Analysing Dan Brown’s ‘Origin’ – From The Indic Point Of View
A critical evaluation of Dan Brown’s work, from the Indic point of view, especially in the context of his latest novel, Origin.
The latest novel by Dan Brown, Origin (2017), is a template Robert Langdon novel. If one goes beyond the murder-thriller template, Brown’s novels, particularly the ones dealing with Western religions, have a deeper template that is worth studying. This is especially the case for students of Hindu culture and spirituality, who concern themselves with the interactions between Western and Eastern religions and modern culture, which is heavily impacted and shaped by science.
Brown’s most famous work, Da Vinci Code (2003), tried to integrate the Divine Feminine, historically suppressed in Christendom, with mainstream Christianity. For this, Brown took the Christian history-centric way. He used highly questionable sources from the alternate yet popular, sensationalist pseudo-history already created by Henry Lincoln, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. The trio authored the bestseller Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982), which spoke of the secret society of Priory of Sion and the blood line of Jesus through Mary Magdalene, which was said to have continued through the Merovingian dynasty of France.
The fiction, Da Vinci Code, though widely perceived as anti-Church, tried to contain the Pagan Divine Feminine into the Christian Feminine, subordinated to the male deity of Jesus. That even this level of recognition was not accorded by the mainstream Christian religion is another matter.
The success of Da Vinci Code made the wider audience sit up and take notice of Brown’s previous novel, where Langdon made his first appearance – Angels and Demons (2000). The novel dealt with the troubled legacy of the confrontation which science had with institutional religion in the West. Langdon, Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconology, two knowledge domains that exist only in the fictional world of Brown’s, was as alter ego of the author. Like the history in Da Vinci Code, the physics and its theological implications in Angels and Demons are also highly questionable. It revolves around the moment of creation – the Big Bang.
This conversation in Angels and Demons between Vittoria, an adopted daughter of a physicist-priest, and Langdon showcases the point.
“When Lemaître first proposed the Big Bang Theory,” Vittoria continued, “scientists claimed it was utterly ridiculous. Matter, science said, could not be created out of nothing. So, when Hubble shocked the world by scientifically proving the Big Bang was accurate, the church claimed victory, heralding this as proof that the Bible was scientifically accurate. The divine truth.
Langdon nodded, focusing intently now.
“Of course scientists did not appreciate having their discoveries used by the church to promote religion, so they immediately mathematicized the Big Bang Theory, removed all religious overtones, and claimed it as their own. Unfortunately for science, however, their equations, even today, have one serious deficiency that the church likes to point out.” (Angels and Demons, 2000)
Actually, physicists did not ‘mathematize’ the Big Bang to exorcise it of religious connotations. And Lemaître, the astronomer who proposed the Big Bang, was himself a Catholic priest. Seizing the opportunity, Pope Pius XII while addressing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, alluded to the theory of the Big Bang and stated that “everything seems to indicate that the universe has in finite times a mighty beginning”. But things are not that simple. Philosopher-physicist and Galileo scholar Reverend Ernan McMullin (1924-2011) differs. According to him, “What one cannot say is first, that the Christian doctrine of creation ‘supports’ the Big Bang model or second, the ‘Big Bang’ model supports the doctrine of creation”.
After some pages, we read another interesting and important conversation:
“Matter,” Vittoria repeated. “Blossoming out of nothing. An incredible display of subatomic fireworks. A miniature universe springing to life. He proved not only that matter can be created from nothing, but that the Big Bang and Genesis can be explained simply by accepting the presence of an enormous source of energy.”
“You mean God?” Kohler demanded.
“God, Buddha, The Force, Yahweh, the singularity, the unicity point–call it whatever you like–the result is the same. Science and religion support the same truth–pure energy is the father of creation." (Angels and Demons, 2000)
The reader can see that Vittoria starts with “matter” – which itself comes from the root “mater”, a mother. The matter is the mother. It flowers out of a male imagery of the energy: “God, Buddha, The Force, Yahweh, the singularity, the unicity point … the father of creation”. This is the ultimate Christian imagery played in a very clever and subtle way by including the Buddha and the new-age ‘Force’ of Star Wars vintage. This method of containing the world’s traditions into Christian imagery using the context of science becomes a repeated and core aspect of Dan Brown’s fiction, as we shall see.
Meanwhile, for physicists and cosmologists, another integration was taking place. In 1999, a year before Angels and Demons, eminent physicist Michio Kaku in his book Visions had discussed the concept of a multiverse. He too had suggested a unifying vision, which was radically different from the one suggested by Brown, but perfectly integrating what seems to be two entirely contradictory cosmologies.
