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    THE STAR FROM ANOTHER SKY: Essay on Sushant Singh Rajput's presence on Instagram

    Abstract:

    In a year that overwhelmed us with the many lives lost, the promising young actor Sushant Singh Rajput passed away on 14th June, 2020. We delve deep into the Instagram posts of Mr. Rajput in an attempt to understand his cerebral and stirring posts. He contemplated the universe, life and the human condition in several posts, characterized by an economy of words but a striking beauty of expression. We try to unearth his philosophy of life aided by his interviews and other secondary sources of information. We are grateful to his fans and admirers who maintained a record of his intellectual musing. Mr. Rajput searched for words and we look for some meanings, in a world that, perhaps, was spinning too fast on its axis to pause, listen and reflect. His words continue to resonate, long after the curtain has fallen on his exit. 

    The views espoused by the authors are their own and should not be attributed to any institute/organization.

     

    Author: Dr. Archana Kulkarni & Dr. Rajendra N. Paramanik

    Author intro:

    Dr. Archana Kulkarni is an independent researcher in Economics and has a doctorate degree in Economics from the University of Hyderabad. She has previously taught at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS), Pilani and the Central University of Andhra Pradesh, Anantapuram. She is an avid reader looking to surmount an ever-growing reading list and her interests span sports, music, nature, literature and cinema/TV series/web series.

    Dr. Rajendra N. Paramanik teaches Economics and Finance at the Indian Institute of Technology, Patna. He has a doctorate degree in Economics from the University of Hyderabad and has previously taught at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS), Pilani and the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning (SSSIHL), Puttaparthi.  He is a traveller in search of the next destination and enjoys interacting with people. His interests include yoga, politics, sports, music and Bengali literature.

     

    The Essay

     

    “Somewhere between neurons and narratives, I was born, Lived (dreamt) and seemingly died…”. The use of the word ‘dreamt’ as a synonym for ‘lived’ stands out in the Instagram posts of the young actor Sushant Singh Rajput who passed away last year. The ephemeral quality of his life does not take away from the fact that he lived it on his own terms, fearlessly; packing in as many herculean challenges as he could in his short life.  He left the world with bits and pieces of his perspective on life, reality, science, spirituality and mystique in the form of his posts on Instagram and Twitter. These fragments of thought on the vast puzzle that is life and the human condition lend themselves to interesting interpretations about his philosophy. These interpretations though are accompanied by the caveat that one can never claim that these are the only legitimate ways of seeing or accurately depicting what was passing through Mr. Rajput’s mind when he wrote his posts on Instagram. As the actor himself stated in an interview, robbed of context, information becomes meaningless(1); similarly stripped of the context in which these posts were penned, the specific stimuli which triggered the brief burst of expression, one can at best shoot arrows in the dark, hoping to strike some grain of truth. Nevertheless, as he unfailingly did, we dare to make the attempt.

    The evidence suggests that Mr. Rajput was ploughing through tracts of non-fiction on science, psychology, neuroscience and biology, acting and cinema. He seemed to be drinking in the infinite ocean of information and then offering snippets of his thoughts on social media for those who cared to listen. Instagram was one such popular forum where the actor’s current number of followers stands at 13.7 million; 5 million followers are reported to have been added after his tragic demise (2). The nature of the social platform Instagram though stands in stark contrast to the type of content Mr. Rajput was posting on it. The utility of the app lies in sharing heightened visual experiences and perspectives of one’s life for a celebrity, individual or community user (3).

