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Reflections in the Starry Nights of Tien Shan Mountains – by Asif Zaidi

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Summer nights at the heights of Tien Shan Mountains are simply magnificent - mostly cloudless and clear. It is an amazing experience each time I go for camping and sit under the sparkling sky, lit with majesty, magic, and brilliance of stars.

I prefer to camp at vantage points or saddles affording a 360-degree view of the sky hanging above mountain tops, with only the sound of the wind ruffling pine needles beneath on hillsides. During my troubled moments I look up toward the sky and surrender, reminding myself how insignificant my problems are in universal context. Sometimes I philosophize with friends as we lie on our backs and study the stars above us. While we may be perched just a couple of thousand metres up, the sky seems to come down here at night by thousands of miles and stars look bigger and brighter. Fascinated by the mystery of stars, I can relate to Kant when he says, “Two things have always filled me with wonder; the starry sky above and the moral law within“, in a beautiful allegory viewing man’s outer world extending to the farthest stars and his inner world consisting in the voice of conscience in the depth of his being.

While observing the magnificence and splendour of the cosmic interstellar spaces within whose womb move the countless heavenly stars, I seem to touch an eclectic being and drift away into an expanse whose edges it is difficult to determine. It explains to me what the Quran means when it says: “And He has made subservient to you the sun and the moon, pursuing their courses and He has made subservient to you the night and the day” (Surah Ibrahim: 33). Although the planets, the sun, and the stars are pursuing their independent courses, the Quran terms them ‘subservient’ to man because of man’s faculty to reason and the ability to discover the truth of things.  With his capacity to think, man knows to predict their movements and account for their formation. Hence a man can plunge into the heart of things and feel the heart-beat of the whole creation. While the will of man does not rule the universe, man is totally free to ascertain the truth of things and the ground of their being.

As I sit there and ponder, the stars represent the utmost limit of my physical sight and my thoughts carry me to them without being shackled by my body. My imagination exclaims that there are worlds beyond these stars too and, even though I cannot envision them in my earthly abode, I feel myself a part of the spiritual process of the Universe – much of it yet unknown to me. As the night wears on, on the eastern horizon, the moon seems to furtively wander from China into Kazakhstan. The nights when it is fuller its light cloaks the brightness of the stars, the borrowed light of the moon eclipsing the original luminosity of the stars. This reminds me how we, bound by time and space, are the prisoners of our perspective, assigning prominence in relation to nearness. I feel humble and continue to look at the starry sky as a new significance reveals itself to me.

The object of man’s life is to correct the appearance to discern the truth of things. Our imagination supplies the third and the hidden dimensions of what our eye reveals to us. As Plato tells us: “It is not the eye that sees, it is I that see.” This is man’s destiny in the world; to perceive, to contemplate, to realize, to discover the Universe, to understand Nature, and to relate to his external world while being moored in his inner soul. To consciously integrate these two worlds is to live spiritually. Spirituality has no other connotation, no other substance. To bequeath upon man this ability and opportunity of discerning the truth of things is the greater gift of the Maker to man. This is a boundless journey, as Milton describes:

Others apart sat on a hill retired

In thoughts more elevated and reasoned high

Of Providence, Fore-knowledge, Will and Fate—

Fixed fate, Free will, Fore-knowledge absolute—

And found no end, in Wandering Mazes lost.

The Universe is a maze of interrelated schemes of divergent bodies and domains of manifestations of the spirit. Anyone who does not reflect on the totality of all there is and sees the relationships among various parts as well as of each part to the whole will remain a prisoner to his perspective as I explained above. The evolution of human life reflects the highest manifestation of the primordial impulse of creation. All our aspirations and instincts emanate from the depths of life itself. They can be traced to the deeper strata of human personality and often hark back to the animal, the botanical, the chemical, and other levels of life’s evolution. Man is thus rooted in a supra-individual reality that gives direction to his life. This illustrates the primeval unity of the individual life with the whole Universe. We have seen that when love takes possession of the soul of man he ceases to belong to the fixed formation of a clan, religion, or community and is transported into the world of universal. All those shackles that bound him disappear in submission to the infinite power of love. Similarly, we have seen that faith makes a man look to the yet unborn future with hope and courage.

This is how the starry sky in the rough country of Tien Shan Mountains reminds me of the measure of our reach and the essence and universality of life. In the end I will borrow Lord Tennyson’s words to seek our Lord’s grace.

Our little systems have their day;

They have their day and cease to be:

They are but broken lights of thee,

And thou, O Lord, art more than they.


We have but faith: we cannot know;

For knowledge is of things we see;

And yet we trust it comes from thee,

A beam in darkness: let it grow.


Let knowledge grow from more to more,

But more of reverence in us dwell;

That mind and soul, according well,

May make one music as before,


But vaster. We are fools and slight,

We mock thee when we do not fear

But help thy foolish ones to bear;

Help thy vain worlds to bear thy light.


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