening up through Nathu La.

What would it take to make this trade route operational? First of course, the section from Nathu La to Yadong must be completed and we can rest assured that the formidable Chinese border management machinery can make it happen in a short time. We are not aware of the condition of roads in Tibet but certainly the existing motorable roads in Sikkim and Bengal needs to be strengthened and widened. Between the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) and the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) this, in principle, should not be a problem. The only big problem could be land acquisition in North Bengal which is why it is important to have to alternate routes -- the shorter route through Malda and Murshidabad and the other slightly longer route that swings past Sahibganj and Dumka in Jharkhand before coming back through Birbhum. In fact an inland port at Siliguri, which is already a big trading hub, would make matters much easier.

If and when the governments of India and China agree to rebuild and rejuvenate this ancient trade route it would be entirely appropriate to honour it with the names of  Xuanxang, the Chinese pilgrim, who came to the court of Harshavardhan in the 7th century and Atīśa Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna the famous Buddhist scholar from Bengal whose visit to Tibet in the 11th century is one of the greatest Buddhist legends of Tibet.

To get the ball rolling on the Dīpaṃkara-Xuanzang Transhimalayan Expressway, the first and easiest thing would be to organise a Kolkata to Nathu La car and truck rally. This will not only fire up the excitement and enthusiasm with all stakeholders but will also help us understand the operational challenges involved, at least in the first 800 kms. Will the different chambers of commerce that are headquartered in Kolkata take up this challenge?

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this article was first published in Swarajya

May 17, 2018

Facts, Fakes, Fantasy & Physics

The world as a product of information

image credit : https://pixabay.com/en/fantasy-eyes-forest-aesthetic-face-2824304/
With social media spewing facts like a firehose, the world today is in danger of drowning in a pool of information. Or as the cynic would say, in a cesspool of fake news because, as anyone who has been on Facebook would know, most what is peddled as news is really alt-news, an euphemism for propaganda and misinformation.

In an earlier era of the internet, spam had similarly threatened to undermine the utility of email. Even today, 60% of all mail sent through the internet is spam but thanks to intelligent spam filters, most are trapped and never reach the main inbox. Unfortunately, similar filters for fake news are not yet available and so our social media timelines are cluttered with material deliberately placed to confuse us or to convince us of things that we would not otherwise agree with. IRA, the St. Petersburg, Russia, based Internet Research Agency, a “troll farm”, is one such organisation consisting of hundreds of staff who post a barrage of fake news and pictures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and it is alleged that their activity was a significant factor in Hillary’s loss to Trump in the US presidential elections.

But fake news is really not a new, social media driven phenomenon. Jacob Soll writing in the PoliticoMagazine (https://goo.gl/8RkWey) gives  an excellent account of how fake news has plagued society since the Middle Ages. In fact, behind every news story is a story of why and how that news has become a story. So is the case with our history, where at least three generations of Indian students are convinced that it was M/s Gandhi, Nehru & Co (P) Ltd alone that fought for and secured freedom for India from British rule.

Facts

“Opinions are free but facts are sacred” is a cliche that is often quoted by the erudite to justify their own opinions that are ostensibly backed by sacred facts! But are facts really sacred? Or to rephrase the question, are the sacred facts  accessible? And so by extension, if the sacred facts are not accessible, then does it at all matter whether the accessible facts are sacred or not? This leads us off on a tangent where we wonder how could it be that the sacred facts are not accessible? Can we not see, touch, feel and experience the reality around us?

The answer to this question takes us back to 1922 when Walter Lippmann’s classic book “Public Opinion”  begins with the famous phrase, “The world outside and the pictures in our heads”. Lippmann describes a remote, South Sea Island colony consisting of British, French and German citizens who for nearly six weeks in 1914, until the mail steamer arrived, were not aware that their countries were at war with each other. Lippmann argues that, by extension, even for people in Europe that period of illusion would have existed, even though it may have been shortened to, say, six days or six hours or six minutes. Which means that for an individual, what matters is not the state of the world but the information about that state that is available with him. Public Opinion is considered a seminal text in media sciences, political science and social psychology because it articulates man’s inability to interpret the world : "The real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance between people and their environment. People construct a pseudo-environment that is a subjective, biased, and necessarily abridged mental image of the world, and to a degree, everyone's pseudo-environment is a fiction. People live in the same world, but they think and feel in different ones."

Without having direct access to any “sacred” facts -- that is, the actual state of the world -- one has to depend on information about the world, with which to craft a “free” opinion about a world that is now represented only by information. Obviously, there is no way for anyone to guarantee that the information is undistorted! One could of course seek information through multiple channels and compare. Unfortunately there is no absolute measure of intrinsic credibility -- no channel is guaranteed to be more accurate than another, and even if there was one, there is no guarantee that multiple channels will not collude with each other to portray a single, but erroneous, view of the world. Conspiracy theorists who claim that the moon landing never happened, harp on this fact because we know that none of us were there on the moon to actually see Neil Armstrong take that famous step! One may of course argue that such a large scale collusion is not possible in the modern world because there are so many channels of communication but if we think closely it has become even more easy today. If Google, Facebook and Twitter were to act in concert, or are forced to do so, then a for a very large part of the population that has stopped watching TV or reading newspapers, information about certain events can be wiped clean from the public consciousness. With a little more effort, TV channels and newspapers can also be made to fall in line … and after that even if someone were to actually travel all the way from Washington to Calcutta and shout at the top of his voice that one Hillary Clinton is actually the President of the United States, he will be laughed at even though he may be the only one who has the “facts”. Is such large scale collusion possible? It may seems unlikely but there are examples of authoritarian regimes that have indeed managed to eliminate information about some events, like Tiananmen Square, from everywhere except the memories of those were present there.

