The following is the thirty-sixth of a series of excerpts from The Rowan Tree: A Novel by Robert W. Fuller. The complete novel is available in paperback, in various ebook formats including Kindle, and as an audiobook at Amazon, iTunes, and audible.com. If you enjoy The Rowan Tree, please write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your own blog! The author also welcomes your comments.
The next morning Adam set out on foot along the Ganges for Banaras Hindu University to find Vishu’s teacher and guru, Dr. Lahiri. As he walked south along the riverbank his eye was drawn to two old men seated side-by-side in an ancient wooden rowboat, and he took out his camera to capture the image. Draped in wrap-around cottons that hooded their heads, and pulling in unison on thick rough-hewn bamboo oars, they were making steady progress against the current. At this point in its long journey to the sea, the Ganges was very wide, and moved with the solemnity of an elephant.
When he reached the confluence with the Asi River, he turned away from the Ganges to follow a sign for the university. A map posted near the campus entrance guided him to the geology building, where a cheerful secretary directed him to Lahiri’s office. “His door is always open,” she said. “Just poke your head in.”
As he approached the office, he overheard voices speaking in Hindi, and even before he peeked in he heard a voice he took to be Lahiri’s call out in English, “Come in.” Either the old man had the hearing of a fox or he could see around corners.
Lahiri was busy pouring tea from an earthen pot into clay cups, and did not immediately look up. When he did, it was to ask if Adam would take tea, and to introduce the woman he’d been speaking with.
“This is Malika Kapoor. You’ll have to introduce yourself, young man.”
“I am Adam Merle-Blue. I met a student of yours in Johannesburg and he suggested I look you up.”
“That must be Vishu!” Lahiri exclaimed. “You are most welcome, Mr. Blue.”
“Nice to meet you, Adam,” said Malika, offering her hand. “Where are you coming from?” Malika was tall and athletic-looking. Dressed in a violet sari, she looked so much like a Hindu goddess that Adam imagined her with four arms.
“America, France, Africa, and the Middle East.”
“Where are you going?” Malika continued.
“Continuing around the world and then back to New York where I began.” Adam hoped his itinerary would make him seem more adventurer than tourist.
“Malika is one of my students, in geology and other subjects,” Lahiri interjected. “Tell Adam what we’re discussing,” Lahiri prompted. “It’s a common concern.”
“All right,” Malika said. “In geology we study the formation of the earth. In astrophysics I’m reading about the origin of the universe, the formation of stars and planets. It’s all very mechanistic.”
“That’s the goal of science,” Lahiri interjected. “To explain how things work.”
“Yes, but …”
“But an asteroid could destroy us at any time—like what happened to the dinosaurs.” Malika paused. “The universe seems to have no regard for us, for life. It’s heartless, indifferent.”
“Pitiless,” Adam put in to signal his agreement.
“Nonsense!” Lahiri exclaimed. “You exclude love, and then you complain that the world lacks it. Taste the tea. Look at each other. The tea is delicious. You are both warm, sentient, lovable creatures. And you do not stand apart from the cosmos. On the contrary, you are part of it.”
Lahiri looked at his guests in quick succession.
“Do you have feelings?” he asked. “Do you have heart?”
Adam and Malika nodded affirmatively.
“Then how can the universe lack them? Its heart beats in your breast. Let me put it this way: The universe has evolved for more than thirteen billion years, the earth more than four billion, and life somewhat less. Our species has been around for several hundred thousand years. We feel. We think. We love. Therefore, the universe is hardly devoid of these things. On the contrary, they are close at hand. So close that we overlook them. Quite simply, we are the mind and the heart of the universe.”
If someone had said that to Adam in New York, he’d have dismissed it as verbal gymnastics. However, in this simple office, on the far side of the world, coming from this humble man, it moved him.
“But what if Malika is right?” Adam persisted. “What if a comet slams into the earth and destroys everything?”
“If you don’t want that to happen,” Lahiri said with a grin, “you must either deflect the comet or get out of its way. We’re far from helpless, you know. We understand gravity and we can predict the movements of planets and comets. We know enough to avert such a catastrophe. You have the expression, ‘God helps those who help themselves.’”
“God?” Adam said, surprised at the religious turn in the conversation.
“Oh, I don’t mean some omniscient, omnipotent being in heaven who responds to our personal prayers. That god was a human invention—a father figure to comfort ourselves. That god won’t save us from a comet.”
“God?” Adam repeated.
“I’m agnostic,” Lahiri replied. “Agnostic with an asterisk.”
“If there were a God, he’d want us to act as if there weren’t.” Lahiri smiled, then elaborated. “I use the term “god” as shorthand for the whole inner thrust of things, for the mystery and the intelligibility of nature. Nature includes human heartfulness and mindfulness. Leave those out and you’re omitting the most interesting phenomenon in our corner of the cosmos. Now, with the advent of science, for the first time in our species’ history, we’re assuming the role of our planet’s steward. A hippie in California put it nicely: ‘We are as gods and might as well get good at it.’”
Lahiri rose and went to the window, inviting Adam and Malika to join him. Standing between them, he pointed at a banyan tree in the courtyard below.
“See that old tree? Doesn’t it have a kind of dignity? But if a comet strikes Banaras, it won’t be able to get out of the way. Neither will I. We’re counting on you to save us. Now run along and get busy.”
Malika led the way out. Adam felt like he sometimes did after seeing a movie: reluctant to break the spell by talking.
He followed Malika to a bicycle stand. “It was nice to meet you,” she said as she climbed on her bike.
“Do you see Lahiri regularly?”
“Every Wednesday at four.”
“Would it be okay if I went along with you sometime?”
“Sure,” Malika replied, offering him a warm smile. “Meet me next Wednesday at three o’clock, at the café opposite the university entrance, and we’ll go together.”
A week later, Adam was waiting in the café as Malika rode up, dismounted, and chained her bicycle to a post. She was wearing a luminous pale blue sari. Her long black hair hung in a braid to her waist.
“Hello,” he said, rising to greet her. When the waiter came, they ordered coffees. After some small talk, Adam pressed her on Lahiri’s attitude toward religion.
“He has studied Vedanta, Buddhism, Islam and the religions of the West, and focuses on what they have in common. He sees their differences as ritualistic and theological, and no more or less significant than other cultural differences.”
“If rituals and dogma are secondary, what’s primary?”
“On the basics of man’s place in the universe, ethics, selfhood, and death, the religions are far more alike than is generally recognized. They diverge on customs, style, and theology, but Lahiri would say that none of these are subject to either verification or disproof, and therefore they should not be disputed.”
“A lot of wars have been fought over such distinctions.”
“Lahiri maintains that doctrinal distinctions serve primarily to bolster the solidarity of the groups that adhere to them, and provide rationales for preying on others. He maintains that our age-old strategy of picking on the weak can take us no further. That globalization heralds either the end of human predation or the end of our species. You should ask him about his political views. Nothing is off-limits.”