Scientists are ascetic at heart, austere in life
By Dr Jay Dubashi
Years ago, I stayed for a few months in my son’s house in Palo Alto, California, a couple of furlongs from what was at the time the house of Steve Jobs, the electronics engineer. Palo Alto was not such a famous place as it is now, though even then it was home to a number of computer companies, including Hewlett-Packard and Sun Micro-systems. Actually, my son and some of his friends worked in Hewlett-Packard (HP) and I used to visit their offices occasionally, though I am not a computer buff and have still not learnt to use it.
Jobs used to take his dog for a walk in the morning – a tall lanky man with untimely grey hair – a typical American who used to talk to his dog all the time, and occasionally nod to fellow passers-by, including myself.
I had no idea then who he was, until years later, on a visit to Palo Alto, I saw him park his car outside a delicatessen and buy some stuff. “That is Steve Jobs,” said a young girl at the counter, after he left. Since I don’t much care for music, or for computer gizmos like i-pad and i-phone I didn’t take much notice. But it was obvious from the way other customers in the shop behaved that Jobs was a celebrity.
He is dead now and the whole world mourns his untimely death. But what surprised me was the news that Jobs had spent a whole year in India, before he became what he did years later. It was an ordinary year for him. Jobs had become a hippy, which means he had taken to drugs, and, after visits to Varanasi and Mathura, he had spent most of his time, not in the usual fleshpots of Bombay and Goa, but as a monk in the Himalayas. He was also into Hinduism – and Buddhism – and is reported to have told people in Varanasi that he would like to live in India as a Hindu or Buddhist sanyasi, but his mother wanted him back in America and he had to return home.
Despite all his success, Jobs remained an ascetic at heart and this austerity was reflected in everything he designed. In fact, it was the simplicity of his gadgets that appealed most to his customers and the simple elegance of his company’s devices. Was his sojourn in India responsible for this? I have a feeling it was. Jobs came to India, or rather was drawn to India because it was the Hindu India that appealed to him. Even before he came to India, it is said that he used to save money for a meal at the Hare Krishna ashram in San Francisco whenever he could afford to go there. It was a simple Indian meal but to Jobs it was a gift from the heavens.
I have always felt that there is a close link between pure science and spirituality, which means between pursuit of science and pursuit of Hinduism. Science is after all a philosophy, and great scientists are also great philosophers. And what is Hinduism but an austere philosophy encompassing not only this world but also the next one, the pursuit of which, like the pursuit of truth, is also the pursuit of science. Jobs has been described as a magician, but all our rishis were also magicians. It was therefore natural for him to seek inspiration from Hindus and Hinduism, at least subconsciously.
All great scientists, which also includes technologists like Jobs, are essentially Hindus in their approach and sensibility. Take a man like Robert Oppenheimer, the man who presided over the making of the first atomic device, as well as the first atomic bombs, at Los Alamos in New Mexico. Oppenheimer was a Jew, like most of the physicists who worked on the bomb. When the first makeshift atomic device was ready for trial, they all gathered at the experimental site and when the device was exploded. Oppenheimer took a pinch of earth between his fingers and chanted a Sanskrit shloka which went like this—“Thou art the creator and the destroyer and I bow before thee”.
This is precisely what a Hindu would have done and this is what Oppenheimer did, though he was a Jew, not a Hindu, but in our heart of hearts we are all Hindus, for only a Hindu can recognise the true nature of things, stripped of everything except the bare essentials, which is what an atom is, which is also what an electron is, and provides the basis for what we call the electronic industry. There is therefore a straight connection between what men like Oppenheimer and Jobs did or tried to do, and which is what brought them so close to the Hindu world, and its blessings.
Oppenheimer was not an exception. When I first went to London to study engineering, I enrolled myself in a course of Mathematics which at that time was taught by a man called Hyman Levy, also a Jew, and a man who a few years later received a Nobel prize. Almost the first question he asked me was whether I was a Hindu, and he proceeded to discuss several Hindu mathematicians and philosophers who had enriched the discipline over millennia. I later found that the man was actually a communist, but that made little difference to our friendship.
Albert Einstein, perhaps the greatest scientist of all time, was also a Jew but had tremendous attraction for Hindu philosophy and often said that he would like to visit India before he died. This was a man who was used to think in universal terms, precisely the kind of man who is attracted, as Steve Jobs was, to a universal religion like Hinduism.
Einstein did not work with complex instruments and machineries, nor did Steve Jobs. We Hindus never do. Einstein needed only a piece of paper and a couple of sharpened pencils, and that is all he used to write his first paper on relativity – the paper that changed the world. And he did it all, sitting in a small cubicle in the Patent Office in Berne, just as Jobs did in his small office in Palo Alto, California. Einstein reduced the universe to a simple equation, E = mC2, which even a schoolboy can understand. Steve Jobs, the man who walked miles for a Hindu meal, compressed the world into his tiny, elegant boxes which even a child could operate. If Albert Einstein was a magician, so was Stev Jobs a man who dropped out of college, and has now dropped out of the world.