Fantasy

But just as one can eliminate some information from all information channels one could of course also introduce information about a “non-existent” state of the world and create a whole new artificial world -- as is done in role playing games like Warcraft, or platforms like Second Life. In all these cases, computer software is used to generate information about fantasy locations populated by ultra-realistic or utterly fantastic creatures and transmit this information to willing humans through traditional channels like computer screens, new channels like virtual reality headsets and in some case through direct implants into the human nervous system. Those who play these “games” are now tethered to a different “reality” -- that strictly speaking does not exist for those who are not playing the “game” -- through a channel of  pure information. Whether that alternate reality does or does not exist is no more relevant. The only thing that matters is that information that represents that reality is available to the sentient consciousness for whom it is no less real than the other, traditional “reality” that the rest of us are accustomed to! This is no different from Walter Lippmann’s prophetic statement about  “The world outside and the pictures in our heads”.

 But of course the game player can unplug himself from the “other” reality and come back to the “real” reality -- or, on second thoughts, can he?  Could it be like the Chinese monk who had a very vivid dream of being butterfly and after waking up was left wondering whether he really was a monk dreaming that he had been a butterfly or a butterfly currently dreaming that he was a monk? Could it be like Neo in the Matrix who understood the difference between reality and the illusion of the Matrix to which he had been physically hooked to as a child? Or in the grand Indic tradition of Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta you would easily see the world of sensory phenomena as an illusory Maya, a projection of an underlying Consciousness.

COULD IT BE that the information about the state of the world is the actual or “real” reality and the not the world itself? Could the world be a by-product of information?

There are two ways of addressing this question. The easy-to-understand approach is the Simulation Hypothesis that claims that the world that we see around us is virtual world created on a Matrix like machine that is operated by higher order civilisation. Way back in 2006, the author had created a movie called “Are you real” that explored this idea (http://bit.ly/areyoureal2006 ) but the concept has been supported by many more, well known people like Nick Bostrom, professor of Philosophy at Oxford university and of late by Elon Musk. The only difficulty in this approach is that since the higher order civilisation could, in turn,  be a simulation being run by an even higher order civilisation, there could be no logical end to this recursive cycle.

This problem is eliminated if the physical world itself is viewed as computational device where every fundamental constituent carries information in addition to the usual payload of mass-energy, charge and other properties. This implies that the laws of physics are an expression of the software logic, or algorithm, that causes changes to the information just as they do in a classical computer. So information becomes as integral a part of universe as its mass-energy.

Physics

But the real insight into the true value of information is even deeper. We know that biological phenomena are a manifestation of the information stored in the DNA molecule. Classical mechanics of Newton defined the physical world as a manifestation of mass, position and velocity of particles. Quantum mechanics of Schrodinger and Heisenberg defined the physical world as a manifestation of probabilities. Einstein, who was never comfortable with probabilities, defined the physical world of mass as a manifestation of the geometry, or curvature of space-time. Information enters into these equations through the concept of entropy, a measure physical disorder. This physical entropy is closely related to the entropy identified by Shannon, in his classical information theory, where he shows that information about an event is, at its most general level, a function of the probability of the event.  This theory was subsequently generalised into quantum information theory and used by Richard Feynman to postulate the quantum computer. In fact, Feynman was the first to suggest that the physical world was a gigantic quantum computer that was actually calculating the positions and velocities and positions of all particles! Quantum computers have already been fabricated and anyone can use the IBM Quantum Experience machine for free by visiting https://goo.gl/6YjU5D .

But the real clincher is the hypothesis -- though not yet fully vetted in peer-reviewed journals -- that information is not a representation of reality but is the reality itself! The fact that the real world was not built with elementary particles like protons and electrons or from forces and fields but from information is an idea that was best articulated by physicist John Wheeler. He coined  phrase “It for Bit” -- that is, matter is created from information -- which has now been modified as IfQ or “It from Qubit”, the quantum bit. This concept is explained by Moscowitz in the Scientific American, ( https://goo.gl/8cGg7z ) where she says space-time is created with tiny chunks of information. She quotes Vijay Balasubramanian from the University of Pennsylvania who explains that this approach “marries together two traditionally different fields (that describe) : (i) how information is stored in quantum things and (ii) how information is stored in space and time.”  It is information that provides the crucial missing link between the probabilities of quantum mechanics and the geometry of Relativity through the purported equivalence of Shannon’s entropy, which is a function of probabilities, and the physical entropy, which is a function of the geometry within which it is constrained.

