Long Walks On Leafy Streets

5/20/2018 East Potomac Park, Washington, DC.
It has been more than a month since I wrote the last post on this blog. The intervening period has been a rather hectic one, with the semester coming to a close early this month and then some travel and some family events. So it makes me happy to finally sit down and write this, on a damp and cool summer evening. It has been raining quite heavily in the last few days and the skies have been gray and cloudy. I must admit I am partial to sunny skies but I find rainy, cloudy weather to be conducive to reading and research. Sunny skies and the more relaxed days of summer – I stopped teaching in summer several years ago – often make me more inclined to spend time outdoors and in recreational activities in general. So I am grateful to this bit of direction imposed by nature.

It was difficult in the last two months of the semester to spend long periods of time concentrating on research, even though I often went to work on Sundays.
This past week was the first time I managed to spend some time on it and while I did not manage to solve the problem I have been working on for a while, it was good to get my head cleared and wrapped around it completely. Mathematics requires a lot of concentration and although I get ideas often while lying on bed trying to sleep or going on a walk or during other daily activities, only when you sit down and concentrate can you really see all the nuances and get the full picture. Lately I have curtailed much of my extracurricular activities such as volunteering for the environment. I feel that either I should get some good result in mathematics or quit it completely. Lately I have been feeling that I am neither a good researcher nor a good teacher. Although there are students who like my teaching, I am certainly not as popular as many of my colleagues. Hopefully I will get some good research done during this summer. If not, I need to perhaps devote myself completely to environmental and poverty reduction causes.

I have also been doing a bit of reading, albeit very light reading. It has been a while since I actually read a book for pleasure or general knowledge, as opposed to mathematics books or papers. I read Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Astrophysics for people in a hurry” and am currently reading Amir Aczel’s “Finding Zero.” I have always been curious about Astronomy. I am fortunate that my good friend Chris who teaches at San Francisco State University does research on exoplanets – planets outside of our solar system. I have learned a lot from him. I found Tyson’s book to be very exciting reading. It is amazing how much scientists have discovered about the origin and the nature of our universe. The highlight of the book was seeing that a lot of these discoveries are based purely on mathematical analysis of astronomical data. I also liked the chapter about what Astrophysics can teach us about being better human beings. Basically he says that knowing the wonders of our cosmos and how we are just a very tiny part of it can make us more humble and at the same time more enlightened knowing that we are all part of the same universe and made of the same material.

I came across Amir Aczel’s book while browsing at Kramerbooks in Dupont circle on Friday night. At first I was going to buy the e-book, if available, thus reducing my use of paper. But then I remembered that I had just found out that many bookstores were closing. So I went back and bought the book. It is also important to save the remaining bookstores, because if we lose bookstores and libraries we lose an important part of our human experience. What I like about this book is that it reveals the origin of the concept of zero and positional number system in India. Often in my math classes I talk about this but then not wanting to give them wrong information I say that many other cultures also used zero. Prof. Aczel gives a clear history of the subject showing how the first use of zero in a positional system appears on a stone inscription in a Hindu temple in Angkor Vat.

While mathematics and philosophy discover universal truths that belong to all mankind, and one should not spend too much time worrying about who deserves credit to what idea, it nevertheless does no harm to have the facts of history right and to know exactly what your ancestors knew and discovered. In fact, I think it is healthy and useful to do both. Along these lines I must also mention a small book by Swami Dayananda about Hinduism, specifically why it needs to be protected, that I read while at the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam in Saylorsburg, PA with my parents two weeks ago. I was there on my annual end of academic year retreat. Although I admire his passionate advocacy for Hinduism I think some of his followers have taken it too far. One can protect Hinduism at the same time as living in harmony with all religions.

I started this retreat practice last year as a way to rest and refresh the mind after the stressful academic year. I have found that the first two weeks after the end of the year I am very tired and unable to get much work done. Last year I camped at Patapsco Valley State Park near Ellicott City. I visited the area near Columbia, MD, did a bit of hiking and was also able to meet with my dear friend Aravind who lives nearby. This year I decided to take my parents along and stay at this Ashram (monastery) run by devotees of Swami Dayananda. I have visited this place two or three times previously. Swami Dayananda was a great teacher of Advaita about which I have written often on these pages. Apart from the teaching of Advaita, the peaceful, sylvan surroundings of the Ashram provide a great opportunity to recharge one’s spirit and spend some time in contemplation. They are very hospitable and on weekends one can even have vegetarian meals in the dining hall. While I believe in learning from other religions, and in fact visit Christian churches and Buddhist viharas regularly and also incorporate their teachings in my life, I also think it is important to be in touch with one’s roots, as the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says. Moreover, I have found that Buddhism, Christianity and Advaita philosophy have much in common, and believe that when you look deeply you will find that they teach the same thing.

Ultimately, of course, my true temple is nature. Being with nature helps me to go deeply into my own self and also feel the connection with all other beings in the universe. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to do that during the past few weeks. It was while running on cloudy, drizzly mornings along the Rock Creek that was happily singing along with the birds after the rains while the trees were enjoying their fresh batch of green leaves. It was on Friday evening before visiting Kramerbooks, walking with an umbrella in the drizzle on the quiet, leafy streets of Dupont Circle. In Saylorsburg it was during a walk at dusk near the monastery on a road that goes by the Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge, listening to the chorus of songs from innumerable birds, frogs and insects.

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