Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Who improved the world more: Thomas Edison or Ramana Maharshi?

Steve Jobs visited India along with his friend Kottke in 1973 in search of a crash course on enlightenment. Unfortunately, one of most promising gurus of the time, Neem Karoli Baba, had died a few days before the duo made it to his Ashram in Kainchi in Uttarakhand. They met a few other babas but the crash courses didn’t turn out to be very effective. Steve recalls his realization at the end of the trip in his famous quote, “We weren’t going to find a place where we could go to for a month to be enlightened. It was one of the first times that I started to realize that may be Thomas Edison did a lot more to improve the world than Karl Marx and Neem Karoli Baba put together”.

Among the three people Steve mentioned I have no expertise on two: Karl Marx and Neem Karoli Baba. However, I have a huge respect for Thomas Edison – I consider him to be the father of systematic innovation and have written a dozen articles in this blog referring to Thomas Edison & his contributions. I also know a few things about another baba: Ramana Maharshi – who fits the bill of a spiritual teacher who didn’t do much, didn’t speak much, didn’t travel much, didn’t wear much etc. – I guess you get the picture. In this article I want to visualize a hypothetical tennis match between Thomas Edison and Ramana Maharshi where points are scored based on “improvement to the world”. Shall we begin?

Before we begin, it may be good to look at a few things that were common to both Edison and Ramana. First, both were school dropouts. Edison had 3 months of formal schooling while Ramana went to school till age 15. Second, both were gifted with deep sleep. Three, both gave more importance to experiential learning to knowledge-from-the-books. Now let’s turn to the differences especially in how much they “improved the world”.

Let’s start with Thomas Edison, for the simple reason that he is umpire-friendly. It is much easier to count the score. In a career spanning sixty one years (1868-1930) Edison filed 1093 patents. That makes a batting average of 1 patent every 20 days. He made huge contributions to bringing practical incandescent bulb, gramophone and movie camera to the world. He made several improvements to telecommunications and storage battery. His legacy General Electric is one of the largest and most admired companies in the world today. He has inspired countless innovators – most notable being Henry Ford who remained his lifelong friend and Steve Jobs. With such an impressive scoring line-up, the question should be more like “How many Ramanas do we need to match one Edison?” Nevertheless, let’s go ahead and give Ramana a fair chance.

Let’s look at Ramana’s “career” from the point he started living in a cave called Virupaksha Cave in 1900 on a mountain called Arunachala at Thiruvannamalai where his “not-doing-much” started. Ramana lived there for 16 years after which he and his disciples built an Ashram at the foothills of the same mountain where he lived for the rest of his life till 1950. Ramana mostly wore a cloth diaper and preferred silence to talking as a medium of communication. His notable contributions to worldly matters included cooking – he was the chief chef of the Ashram for several years and architecting the Ashram design. You must be thinking this doesn’t look like much of a match so far. Be patient. As we noted earlier, Ramana is not very umpire-friendly.

An important aspect of Ramana’s day-job was having dialogues with visitors to the Ashram – either through silence or through words. Some people would come from nearby places, others would come from places as far as US. I don’t know the total number of unique visitors who met Ramana. More importantly, was meeting Ramana making any difference? Sometimes ‘yes’ and sometimes ‘no’. Again this ratio of “yes-visitors” to “no-visitors” is not known. And even if we take the total number of “yes-visitors” to be a million (perhaps a gross exaggeration), Edison can win the match hands-down just with his light bulb. Well, on what basis do we give Ramana any points? So let’s ask, “What is the crux of his teaching?” At least we will give him some points for that and make this match less embarrassing.

This is where the game becomes really tricky. Because the crux of Ramana’s teaching is concerned with the umpire himself i.e. the scoring system in my mind. Ramana felt that the biggest problem in the world was that the umpire ("I") falsely identifies himself with the scoring system. Steve Jobs himself was a super-umpire. He not only had opinions, his opinions thrived on super-villains (like Bill Gates). However, I really appreciate Steve for an important and yet overlooked keyword in his quote: "may be". I would like to stay with "may be" until I really understand the "I who wants to keep the score" very well.