From a layman’s perspective, if we view the world as a “game” being simulated on a computer then we will expect that at the “bottom” of it all there must be a hardware -- the “bare metal” of physical reality --  on which the game software is running. As a thought experiment we could miniaturise ourselves to go down and locate that single electron that stores a quantum bit of information used by the simulation software. But when we locate it, we do so only by using the information that moves from that electron to our sensory organs -- which is just another way of saying that information is the only reality, not the electron. In fact, who are “we” to sense the information? The observers are also pieces of information -- whose existence lies in the recursive self-awareness of the same information -- that manifests itself as consciousness.

The fact that information is the new reality is borne out at a superficial level by the way the contours of our knowledge of the world are shaped by the information that we get through the internet and social media. But what is really remarkable is that, at a far deeper level, this is a  view that is shared by many physicists who also believe that it is information that actually defines world that we see around us.

This is but a modern echo of Sankara’s aphorism - Brahma Satya, Jagat Mithya. The eternal and immutable Brahman is the only and ultimate reality and the world that we see around us is an illusion caused by imperfect knowledge and information. Fake News indeed!

April 03, 2018

Cryptocurrency for Direct Benefit Transfer

The astonishing rise, and fall, in the price of Bitcoin has suddenly made everyone -- other than geeks who have been at it since 2009 -- sit up and take notice of an extraordinary new phenomenon called cryptocurrency. We call it a phenomenon because while it certainly carries value, it is not linked to any traditional investment product like equity, debt, commodity or real estate. What is even more mysterious is that the value is recorded in a database called the blockchain, a shared ledger that resides simultaneously across multiple computers that are operated by unknown, unregulated entities.

image from techbullion.com
Bitcoin is to the transfer of value what the internet is to the transfer of information - made it possible to effect transfers easily, anonymously and most importantly without the intermediation of any central authority. This makes both technologies a favourite with libertarians and an anathema to despotic and autocratic governments. But while most governments, barring a few, have reluctantly reconciled themselves to the free flow of information, the transfer of value is, in general, being opposed tooth and nail by central bankers who see themselves becoming as irrelevant as the telegraph and postal service. Hence a barrage of FUD -- fear, uncertainty and doubt -- has been unleashed stating that Bitcoin is being used by criminals, terrorists and tax-dodgers to undermine social order and so must be stamped out ruthlessly! Adding to this general hostility is of course the unstated jealousy of all those who are rueing the fact that they did not acquire Bitcoins when the price was only a few dollars!

The Government is on record, through the Finance Minister’s budget speech, with its view that crypto-assets must be ruthlessly blocked. This is grossly erroneous. All technology -- from nuclear power through genetic engineering to artificial intelligence -- is inherently double-edged and can be used for good or evil. Just as the commercial benefits of the internet far outweigh the nuisance of its misuse by criminals and terrorist, cryptocurrency can be used very beneficially in social and governmental work and in this article we show how it can be used for direct benefit transfer (DBT).

The public distribution system in India is riddled with inefficiency that results in a massive leakage of both money and goods. Government spends money but the poor people do not benefit. A DBT mechanism is perhaps the only way to control the problem but implementing this is not easy. The current mechanism of using bank accounts linked to biometric based Aadhaar cards is of course one way but tokens based on cryptocurrency technology could be an alternative that is a cheaper, simpler and more transparent.

But first, what is Bitcoin?

A Bitcoin is a unit of value, like an equity share of a company, that can be owned and transferred. It resides in an account in a ledger, like a dematerialised share in a demat account with NSDL. The account number, the public key of the account, is known to all and so anyone can send or deposit demat shares into this account. However to sell or transfer shares out of this account, the anonymous account holder must use a password, a private key that only he knows, to create and publish an outbound transaction pointing to another account identified by its public key. In cryptocurrency jargon, an account is called a wallet and the ledger is called the blockchain. A wallet is defined by a {public-key : private-key} pair consisting of two very large numbers that have special cryptographic properties. But what is really novel is that the blockchain ledger, the record of all transactions, is not maintained by or at any one institution, like the NSDL for equity shares, but jointly by all participants in the network. Everyone has a copy of the blockchain-ledger that has a record of all coin transfers and so everyone can both verify and confirm each transaction before they accept it in their own copy. An invalid transaction can pass into the blockchain-ledger if and only if, it is accepted by more than 50% of the network and this has never happened since 2009.

Verification means that a payment transaction is valid -- the total value of all inbound or credit transactions to a wallet less value of all outbound or debit transactions is more than or equal to the current outbound debit transaction. Confirmation means that there is no double spend and the same set of unspent, inbound, credit transactions (“UTXO” or unspent transactions outputs) are not being used to create more than one outbound payment transactions. Since everyone has access to all transactions, anyone can perform the verification and confirmation. This leads to a problem of sequencing. If A has Rs 1000 in his account but writes two cheques of Rs 800 and Rs 900 to B and C, either -- but not both -- cheques will be honoured by the bank, depending on which is presented first. However when there are multiple agencies that are verifying and confirming transactions, there is distinct possibility of an inconsistency in the shared ledger depending upon the transaction that each agency sees first. To overcome this, all cryptocurrencies implement a consensus process. In a zero-trust environment, the consensus is achieved through a proof-of-work algorithm that is based on brute computing power -- it is as if the first banker who completes a 10 km run will be allowed to update the shared ledger! But since this consensus is essential for the success of the process there is a reward for demonstrating that power. “Miners”, that is those who verify and confirm transaction  by running full node blockchain software on a powerful computer, are rewarded with newly created coins that are added to their wallet when they have verified and confirmed a new block of transactions -- that is then added to the blockchain. However the reward is not given to any miner who performs the verification and confirmation but to the one specific miner who, in addition to the verification and confirmation, also solves a difficult mathematical puzzle first, like the first banker who runs 10 km!

