Thursday March 21, 2019

0 and 1: The undercurrent of computing, mathematics and life

Yin and Yang in the Daoist philosophy

By Gaurav Sharma

Throughout the annals of history, a wide array of inquisitive people–from dreaming children to logical mathematicians and explorative scientists–have been captivated by 0 and 1 as symbols of existence.

The utility and vitality of the magical numbers encompass variegated fields of workings, ranging from binary code in computer languages to theology and metaphysical precepts of existence or reality.

Intriguingly though, the binary numbers combine a mystical yet practical personage, thereby presenting a paradoxical conundrum permeating the diverse gamut of life.

 Historical Evolution

The binary system (modern) which comprises the binary digits 0 and 1, is believed to have been devised by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a German polymath and philosopher in 1679. However, the binary system finds a mention in ancient civilizations such as India, China and Egypt as well.

In Egypt, two different systems were used for fractions; the Egyptian fractions (not related to binary system) and the Horus eye fractions. The latter system enabled the expression of fractions into a sum of binary numbers which in turn helped to translate fractional quantities of food-grains and liquids into binary digits. (1200-2500 BCE)

In the 9th Century BC, the I Ching which was a divination text based on the dual forces of yin and yang delineated a binary system comprising of eight trigrams and sixty-four hexagrams. In the lexicographical order, yin represents 0 whereas yan refers to 1.

It would be pertinent to point out that Leibniz was himself deeply inspired by the text when he came in touch with it through his friend Joachim Bouvet.

Around 200 BC, Pingala– an Indian scholar devised a binary system involving the use of short and long syllables–which is strikingly reminiscent of the Morse Code. (Morse Code involves transmission of textual information into a string of lights, clicks and on-off tones, thereby helping differently-abled with an assistive technology in communication)

Morse Code

Pingala revolutionized the mathematical field of permutations and combinations known as Combinatorics. He answered the fundamental question of how many patterns can be formed from a given number of syllables by enumerating a plausible poetic meter of the syllables. ( Something which we now popularly know as the Pascal Triangle).

Pingala’s work included Fibonacci series ( a series in which each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two, such as  0,1,2,3,5, 8, 13,21….) and his discussion of combinatorics defined what is now the binomial theorem.

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Fibonacci in spiral form

In the 19th Century, Boolean algebra, an algebraic system of logic was introduced by George Boole. The Boolean system also consisted of a binary operation involving a yes-no or an on-off approach. The system was however never put to use.

Highlighting that objects were capable of a twofold difference only, in 1906, Francis Bacon discussed a system of binary coding whereby the letter of the alphabet were reduced to subtle variations in font in the text.

In 1937( almost 100 years since Boolean was introduced), Claude E. Shannon brought to light the use of Boolean algebra in simplifying arrangement of relays, the basic constituents of the electromagnetic automatic telephone exchanges in those days. Shannon was instrumental in proving the efficacy of the binary code in practical applications such as computers, circuits among many others.

To put it succinctly, binary properties of electric switches is the underlying factor for development of electronic digital computer designs. (Telecommunication and computing use binary codes for encoding data)

Spiritual Significance

The concept of 0 and 1 as the unchanging and underlying reality behind the dynamic life process can best be understood through the Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang.

As per the Daoist way of thinking, Yin and Yang are contrary or dualistic forces which are actually interconnected, complementary and interdependent. This essentially means the lightness and darkness, fire and water, birth and death are complementary phenomena which work in unison to produce a dynamic system in which the whole is greater than the constituent parts.

This can be best understood through the analogy of the seed which grows from the earth towards the sky (yang) and after reaching its pinnacle falls (yin). This illustrates the concept of dependent origination, a penetrating insight which Buddha lucidly described through emptiness or shunyata.

Shunyata as depicted in Zen buddhism

Dependent origination essentially means that existence is neither real nor unreal but merely a reflection of moon in water or the self in the mirror. A reflection cannot be real because if it were real, transformation could not take place. But since it manifests in the real world, it cannot be outrightly rubbished as unreal also.

Existence, therefore, is not a void or a nothingness but a middle way between eternalism and nihilism.

Buddha’s peerless insight is shared by the Kashmiri Shaivites in the theory of nondual monism, as per which shunya is said to ashunya. In line with the Buddhist thought, the Kashmiri Shaivites do not view shunya as a void but as inherently possessing multiplicity within. ( Zero in Kashmiri Shaivism refers to Shiva or supreme consciousness)

0 and 1 (like the Yin and Yang), can be visualized as a polarity without poles, wherein activity and stillness alternate and are basis of each other. To distinguish and elaborate between the movement of life, dualistic words such as yin and yang, 0 and 1 have been framed but they are essentially part of complete whole which cannot be segregated, just as one cannot point where the neck ends and the head begins.

Yet, the combination of the two forces is the building block of the eclectic forms that we see through the naked eye. This principle of ‘bipolarity without polarity’ is referred to as the cosmic principle or the fundamental order principle.

In summation, life is not an intricate melodrama where everything has a separate, individual existence but rather it is a play of apparently dualistic forces, a dance of cosmic energy and in computing parlance, a combination of 0 and 1 bits.

  • Manoj Sethi

    When we observe Nature, we find that the Law of Balance operates very subtly everyday or regularly in our lives. We see the ebb and flow of the tide – high and low, the light and dark as in the availability of sunlight and the change of seasons. The significance of 0 and 1 can therefore be understood if we relate it to Nature and its different cycles.

