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From The Theosophical Movement
Vol 73 No. 9 - July, 2003
How the universe came into being is a question that is intriguing scientists and the public alike. That it began with a Big Bang—a gigantic explosion with matter and radiation created out of nothingness—has been the theory advanced so far; but where in the universe did the Big Bang happen, if at all it happened? Edward L. Wright, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California at Los Angeles, has this to say:

The simplest answer is, nowhere or everywhere. Astronomical observations allow two possibilities: Either the universe is the same everywhere, or it is centred exactly on one location. If the Big Bang occurred at what is now the Milky Way, galaxies should be receding from this spot, and there should be more of them close to us than there are far away. Observations of the universe do in fact show that galaxies are receding from us in all directions, making the distant universe appear broadly the same, no matter where you look. But the density of galaxies appears to be independent of their distance, so we reject the Milky Way-centred hypothesis.

When cosmologists try to make simple models of a universe that is the same everywhere and in all directions, we find three forms such a universe could take: a saddle-shaped, curved infinite space; a flat infinite space; or a spherical, curved finite space. In all these models, the universe has no unique centre. If the universe in infinite, then by definition it cannot have a centre. If the universe is spherical and finite, the Big Bang would have been an explosion of space that took place everywhere at the same time—and thus every location in the visible universe could be called the centre of the Big Bang. (Discover; December 2002)

The universe, with its "centre everywhere and circumference nowhere," could not have had merely a mechanical origin, and cosmologists are beginning to admit this, though they cannot explain all its mysteries. Life takes on a new meaning when viewed from the perspective of the vast expanses of space teeming with galaxies and universes, with new ones appearing or re-forming from time to time, and old ones dying out. "This process," says Isis Unveiled (II, 265), "has been going on from all eternity, and our present universe is but one of an infinite series which had no beginning and will have no end."

The irony of our times is that advances that are supposed to make life more comfortable also make it more dangerous. Technology and progress, it is claimed, have helped eradicate disease, but they can also exacerbate it. Geoffrey Cowly writes in Newsweek (May 5):

SARS, Ebola, Avian flu. The parade of frightening new maladies continues, each one confirming that our species, for all its cleverness, still lives at the mercy of the microbe. It didn't seem that way 30 years ago—not with smallpox largely defeated, AIDS still undreamed of and medical science evolving at an unprecedented clip. But even as optimists proclaimed victory over the germ, our megacities, factory farms, jet planes and blood banks were opening broad new avenues for infection. The dark side of progress is now unmistakable....Some 30 new diseases have cropped up since the mid-1970s—causing tens of millions of deaths—and forgotten scourges have resurfaced with alarming regularity. "Infectious diseases will continue to emerge," the Institute of Medicine declares in a new report, warning that complacency and inaction could lead to a "catastrophic storm" of contagion. So what's to be done? Is preparedness our ultimate weapon? Do we know enough about the genesis of new diseases to prevent them?

As scientists study the causes of disease emergence, they are finding that human activity that disrupts the natural environment is a significant force. Thoughtlessly interfering with ecosystems in the name of progress can be hazardous to our health. Nature always strikes back.

Other contributing factors mentioned by Cowly include medical technologies like transfusions and transplants, which raise the risk of spreading bloodborne diseases. Air travel also helps spread the bugs. "We are interconnected in ways that weren't true a century ago," says Dr. Mary Wilson of Harvard. At the same time a breakdown of social traditions is affecting us adversely.

Will physical measures alone—like checking the spread of microbes, improving basic health care, stockpiling antiviral drugs, etc.—wipe out diseases or prevent their recurrence in new forms? That diseases have psychic roots is now being recognized to some extent, though not fully. What is needed is knowledge of the sevenfold constitution of man, and especially of the activity of one factor, Kama—desires and longings—which plays a major role in tracing the cause and cure of diseases.

As with other processes and phenomena in life, diseases follow a cyclic course. Just as fast as old diseases disappear, new ones spring up. As far as medical science is concerned, it never can conquer disease per se. This fact may seem disheartening, but it is easily comprehended if one follows the teaching that physical diseases are but the outer manifestations of inner disturbances; ailments are the results of causes set in motion, for the most part, in the mental or moral planes of being. These causes are merely working their way out from within, and when they reach the physical plane they manifest themselves as diseases. This final manifestation may be made to disappear for a time. But unless the cause which is not physical has been removed it is bound to come forth again under another form. Many diseases that were prevalent in decades and even centuries gone by, have now been wiped out, but new ones are developing.

As with disease, so with pain—doctors are saying that it has not just physiological roots, but also "spiritual, cultural and emotional ones." Dr. Sherwin Nuland's musings on the complex problem of pain (Newsweek, May 19) contain food for thought. The clinical professor of surgery at Yale has this to say:

As long as humans have kept records, they have reflected the awareness that there is far more to pain than mere discomfort at the site of injury or disease. To the Babylonians and to the most modern of neuroscientists alike, the evaluation and treatment of pain have been understood to require methods that deal not only with the origin of the noxious stimulus, but with emotions as well. Nowadays, the International Association for the Study of Pain defines the subject of its research as "an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with either actual or potential tissue damage," but Plato's description was not much different: he said that pain is physical while also an experience in the soul. Thus, both ancient and modern sources leave wide latitude not only for understanding the complex origins of pain but for seeking clues to help deal with them.