The payment, or output  transaction that deposits a newly created coin into a successful miner’s wallet is called a coinbase transaction. It is different from all other transactions because it is not backed by any previous input transaction. Hence the analogy of mining, as if a coin was dug out of the ground and not received from anyone else, whereas all other coins would have to be received from someone before they can be sent to someone else. However a better analogy would be to view Bitcoin, as sweat equity that is given, in lieu of salary, to the accountants in a bank for checking and approving all transactions. The brilliance of “Satoshi Nakamoto”, who designed bitcoin, was in equating the sweat equity of the bank to the assets that are managed by the bank and initiating a self-sustaining network that is working flawlessly since 2009. The magic mathematics of cryptography ensures that this decentralised autonomous organisation (DAO) runs without any formal management and yet has achieved a market capitalisation of over US$ 70 billion.

But why should these “sweat equity” shares of a non-existent bank, the actual Bitcoins, be each worth thousands of dollars today? Many people, who are not miners, buy these coins from the miners for investment or payment purposes and this demand is pushing up the market price.  Bitcoin can be purchased at many cryptocurrency exchanges with fiat currency like US$ or INR ₹. After KYC compliance, these exchanges will convert fiat currency into cryptocurrency and vice versa at market driven prices. Hence, Bitcoin is both a currency that is extremely useful as a payment mechanism because transfers are simple, fast and anonymous and is also a commodity that has appreciated in value and hence worth investing in.

For DBT let us define a new blockchain based cryptocurrency token ( lets call it the cowrie) and peg it to the Indian rupee. So anyone can use a cowrie in lieu of a rupee to pay for goods and services provided the seller is willing to accept the same. This is neither illegal, nor anything new because we already have loyalty points from retailers, credit cards and even meal-companies like Sodexho, that are freely tradeable in lieu of cash at selected stores. Moreover, since the value of the cowrie is pegged to the rupee, there is no question of trading, capital gains and taxation.

Cowries, like any other cryptocurrencies, can easily be stored in mobile wallets and freely transmitted from one wallet to another without the fear of double-spend. They can also be freely exchanged for fiat currency like rupee through cryptocurrency exchanges that follow normal KYC guidelines applicable to banks or at banks themselves.

As an example, let us focus on the public distribution of rice at ₹ 2/kg. Assuming that the government gives 2 kg per week per person when the prevailing market price for similar quality of rice is ₹ 25, the subsidy works out to ₹ (25-2) x 2 x 4 = ₹ 184 per person per month. Let us assume that the government selects 1 crore people who will get this ₹ 2/kg subsidised rice. This means that the government intends to spend ₹184 crores every month for this subsidy. A government agency, say the NPCI,  builds a cowrie wallet and floats an Initial Coin Offering (ICO) that is subscribed to by the government. Government pays ₹184 crores to NCPI and NPCI “pre-mines” ( or creates) 184 crore cowries and transfers them to the Government’s cowrie wallet.

The cowrie wallet is available as a free and open-source software that anyone can download and install on their mobile phones. However those who are entitled to receive the subsidy will have to register their cowrie wallet public addresses with the government disbursement agency with proper identification as would be the case if they were to apply for a ration card. Any shopkeeper who wants to sell rice must also install a cowrie wallet on their phones or computers.

At the beginning of the month, government will transmit 184 cowries to each registered wallet. Recipients, who are entitled to the subsidy, can now go to any rice shop and buy rice by transferring cowries to the shopkeepers wallet and paying the rest in cash at ₹ 2/kg. The shopkeeper can either keep the cowries for future use or exchange them for rupees at a cryptocurrency exchange. The exchange operator can also either keep the cowries for future use or trade them with NPCI in exchange for rupees and NPCI will extinguish them by dumping them into a one-way, black-hole wallet from where they cannot be spent any more.

The cowries are freely transferable. Recipients who are not interested in buying rice can use the same cowries to buy wheat, or daal or school exercise books from the same store using the cowries. Or they might transfer it to the wallets of their friends and relatives and even perfect strangers as gifts or in lieu of other goods and services. Transfer of cowries is governed by the same verification / confirmation mechanism common to all cryptocurrencies and those who validate transactions could be rewarded with newly “mined” cowries as an incentive. However if miners are registered and hence trustworthy, then the computationally expensive proof of work processes can be replaced with simpler consensus mechanisms.

All this can be done using standard cryptocurrency software except that instead of using anonymous public addresses, we can ensure that all public addresses are tagged to a government identity document so that there is perfect transparency on the blockchain about who is getting how many cowries and how these are flowing through the system. However, private addresses are secret to the wallet owner so that only he can spend from the wallet. In principle, even a liquor store can accept cowries, but the blockchain database can be used to track this if it happens too regularly and we wish to question the spender!

