Nightfall (NF) was written by Isaac Asimov in 1941, when the war that was burning down Europe would escalate into a global war. It remains one of the best science fiction stories ever written and won many awards. Reams have been written about this book in the western literature. The attempt here is to subject 'Nightfall' to a Purva Paksha, i.e., examine the ideas in the book from a native Indian (Dharmic) viewpoint, utilizing some key ideas in Rajiv Malhotra's book 'Being Different'. We will rely on the original version (about 20-odd pages) of NF that was published in 'Anthropology through Science Fiction', 1971. (The next post in the TQ blog will cover another Asimov story in this book). You can read 'Nightfall' online here.
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NF visits the human-inhabited planet of Lagash at a most critical point in its civilization, when five of its six suns have fizzled out, and the sixth ("Beta") appears to be in danger of meeting the same fate, leaving its inhabitants to endure 'night' for the first time ever. Archaeologists determine that Lagash has gone through repeated cycles of birth and destruction. Physicists , after applying the laws of gravity and orbital motions, and centuries of analysis, calculate that each boom-bust cycle lasts 2049 years that ends with a solar eclipse of a sole remaining sun. Psychologists explain that the resulting onset of nightfall and its terrifying darkness brings about an extraordinary claustrophobia among the population. Driven insane by fear and chaos, the people will proceed to light up and eventually burn down Lagash to cinder. This fear drives a bunch of scientists to build and move into an artificially lit doomsday hide-out.
On the other hand, Lagash has a group of cultists who follow 'the book of revelations' that pretty much talks about all these effects, but attributing causality to some external divine force. Furthermore, the book talks about an appearance of many stars in the sky in the end, which cult followers have to view to achieve salvation. While the cult cares less about the cause ("they believe it because the book says so"), they share valuable data with the scientists, and in this bargain, the scientists will validate that the cultists were indeed prophetic.
The scientists proceed to provide rational explanations for the phenomena that coincide with that the cult says, but as a result of this scientific explanation, increasing number of Lagashians desert the cult since they do not need the book anymore for supernatural explanations, greatly annoying the cult that accuses the seculars of Blasphemy. The scientists reciprocate this dislike for the cultists and in the end, the cultists attempt to destroy their observatory that is trying to photograph and analyze the final scene, fearing that the scientists were interfering with their moment of salvation. As nightfall descends, the Lagashians go crazy and burn down their civilization, as predicted.
Asimov's introduction to Nightfall
Per Wikipedia, Asimov says that he wrote NF after being introduced to Emerson's quote by John Campbell:
"... If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would
men believe and adore,
and preserve for many generations,
the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!
Campbell's opinion to the contrary was: "I think men would go mad." "
Asimov writes a two-page introduction to NF in this book and makes the following observations:
a. A cult that at it's core does not address the problems that cause the society's ills will hasten its disintegration.
b. Religion or science? (classical binary choice approach that characterizes the Western frame of reference). Science was successful in explaining why Lagash would burn down, and in that process were able to rescue many cultists from their dogmatic existence. But in the end, neither science, nor the cult were able to save the people from self-destructing, thereby indicating the inadequacy of the cult and science in providing timely and practical solutions for a critical problem.
Emerson, whose quote inspired the book, was greatly influenced by Hinduism. Rajiv Malhotra writes in his book 'Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism': "... Europe's encounter with Sanskrit revolutionized the European study of linguistics, and its encounter with Hinduism and Buddhism deeply informed Western philosophy and challenged the Judeo-Christian traditions. Some westerners, such as the American transcendentalists: Thoreau, Emerson and Whitman, broke away from Christian orthodoxy as a result. This process continues today ever more deeply in the mainstream of the West through yoga, meditation, healing sciences, the arts, eco-feminism, philosophy, and pop culture...".
Indeed, Emerson's aforementioned quote is taken from his work 'Nature'. Sanderson Beck notes:
".. In his essay on "Nature" Emerson reveals the essence of his philosophy:
"Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the
Soul." This has been stated before in the Sankhya philosophy of
India ... Spirit, or the oversoul which
includes all individual souls, is the eternal essence of an infinite
absolute reality which creates all the transitory phenomena of Nature
The Sanskrit terms are Purusha which means Person and Prakriti meaning Nature.."
Interestingly, Beck says "....the truth may be spoken in any language, and we must not hasten to
conclude that he merely adopted the Hindu religion, but rather that he
found there corresponding ideas to the illumination he received from his
own soul and experience in life. In his essay "Compensation" which
describes the spiritual law of karma, or cause and effect in human
action, he indicates he discovered this principle himself although it
has been known for millennia in India and is similar to Greek notions of
justice and retribution .."
This paragraph can be recognized as yet another attempt to digest Hinduism into Western universalism, and amputate critical Hindu ideas from its original body of work. In fact, Emerson's text reads but like an English re-interpretation of the original Sanskrit texts of Hinduism.
Nightfall appears to depict Emerson as the cultists in NF who see the divine in the once-in-a-thousand-year stars but at the same time, also exposes the limitations of science in solving society's most difficult problems. In the end, the scientists of Lagash are shocked to see thousands of stars that they never expected would fit into such a small sky, and as they begin their descent into terror, lose their coherence, and remain unable to find a rational explanation for this final phenomenon. On the other hands, the cultists did have an explanation, however inadequate.
Dharmic point of view
Hinduism, like other Dharmic religions, does NOT see a contradiction between itself and science. Indeed, concepts of Hinduism have not come into conflict with science so far, be it Heliocentrism, Evolution, Quantum Mechanics, or the
Theory of Relativity. The Hindu belief of cyclical time is exemplified in NF by the creative-destructive cycles of Lagash. In contrast, NF's cultists accept their book-ordained fiery end without question and implicitly reject Karma - a mindset that could have potentially changed the end result for the population. They believe that the stars that show up on doomsday are a historically divine intervention from elsewhere (duality). These stars provide, at the risk of madness, a collective salvation for only the populace of Lagash that views them but not others, who will be damned, and is thus not linked to individual Karma or Sva-Dharma. It is clear that NF's cult is not based on a Dharmic thought system but is history-centric, and nearly exactly models any Abrahamic religion.
In the end, neither the cultists (who are not dharmic but dogmatic), nor the atheistic seculars (limited by their senses to incomplete understanding) are able to develop adhyatma vidya (inner sciences, self-realization techniques) required to transcend the limitation of the human sense and the primordial fear of darkness. Doing so would have also enabled them to get past the few hours of darkness due to a solar eclipse.
Nightfall on Earth
Clearly, all religions are NOT the same, not in 1941 when the global war began, not now on earth, or in some futuristic Lagash. Every year, there are many predictions of the end of the world. Every year, the primordial fear of nightfall drives many so-called rational and smart people to believe this may well be possible and call for a collective holding of hands to fight the terror of darkness. This is how cults operate. Science merely laughs. Dharmic faiths like Hinduism, on the other hand that have no conflict with science by design, talk of timeless, cyclical time and empower you to overcome your fear of eternal darkness.