How Pure is the Purest?

Thoughts on the superlatives

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
(Thomas Gray - Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard)

It was a question by a doctor friend that set me thinking: Is there anything that can be called the purest in this world, he asked. When I said there was nothing in the whole universe that deserved that superlative adjective and that everything was an amalgam, he disagreed and said Fire was the purest thing or the purest element in the world.

Here I disagreed as Fire is the one element of the panchabhutas that has no independent existence even. It cannot burn on its own, it needs a medium like wood, charcoal, oil, wick or something similar to burn and erupt into flames. And each instance of fire is different. The fire raging in a funeral pyre, emanating foul smell of burning flesh, and that in a sacrificial altar in which sandalwood and ghee and incense are burned, spreading fragrance all around, are quite different in themselves and in the feelings created among those in the vicinity. The flame of fire could not therefore be described as the purest.

And the gem’s radiance that Thomas Gray memorably and beautifully describes in his Elegy as ‘purest ray’ cannot be purest by any means as light ray is an amalgam of seven colours from Red to Violet, VIBGYOR in reverse acronym. At best it can be an approximation only, like the gold standard of 916 in our own times that is proudly vaunted to show the purity of gold. It only means that the shining gold in front of us is only 91.6 per cent gold and the rest a lowly copper.

In fact there is nothing in this universe that is wholly pure, wholly good. EVERYTHING is an amalgam, a mixture. The water in the oceans, or lakes or rivers, the air we breathe, the earth we stand on, the space we see or travel are all an amalgam of different things. Nowhere can we find anything that is truly, wholly, hundred per cent pure. There is therefore no room for any superlative to describe them, except in our loose talk and slack writing.

What is true of the elements of this universe is also true in the case of human feelings, perceptions, characteristics and experiences. Goodness, purity, nobility, kindness, love, even hatred and villainy, are all concepts that cannot be found in anyone one hundred per cent. We cannot rightly describe a person as an embodiment of evil or as a personification of goodness. Such adjectival descriptions are way off the mark.

There is a duality in the universe that was understood and acknowledged by the seers of old, of different regions of the world or representing different religious beliefs. In Hindu cosmology there is the concept of energy and matter, purusha and prakrithi, that are behind the creation of everything found in the universe. For representative purposes they called the sun as energy and the moon as matter.

In Chinese cosmology there is a similar concept of yin and yang, the white yang representing energy and the black yin matter.

This duality, complementary or contradictory, may be found in everything in the universe, in every one of us. Day and night, light and darkness, hill and vale, rise and fall. A mountain peak cannot exist on its own. There has to be a valley. Similarly, goodness cannot exist on its own, it has to go side by side with evil. Only the proportion varies. There cannot be any absolute truth, absolute wisdom, absolute goodness. There is nothing that is the purest, nothing that is the best, nothing that is the worst. There can only be approximations.

So, move over, superlative adjectives. 

Image (c)


More by :  P. Ravindran Nayar

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