One of the attractive benefits of this mechanism is that multiple subsidies can be routed through this mechanism. For example, subsidies on diverse goods and services, like kerosene oil and school tuition, that are delivered through different channels, can be routed through the same wallet. Family wallets can hold cowries for all members. Multi-signature wallets can be coded so that the male member cannot spend the cowries without the consent of the female member and vice versa. Smart contracts can be developed so that not all the cowries can be spent immediately and there will be “timed release”. Smart contracts can also be created to make sure that cowries are spent only at specified points or on specified goods and services. All this is technically possible but initially it may be prudent to keep matters simple so that people first understand how cryptocurrency works.

To continue with the subsidy, Government must continue pay ₹184 crore to NPCI every month to buy 184 crore cowries that NPCI must “mine” and push them into the respective wallets. The exact amount will of course change depending on the kind and level of subsidy that government wants to disburse in each specific month.

Cryptocurrency is an amazing technology that could revolutionise payment systems. Instead of trying to throttle it, it is better that government finds creative ways to use it to discharge its obligations towards its citizens. DBT could be the first of many applications. Who ever has advised the Government that “blockchain is good but cryptocurrency is bad” fails to understand that cryptocurrency is the most natural and popular use of blockchain technology. It is as if we are saying that TCP/IP technology that runs the Internet is good but we should not use it for http applications like websites because websites can peddle pornography. Instead we must use TCP/IP only for FTP, SMTP, NNTP, ICMP, SIP and other “useful” things … Without websites, the benefit of the internet will be restricted to laboratories and not be accessible on our laptops, phones and in our lives. So is the case of cryptocurrency and the blockchain.

This article originally published in Swarajya, the magazine that reads India right.

March 06, 2018

Aadhaar - way forward

Like demonetisation and GST, Aadhaar has been in the news for both good and bad reasons. On one hand we have heard how crores of rupees in non-entitled subsidy have been saved by the government but then on the other hand we have had horror stories of destitutes being deprived of entitlements because of the lack of an Aadhaar identity. In general, those who believe in the current prime minister are bullish about Aadhaar but they forget that many of them had opposed the same on the grounds of privacy when it was proposed by the previous government. What is missing in all such discourse is a clear understanding of how Aadhaar operates and how it could fail.
image from techniknow

Ever since it was freely and finally admitted that 90% of all money that the Central government transmits to citizens as subsidies is stolen by middlemen there has been a demand for a direct benefit transfer (DBT) mechanism. One obvious mechanism is through bank accounts : Instead of selling 3 kg of rice to Ram once a week at Rs 2/kg, make him buy the same rice at Rs 20/kg from the market but send the difference, Rs (20-2) x 3 x 4 = Rs 216, to Ram’s bank account every month so that he does not have to spend any more than Rs 2/kg. But since there are a thousands of people who call themselves as Ram, we would need to connect “our” Ram’s bank account to “our” Ram’s hungry body using a marker that is unique to “our” Ram, namely his fingerprints and iris scan. This is the genesis of the Aadhaar database and the Aadhaar number.

But this simple concept has been criticised for three major reasons - namely privacy, potential for misuse and operational inefficiency. Before we examine these in greater detail, let us look at how the database is created and used.

To create a new Aadhaar number for a new registrant, we need the (a) biometrics - iris scan and all 10 fingerprints (b) name, gender, date of birth, address and (c)  optionally a cellphone number and email address. Since the biometrics is the only data that is guaranteed to be unique for each person, a de-duplication exercise is carried out to check if another Aadhaar number has already been generated for the same set of biometrics, to ensure that no one body gets attached to two or more Aadhaar numbers.

To confirm a person’s identity using Aadhaar before he is allowed to avail of any benefit or service, a verifier has to transmit the person’s Aadhaar number to UIDAI along with either biometric data ( as in the case of banks or phone companies) or name and date of birth (as is the case of some mutual funds). In either case, UIDAI replies either with (a) a binary YES / NO that confirms or denies the association of the Aadhaar number with the accompanying data or with (b) a more detailed extract from the Aadhaar database that includes photograph but specifically excludes the “core” biometric information. In some less critical situations, for example, where a physical copy of Aadhaar needs to be downloaded, the optional phone number or email address is used to send a one-time-password to establish an association between the Aadhaar number and the phone/email and hence by extension to the name of the person. In this must be clearly understood, and communicated to all, that the physical possession of Aadhaar card -- that can be manufactured by anyone with a computer and a printer -- is no proof of anything at all and should never  be used for any kind of verification.

Now let us look at privacy and potential for misuse, the two major concerns.

The basic data that is stored is quite primitive. Name, gender, date of birth and address is already available with the government in Voter cards and Election rolls but the optional phone number and email is an addition. Frankly, phone/email is a better way of contacting a person in the 21st century so there is no ideological difficulty in storing that information. The real, new addition is the biometric but that is a part of the original design to prevent duplication. So prima facie, there is no real privacy concern unless there is misuse and this misuse can be of two types -  first deliberate misuse by the government and second, illegitimate misuse by hackers.

