Beyond UFOs: The Alien Question
With the new report from the Pentagon and the increased interest in UFOs, not to mention the popular culture misconceptions like 'Ancient Aliens', it is time Hindu scholars, sociologists and psychologists seriously study and form a Hindu conceptualisation of interaction with extra-terrestrial intelligent civilisations.
With the much-publicised report of the Pentagon on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) which were earlier called UFOs, a lot of interest has returned back to the subject which was once a raging controversy and fountainhead of conspiracy theories.
Though the official report is due only on 25 June 2021, if the preview of its contents as revealed in the New York Times article dated 3 June are any indicator, aliens as an explanation would be out and most cases would be explained by more down-to-earth factors.
Michael Shermer, the publisher of the famous Skeptic magazine who admirably debunks many fantastic claims from extra-terrestrial implants to extra-sensory perception, space saucer photographs to spoon bending parlour tricks passed on as psychic powers tweeted this:
This is déjà vu.
After the Second World War, an epidemic of UFO sightings which, apart from eye-witness accounts also included pilot testimonies, photographs and grainy videos, plagued the aerospace, mainly of the United States. The US Air Force has had a list of committees commissioned for the study of the UFOs.
In 1948, USAF General Nathan Farragut Twining established Project Sign. Before it was closed down, the report of the project explained most of the UFO sightings in terms of mundane phenomena but suggested that some cases might be of actual aircrafts of unknown origin.
'Project Sign' was replaced by 'Project Grudge'. Many consider it more as a kind of public relations exercise designed with inputs from the Pentagon to deride and ridicule UFO claims.
The 600-pages report concluded that 'there was no evidence that objects reported upon are the result of an advanced scientific foreign development.'
Misinterpretation of natural aerial objects to a mild form of mass hysteria were attributed as possible causes along with sensationalision by the media.
Then came the most popular of them all: Project Blue Book. This was perhaps the longest openly acknowledged study of the UFOs by the USAF conducted from March 1952 to its termination on December 17, 1969.
In the last two years, in collaboration with scientists from Colorado University, it became popularly known popularly as Condon Committee, because it was headed by Colorado University nuclear physicist Edward Condon.
The conclusion was that there was no evidence for the UFOs to be of extra-terrestrial origin.
The report debunked a lot of sensational reports that had appeared in the mainstream press. For example, one of the most sensationalised 'physical' evidence was a piece of magnesium that supposedly came from a UFO exploding off the Brazilian coast.
According to press reports, laboratory tests proved such a degree of purity was impossible by any human technology then known.
The Condon committee obtained a piece of this magnesium and had it analysed by neuron activation in a laboratory of the Internal Revenue Service. The result was that it was not nearly so pure as the magnesium produced in 1957 by Dow Chemical Company.
Most mainstream scientists appreciated the Condon Committee report.
But UFO-believers and those who had witnessed the aerial phenomena were not convinced. Among them were also charlatans. George Adamski (1891-1965) claimed that he had encountered not only an UFO but had made contact with the beings in it.
The extra-terrestrials he claimed to have met were from Venus. He himself claimed to have visited Venus. He wrote books. He produced photographs and even a video. They were all debunked.
Such persons who were more cultist-conmen than serious researchers or genuine witnesses to whatever they saw or experienced, gave the field of UFO-logy a bad name.
But there were serious sceptics who doubted the Condon report more than the UFOs. One of them was Joseph Allen Hynek (1910-1986). An astronomer, he started as a debunker of the UFOs. His Project — Project Star Gazer — with its high-altitude telescope and the Image Orthicon video telescope, had revolutionised the field of astronomy as it was then.
Being part of the USAF investigation into UFOs, he was privy to most of the UFO cases investigated by USAF. If one man should be credited with creating an aura of respectability for UFO research, it is Allen Hynek.
This dissenting scientist who had once worked for USAF and had denounced UFOs, was the one who came up with the now very famous classification system for the UFOs: Close Encounters of the first kind: visual sighting of the UFOs; CE of the second kind: physical impact of the UFO experienced by the witnesses or in the environment including in the machinery; CE of the third kind: the beings in the UFO are seen.
Another important personality in the field of UFO-logy is the French astronomer-computer scientist, as well as venture capitalist, Jacques Vallée.
Both Hynek and Vallee became quite close and along with many off-the beat scientists they created something called invisible college which played an important role in Hynek openly coming out against the Condon Report.
On the other side were mainstream scientists. Somehow, they were seen as establishment scientists. The most outspoken of the debunkers of UFO phenomenon was Carl Sagan (1934-1996).
There are deeper cultural and sociological questions here, beyond the question of UFOs being real or imagined. Two iconic movies made on the quest for aliens, which were taken two decades apart can be considered as best starting points to discuss these aspects.
In 1977, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, directed by Stephen Spielberg was released.
As the title reveals, it was inspired by Allen Hynek. It also featured Lacombe, a French scientist character based on Vallee.
The movie became a classic.
In 1997, the movie Contact directed by Robert Zemeckis was released. It was the adaptation of the 1985 science fiction novel of the same name by Carl Sagan.
No need to say they both represent extremely two different searches for contact with alien intelligence.
They are polar opposites. Yet, they shared some interesting common core elements.
While Spielberg had admitted that he had become a sceptic of sorts regarding the UFOs, the movie weaves quite a few amazing threads together. One is the religious symbolism. The alien-human communication is through musical notes which are given to people in India.
These notes are gathered by Western scientists from a religious gathering. Human language differences are insisted from the beginning. In Biblical mythology, God created multiplicity of languages to confuse humans from building the tower of Babel.
