Tale of the dragonfly

dragonflyPublished on 14th December, 2014, in the Mid-Day

At a recent SynTalk, (those who don’t know this wonderful voice-based enterprise of getting various thinkers of different fields to chat on a concept, please Google it), the renowned astrophysicist Padma Bhushan Sashikumar Chitre narrated the following story that he heard from another astrophysicist, the Nobel Laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar:

A group of water beetles often wondered where did water beetles go after they left the water world. At regular intervals, some of them would climb up a reed, break through the surface of the water and go somewhere. No one told them where. Their sacred texts spoke nothing of it. There were rumours, spread of frogs, of a fabulous world of light beyond the surface of the water, but no beetle who had gone there had come back to confirm it. One beetle swore that unlike his selfish ancestors, he would return and reveal all to his brethren. And sure enough, one day, he felt the urge to climb the reed and rupture the water surface. But when he did so, something dramatic happened. His body changed. He broke the shell of his beetle body and emerged with a slender new body, one with wings that enabled him to fly, but prevented him from returning back to the water. He was now a dragonfly, not a beetle. In this new form he felt the light and the breeze, but he could not swim. He could touch the surface of the water, but he could not plunge into its depths to go back to tell the beetles he left behind of his discovery. Like those before him, he would also not keep his word. They would remain ignorant, oblivious of the world that waited beyond the surface of the water.

As I heard this story, I remembered the story of Plato’s cave. Of men trapped in a cave believing that shadows on the cave were created by their captors using fire, until one of the prisoners escapes, finds the sun outside the cave and returns to reveal the truth, liberating those entrapped in the cave from the spellbinding powers of the shadows.

The difference was stark. The dragonfly cannot reveal the new world he experiences to the beetles in the water. But Plato believed that those who experienced the truth can return and liberate those trapped in ignorance. In the dragonfly story, each beetle will discover the truth in his own time, on his own, eventually. In Plato’s story, those trapped will stay trapped unless someone who has experienced the sun comes back and shares his experience. Often in life we experience a great epiphany and we want to share it with all our friends. Like Plato, we want to liberate them from their misery. But then we discover that we have become dragonflies and we cannot enter the water world of the beetles. Even if we dared, we would be seen as strangers, fearsome predators, villains even, whose words should never be trusted.

I wondered what prompted the great astrophysicist, who spent his entire life studying the sun, to tell the tale of the dragonfly. Would not Plato’s tale be more appropriate for the scientist? Perhaps those who have gazed at the sun for long know that the world of shadows, like the watery world of the beetle, is not a lie, but just another truth, one that will eventually be outgrown, but always appreciated.