By requiring individuals to link Aadhaar numbers to bank accounts and cellphones, government gets an easy way to discover who owns and operates which bank accounts and telephone numbers. But this demand is nothing new? Under anti money laundering schemes, the banks are in any case required to use stringent KYC processes to know their customers. Similarly, because of terrorist and other security concerns, telephone companies are forced to use similar stringent KYC processes. Whether such intrusive knowledge is necessary is irrelevant to the Aadhaar debate. If we have accepted KYC processes in banks and telephones, then there is no additional loss of privacy in linking bank accounts and telephone numbers to Aadhaar and thus simplify traceability. Hence the claim that Aadhaar represents a new mechanism to misuse private information is baseless.

Moreover, insinuations that Aadhaar can be used by the government to surreptitiously know bank balances from linked accounts or to surreptitiously listen in to private telephone conversations on linked phones are so ludicrous and absurd that there are not even worth contradicting.

However, this does not mean that any government agency -- from the municipality crematorium to the motor vehicles department -- or even private agencies like hospitals and airlines should start demanding Aadhaar for rendering services. Rules framed under the Aadhaar Act 2016 should stipulate which all public services require Aadhaar and this information must be made available on the UIDAI website.

What happens when things go wrong? There is no point in claiming that the Aadhaar database is “totally secure and hacker proof”. No computer system ever is. So what we should plan for is to estimate the damage to the registrant if the data is compromised. Let us examine what could happen if the Aadhaar database is hacked and the information falls into the hands of unauthorised people, or if the government goes rogue and starts using the information in a manner not envisaged under the Aadhaar act? Consider various scenarios …

What all can a criminal do with the text information about a person that is stolen from the Aadhaar database? Neither can he open a new bank account, nor get a new telephone SIM as both require a biometric validation. At best he can attempt to get phone-banking access to a bank account by quoting the date of birth, but knowing this, no sensible bank should ever accept DoB as a verification question.

Can he take a loan and wreck the Aadhaar registrants credit rating? This is unlikely unless there is collusion with the employees of the bank to which the registrants loan is linked, but they have the number anyway - so there is no incremental exposure. Can the phone number be used to access bank accounts through UPI apps or digital wallets? This is theoretically possible if someone clones your SIM but if we want to guard against this then we should not share our phone numbers with anyone at all. In fact, the worst case scenario is a barrage of spam or crank calls. But then again, this is already an issue with many of us and not really an Aadhaar specific abomination.

Can the picture of the registrant can be misused? The government, or a criminal, can use a public image of an individual, say in a newspaper or on social media, and use face recognition technology to identify him. This may, in principle,  be used to identify either real criminals or persons hostile to the government but the possibility of its effective use is pretty low. Hence the threat is quite far fetched.

Finally, the biometrics. In principle, this should never reach anyone outside UIDAI but what if it does? There do exist locks and access control devices that use biometrics like fingerprint and iris scans to grant access to assets that could range from nuclear weapons to even iPhones and these may, in principle, get compromised. But the process of transferring the data from digital format to the access control device is, to say the least, very complicated. Readers may recall the movie Angels and Demons where a dead scientist’s eye was gouged out and used to open a vault protected by a retinal scanner to understand how complex the process is and even then, it has been proven that this is simply impossible. Retinal scanners need a living eye to focus on a point and hence cannot be fooled by a static image of the iris pattern. Similarly, while it may be possible in-principle, to steal one’s fingerprint images and use them at a crime site to implicate the owner, the physical challenges of actually doing so are very high that the probability of its occurrence is quite low.

So net-net, a hack of the Aadhaar database could of course result in a flood of spam on your phone and email box but all the other scenarios described have a very low probability of causing actual damage. In fact, many of the conveniences that we use -- passport, air travel, cellphone, online banking, Gmail -- have greater probability of causing damage to our privacy and in a throwback to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, let us accept that it is impossible to maximise both privacy and convenience at the same time. One must always trade-off any one against the other. Unless  you are like Richard Stallman -- the open source guru and privacy fanatic, who does not use cellphones, credit cards, hotel wifi, Google search engine, Facebook and many other conveniences of daily life in his quest for total privacy -- a lot information about you is already in the public domain and Aadhaar will hardly add anything more to that. Hence Aadhaar being a threat to privacy is more of a urban myth or an attempt at scare mongering. The recent hack or unauthorised access of the Aadhaar database, as reported in The Tribune must be seen in this context.

But even if the threat of privacy recedes, Aadhaar faces the one big challenge that hobbles and frustrates all bold policy initiatives in India -- the threat of a poor implementation. Like demonetisation, GST or even more prosaic projects like building roads and highways, the Aadhaar project is full of operational pitfalls. First there was an immense shortage of biometric equipment and trained staff and it was quite difficult to get an Aadhaar number to begin with. Then there were significant process issues that were not thought through adequately. For example, what to do about people with age, medical or disability related problems that do not allow biometrics to be captured easily? Some of these problems have been highlighted both in mainstream media as well as on social media and remedial action has been taken as an afterthought but much more detailed level planning needs to be done to handle genuine exceptions to the regular processes.

What is immediately needed however is to flood the country with low-cost, but high-reliability biometric devices that can communicate seamlessly with the Aadhaar database and allow instant confirmation of a person’s Aadhaar number and hence his identity. Unless the Supreme Court puts a roadblock to many of the ambitious Aadhaar based projects that the government has in mind -- particularly in the area of digital payments and smartphone wallets --  we will see an exponential increase in the number of verifications. Without a quick and reliable verification mechanism, these projects will falter and Aadhaar will be blamed for this.