    Mr. Rajput’s philosophical posts on Instagram, appended with the hashtag ‘#selfmusing’, can be thought then of as captions to his pictures. Perhaps because of this positioning, the majority of these posts offer no context for the content; there appears to be no correlation between the picture posted and the accompanying text. One can only infer that Mr. Rajput was constrained by the nature of the app to post a picture only so as to enable the text to find a place within the app. Given his celebrity status and the nature of the app, it inevitably follows that Mr. Rajput’s cerebral posts sparked little discussion that centered on the content of the text. The usual fan responses are in abundance but no real celebration of the brilliant young mind by taking the conversation forward or igniting a debate. The same observation holds true for Twitter, touted as the forum for intellectuals and those who matter to make their voices heard - the conversation largely began and ended with the philosophical observations of Mr. Rajput. For the actor, an introvert by his own admission, who found it difficult to articulate his thoughts clearly or express himself freely when not acting or dancing, social media provided a safe space for self-expression. Only, Mr. Rajput, during his lifetime, was sending his messages out into a vast void. Those who viewed the posts became enamoured with the images of a handsome young man and his many accomplishments, the text probably garnered a cursory glance or platitudes.

    In the language of set theory, in the universe of Instagram users, Mr. Rajput’s musing would have caught and engaged the attention of the user who was at the intersection of the circle containing his many followers, another circle containing bibliophiles interested in science, the cosmos and philosophy and another circle containing those who ruminated on such matters. The evidence indicates the intersection contained very few elements. Following his death, Mr. Rajput’s posts have attracted much attention and his musing has attained mythic proportions. We attempt to offer a glimpse of the man, not the myth, aided by his own words.

    The Instagram posts serve as a record of Mr. Rajput’s views on different matters that were far from mundane and anything but simple. To the lay Instagrammer the posts may appear vague and incoherent at times because Mr. Rajput’s writing was esoteric and often referenced concepts from Physics that one may not immediately associate with the posts. A case in point is how Mr. Rajput describes himself in his Bio as ‘Photon in a double-slit’. He encapsulates himself in a nutshell and yet when this is cracked open, he resists definition and opens himself up to interpretation, refusing to be circumscribed by these pithy words. ‘Photon’ refers to a tiny energy ‘packet’ of electromagnetic radiation. It originates from the Greek word ‘photos’ meaning light. The words ‘double-slit’ denote the famous double-slits experiment that revealed for the first time that light was a wave (4). The dominant view during the 19th century was that light was wave-like in nature based on experiments performed by Thomas Young. The 20th century upended this notion by establishing the particle-like nature of light through the work of Max Planck and Albert Einstein. Thereafter this dual nature – that light could exhibit wave-like and particle-like behaviour - came to be recognized as the wave-particle duality (Polkinghorne, 2002). This wave-particle duality is one of the many dualities that pepper the landscape of physics. Dualities can be found a dime-a-dozen in other fields as well, for instance mathematics with its projective geometry, philosophy with the Yin-Yang duality, in myth, literature and the arts. The classic symbol for theatre also calls to mind the duality of tragedy and comedy, where a single actor can make the switch from despair to exuberance with a flick of the wrist as the masks interchange. 

    Mr. Rajput exemplified energy in his life, penning copious lists of books he had read and loved, 150 dreams he wished to pursue, followed by posts that saw him cleaving through the list with a scythe as he shot consecutive bulls-eye as a left-handed archer (not his favoured hand presumably), learning to fly a plane, visiting CERN (European Center for Research in Particle Physics) and so on. This spirit spilled over into his work as well; several colleagues and directors noted the passion with which he inhabited a character for a film, transforming himself into the person in the script, shedding all traces of his authentic self when the arc lights were on. The duality he referenced then indicates a nod to an abiding interest of his – Physics – while speaking volumes of the duality that his profession required of him. He could be Sushant Singh Rajput in private and as a professional, the artist and actor that each role demanded from him (5). He seemed to traverse the distance from his person to the character so effortlessly that one might be beguiled into thinking it was easy. His art lay in this deception. Mr. Rajput spoke of the excitement of being able to express himself whilst on stage or in front of the camera. That was where he felt most “alive” and the transformation from the individual to the character was complete. He spared no effort and feared no limitations or discomfort in this process of metamorphosis. An Instagram post shows how he revamped his room and embraced a minimalistic style of living to understand how a ‘Pitthoo’ (6) lives and thinks as he prepared to play this character for the film Kedarnath that released in 2018.

