26/02/2015 8:17 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

What Is Sight?

"I made a decision," he explains, "that I would become something, that I would serve the world, that I would see even without my eyes."

An Indian Hindu priest performs puja - prayers - inside a Lord Shiva temple in Bangalore on February 10, 2010. A portion of the temple complex has been modified to give devotees an experience of the Shiva pilgrimage to five Shiva temples in Haridwar, Rishikesh, Badrinath, Kedarnath and Amarnath for the upcoming Maha Shiva Ratri. Maha Shiva Ratri is considered one of the most auspicious times on the Hindu calender and special prayers are organised in all the Lord Shiva temples across the globe to celebrate Maha Shiva Ratri. AFP PHOTO/Dibyangshu SARKAR (Photo credit should read DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

"Before we leave, can I please have one photo with you?" he asks while taking a camera out of his pocket and handing it to his friend. "Of course," I say and I start to move nearer to him. I am typically opposed to random people taking pictures with me and try to discourage it as sweetly yet sternly as possible. However, when the universe has already denied him so much, I cannot conscionably deny him anything more. With some eye that hasn't been blind for the last sixty years, with some faculty as yet unknown to modern science, he aligns himself exactly next to me, without laying a single hand on my body. "Smile" he commands with a laugh, as his mouth widens into a full toothed grin which spreads across his entire face. The camera flashes in our eyes. He doesn't blink, of course. "Take one more," he instructs his friend. "Just in case."

What will he do with this photo of me? He could neither see me sitting in front of him nor see the camera he removed from his pocket nor see the rushing Ganga river that flows outside the ashram. He can see nothing, as he lost all sight at the age of eight or nine. Yet he sees more than I do. He sees more than nearly anyone I know.

At the age of 19 his mother had tried to kill herself when his father died. He was four at the time, and his mother succeeded only in rendering herself completely deaf, not in actually ending her life. Due to cultural circumstances dictated by severe lack of education and other constraints in rural Southern India, his maternal grandparents decided that the best thing for his mother would be to live out her remaining years, however many they might be, sitting on a bed, eating, sleeping and chewing pan. "She became a hunchback from bending over all day long to spit out the pan," he describes. "Sixty-six years she lived like that, a forced invalid due to the loss of her hearing. "Upon his father's death and mother's deafness he had been sent to live with his paternal grandparents. "I made a decision," he explains, "that I would become something, that I would serve the world, that I would see even without my eyes."

The list of organisations he has initiated and headed would put any successful philanthropist to shame. An active Rotarian, president of an NGO dedicated to women's welfare, a leader in the blind movement in USA and India....He led India's first march for equal rights for the blind, only to be lathi-charged by the police who thought the peaceful marchers' canes were sticks. Grabbed from behind and tossed - all fifty meagre kilograms of him - into a police van, attacked and beaten along with his fellow conspirators, before anyone in uniform realised the reason no-one's eyes squeezed shut before the lathi struck their heads. Yet he laughs as he describes it; there isn't a trace of bitterness or anger, just lessons well learned on the need for proper publicity and education prior to undertaking any further public processions.

As he's getting ready to leave he asks me for literature, documents, on our organisation, on Pujya Swamiji's work. I put a pile of brochures and books into his outstretched hands, touching his fingers to the spine of each as I explain what they all are. "This is a brochure of our Foundation, this is Pujya Swamiji's book on Peace," I tell him, as he gingerly fingers each book with the loving and eager attention of a child feeling his mother's face for the first time. "Unfortunately," I stammer, slightly embarrassed, "we don't have any books on tape, although after meeting you I realise that maybe we should undertake that as well." He smiles. "Oh, don't worry. I will use these two eyes to read them. I will find a way."

Later in the evening, he is due to leave the ashram but is determined to have darshan of Pujya Swamiji first. He waits, along with so many others, in the reception area until his name is called. How easy it would have been to leave on time without waiting for Pujya Swamiji's schedule to free up. For, he cannot see anyway. How easy to offer respects in his own mind, or through one of us. But he was adamant. He would wait for darshan despite the long journey ahead of him. I am reminded of the story of a great saint of Vrindavan, also blind, who would travel by foot each day to Banki Bihari mandir . One day in the midst of torrential monsoons, he alone braved the flooded alleyways to be present for evening aarti. The priest, looking upon the sole worshipper that day, asked him, "Swamiji, you of all people, here in this weather? You could have stayed home and offered your prayers to the Lord at home, in your own mind. You cannot see the darshan anyway, so there was no reason for you to come out in this weather." "Oh, my child," the Swami replied. "I may not be able to see Him, but surely He can see me."

Later, seated in Pujya Swamiji's jyopri (bamboo hut) my new friend bows down low to that which is Light to us and yet couldn't have been anything other than continued darkness for his non-seeing eyes. How did he know, before Pujya Swamiji even spoke, where to bow? How did he know the exact perfect angle at which to lay his head so it was just in front of Pujya Swamiji's feet? How did his otherwise vacant eyes shine when he lifted his head? What had been perceived?

What is sight? Simply a series of neural impulses, connections and information sent electrically from the retina through the optic nerve and ultimately to the occipital lobe in the back of the brain? If that's all it were then everyone who saw the same scene would encode it and perceive it in the same way, barring of course any weakness or fault in the mechanisms of sensation or perception. Then court battles wouldn't be fought with one eye witness saying the getaway car was green and another swearing it was blue. Clearly our "sight" is so much more than the encoding of neural stimuli. What is it then? Much research has been done in the field of neuronal perception, regarding differing abilities of the blind with regard to light, shape, colours, etc. Some are able, even many years after losing all function of the retina or optic nerve to still "think" in form and imagery, while others seem to descend to a completely formless, colourless existence relatively shortly. Theories abound regarding the differences being related to damage in different areas of the brain, or due to different types of personalities or the way in which each patient "exercises" the abilities they still have.

Yet, while science can study the way light is absorbed, or not absorbed, by the retina, or the way that form is perceived, or not perceived, in the occipital lobe, what about that sight which is so much deeper? What about my new friend's ability to know where to lay his head or to intuit exactly where I was standing and to stand perfectly next to me? What is he seeing through eyes with irises floating about aimlessly like lily-pads in a clear pond? Is there a mechanism of sight beyond that which we know?

Hinduism talks about a third eye, an energy centre (or chakra) located on the forehead between the eyebrows. It is said that this eye, when awakened, is the eye of clear vision, the eye which sees truth amidst untruth, which sees light amidst darkness, which sees the path amidst the forest, the eye which sees the divine in all. Perhaps through losing the functioning in his two "normal" eyes, my friend has actually been gifted with heightened functioning in the third. It is well documented that losing one sense leads to an increase in ability in the others. So, for example, blind people absolutely hear and smell better than seeing people. They are able to differentiate between sounds and smells that most seeing people cannot. However, is it possible that in addition to having enhanced functioning in their other four senses, blind people -- or at least those as spiritually inclined as my new friend -- also have an easier time seeing with their third eye? Do we, so heavily and habitually dependent upon waves and patterns of light and form to see, actually miss that which is before us? Do we, even those with peripheral vision intact, actually succumb to a different kind of tunnel-vision by assuming that that which we can "see" is limited to that which falls upon our retinas? Do we unconsciously filter out the other sight?

Perhaps, in exchange for the picture and books I gave him, my new friend could teach me how to see.

The author is the director of the International Yoga Festival at Parmarth Niketan Ashramin Rishikesh. The festival runs from 1-7 March.