Hope you enjoyed the match!

Sources:

I read Steve Jobs quote in “iCon: Steve Jobs, the greatest second act in the history of business” by Young and Simon, Wiley-India, 2008, pg 25.

For more on Ramana Maharshi, I recommend Arthur Osborne’s “Ramana Maharshi and the path of self-knowledge” or David Godman’s interview with Maalok.

12 comments:

  1. its indeed a nice article vinay ; liked it throughly ;

    i have one concern but ;

    what about difference of opinions amongst people ?when each concerned participant sincerely feel that his cause is just ........ which umpires will shall prevail ?
    if you please give me some light on this i shall be thankful
    thanks

    balkrishna

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  2. Good question, Balkrishna.

    If we look around, the typical umpires who prevail appear to be the ones with more power, money or sometimes even guns. For example, in school, it was the teacher or examiner, at work it is the boss, in politics it is the party high-command etc. And this seems to explain the game most of the time. However, sometimes some strange things happen. A tsunami hits Japan and cripples the nation, or a terrorist attack happens on 26/11 or a random Anna challenges the almighty in power or your boss loses his job or we learn that our classmate Shanya is no more. And then we realize that the scoring system is hopelessly inadequate. More importantly, we start questioning whether the teacher or the boss was the real umpire in the first place. At this point, I must admit that I don’t know the answer.

    What do you think?

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  3. Law of nature only shall prevail. One has to loose his / her identity (I / me) to understand.

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  4. A dialog with Ramana Maharshi:

    Visitor: A man, on realising the Self, can help the world more effectively. Is it not so?

    Ramana: If the world be apart from the Self.

    Source: Talks with Ramana Maharshi, talk 158, Feb 11, 1936.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Vinay,

    Great article. I liked the analogy of umpire who is keeping score - conveniently he is the one who gets to interpret the rules of the game and is the final arbiter on the score.

    If you no longer play the same game, who is to tell you what is the right way to play, let alone keep score?

    All this concept of 'improving the world' has a very narrow time focus on recent human history. Who knows how it will all turn out?
    Noted anthropologiest Jared Diamond calls agriculture a big mistake.
    http://anthropology.lbcc.edu/handoutsdocs/mistake.pdf
    Quoting:
    "
    To science we owe dramatic changes in our smug self-image. Astronomy taught
    us that our Earth isn't the center of the universe but merely one of billions of heavenly
    bodies. From biology we learned that we weren't specially created by God but evolved
    along with millions of other species. Now archaeology is demolishing another sacred
    belief: that human history over the past million years has been a long tale of progress. In
    particular, recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our
    most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we
    have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the
    disease and despotism,that curse our existence."

    ReplyDelete
  6. Jobs is like the bulb, Ramana the light, but Zuckerberg is the filament.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Great article, Ravi. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Who improved the world more The Sun or a Bulb?
    Ramana is the Sun, Edison invented a Bulb.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Ramana Maharashi, like the Buddha or Christ before, rediscovered the inner (infinite) sunlight and shared it with all. A free natural source of light and life for the body and mind. Like the Buddha said clearly 'Be a Lamp upon yourselves'. It's all a matter of a fully developed mind - the capacity for 100% concentration.

    Edisons light bulb is great - but the result comes from an incandescent mind, again what Ramama exposed far better. Even Newton at the end saw he had wasted his life seeking pebbles while the whole ocean of truth laid before him!

    Even with this light, and the scientific method, the immature human stills is at war.
    GE became a war machine - nuclear subs etc.

    Still anger, greed and confusion reign. Self discipline is rarely seen. So much for the lack of inner light that allows us to see our imperfections. Edison practiced many spiritual qualities - self discipline, patience, observation etc. Thus his success.

    Edison did his job - followed his karma, each is great in their own place.

