August 08, 2010

ZAMM and the Spirit of Vedanta

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) by Robert M Pirsig is an iconic book on philosophy that has developed a cult following since its publication in the late 1970s. It talks about a man who travels across North America with his son ( see picture above ) on a motorcyle and the description of his journey is interspersed with his discourse on philosophy. I was in high school at that time and did try to read it but failed to get past the first 30 pages. Today, nearly 30 years later, I finally managed to finish it and believe me ( unless you have read it already ) it is well worth the two weeks that I spent with it.

ZAMM is an exploration of that elusive 'thing' or 'animal' called Quality whose presence, or lack of, is easily evident but a definition of which is nearly impossible. In his metaphysical inquiry into Quality, ZAMM shows that it lies not in Art nor in Science but somewhere in between, neither in matter, nor in the mind but again somewhere in between and finally, not in the subject nor in the object but again somewhere in between. ZAMM misses the horns of the dilemma and drives  into the bulls eye when he identifies Quality as the third entity in the holy trinity of  Subjectivity ( as in art and intuition ) and Objectivity ( as in science and analysis ).

Having been brought up in the tradition of the perennial philosophy of Vedanta, it is easy for me to relate to the philosophy of ZAMM. After all in the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, the word Shiva or Shivam can be directly translated as Good or by extension Quality. This is all the more evident in the title of the Raj Kapoor film Satyam Shivam Sundaram -- which can be translated as the True, the Good, and the Beautiful ( and not as erroneously translated in the wikipedia articleon the same ).

But ZAMM comes closer to the Vedantic worldview when it claims that Quality is the primordial entity from which emerges the other two -- the subject and the object. In this observation, ZAMM states that Quality is shapeless, formless and indescribable and this is but an echo of the Vedanta's description of the Brahman -- that which is without form, without shape and that which cannot be described except in terms of negations. And from Brahman emerges, as its first differential, the Purusha and the Prakriti -- the subject and the object, the seer and the seen ! The coincidence is not unlikely because the author did spend time at the Benaras Hindu University learning Vedanta but somehow could not reconcile himself totally with the idea of the world being an illusion or error, that is Maya.

ZAMM has been criticised for purveying pop philosophy and for being anti-science but I like it because it agrees with my own, personal view of a world whose laws cannot be arrived, not by analytical logic, but by mystical intuition. The only personality, and idea, whose absence in this book is really surprising is Godel and his Theorem of Incompleteness.

Net-net, a book worth buying, keeping and referring to every now and then.


Rumela Sengupta said...

read it while at ISI - absorbed a little, a little went over my head. but it is one of those books i plan to re-read along with Sophie's World and Fountainhead

pras said...

I tried it in my first year in IIT- like many others. Gave it up after a while.
In final year-2nd Term,I missed my mid-term due to a bout of chicken pox. While lazing around in the isolation ward in Tech Hospital, I tried it again and surprisingly, found it kind of unputdownable. Coupled with chicken pox, missed midterm and the isolation ward - ZAMM made my day - or more appropriately - those two weeks

Dipankar said...

Prithwis Da,

Nice one - read ZAMM first while in college but revisited both ZAMM and Lila some months back.Its really interesting how age (of the reader that is) changes the level of absorption and perspective when applied to reading. An absolute favorite but I like Lila also a lot - bit differently but with equal intensity. How are you ? Do write back.
BTW - Where did you get the colored photo of Pirsig and his son Chris on your blog?