What makes us human?

“It was huge and dark, like a moving boulder. The mouth as large as a cave, it’s roar like thunder!”

Telling stories by the bonfire.

Telling stories by the bonfire. AI Art by Dall-E

What qualities make us human, and separate us from ‘lower’ intelligences such as animals, and machine intelligences with immense computing power. Is it our ability to think and feel and communicate, in an astonishing variety of ways? Is it our empathy for fellow living beings? Is it an inherent code of base ethics that glues societies and prevents anarchy?

A leading candidate is creativity. In the words of poet-philosopher Shathavadhani Ganesh, creativity itself cannot be measured or even discussed in isolation. We can only view it in its manifestations, one of them being language. Despite LLMs making inroads in it, language, as we use it in all its shades, is still very much a human endeavour. Within language, creativity manifests as stories.

Why stories? From the days of the Neanderthal man, when groups clustered together around bonfires to ward off the chill and listened, wide-eyed, to tales of great monsters and far-off lands, storytellers with vivid imaginations have fired the synapses of listeners’ brains, building vivid images in their minds.

The comparisons that storytellers draw between seemingly unrelated entities amaze us. We have a unique ability to draw comparisons, in the similes and metaphors that govern our spoken language, our literature and our songs. This ability takes its birth in poetry and is then visualised in art, architecture, music, literature and other uniquely human endeavours. The height of this is seen in poetry, an art form governed by metaphor.

“Love is a smoke made of a fume of sighs!”
– (Romeo) William Shakespeare

 From the days of Shakespearean similes to modern-day poets writing in a dizzying array of styles, poems are a powerful testament to the humanness in us. Here’s a metaphoric line from a favourite modern poet –

ನಾ ನಿನ್ನ ಕನಸಿಗೆ ಚಂದದಾರನು
ಚಂದ ಬಾಕಿ ನೀಡಲು ಬಂದೆ ಬರುವೆನು

“I am a subscriber to your dreams
I’ll definitely visit them to pay my dues.”

Jayant Kaikini in ‘Gaalipata’ (Kannada)

The words paint scenes in our brain, with images that no ‘real’ visual or VFX can do justice to. Have you ever been disappointed when your favourite book was made into a movie? The visualisation in the movie, even in the hands of an Oscar-winning director, can never match the what your mind conjures up.

Consider the images this couplet from Sanskrit evokes in your mind’s eye –

करारविन्देन पदारविन्दं मुखारविन्दे विनिवेशयन्तम्।
वटस्य पत्रस्य पुटे शयानं बालं मुकुन्दं मनसा स्मरामि।।

Grabbing his lotus-like foot with his lotus-like hand,
Mukunda places it in his lotus-like face [sucks his toe]
As he floats on a banyan leaf
I [reverently] think of this baby.

The same simile multiple times! Depending on your background, your reaction to a solo infant on his back on a leaf floating in the water, sucking his toe, could draw out so many ‘What if’ stories.

Cutting across cultures and languages, these figures of speech defined human thought and spurred human imagination, even ambition.

Back in the mists of time, in the dense forests of Dandaka in the Indian subcontinent, poet-bards (called Sutas) narrated tales of gods and gandharvas to avid listeners after fire sacrifices were completed. Our earliest compendiums, the Puranas, and the Mahabharata are all in such a narrative form. The stories are full of similes and metaphors, and other sophisticated turns of speech.

Sanskrit literature was enriched by poet laureates whose distinct styles led a wag of that era to posit that:

उपमा कालिदासस्य भारवेरर्थगौरवम् ।
दण्डिनः पदलालित्यं माघे सन्ति त्रयो गुणाः ॥
upamā kālidāsasya bhāraverarthagauravam |
daṇḍinaḥ padalālityaṃ māghe santi trayo guṇāḥ ||

Kalidasa’s Similes, Bharavi’s deep meanings
Dandin’s beautiful words and Magha (with/has) all the three qualities!

What makes Kalidasa the ‘King of Similes’? Sample how he starts his remarkable Raghuvamsham

वागर्थाविव सम्पृक्तौ वागर्थ प्रतिपत्तये ।
जगतः पितरौ वन्दे पार्वतीपरमेश्वरौ ॥
vaagarthaaviva sampRuktau vaagartha pratipattaye |
jagataH pitarau vande paarvatIparameshvarau ||

“I bow to the parents of the universe, who are as inseparable as a word and its meaning…”

Can a word exist without meaning? At least not in the human brain. What an apt analogy for the divine couple!

Metaphorical thought spills over beyond language into art. The use of visual metaphors has led to entire schools of art – consider a favourite example, Salvador Dali’s ‘The Persistence of Memory’ –  a striking, strange work of art for any bystander, art critics call it a Surrealist take  “..on the collapse of our notions of a fixed cosmic order”. The artist himself said he drew inspiration from Camembert cheese melting in the sun. It’s exciting to interpret this in a variety of ways – perhaps even in ways the artist never intended!

Pic: By the author

Metaphors abound in architecture. This art form affords architects vast, real-world canvases to etch out their stories, drawing upon their life experiences and their extraordinary talent into brick and mortar. Consider the Lotus Temple in Delhi, designed by Iranian-American architect Fariborz Sahba. The structure adheres to Baháʼí conventions that stipulate their house of worship must be nine-sided and circular. It derives inspiration from the humble lotus, a sacred symbol in India. The marriage of these cultures in this building results in a beautiful and memorable visual metaphor, and a landmark in India that invites people of all faiths to sit up and pause.

Pic courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Reducing “humanness” to figures of speech is perhaps an exercise in absurdity, but like the blind men feeling the elephant, it is an attempt to understand what makes us ‘not machines’.

What else makes us human, do you think?

If you’re curious:

  1. “Minchaagi neenu baralu” – a typical movie song elevated to great lyrical heights by metaphor master Jayant Kaikini.
  2. Peak Living — In Conversation with Shathavadhani Dr. R.Ganesh | Philosopher | Poet | Polygot

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