    But Ramana achieved the hardest of all - he conquered HIMSELF.

    regards
    raul garcia

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well said, Raul. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Delete
    2. Apparently, it may look like Edison and Steve improved the world. It will take more time for humanity to understand what Ramana preaches. Ramana said, "The greatest service a man can do to humanity is to realise his SELF". Swami Vivekananda asked every one to reach their goal before realizing GOD. The reasoning behind his saying is, a poor(a man who has some desire in this world) guy cannot realize GOD unless he becomes rich (his goal). The whole world has a poor mind. Unless they reach their goals (material comforts, sex, money) and practically realize that they are useless, they dont reach GOD. In my opinion, Steve and Edison might be guys picked by GOD to serve mankind. To bring mankind to next level in the way of realizing GOD. Everyone who took birth in this world have some obligation to fulfill. Even Vivekananda realized GOD only after accomplishing the task assigned by his guru. Steve and Edison did their job. (Steve came to india to realize GOD. As his duty assigned by GOD is to serve mankind, he was made to think that "Serving mankind is better than what BABAS do").
      Example 1: These days, there are more Americans (people who enjoyed extreme material comforts) than Indians (people from poor nations) at Ramana ashram. Unless these Indians reach their goals of becoming rich and enjoy material comforts, their mind will not allow them to reach their SELF (because their goal is different - to become rich). These Americans realized no happiness in material comforts and started to learn about SELF.
      2. Buffett and Bill found more happiness in charity than technology and brains at the end of their lives. Money doesnt matter when they die.Buffett once told that, even if he is intelligent enought to make good decisions, they is some golden hand (GOD) behind him which got him all the fortune. Bill once said that, he is lucky enought to take birth during computer revolution.

      To understand what Ramana preaches and to realize the SELF, one should not have a diverted mind. The only goal of mind is to "realize GOD". At the time of death, any other goal isnt worth wasting a life. (The probability that we took birth as a human in next life considering thousands of species is very very small). So, in a span of 60 years, it doesnt matter who you are and what you earn/do. Only thing that matters is, how close to GOD you moved(selfish less life).

      Delete
    3. Apparently, it may look like Edison and Steve improved the world. It will take more time for humanity to understand what Ramana preaches. Ramana said, "The greatest service a man can do to humanity is to realise his SELF". Swami Vivekananda asked every one to reach their goal before realizing GOD. The reasoning behind his saying is, a poor(a man who has some desire in this world) guy cannot realize GOD unless he becomes rich (his goal). The whole world has a poor mind. Unless they reach their goals (material comforts, sex, money) and practically realize that they are useless, they dont reach GOD. In my opinion, Steve and Edison might be guys picked by GOD to serve mankind. To bring mankind to next level in the way of realizing GOD. Everyone who took birth in this world have some obligation to fulfill. Even Vivekananda realized GOD only after accomplishing the task assigned by his guru. Steve and Edison did their job. (Steve came to india to realize GOD. As his duty assigned by GOD is to serve mankind, he was made to think that "Serving mankind is better than what BABAS do").
      Example 1: These days, there are more Americans (people who enjoyed extreme material comforts) than Indians (people from poor nations) at Ramana ashram. Unless these Indians reach their goals of becoming rich and enjoy material comforts, their mind will not allow them to reach their SELF (because their goal is different - to become rich). These Americans realized no happiness in material comforts and started to learn about SELF.
      2. Buffett and Bill found more happiness in charity than technology and brains at the end of their lives. Money doesnt matter when they die.Buffett once told that, even if he is intelligent enought to make good decisions, they is some golden hand (GOD) behind him which got him all the fortune. Bill once said that, he is lucky enought to take birth during computer revolution.

      To understand what Ramana preaches and to realize the SELF, one should not have a diverted mind. Any goal other than realizing GOD isnt worth a life. Money, beauty, what you do, doesnt matter at the end. The only thing that matter is how close are you to GOD when compared to previous life. The probability of taking birth as human in next life is very very little considering the fact there are millions of species on earth.

      Delete