Parenthetically, the theory of the multiverse seems able to unite the Judeo-Christian account of Genesis, which starts with a definite beginning, and the Buddhist theory of Nirvana, which starts with a timeless universe. In this picture, we have Genesis taking place continually in Nirvana.Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century, 1999
Kaku would pursue the same theme four years later in a manner more relevant to the discussion here. He had asked his Sunday school teacher if god had a mother. The teacher responded in the negative and that made Kaku ponder what was there before god. He differentiates between the creation mythologies, including the one in the Bible which he considers as “creatio ex nihilo myths”, which stand in “marked contrast to the cosmology of Buddhism and certain forms of Hinduism”. They both could not be right. Or could they? With multiverse, the possibility seems ripe. Kaku explains:
What is gradually emerging from the data is a grand synthesis of these two opposing mythologies. Perhaps, scientists speculate, Genesis occurs repeatedly in a timeless ocean of Nirvana.Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos, 2004
Interestingly, in Vedic imagery, this basic matrix is the Divine Feminine – Aditi. Philosopher-professor V Madhusudan Reddy (1925-1996) in his work on Sri Aurobindo’s commentary on the Vedas has a line that resonates with Kaku’s statement: “Aditi is the infinite womb, says the Yajur-Veda, within which all the universe move and have their being.”
Clearly, Brown’s choice for the plot of his novel from the cosmologies has its own reasons.
And for a Harvard professor specialising in religious symbolism, Langdon in his first iteration is astonishingly as ignorant as his creator about Eastern religions – so much so that he does not know the difference between pranayama and Piranha. If that is not enough, the definition of pranayama, according to Brown, is breathing through your eyes. Or perhaps it may also turn out to be an accurate picture of the Wendy-Witzel school of Indologists. Who can tell?
While Da Vinci Code does not bother itself with any Eastern connections while dealing with the Divine Feminine, in his The Lost Symbol (2009), Brown exhibits a slightly better wiki-knowledge of Hinduism that misspells Vedanta. Here, he has a character, Peter Solomon (a thirty-third-degree Mason), inform the readers that “entanglement ... was at the core of primeval beliefs . . . Dharmakaya, Tao, Brahman ...”. Then, he extends this to Christianity: “To this day, Jews and Christians still strive for ‘atonement’ . . . although most of us have forgotten it is actually ‘at-one-ment’ we’re seeking.”
In the novel, a dialogue between physicist Katherine and Peter, with the latter batting for the ancients possessing advanced knowledge, takes the following shape:
“Okay, how about something as simple as polarity—the positive/negative balance of the subatomic realm. Obviously, the ancients didn’t underst—”
“Hold on!” Her brother pulled down a large dusty text, which he dropped loudly on the library table.
“Modern polarity is nothing but the ‘dual world’ described by Krishna here in the Bhagavad Gita over two thousand years ago. A dozen other books in here, including the Kybalion, talk about binary systems and the opposing forces in nature.”
Katherine was skeptical. “Okay, but if we talk about modern discoveries in subatomics—the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, for example—”
“Then we must look here,” Peter said, striding down his long bookshelf and pulling out another text. “The sacred Hindu Vendantic (sic) scriptures known as the Upanishads.” He dropped the tome heavily on the first. “Heisenberg and Schrödinger studied this text and credited it with helping them formulate some of their theories.” (The Lost Symbol, 2009)
The Lost Symbol asks for an esoteric reading of the Bible as a kind of the quintessential culmination of the religious evolution of humanity along with a subtle display of manifest destiny narrative.
These Brown novels in their own way accept Christianity finally as the inevitable institutional religion that should be accepted despite its deficiencies. The novels were also Brown’s own literary attempts to compensate for those deficiencies. While the literary merits, and the want of merit, of this project by Brown can be discussed by literary critics, their reach and influential presence in popular culture are phenomenal and hence cannot be ignored.
In his latest novel, Origin, Langdon returns. His student-friend Edmond Kirsch, who is a combination of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as a tech wizard, and Richard Dawkins in his contempt for religion, is about to reveal a finding which would shake the foundations of all major religions, making them obsolete. Murder and mystery intertwine with basic questions of existence. We are told again and again in a bluntly perceptible effort to build the suspense of a discovery that would shatter the basic premise of all religions. In the end, what we get is a digital fast-forwarding through time, the famed Urey-Miller experiment. The fast-forward now takes into consideration entropy and emergence of dissipative structures. The primordial soup, driven by impeccable equations, does result, at least in the realm of fiction, in the generation of DNA molecules. There is also a disembodied AI in the novel. After the typical run-of-the-mill Langdon adventures, which involve a beautiful woman, high-speed chases, some gruesome murder of men of wisdom and a platonic love of the conventionally forbidden sort between unexpected persons in high seats of authority, the story ends with the reshaping of a harmonious reality by a collective humanity inside the magnificently incomplete ‘Sagrada Família’ church.