    It is important to note that physicists believe, following the ideas of Niels Bohr of complementarity (7) regarding the dual nature of light, that both the wave and particle forms must be considered with equal seriousness as they are complementary ways of perceiving the same entity. The particular form that one perceives depends on the particular question one is aiming to answer – is light a wave or is it a particle? Each question yields a different answer, the answer that one is expecting (Polkinghorne, 2002). Similarly, Mr. Rajput’s talents meant that each persona he donned had equal validity – he could be Lakhna Singh or Ishan or himself and it would be difficult to extricate one from the other.

    The intensity he brought to each endeavour he took up likely stemmed from his rich inner life of the mind. He was cerebral in his posts and vocal about living in the present. He emphasized making the most of the moment in which each person lived without fretting too much about the past or obsessively planning for the future. This focus on a time gone by or yet to come only means that the here and now has been lost without being truly experienced. Mr. Rajput often cites the example of ‘impact bias’ that researcher Dan Gilbert explained as human beings’ general tendency to overestimate the impact of future events, whether positive or negative, but specifically for negative events, on our emotional well-being. This is largely due to individuals ignoring their ability to adapt to such events on the strength of their psychological immune system, fearing they will regret their actions in the future (Gilbert et al., 1998; Gilbert, 2006). For instance, research in psychology has shown that paraplegics and lottery winners could be equally happy nearly six months after the respective life-changing events and this contradicts our expectations of how these events could affect our lives (Brickman et al., 1978). Mr. Rajput was well aware of this bias and highlighted this in his interviews and posts. In one such particularly affirmative post he writes,

    “Just heads up. This planet is taking us at 30 km/sec toward our finality. Let’s make sure we live today. Much love”. Physics and philosophy are inextricably linked in his musing as 30 km/sec is the speed at which the earth revolves around the sun.

    In another he strikes a somber and cautionary note, “We behave like mortals in all that we fear and immortals in all that we desire. We must live immediately”. Here Mr. Rajput paraphrases Seneca from ‘On the Shortness of Life’ (49c.  A.D.), a powerful voice from Stoic philosophy. Seneca advocates living with purpose and intention so as to make the best use of the time one has in hand. An Instagram post shows Mr. Rajput absorbed in ‘The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance and the Art of Living’ (2016) by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, indicating that he was familiar with the Stoics. 

    The intense focus on living in the present is an over-arching theme in his posts and interviews. Mr. Rajput often described his journey from being an engineering college dropout to a successful actor as leading him from the life he was expected to live to the one he finally chose for himself. He was a winner of the National Physics Olympiad, bagged the 7th rank in the All-India engineering entrance exams and could have embraced the relatively safe and known roads that an engineering degree would have taken him along. Instead, he plunged headlong into the uncertain world of acting that promised struggle and privation when he was two semesters away from getting his degree. His mantra was to truly ‘live’, conquer his fears and be all that he could possibly be. This liberation of his self can perhaps be linked to the sudden demise of his mother when he was 16 and to whom he was deeply attached. Life was too short to live with caution. He spoke often of not wasting time once he discovered the “excitement” of acting; it was all he could think of and all he wanted to do. His philosophy in these matters is encapsulated in multiple posts on the subject.

    He wrote, “I don’t know much but one thing I can say for sure. ‘should’ is lifeless, ‘Cannot’, the biggest liar. Give some room to ‘maybe’ in your life. Maybe it will change everything. “

    In another evocative post he wrote,

    “I took few of my ‘maybe’s,

    Wrapped it up in reckless dreams,

    Tossed it up with some spare passion,

    And the earth gently shook.”

     

    He was a rebel with a cause. The cause was his own happiness. He spoke to young engineering students at a college fest about how the distinction between “cause and effect” vanished when one was pursuing something one was passionate about – “excitement’ was the cause for taking up the action and “excitement” was the effect (8). He wanted to live life with a vengeance and make up for lost time. Doing nothing was never an option for the young actor. He wrote, “To feel that one could live without doing something is enough indication that in fact one should not.” One had to act with passion and intention, the purpose was to succeed, excel at what one was doing and feel the incredible thrill of living. He believed the odds of failing should not act as a deterrent and if one failed, it should be a ‘massive failure’ (9). Mr. Rajput’s gaze was firmly fixed on the stars.