Now, in a place in the American wild west called ‘Tower of the Devil’, the ‘Mother Ship’ lands and there the human-alien communication through musical notes.
The UFO experience splits families. The wife and children of one of the receivers of the UFO-vision leave him as he is obsessed with the vision. In fact, for this person, the very UFO encounter is made to look like the Damascus encounter of Saul.
The same vision brings people from varied backgrounds – well, twelve of them.
The scientific community did not much like the movie. Science fiction writers were divided. Ray Bradbury appreciated the movie. Isaac Asimov on the other hand was appalled.
Looking back after 44 years, one can say that the Close Encounters was more about inner space than outer space — the inner space of the Christian West, alienated by an atomistic society and made anxious by a real possibility of Cold War nuclear annihilation.
This inner space yearned for a communication — a cosmic communion that would unite humanity in music.
As against this, Sagan’s novel was written in 1985. That was when we have become accustomed to live with the Cold War. Serious efforts were being made for peace.
This was the time one could say, in mainstream culture, Sagan had won a victory over Hynek.
A woman scientist discovers 'life' through SETI signals from the Vega system 26 light years away.
Soon they get a blueprint for a device — a device for contacting them. Despite international collaboration, the gender biases and power politics within the science establishment are brought out.
The discoverer of the signal, Eleanor Arroway, would not be allowed to travel in the device built according to the instruction received from the signals because she was an atheist-agnostic.
A whole chapter is dedicated to a rhetorical exchange between Christian religion and science. Finally, after many pages when Dr. Arroway does go through a wormhole through the alien-instruction based machine and returns, the relativistic enigma of space-time makes none believe she had actually crossed light years and made contact.
Ultimately, the contact becomes an inner experience for her.
In both Close Encounters and Contact, the problem of religion in the case of an alien encounter plays an important role. Both movies approach the problem from diametrically opposite views. But in the CE-of the third kind, the inner vision becomes an external reality.
In the case of Contact, a scientist rooted in the search of the outer space ends up with a profound inner experience. In both, the religious element is dominantly Christian. While in the case of Spielberg, who has a prejudice against Hindus, it is understandable, it is discomforting with respect to Carl Sagan.
The way Hinduism is treated in the novel, given the fact that Sagan was familiar with some of the deeper aspects of Hinduism, should create a lot of questions for Indians.
In both the movies, Hinduism is in the peripheries.
Then, one cannot find fault with Sagan or Spielberg. They are Western directors even if they pretend to speak for the planet. Unfortunately, there is no Hindu equivalent of such movies.
One should remember that sci-fi should not be taken lightly as some kind of futuristic fantasy. Consider this example.
One of the earliest serious SETI type sci-fi was The Listeners written by James E Gunn in 1972. The novel depicted signals from Capella forming the following pattern in a two-dimensional grid.
This fictional depiction can be compared with the famous Arecibo message, an interstellar radio message carrying basic information about humanity and Earth that was sent to globular star cluster M13 from Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico on 16 November 1974.
The point is science-fiction can shape the narrative in a far stronger way than we give it credit for.
Our depiction in global science fiction is an indication of our importance or not thereof in the global level in serious civilisational questions.
Carl Sagan in his The Demon-Haunted World (incidentally a title made from an Isavasya Upanishad verse), cites Carl Jung with regard to the UFOs — that they belong more to the realm of the inner space.
As early as 1969, he put forth a very interesting hypothesis — drawing a parallel between the behaviour of supernatural entities in folk literature and the reported behaviour of UFOs.
In 1969, in his book Passport to Magonia, Jacques Vallee pointed out that the 'underlying archetypes extracted' from the rumours in many countries post-1946, which he called 'the saucer myth' was 'seen to coincide to a remarkable degree with the fairy-faith of Celtic countries.'
Then in 1979, he wrote the book Messenger of Deception on UFO contacts and cults in which he put forth another hypothesis. While accepting UFOs to be real and physical, he considered the possibility of them being intentional manipulation of human belief systems.
Vallee makes an important shift — from the UFOs themselves to their psychological and sociological impacts on the witnesses and societies respectively.
In this kind of exploration, the work of Jeffrey Kripal with one of the ‘contactees’ Whiteley Streiber should be noted. While on one hand the sub-mediocre television serials with enormous successes in the West like Ancient Aliens characterise Hindu Gods and Goddesses as aliens and Puranic tools and vehicles as aircrafts and nuclear weapons, on the other hand 'Tantric-sex-experience’ gets compared to abduction experiences in the West.
So, both in the scientific search for contact with alien civilisation as well as plausible scenarios of terrestrial contact with alien civilisations and in psychological studies of human experience in altered states of consciousness of what they consider as ET-related phenomena, Hinduism gets marginalised or worse distorted in depiction.
Again, we alone are to be blamed for this state of affairs.
The dominant theologies of the West have a 'conquer and convert' approach to the other civilisations they encounter. So still the dominant sci-fi speaks of alien invasions and depict them as villains.
Hinduism recognises multiple worlds, planets and other-dimensional realms. Hindus are comfortable with non-human forms. So alien forms do not cause any spontaneous dislike.
Hindu Darshanas recognise divinity in all forms. So instead of conquer-convert theology, Hindus have an empathise-validate attitude to other civilisations. All these can play an important role in forming terrestrial protocols for contacting and communicating with possible alien civilisations.
Now with the new report from the Pentagon and the increased interest in UFOs, not to mention the popular culture misconceptions like 'Ancient Aliens', it is time Hindu scholars, sociologists and psychologists seriously study and form a Hindu conceptualisation of interaction with extra-terrestrial intelligent civilisations.
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