Only one of the many problems with the latest Brown novel is the stark inconsistency of his fictional realm. Already Langdon had experienced something more primordially profound than a digitally fast-forwarded abiogenesis. Because in Angels and Demons, Catholic priest and physicist Leonardo Vetra, who would be killed by an assassin, was shown as having provided the proof for Biblical creation. Consider the following excerpt from Angels and Demons (2000):
Langdon wondered what this meant. Leonardo Vetra created matter’s opposite?
Vittoria was surprised with the indifference in Kohler’s tone. “There were other issues as well,” she said. “My father wanted time to present antimatter in the appropriate light.”
What do you think I mean? “Matter from energy? Something from nothing? It’s practically proof that Genesis is a scientific possibility.”
Given this earlier episode, one wonders how the digital abiogenesis – the emergence of life in a simulation of primordial soup in a small planet around a mediocre yellow sun – can really make any difference to Langdon’s belief system.
The novel does make a passing and not so flattering reference to Hinduism, though it starts with the mention of the World Parliament of Religions, where in 1893, Swami Vivekananda made the Western world aware of the philosophical grandeur of Hinduism. Brown, however, seems to have got his facts on Hinduism wrong, and in a dangerous manner.
In the book, the atheist tech wizard shows a video clip of an event in which children are dropped from an Indian temple terrace as one of the many ill effects of religion: “The Grishneshwar Temple Drop, Langdon thought, recalling that it was believed by some to bring God's favor to a child.” The Grishneshwar temple is one of the 12 jyothirlinga temples in India, and the event described in the novel happens in a village temple 300km away from here. Another Hindu-phobic urban legend born!
The other reference to Hinduism in the book is a listing of the so-called Hindu creation myth with other similar mythologies – as essentially similar to each other. Buddhism is mentioned twice and only in the context of a passing reference to belief in reincarnation – totally inconsequential to the narrative of the novel. Why this almost arrogant indifference and faulty categorisation of Hindu-Buddhist traditions?
Brown has talked about Eastern religions in a recent interview:
I spent some time in India and thought I might write about Hinduism. But it’s so far removed from my experience, I couldn’t even get my mind around it to write about it. Christianity, Judaism and Islam share a gospel, and it’s the one I grew up with. ... Hinduism is not monotheistic; that’s my tradition. And this is a religion of many gods. I can’t decide whether it feels more advanced or less advanced. It’s just so different.‘Here’s why Dan Brown hasn’t written about Hinduism yet in his Robert Langdon novels’, Hindustan Times, 5 October 2017
Yet, he did not hesitate to depict Hindu-Buddhist traditions like minor things in a global canvass, clearly brushing them aside. In Origin, he also does not hesitate to call Hindu numerals as Arabic ones, and almost all Hindu contributions to mathematics are passed on to his audience as belonging to Arab heritage. Hindu-phobic Christian monotheistic bias?
Interestingly, even within the Western tradition, the Kabbalah tradition of Judaism speaks of creation as emanation of the Divine. The ‘breaking of the vessels’ imagery in Kabbalah, which is related to creation, has its parallels in the Sankya tradition, where the non-equilibrium among the primordial qualities starts the evolution. Though Brown mentions Kabbalah and introduces the rabbi as an expert in it, the whole novel is deafeningly silent about how Kabbalah can provide the Western culture with an ability to absorb and accommodate the most radical of the discoveries of science. Again, one has to suspect a Christian bias for the inexplicable absence of Kabbalah in the novel.
One of the six darshanas of the Vedic tradition, Sankya has a strong non-theistic character. The almost universal acceptance of evolution one finds in Indic thought is a contribution of this school. In 1999, professor Koichiro Matsuno and a group of Japanese scientists produced a model which positioned deep hydrothermal vents in the ocean as the possible origin spot of the phenomenon we call life. Their model, after just several minutes, would produce a polypeptide chain of six amino acids.