Next Story

Spiritual Ideas Sore At The World Hindu Congress

A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new -- when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.

Government invites entries for first National CSR Awards VOA

At its best, speeches at the recently concluded World Hindu Congress echoed the soaring spiritual ideals evoked by Swami Vivekananda in Chicago 125 years ago.

Even Mohan Bhagwat, Sarsangchanalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), focused essentially on the need for unity and patience among Hindus while fighting obstacles, of which, he said, there would be many. The burden of excavating implied accusations in Bhagwat’s speech fell to his critics.

At the plenary session, the moderator requested speakers to address issues of conflict without naming the speakers or their organisations in the interest of harmony. Other speakers sought to unite the followers of all the great religions that took birth in India — Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Some of the speakers from Bhagwat to Swami Swaroopananda of the Chinmaya Mission, framed the issues before Hinduism in a moral paradigm. Ashwin Adhin, the Vice President of the Republic of Suriname, began his speech in chaste Hindi, later quoting cognitive scientist George Lakoff: “Facts matter immensely. But to be meaningful they have to be framed in terms of their moral importance.”

Buddhism relates sins to the characteristics one adopts. Pixabay

The dissonances, between the spiritual and the mundane, were to emerge later on the fringes of the seminars which were part of the Congress. Many of the delegates appropriated to themselves the mantle of a culture besieged by proselytising faiths. There were speakers who urged Hindus to have more children to combat their ‘dwindling population’. Posters warned Hindus of the dangers from ‘love jihad’ (Muslim men ‘enticing’ Hindu women).

In one of the sessions on the media, filmmaker Amit Khanna noted that religion had always played a prominent part in Indian cinema, starting with the earliest mythologicals. “Raja Harishchandra”, the first silent film, he said, was made by Dadasaheb Phalke in 1913. He sought to reassure the audience on the future of Hinduism. “Over 80 percent of Indians are Hindus,” he said adding: “Hinduism has survived many upheavals for thousands of years. Hinduism has never been endangered.”

Other speakers, lacking spiritual and academic pedigrees, drew on an arsenal of simulated anguish and simmering indignation.

The nuances of history pass lightly over the ferociously devout and it took little effort to pander to an aggravated sense of historical aggrievement.

Swami Vivekananda used to stress upon the universal brotherhood and self-awakening. Wikimedia Commons

At one of the debates, the mere mention of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, elicited sniggers and boos. The speaker hinted at ‘Nehruvian socialism’ which had made the Indian economy a non-starter. He concluded with a coup de grace, to a standing ovation: “Nehru did not like anything Indian.”

The poet Rabindranath Tagore, who composed the Indian national anthem, had spoken of his vision of a country where the “clear stream of reason had not lost its way”. At some of the discussions, even the most indulgent observer would have been hard put to discern the stream of reason.

The image of a once great civilisation suppressed by a century of British rule and repeated plunder by invaders captured the imagination of many in the audience. Hanging above it all, like a disembodied spirit, was the so-called malfeasance of Nehru, the leader who had won the trust of Hindus only to betray them in the vilest manner.

These tortured souls would have been well advised to adopt a more holistic approach to Hinduism, and history, looking no further than Swami Vivekananda, who once said: “The singleness of attachment (Nishtha) to a loved object, without which no genuine love can grow, is very often also the cause of denunciation of everything else.”

The Hindu population in Pakistan is about 1.8% according to the 2018 census, 0.2% more than that of the 1998 and the 1951 figures.

Historians have informed us that Nehru preferred his father’s intellect over his mother’s tradition but he was never contemptuous of religion. While he undoubtedly felt that organised religion had its flaws, he opined that it supplied a deeply felt inner need of human nature while also giving a set of values to human life.

In private conversations some delegates spoke of how their America-born children had helped persuade them to drop their pathological aversion to gays and lesbians. Despite their acute wariness of perceived cultural subjugation, the irony was obviously lost on them that Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code,(which criminalises gay sex) recently overturned by the Indian Supreme Court, is a hangover from the Victorian British era-embodied in the Buggery Act of 1533.

In the face of the upcoming elections in the US, Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi’s decision to speak at the conference was a political risk. With a newly energised political Left, even the perception of being linked with “fascist” or sectarian forces could be political suicide in the critical November elections. Despite vociferous appeals to disassociate himself from the Congress, Krishnamoorthi chose to attend.

“I decided I had to be here because I wanted to reaffirm the highest and only form of Hinduism that I have ever known and been taught — namely one that welcomes all people, embraces all people, and accepts all people, regardless of their faith. I reject all other forms. In short, I reaffirm the teaching of Swami Vivekananda,” Krishnamoorthi said.

Given the almost pervasive abhorrence of anything remotely Nehruvian among a section of the delegates, it was a revelation to hear the opinion of Dattatrey Hosable, the joint general secretary and second-in-command in the RSS hierarchy. Speaking on the promise of a newly-resurgent India, Hosable said in an interview to Mayank Chhaya, a local journalist-author-filmmaker: “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new — when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”

Also Read: Triple Talaq Now Banned in India

The quote is from Nehru’s famous Tryst with Destiny speech delivered to the Indian Constituent Assembly on the midnight of August 14, 1947 — proof, if any is needed, that the force of Nehru’s ideas can transcend one’s disdain of him. (IANS)