    Mr. Rajput appears to have been influenced by the ideas of Humanistic Psychology and one of its founding researchers Abraham Maslow. Maslow articulated his theory of human motivation (10) that delineated how human beings aimed to fulfill certain basic physiological needs for food, security and so on before progressing to higher-order needs like need for recognition, respect and status. The highest need that human beings sought to fulfill was the need for self-actualization when they realized their true potential and were in harmony with their competencies. Maslow spoke of how man was constantly faced with a dilemma – whether to move forward “towards growth” or step back into relative “safety”.  Mr. Rajput’s ideas seem to echo Maslow’s thoughts on the subject. He was motivated by his need to grow, the safe shores of the known and familiar inevitably brought with them boredom and monotony. He stated in an interview, “For me the opposite of happiness is not sadness, but boredom.”

    Maslow also proposed the concept of ‘peak experiences’ in 1964 which refers to “moments of highest happiness and fulfilment”.  The description of a peak experience provided by Maslow may have been the delight that acting and performing brought to Mr. Rajput. He refers to a similar but distinct concept of the ‘flow state’ and being in the ‘zone’ proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, (1975) in an interview (11). Kahneman (2011) writes, “People who experience flow describe it as “a state of effortless concentration so deep that they lose their sense of time, of themselves and their problems,” and the descriptions of the joy of that state are so compelling that Csíkszentmihályi has called it an “optimal experience.””

    This state is often accompanied by a distortion of the temporal experience where one becomes so absorbed in an activity that one’s experience of time is altered (12). Mr. Rajput while performing was in the ‘zone’ and his efforts were channelized towards experiencing this altered state of consciousness time and again by reaching his potential.

    His confidence remains infectious and his thoughts are heroic in more ways than one for a glance at his posts reveals he embodied everything he wrote. He lived the life he was exhorting others to lead.

    He wrote, “Try to be in the open air of not knowing. You would wear goosebumps like a constellation of tiny medals awarded for living with courageous curiosity.”

    This willingness to experiment and face the unknown came from some strongly held beliefs that man in reality knows nothing. Mr. Rajput’s exposure and understanding of Quantum Theory meant that he was aware of the probabilistic nature of the theory. The principle of superposition in Quantum Theory that was posited by Paul Dirac elucidates how a particle may at once appear ‘here’ or ‘there’ in the classical physical world but in the quantum world the same particle could be ‘here’, ‘there’, or ‘anywhere’ with a certain probability, ‘anywhere’ could be represented by a combination of the aforementioned states (Polkinghorne, 2002) (13). Once it was discovered in a certain place, it could be said to be ‘there’ with a defined probability. Quantum theory therefore embraced uncertainty and Mr. Rajput extended these ideas to his life and the kind of experiences he wished to create for himself.

    In a veiled reference to these ideas, he wrote, “When the true nature of everything is probabilistic, why do we work/want/fret about certainty. Try ‘maybe’ for a while.”

    Mr. Rajput challenged expectations and decided from the time he set out to follow his dreams that society would not determine his life and choices, only he would. He wrote with defiance and great spirit, “The question is not what I prefer, it does not matter at all, the question is we always want to know what the other one prefers because they seem sure and we doubt ourselves. That’s the key. We could be Gods or worms today depending upon our choice and conviction but we always want to play safe and hence we always stay in between looking down upon worms or praying to Gods. Both could not care less.”

    In another post that seems to flummox at first glance, he wrote, “If forming a majority and earning popularity were the necessary criteria to validate what you know is the only truth, the lonely successful sperm who knew the rules of the ultimate game and made you, you would have ironically given up.” He explained this post in a short interview (14) where he spoke of how if we deemed the majority opinion as being right always, then familiarity with a concept or idea would become the criteria for accepting it as true. In other words, if a lie is repeated ad nauseum it may come to be perceived as the truth.