In 1996, three years before Matsuno and his team announced the results of the first simulation of deep sea vents, Matsuno delivered the Seventh S S Bhatnagar Lecture in Hyderabad, India. Matsuno said this:
Any serious investigation on the origin and evolution of life faces a difficult task of identifying what is the real issue in a manner that almost everybody concerned would agree. In this regard, the Samkhya school founded by Kapila around the 6th century BC may give us some clue. ... An important lesson we can learn from the ancient Hindu philosophy is that evolution could be a material manifestation of an interplay between prakriti and purusha. Any disequilibrium between prakriti and purusha can induce further evolution of prakriti and purusha themselves and so on. Evolution of the purusha presumes a prototypic purusha bound to prakriti. ... What we would require is the agential dynamics of material origin, and we have seen a potential significance of measurement internal to any material bodies, or internal measurement, as consulting both the Samkhya school around the 6th century BC and contemporary physics at the turn of the 21th century.‘The Role of Asynchronous Time in the Origin and Evolution of Life’ (1996)
In 2005, there was another important breakthrough. The origin of life is not just about the emergence of nucleic acids or central replicators but also the formation of a boundary for the organism. Earliest such proto-biotic membranes were provided by vesicles made of fatty acids. Matsuno and his team reported that in a simulated hydrothermal environment, fatty acid vesicles surrounding the peptide chains remained stable and could efficiently use the free energy available. The subtle shifting of the question of the origin of life from searching for the emergence of the central replicator to the defining of the self through a semi-permeable boundary should be noted in the work of Matsuno.
Systems like Sankhya can provide the impetus for such much-needed shifts of focus which are often the basis of new and startling discoveries in science. Yet Sankhya is totally ignored in Brown’s work.
Such biased exclusions extend to the presence of Hindu influence in the core aspects of the novel. Here are three of them:
Dissipative structures are important to the plot. Brown employs them as the key component in the emergence of life. Here, the dissipative structures and their connection to the origin and evolution of early life structures are presented as the work of a young physicist, Jeremy England – a fictional character.
In real life, the work on dissipative structures was pioneered mainly by Illya Prigogine (1917-2003). A Belgian physical chemist, he received the Nobel prize (1977) for his work on dissipative structures. He was very familiar with Hindu philosophy and imagery, so much so that he showed the dancing Shiva in the cover of his book Thermodynamic Theory of Structure, Stability and Fluctuations (1971). Later, in his lecture on the famous ‘Origins' series in Darwin College (1986), Prigogine explained why:
This shows that irreversibility generally has a dual aspect: it corresponds both to dissipation (here the heat flow) and to the formation of order (the thermal diffusion). That is why I have put on the cover of one of my books are presentation of a well known Indian symbol, the dancing Shiva, who holds in one hand a fire which destroys, and in another a drum which creates!Ilya Prigogine, Origins of Complexity, Origins: The Darwin College Lectures (Ed A C Fabian), Cambridge University Press, 1988
Almost three decades before Brown had his fictional physicist claim the application of dissipative structures to the problem of origin and evolution of early life structures, in that very lecture, Prigogine had said thus:
We wish to emphasize that irreversible processes have likely played an essential role in inscribing, so to speak, time into matter at an early stage of the Universe and producing the information carried by basic biochemical compounds such as DNA.
The work of Prigogine is not an isolated one. Varela and Maturana had pursued it further not only to life but also to consciousness and arrived at cognition as a basic aspect of life. These two Chilean scientists arrived at the phenomenon of autopoiesis (auto – self, poiesis – creation). The Indic tradition has a name for this: Swayambu.
Physicist-author Fritjof Capra has explored in detail the development of the science of entropy, dissipative structures, emerging networks and the implication for the questions of origin as well as evolution and ecology in a series of books – The Web of Life (1996), The Hidden Connections (2002) and A Systems View of Life – A Unified Vision, co-authored with biochemist Pier Luigi Luisi (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Brown gives all these elements a skip and simplifies the panorama of possibilities into the binary of creation and evolution – a problem peculiar to creator-based religions and not for Hindu-Buddhist traditions.
William Blake (1757-1827), British poet and painter belonging to the early modern period, emerges as the visionary in the novel. A line from his prophetic poem, The Four Zoas, serves as a sort of a moral of the story – “The dark religions are departed and sweet science reigns.”
As we near the end of the novel, a Catholic priest finds the words of Blake, “dark religions”, troubling because it depicts religions as “dark … malevolent and evil”. So, Langdon explains to the priest:
In fact, Blake was a deeply spiritual man, morally evolved far beyond the dry, small-minded Christianity of eighteenth-century England. He believed that religions came in two flavors—the dark, dogmatic religions that oppressed creative thinking … and the light, expansive religions that encouraged introspection and creativity.