Finally, the Aadhaar database should not become a single point of failure for the nation. What this means is that even if the database is hacked-into and corrupted, no critical operations like banking, stock market or PDS should come to halt and cripple the nation. Critical systems should be loosely coupled to the central database and there should be adequate workarounds that allows bypass but with clear audit trails.

In 1985, when the author arrived in the United States for his PhD program, he realised to his chagrin there was no way that he could register at the university or open a bank account without a Social Security Number (SSN), that he as a foreign national did not have. But this scenario had been anticipated and the University had been authorised to allot a temporary SSN to new foreign students that could be used in lieu of the actual one for upto six weeks. The real SSN was of course allotted by the social security administration after a thorough verification of immigration credentials which took about four weeks and all that the author had to do after that was to go back to each organisation and have his temporary SSN replaced by the real one.

The Aadhaar implementation should focus on processes, not technology that keeps changing by the hour. If the various processes that use Aadhaar are thought through and planned as beautifully as the example given above, Aadhaar will surely become a very useful tool for governance in India. While it is far from being fault free, a lot of “criticism” of Aadhaar is due to the fact that, as reported in the Economic Times (January 5, 2018),  it is killing lakhs of non-existent, ghost teachers, ration card holders, students and other beneficiaries in whose name tax-payer’s money was being stolen from the public exchequer. That is why Aadhaar must continue.


this article originally appeared in Swarajya

January 29, 2018

Time, Gödel & Mahākāl

In the evolutionary ascent of man, the idea of time is perhaps the first concept that differentiates him from his animal past. Unlike a human being, an animal, say a cow, has no -- or very rudimentary -- memories of the past, and certainly no hopes and plans for the future. It lives in the perennial present and is motivated only by the current state of its environment and its own current state of hunger, fear, libido or discomfort. Time is also an enigmatic concept that defies definition. Trapped in a peculiar case of circular logic, where “the snake swallows its tail”, we say that “Time is what is measured by clocks and a clock is what measures time”.  We obviously sense the passage of time but this flow is another mystery because if it indeed flows, like the water of a river, then what exactly are the banks of the river that it flows through? Then again, do we sit still while time flows past us? Or do we move along through stagnant time? There have been questions galore but hardly any convincing answers.

It was Albert Einstein who, in a sense, caught time by its ears and dragged it into the same cage that holds the other three dimensions of length that define what is traditionally known as space. Time in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is just another dimension that creates a platform for the manifestation of physical phenomena and helps us model the physical world in the language of mathematics. Multiplied by ‘c’ the speed of light, time becomes dimensionally equivalent to a measure of  length and can be treated as such to calculate the Euclidean distance between two events in space-time as opposed to the mere physical distance between two points in pure space. In fact, light -- or rather its speed -- is the magic knot that ties space and time together with measurements along either of these dimensions being affected as the observer travels at a speed close to that of light. Clocks slow down, increasing the time elapsed between events and distances shorten as we increase the speed of the observer.

But just as we thought that we have caught up with time, it gives us the slip and speeds away again. How? Because unlike in the other three dimensions, we cannot stand still in time - we must keep moving, or as we said earlier, time moves past us. But whether we are moving through time or time is moving past us, what is the speed with which time moves? Speed is by definition change of position ( or at a stretch, any other physical quantity like temperature or illumination ) per unit of time, but when it is time that is changing, then the change of time per unit of time is a phrase that is drained of all meaning! Can we extract some meaning from this apparent meaninglessness?

If you are travelling in a train, you cannot make out whether it is moving or not (assuming that there is no sound or vibrations) unless you look out of the window and see the scenery moving “backward”. So if you are moving along in time, you should not be able to determine whether you are moving in time unless you looked out of the “window” and saw something that is not moving through, or with, time. But like a tree that is stuck to the ground and against which you can determine that your train is moving ( though the tree might argue, if it could, that you are stuck and it is moving - and relatively speaking both would be right) is there something that is stuck in time and against which you could measure the quantum of movement that you have made through time?

This is tough. If everything is moving through time at the same “speed” then we cannot determine the “speed” of this movement by looking outside the window. But if looking out of the window does not help, can we look inside? Inside of what? Let us begin by looking into our minds and what do we see there? Memories -- and these are stuck in time, like trees in the landscape outside our speeding train. Memories are artefacts stuck in the past but they are mental objects that lie outside the reach of physical sciences. The corresponding physical objects are events, of which we have memories, and a collection or rather a sequence of events is what gives us our sense of motion or movement through time.

If the relativistic concept of dimension was the first handle that physics had on the elusive nature of time, then the sequence of events is the second handle it could grip it with. This second handle, or perspective, also leads to the key concept of a direction, the Arrow of Time. Unlike a dimension of space in which we can move forward or backward, to and fro, the time dimension is a one way street. You can move from Nagpur to Kanpur and back  to Nagpur again but while you can, and will, move from childhood to old age, you cannot go back to your childhood again. Physics liberates this concept of sequence from its ties to human memory, by formalising it in terms of the Second Law of Thermodynamics that states that entropy, generally understood as the level of disorder in a system, increases with time. Or as Omar Khayyam puts it “The moving finger writes and having writ, moves on; nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all your tears blot out a word of it.”

