Grand thoughts in the Arctic
A philosophical reflection on a journey to Norway’s North Cape and the Arctic Circle
By Avinash Patwardhan, MD
Human evolution has followed a strange trajectory. Many of our behavioral traits, evolved millions of years ago as a necessity for survival, have ended up becoming artifacts of pleasure – indulgence in going places being one of them. Most of us love to travel and the booming industry of tourism world over is its testament.
I toured Norway last week and travelled its extremely beautiful country for 10 days. This article is the story about my visit to Nord Kapp – its northern tip.
Now, thousands of tourists from all over the world make these kinds of visits every year and I was just one drop in that ocean of humanity. They come, see, hear, feel and then take back with them numerous pictures, videos, souvenirs and most of all memories to cherish. That too is sheer routine, nothing special. Moreover, those experiences are their own. What is there in them to share back with Norwegians? Robert Louise Stevenson said, “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” Norwegian landscapes might be stunningly beautiful to the traveler, but they are a part of the daily surrounding for the locals. Norwegian culture and people might be very intriguing to the visitor, but to the natives, they are just the mundane. “As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to appreciate more lovingly our own” said Margaret Meade. Were I not to believe that there was something worthy of sharing in my story that might enrich the world view of my Norwegian host, I would not have dared to take to pen. I hope that in the end my reader will vindicate me. Life seldom presents herself without complementarity. For every yin, there is always a yang somewhere.
In tune with this truism, one can say that wanderlust and homesickness are birds of the same feather, both inseparably built into the very fabric of our nature, and every journey away from home could be nothing but a secret search for a home- the utopian dream home, a “Shangri-La” of a sort. I went to NordKapp to visit the mythical long forgone home- of my distant ancestors.
The Vedas and the Upanishads are the lofty philosophies about which Erwin Schrodinger (Nobel Physics, 1933) spoke so highly in his world famous Trinity College Dublin lectures in 1943. These are the intriguing texts about which Brian David Josephson (Nobel Physics, 1973) said, “The Vedanta and the Sankhya hold the key to the laws of mind and thought process which are co-related to the Quantum Field…” These are the same hymns and poems which the great American philosopher Henry David Thoreau praised thus: “Whenever I have read any part of the Vedas, I have felt that some unearthly and unknown light illuminated me. In the great teaching of the Vedas, there is no touch of sectarianism…” and these are also the same books about which Ralph Waldo Emerson, another American philosopher said, “In the great books of India, an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence, which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the questions that exercise us.” These philosophies and their grandeur have held hundreds of great minds including Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer in awe, and even today, they intrigue and attract scientists, thinkers, and lay persons in the form of Yoga and Ayurveda (Medicine). World recognizes India as the land of the Vedas and the Upanishads. But is it? Did they originate there? Could India have been a faithful custodian of these precious scriptures since its known history while their authors wrote them somewhere else in a different homeland – say in the Arctic regions around the North Pole?
I read a book titled “The Arctic Home in the Vedas” (B.G. Tilak, 1903) when I was 16. It might serve well for a western reader, who may not have a thorough context of modern India and its history, to say that Tilak was to India what Benjamin Franklin was to America. A man of vast erudition and a polymath in a true sense, and primarily a mathematician by profession, Tilak was a great scholar of Sanskrit language as well as of ancient Indian philosophy. The thesis of his 457-page book was that the homeland of the Aryans who wrote the Vedas around 10,000 to 8,000 B.C. was the Arctic region, very close to the North Pole. The glacial epoch made the region otherwise then habitable, inclement. Therefore, these Aryans migrated from the circum-polar region to scatter all over the world. The tributary that settled in India preserved and brought the Vedas with them to their new homeland. Vedas describe the days and nights that are six months long and they sing hymns about a dawn that stretches for 30 days. How many places are there on earth where the days and the nights are six months long and the dawn stretches over a longish month? These and other numerous similar references served the basis for Tilak’s theory. Whether this thesis is true or not, I do not know. Nevertheless, 1970s were the most impressionable years of my life. Intellectual adventures in the mystical world of the quantum physics, Indian classical music, ancient India’s philosophies and literature had filled me with the same kind of awe that had compelled the otherwise saintly Henry David Thoreau to say unceremoniously, “Beside the vast and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta, even our Shakespeare seems sometimes youthfully green and practical merely.” As a young man in his teens, I fell in love with the idea of the arctic home and dreamt of going back to my roots.
