Pretentious Pontification

The Goddess of Arts and Sciences

We often think of faith and rationality — or art and science — as dichotomous and mutually exclusive. But human cognitive powers are way richer than that…. 

Wargal Saraswati Temple. Image acquired from free-images.com, which sources it to Wikimedia, where it is attributed to the original work of Gopaloza and listed as released to the Public Domain by Gopaloza.

This last weekend, it was Saraswati Puja, the festival of my favorite Hindu god – or any god, come to think of it. She is in charge of wisdom, learning, art, music – all the things that get me fired up. She is not the one you pray to for money or power or health or fertility… not even peace and tranquility (as wonderful as those things are and much as she exudes at least the last two qualities).

What she is, is THE go-to deity for students and scholars and all manner of knowledge seekers. People kneel before her and place their books and pencils and other tools of study at her feet. I attended a puja… took my laptop down to be blessed.

What I love especially about Saraswati is that she is about both academics and the creative arts. It reminds me of my undergraduate Alma Mater, Virginia Tech, a university composed of many colleges. Chief among them used to be The College of Arts and Sciences, my college, home to all sorts of disciplines from Physics to Philosophy; from Biochemistry to Ballet. They have broken it up now, segregating science from art and humanities. They must have had their reasons for this split, but it saddens me. I wonder if Saraswati – literally the Goddess of Arts and Sciences – would approve.

On the one hand, I am rather fond of making fine distinctions and I hate it when people conflate things without due reflection. But the opposite tendency, to draw rigid lines between broad categories of things – without due reflection – is also a serious problem. I suppose it’s the “due reflection” part that’s important to me.

The same holds true for spiritual faith. We tend to assume rationality requires faithlessness. I thought that at one time. It’s not rational to believe in things for which you don’t have evidence – hence, atheism. But I have come to a different position over time. I don’t contend that spiritual faith is a “rational” proposition, only that the non-rational needn’t be irrational. Even a rationalist like myself has other devices in their cognitive toolbox. You don’t tune a piano with a hammer. Rationality might be the all purpose hammer we use to understand the physical and social world, but spirituality might just require a piano tuner. When I was a child, the idea of God made intuitive sense to me. Then I read a bunch of books and stopped believing. Somehow, though, I found my way back. I don’t exactly know how. It might be that God called me back. Either way, my faith is not particularly elaborate. I don’t take literally the concept of gods and goddesses of various specific things. Even my rather generalized faith is not something I consider “rational” and therefore I don’t proselytize or justify it to anyone else. My faith simply is. I don’t think it contradicts my inclination toward critical thinking and exploration through scientific and rational inquiry.

It’s probably why I am so enchanted by something as seemingly anomalous as the Goddess of Arts and Sciences.

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