    Mr. Rajput’s views on spirituality, reality and mystique are scattered and eclectic in inspiration. He quoted from the Hindu scriptures and on occasion from the Buddhist scriptures. He frankly stated in an interview that he was not ritualistic but believed in the existence of a higher power, the divine and acknowledged that he believed, in consonance with the Advaita philosophy, that this power was within (15). Posts show him revering the Hindu God Shiva. His posts indicate that he believed reality was not an illusion, but that ways of seeing or perceiving were key. His exposure to ideas from neuroscience and psychology appear to have influenced him deeply for in a post he spoke of how mental constructs affect our perception of the world around us. The evidence is limited though for a clear picture to emerge and we are left with the feeling that owing to his scientific temperament that meant curiosity, a willingness to suspend disbelief and an openness to new ideas, a coherent philosophy was yet to be expressed (16). Strong spiritual perspectives also require greater immersion, rigorous study often under the tutelage of a Guru or spiritual mentor and several years devoted to such practice before such views can crystallize. Mr. Rajput’s concern was with the human condition, in realizing its full potential in a meaningful way.

    Mr. Rajput believed that he struggled to articulate his thoughts with clarity and precision. He longed to understand and be understood. It may have been his penchant for scientific thinking that made him feel inadequate when it came to expressing his ideas. Science often uses the language of mathematics which leaves no scope for ambiguity and error. Everyday language, even when it attempts to convey phenomena or ideas that are anything but ordinary, may leave one with the sense of falling short. “A loss of meaning”, as Mr. Rajput put it, may result in the effort to grasp at words that cannot quite explain the beauty, symmetry or brevity of what one has in mind (17). What he overlooked was that the less than perfect expression may be considered all the more poignant and remarkable for it offers a glimpse of a mind in the making.

    As the noted physicist Edward Witten (18) put it, “…one thing I’ll tell you is that in general, when you have dualities, things that are easy to see in one description can be hard to see in the other description. So you and I for example, are fairly simple to describe in the usual approach to physics as developed by Newton and his successors. But if there’s a radically different dual description of the real world, maybe some things physicists worry about would be clearer, but the dual description would be one in which everyday life would be hard to describe.” In a different world, Mr. Rajput may have been articulate and understood, in this one he fell short in his own estimation. The fact that he tried is significant.

     

    Footnotes:

    (2) Figures reported are as on 10th January, 2021. (Hindustan Times article updated on 26th June, 2021).

    (3) These visual perspectives are heightened by the use of in-built filters and technology that renders colours brighter, creating pictures that appear more beautiful and nostalgic than perhaps they are in reality. Frier (2020) documents the journey of Instagram described by co-founder Kevin Systrom as, “…this mirror on ourselves, and it allows each of us to contribute our own experience to the understanding of this world.”

    (4) The experiment involves directing a monochromatic beam of light through two vertical slits and projecting this light on to a screen. The details can be found here. (Published Date: September 30, 2013)

    (5) Mr. Rajput seemed to be evoking the idea of ‘duality’ when he wrote “I know nothing with absolute uncertainty. Probably I’m just an average of many and sometimes contradictory approximations.” Duality in the sciences has also been used to refer to the idea that two theories may lead a researcher to the same conclusion where the conclusions may match each other only approximately in the limit or there may be exact correspondence between the two results. Perhaps, Mr. Rajput was suggesting here that he was a measure of the intermingling of the disparate characters he played, himself and the many influences in his life, as all human beings are.

    (6) ‘Pitthoo’ refers to the porter who ferries luggage and people on his back, or on horseback, along the mountainous terrain of the pilgrim center Kedarnath in Uttarakhand. Mr. Rajput reportedly enacted all the scenes, demanding much physical rigour on his part, without complaint. See Enquiry interview with Kedarnath director Abhishek Kapoor dated 17th June, 2020.