As I grew up and reality settled down on life, my dream got tempered into a more realistic aspiration of someday going to the arctic region at least once, and to recite aloud hymns/mantras from Rig Veda there, as a symbolic gesture to tell my far off ancestors that I came home & called. Somewhere along the road, NordKapp became the embodiment of my dreamland. On the early afternoon of Sept. 17, the umbrella of the scattered clouds, the music of the howling winds, the tapestry of the blue sky, and the golden light of the occasional sunshine were together choreographing a show of unparalleled pristine beauty of the magnificent panorama of Nord Kapp. There, standing on the cliff that towered approximately 1007 feet over the Arctic Ocean, roughly 1306 miles south of the North Pole, and dressed like a Hindu priest of the bygone times, I offered obeisance to ‘sun god’ of ancient Indian civilization, chanting Vedic “Gayatri” mantra in Sanskrit. A 28-year-old Japanese young man, Kashimotosan, my sole accidental co-traveler on the plateau at that moment, captured the event for me on my camera.
After the kind Japanese companion bid his farewell and was gone and the very few tourists from a cruise ship who had arrived after I had completed my act also departed, for a while I stood all alone on the rock, gazing into the unending expanse of the blue arctic ocean ahead of me stretching to the horizon. It was then that somberness filled me. In those solitary moments my mind asked: I do not know if my ancestors lived here. I do not even know if I am their descendant. Then what wanderlust was this, what ailment was this homesickness? Carson McCullers says, “As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known” or Edgar Watson Howe says, “You don’t really long for another country. You long for something in yourself that you don’t have, or haven’t been able to find.”
Life perhaps has no meaning other than what we give to it. Ours is a journey from one unknown to another with a sojourn through the third what we call our reality. Here everything is ephemeral, everything is transient. This must be making us very insecure and afraid, creating a craving, a longing for some anchor, some permanence of a sort, a point of reference that can provide us with something to hang our hat on. Passion for history and fascination with ancestry might be our self-consolations, to seek a home somewhere- now here, now there. Who knows?
And yet the fact was that I came to this end of the world for a ritual that did not even last five minutesdespite Walter de la Mare’s “No, No, Why further should we roam, Since every road man Journeys by,
Ends on a hillside far from Home, Under an alien sky.” Would I come if it were in vain I asked myself?
And the answer was a decisive no. It is not mortality or transience that is scary; it is their awareness and denial that is. Once we accept them, it immediately brings us the much sought after quiet, tranquility, and the sense of serenity. The authors of the Vedas seem to have that tranquility and serenity. Did they get it as an effect of the soil and the surrounding? Did I come looking for the Midas touch? We travel like this because we hope that at such spots and moments, we might be able to hold infinity and eternity in our tiny fragile bowls of receptivity, and sing in humility like Rabindranath Tagore (Geetanjali, Nobel Literature, 1913): “Let all my songs gather together their diverse strains into a single current and flow to a sea of silence in one salutation to thee. Like a flock of homesick cranes flying night and day back to their mountain nests let all my life take its voyage to its eternal home in one salutation to thee.” For a flicker of a moment I could and did sing like Tagore.
When I think of it, I feel good that I was born and raised in the midst of a culture-civilization that preserved and nurtured the grand thoughts of the Vedas and the Upanishads for more than three millennia, the thoughts that influenced the minds like Heisenberg and Prigogine and still inspire millions in more than one way. It is the association, my association, with the grandeur and serenity that brought happiness in me. Would my Norwegian host feel nostalgia if she were for a moment to mull over a suggestion that it could be that some of those sublime poems of the Vedas and Upanishads might have been written in antiquity on the soil she calls her own now? Moreover, would she be tempted to travel to other countries and cultures to search for something that she can connect to as her ‘own’? After all, if Geiranger Fjord is a world heritage site, then the Vedas and Upanishads are the world heritage thoughts.
I do not know. Only she can tell, and thus the article. Mother Nature has poured beauty and blessings on the whole Norway, let alone NordKapp, with her thousand open hands. Mythologies talk of heaven. If there is any place on earth that might come closest to their descriptions then it would most likely be Norway- at least some parts of it. “He who returns from a journey is not the same as he who left” says an old Chinese adage. After Norway, it seemed so true to me.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 19, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.