Still, even such generalized words as "physical" and "emotional" encompass far more than merely the site of origin, the neurological pathway to conscious awareness and the psychological accompaniments. Pain when sufficiently severe is capable of setting off a cascade of biochemical actions that affect hormone and enzyme production, circulation, voluntary and involuntary muscle, and reactive tissues in numerous organs of the body. The unpleasant consequences of all these responses are multiple and additive...

Not only that, but pain's accompaniments and effects vary from individual to individual, for a combination of reasons that are only partially organic. When we invoke a word like "psychological," we include in its components an entire set of cognitive factors that are different for each person, including past experiences, cultural influences and the setting in which the stimulus occurs. Even if a jolt of pain were a purely physical phenomenon, it would have a specific meaning to the individual who feels, it, and would accordingly be interpreted in ways that increase or descrease its many effects....

It is for reasons such as these that the specific pain experienced by any given person is so difficult to evaluate. Pain is notoriously resistant to efforts aimed at objectively measuring it, largely because its degree and its consequences are so individualistic.

People in general are illiterate about pain. They have no educational or emotional background for comprehending it or coping with it. Pain, like all frustrations and disappointing happenings of life, has lessons to impart without which we should never learn dispassion, compassion and discriminative action. One of its important services is to arouse questioning. The whole question if viewed in the light of Karma and Reincarnation takes on a new angle which is almost completely ignored by medical and public debate on the issue. A state of chronic pain may, in fact, be needed by the soul to learn some lesson, to discharge some debt.

The Buddha's doctrine of Dukkha (pain) and its ceasing can prove enlightening for all. The universality of the experience of pain needs no proving.

The Law Commission in India has initiated a debate on the most humane way of carrying out the death sentence. But should there be the death sentence at all? The pros and cons of the issue are discussed in the View-Counterview column in The Times of India (May 5). While there are those who argue that some criminals cannot safely be allowed back into society lest they cause further harm and destruction, the arguments against the death penalty are more weighty:

There can be no humane way of carrying out the death sentence, which is a brutal act of revenge. Advocates of the death penalty almost always cite deterrence as a justification....Several studies have shown that the death penalty is not a deterrent. Albert Camus in his Reflections on the Guillotine says: "Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders to which no criminal's deed, however calculated, can be compared." As for those who commit premeditated crimes, such as professional killers or "hit men," they are even less likely to be deterred by the thought of death, for the simple reason that for them any penalty, including capital punishment, is a risk already taken into account.

The death penalty is society's revenge on an individual, and this cannot form the basis of a civilized polity....Does it not amount to legalizing murder? Indeed, by sanctioning violence, the death penalty brutalizes society as a whole. Who can bear the burden of having taken the life of someone who later may be proved to have been innocent? The system is neither fair nor efficient. There's no certitude if justice has been or in fact undone. The latter possibility alone dictates against the death penalty.

The barbarism of capital punishment reacts adversely on those living on earth. Mr. Judge wrote in The Theosophical Forum for May 1895:

He [the executed criminal] is dead so far as the body is concerned, but is astrally alive. Worse than a suicide he is filled with hate and revenge which he must wreak on someone. At first he is not able to do much, but soon he finds that there are sensitive persons on the earth who can be filled with his vicious raging passions. These poor souls are then influenced to commit crimes; being filled mentally—from the inner planes—with the ideas and passions of the criminal, they are at last moved to do what their mind is filled with. The executed criminal does not have to know what is going on, for his raging passions, untouched by the executioner, excite and influence of themselves whoever is sensitive to them. This is why many a crime is suddenly committed by weak persons who appear to be carried away by an outside force. It seems hardly possible that anyone could believe in theosophical and occult doctrines and at the same time commend capital punishment.

The 20th century has been said to be the most violent in recorded history, notably for its two World Wars and innumerable conflicts within and between nations. We are barely into the 21st and already the world has witnessed first hand the full-scale horrors of violence and war.

If there is one ideal that humanity has collectively dreamt of, it is of peace and harmony in the world. Some hints on how to make peace a reality are offered by Suma Varughese in Life Positive (May 2003)

Peace is not an abstract concept, or a theoretical ideal to be spouted at conferences and seminars and relegated to the briefcase. Peace has to be worked upon and wrought—moment by moment, piece by piece...

When it comes to peace efforts mankind has traditionally favoured two ways. One, which is external, focuses on creating political, economic, and social systems that favour peace, and establishing a network of checks and balances that discourage abuse of the systems. The other, favoured by the Orient, is to go within and root out the disquiet there. "Wars begin in the minds of men," observed Victor Hugo. Accordingly, the effort should be to eliminate the root cause of the malaise. Both efforts are necessary and mutually supporting....

What stops us from being peaceful? According to the spiritual wisdom of the East, the root of suffering is desire....When we take responsibility for our reactions and choose to favour peace and happiness, regardless of circumstances, we will have won the inner war. We will then radiate peace, joy and love. When we do so, we exude a rare alchemy that converts the negativity around us to positivity. This is the stage when we can actually help transform the outer world....

There are various levels of peace. There is the basic level, which is the absence of war. But one has to go beyond that and take the peace from the peace of the graveyard, to that of sustenance for life. This requires the formation of a socioeconomic fabric by reducing inequities, inculcating trust between sections of society, and actively working for welfare. The final stage will be when the fabric is activated to create a new society with new relationships and new ethics. Transformation, in short.

To create peace, one must be pro-peace, not anti-war. Anti-war is reactive, pro-peace is constructive.

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