“Blake’s concluding line,” Langdon assured him,“could just as easily say: ‘Sweet science will banish the dark religions … so the enlightened religions can flourish.’”Origin (2017)
There has already been a long tradition in Blake scholarship which has been stressing on the ‘oriental’ influence on the poet.
In the introduction to his study on the influence of ‘oriental renaissance’ on the imagery of Blake’s poetry, historian and professor David Weir points out this connection:
For many years now a fairly large contingent of critics has insisted on a relationship between Blake’s work and Hindu mythology. In 1924 S. Foster Damon claimed that Blake was “in accord with Eastern mysticism: Urthona is Dharma;Urizen, Karma; while both Tharmas and Luvah are included in Maya.” Five years after Damon’s monumental study, Denis Saurat’s Blake and Modern Thought (1929)explored certain parallelisms to “The Hindoos” by listing “essential elements of the Blakean myth” common also to “Indian religion” ... The lone work of Hindu literature that the poet assuredly knew something about is the Bhagavad Gita, and in 1947 Northrop Frye observed that “Blake was among the first of European idealists to link his own tradition of thought” with the Indian classic,taking the account of the lost drawing of “Mr. Wilkin translating the Geeta” in Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue of 1809 as evidence for such a link. Frye alsonoted, but did not explore, the possibility that Blake’s conception of three classes of human beings—Angels, Devils, and Elect—“may have come from the‘Gumas’ of the Bhagavadgita.” In 1961 Frye extended the Hindu context to a more general Oriental philosophy and made the astonishing claim that “terms from Blake and Mahayana Buddhism [could] be used interchangeably.”... A recent study of The Four Zoas by Kathryn Freeman, for instance, says that “Eastern nondualism . . . provides an analogue” for understanding the “ever present state” of undifferentiated consciousness” that Blake allegedly represents, a state that can be understood in terms of “[t]he nondualism of Keshir Shaivism, an ancient Indian philosophy.”Brahma in the West: William Blake and the Oriental Renaissance, State University of New York Press, 2003
One almost wishes Langdon is soon involved in a quest for ‘Mr Wilkins translating the Geeta’, the lost painting of the lake.
It is not accidental that the works of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) play important venues in the novel. In fact, the incomplete Sagrada Família (Holy Family) church we see at the close of the novel was built by Gaudí, who considered his architecture organic. It was more a temple than a typical church. He combined the ancient pagan, typical Gothic elements and also recognisable Islamic elements in his architecture. He was also perhaps deeply influenced by Indian architecture. Acclaimed art critic Robert Hughes (1938-2012) writes:
Critics who have wanted to turn Gaudi into a saint of modern medievalism have tended to downplay the ‘pagan’ Orientalism of much of his work, but in truth the Orient was a prime source of his inspirations.Hermit in the Cave of Making, 1992
“All styles are organisms related to nature. Some form a single block, like Greek and Roman, and others form branches and tops like Indian architecture”, Gaudí had said. Hughes points out that this interest in ‘branches and tops’ pervades the works of Gaudí: “Even the parabolic towers of the Sagrada Familia resemble elongated Hindu stupas more than Gothic spires.”
Is it an accident that wherever Brown looks in the Western tradition for spiritually compensating for the deficiencies he perceives in institutional Christianity, he ends with elements which have in one way or another a deep connection with India?
From the disowned Divine Feminine (and hence a dysfunctional first family of Christian myth) in Da Vinci Code, Brown has moved in Origin to the unfinished ‘Sacred Family’ catalysed by the challenges thrown by science to the literal interpretation of the Christian gospel. In the Christian context, there is little doubt that Brown is doing a great service to the popular Christian culture. If he is pursuing through his immensely popular novels the vision of Blake, then one can even say that, unknown to himself, he is Hinduising or at least re-paganising Christianity. But when he and Hollywood try to pass that on as the collective narrative of all humanity and zenith of spirituality, then a gross injustice is done to other more ancient and more profound traditions, not to mention the distortions of history and other traditions, as well as the false notions of religion and science.
1. In its August 2017 issue, Scientific American ran a cover story on the possibility of volcanic hot springs being the place of origin of life. The article also mentioned the hydrothermal vents as still a possible candidate for the place of origin of life. (Martin J Van Kranendonk, David W Deamer & Tara Djokic, ‘Life Springs’, Scientific American, August 2017)
2. In its 4 November 2017 issue, New Scientist came up with a cover story that suggested an interesting place where scientists are looking for the origin of life – within the cells of all current living organisms – in the cell components called ribosomes, which the article called “a living, working version of the earliest life on Earth”. (Bob Holmes, 'Before the beginning', New Scientist, 4 November 2017)
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