The fabric of physics now seems all set to wrap up time between the warp of relativistic dimensions and the weft of a thermodynamic direction but even this elegant gift wrap fails to cover this oddity quite completely.  Under the relativistic interpretation, the world is symmetric under time-reversal. This is because the laws of physics must have the same form regardless of any smooth coordinate transformation whatsoever -- and time-reversal is just such a smooth coordinate transformation. We know that when a body moves at high speed through space, a clock attached to it slows down. While moving faster through space it moves slower through time, and so by extension, in principle, when the speed of the body goes past the speed of light -- that mysterious knot that ties up space and time -- time should stop and then go backward. From old age back to childhood? But that is an intolerable state of affairs that is blocked, not only by the Second Law of Thermodynamics but also by our intuitive understanding of time and this is a blemish on the fair face of science.

Relativity tries to do plastic, or cosmetic surgery, to erase this scar by stating that as the spatial speed of a body reaches the speed of light, its mass would become infinite and so it would take an infinite force, and infinite energy, to accelerate it past that magic figure and back into the temporal past. Hence while it may be theoretically possible to travel back into the past, it will never be practically possible.

But even in the realm of massless objects, like photons of light, that travel, obviously, at the speed of light, we run into the problem of establishing the state of simultaneity. To determine the sequence of events along the arrow of time, we need to map these events to corresponding simultaneous ticks of a universal clock. But since relativity puts an upper limit on the speed at which information can be transmitted through light beams, there is no guaranteed way to determine if two events that are separated in space are, or were, simultaneous in time! The blemish on the face becomes a scar!

Enter Gödel, to deliver the coup de grâce.

Who is Gödel? Gödel was an Austrian mathematician and logician, and close friend and confidant of Einstein during his last days at Princeton. In his youth, Gödel had driven a stake through the heart of mathematics by using mathematics to prove that mathematics was incomplete in the sense that there will exist facts that are true but not provable by mathematics. This was the Theorem of Incompleteness, where, as his biographer Paul Yourgrau puts it, “Gödel had used the letter of a false doctrine to demolish its spirit”. Gödel’s Theorem is very well known and respected in the mathematical community but what is not known is the way he demolished the concept of time as it is understood by the Theory of Relativity! Gödel’s genius lay in demonstrating that time as it is captured by the laws of physics cannot be the same as the time that is intuitively understood as flowing through a sequence of ordered events. He did this by showing that under certain circumstances -- and admittedly these are extreme circumstances, comparable in extremity associated with black holes -- relativistic time can bend back on itself. Just as by going around a spherical world surface you can be back where you started without turning around, you could also come, or go, back to the past if the universe was expanding and spinning at the same time.  Time travel is possible, but only if we agree that this scientific time is not the intuitive time that we generally understand as time. Physics claims to have a caught a bird and put it in a relativistic cage only to realise that what it has caught is only a clay image of the bird. The real bird -- time as it is intuitively understood -- is still flying free in the sky, unfettered by the logical bars that define the cage of science.

Einstein admitted that Gödel was correct in his analysis but defended the relevance of his own work by stating that Gödel’s requirements were unlikely to be met with in the real world. But then many of Einstein’s own reservations about the real world, like the possibility of black holes and the expanding universe, were later overturned by physical evidence. For more detailed explanation of how Gödel demolishes time, the reader can look up Yourgrau’s book, “The Forgotten Legacy of Gödel and Einstein”.

But if time cannot be talked about logically and scientifically, how should one go about trying to describe or articulate the idea? Or in that case, is it something not worth discussing at all?

Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most influential philosophers of the western world in the 20th century, had originally stated in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that  “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” But with the passage of time, this stark utterance has been beautifully re-interpreted by Doxiadis in his famous graphic novel Logicomix as “The things that cannot be talked about logically are the only ones that are truly important”. This, in a sense, is also echoed in the Sanatana Dharma where the principle of  neti neti (नेति नेति) or “not this, not this” --  an expression of something inexpressible -- has been used to arrive at an approximate description of the Atman. Then again we have Gödel, who was a great fan of fairy tales, stating that  “Only fables present the world as it should be and as if it had meaning.”

So our search for the meaning of time must now explore the legends, fables and the divinity associated with time. In the Indic worldview, the world is viewed as moving cyclically with the Kālchakra and rotating recursively through a sequence of solar-years, yugas, mānavantars, kalpas and Brahma varshas  whose cumulative span is longer than the scientifically dated age of the universe.

Our universe obviously exists in space and in time. But for space to exist it must first acquire and demonstrate the quality of persistence and persistence by its very definition is a property that can only be manifested in the flow of time. Hence time must precede space -- it cannot be at the same level of significance as just another dimension of a hybrid space-time. This makes time the most fundamental component,  the primordial matrix of the manifest universe.

The iconic imagery of Kāli and Mahākāl --that which is time or even beyond time,  is an excellent expression of this perspective.

This article originally appeared in Swarajya, the magazine that reads India right.

January 22, 2018

Saraswati 2018


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