    (7) We rely on Polkinghorne (2002) who states that complementarity is “the fact, much emphasized by Niels Bohr, that there are distinct and mutually exclusive ways in which a quantum system can be considered”.

    (8) See Mr. Rajput’s speech at the IIT Bombay fest, AVENUES 2016 (Date: 23rd October, 2016)

    (9) Mr. Rajput spoke of this in a post where he wrote: “Try failing first/ And you will enjoy/Small successes more/ And while you’re at it/ Seek massive failures/ And see yourself flying.”

    (10) See Maslow’s ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’ (1943) for details. He stated, “What a man can be, he must be. This need we call self-actualization.”

    (11) See the Algebra Conversations (2017) interview. Link provided elsewhere.

    (12) Mr. Rajput spoke in various fora about his childhood experience of eagerly waiting for the hour he was allowed to play cricket. He explained how acting become equivalent, in some sense, to that hour of joy and anticipation that he experienced playing the sport as a child.

    (13) Polkinghorne (2002) explains the ‘superposition’ principle as “the fundamental principle of Quantum Theory that permits the adding together of states that in classical physics would be immiscible”. (p. 97)

    (14) See the short interview on Film Companion from 4th December, 2017.

    (15) See Mr. Rajput's interview on Starry Nights with Komal Nahata (Premiered on YouTube on 7th September, 2020). He also offered his own perspective on the Descartesian philosophy, ‘cogito, ergo sum’ when he wrote, “… But when you don’t doubt, you could still think, even when you don’t think, you could already know, what you know is exactly what you always were and will be”. This could be a reference to the immortal soul.

    (16) He stated, “The only strong opinion that I have about myself is that I don’t have any opinions”.

    (17) To offer the opposite perspective, Einstein remarked, “It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.” Quoted in Max Born, Physik im Wandel meiner Zeit, (Braunschweig: Vieweg, 1966).

    (18) Witten is the only physicist to have received the Fields Medal, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize, for Mathematics, for his discovery of the M-theory. Quote taken from, ‘A Physicist’s Physicist Ponders the Nature of Reality’ (2017), Quanta Magazine.

     

     

    Bibliography:

     

    1. Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(8), pp. 917–927.
    2. Frier, S. (2020) No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram. Simon & Schuster.
    3. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety. Jossey-Bass Publishers.
    4. Gilbert, D. (2006). Stumbling on happiness. Alfred A. Knopf.
    5. Gilbert, D. T., Pinel, E. C., Wilson, T. D., Blumberg, S. J., & Wheatley, T. P. (1998). Immune neglect: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75 (3), pp. 617-638.
    6. Holiday. R. and Hanselman, S. (2016). The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance and the Art of Living. Portfolio.
    7. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Allen Lane.
    8. Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), pp. 370-96.
    9. Maslow, A.H. (1964). Religions, values, and peak experiences. London: Penguin Books Limited.
    10. Nakamura, J.; Csikszentmihályi, M. (2001). "Flow Theory and Research". In C. R. Snyder Erik Wright, and Shane J. Lopez (ed.). Handbook of Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press. pp. 195–206.
    11. Polkinghorne, J. (2002). Quantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.
    12. Seneca, L. A. (2005) On the Shortness of Life. Penguin Books. (Original: De Brevitate Vitae, 49 c. A.D., Translator: Charles Desmond Nuttall Costa).
    13. The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Young’s Experiment’, Encyclopædia Britannica, Published Date: September 30, 2013
    14. https://www.britannica.com/science/Youngs-experiment (Access Date: 8 January, 2021).
    15. Wolchover, N. (2017), ‘A Physicist’s Physicist Ponders the Nature of Reality’ (28 November 2017), Quanta Magazine. (https://www.quantamagazine.org/edward-witten-ponders-the-nature-of-reality-20171128/) (Accessed: 10th January, 2021).

     

     

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    Ooshara Sewpaul says (Mar 30, 2021):

    Absolutely beautiful tribute to Mr Sushant Singh Rajput. Midway through reading left me with goosebumps. Beautiful exposition. Thank you very much.

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