John Langdon’s Ambigrams & Shabda Pramana

Students of Vedanta, are aware of the six means of gaining knowledge i:e Inference, Comparison, Postulation, Non-apprehension, and Verbal Testimony. While the first five are useful for gaining knowledge of the material world they are of no use for knowledge of the Self as the subject itself can never be objectified. Self Knowledge can only be attained by shabda pramana and this requires faith or shraddha in the scriptures. Even though the scriptures itself say that you don’t need them once you have gained the understanding of the Self, and invite you to study them with the condition of shraddha, one’s intellect continues to hold back. My intellect would agree with the argument that for perception, you need eyes, for knowing about sounds you need ears and you cannot interchange the two senses i.e. you cannot use the ears to see nor eyes to hear; similarly, you cannot gain Self knowledge through any other means other than the scriptures.

For a long time, I could understand this conceptually and intellectually but could not easily make it as a part of my being or continue to stay in this understanding for any reasonable length of time. “Just as you allow a surgeon to operate upon you because you have shraddha in him, so too you require shraddha to allow this pramana to operate upon you’ adviced my teacher. Analogy of treating the scriptures as a working hypothesis was also helpful as it meant only a temporary surrender till I was fully satisfied intellectually. Similarly, Swami Chinmayananda’s example of using the scriptures as the pole and vaulting across the horizontal bar leaving the pole (scriptures) behind again helped me stay on the path of conviction in treating the scriptures as pramana for Self Knowledge. And yet, there was no unconditional faith. No shraddha.

——————-

It was around 2005, that I first came across John Langdon’s ambigrams through his book ‘Wordplay’. When I read the foreword by Dan Brown, (who had engaged him to create ambigrams for his book ‘Angels & Demons’ and was so impressed by his work that he decided to name the protagonist in the book as Langdon) I too let out a similar gasp of wonder when I could read “philosophy” both ways. I was intrigued by the intersection of philosophy, art and science and how John choses to represent select words in a graphical way that not only reveals their meaning, but also makes you repeatedly contemplate over the word and the meaning it represents.

Sometime in 2008, I decided to name my new venture as ‘Advaita Ventures’. I grappled with several ideas for the logo and let the thought remain without having reached any satisfactory conclusion. One day during my morning meditation, it suddenly struck me that I should approach John Langdon for designing an ambigram of the word Advaita. Since Advaita meant not two, what better way to graphically represent it than an ambigram? Excited, I immediately wrote to him seeking to commission him for the logo. After a few days he wrote back saying that some words do not lend themselves to be molded into an ambigram and regretted his inability to take up the assignment. Not the one to give up easily I wrote back to him, mentioning that I got the idea to make Advaita into an ambigram when I was meditating and consequently was confident that he indeed could make an ambigram out of this word and told him I was prepared to wait for as long as it would take for him to design Advaita as an ambigram for me. Such a unusual reply from a prospective client, made him reflect on the word further and he replied back and said that he changed his opinion and now felt that he could indeed make an ambigram out of Advaita.

We worked back and forth on few iterations and finalized this version. I used slightly saffronish accents as it would also imply the renouncing aspect of a jnani rooted in advaita.

Advaita 2

Subsequently having founded Advaita Academy to preserve and promote traditional Vedanta, I stopped using this logo for my commercial venture and made it as the logo for AA. Not being satisfied with just one ambigram, I wrote to him again and requested him to do further ambigrams on few more words relating to Advaita. We did four more  ‘One’,’Not Two’ ‘That thou Art’ and ‘Tat Tvam Asi’.

One

Not two

That Thou Art.jpg

Tat Tvam Asi.jpg

Meanwhile, I was designing the cover for Dennis Waite’s book on Advaita titled ‘The Book of One’. We were also promoting the book in some select spiritual & yoga magazines and wanted to launch an ad campaign.

Around the same time, Dan Brown’s book ‘The Lost Symbol’ was released and there was considerable hype around it as it was his immediate release after the world wide blockbuster “The Da Vinci Code”. Being a lover of puns, I could immediately see a punny way to promote “The Book of One’ riding on the curiosity over the ‘The Lost Symbol’.

So I wrote to John very carefully, seeking his permission to use his surname for an ad campaign for promoting the book on Advaita. Here is what I wrote:

Quote

“John,

 I am in the process of thinking through an Ad campaign for the Book of One. It will be primarily published in relevant magazines.

 I was thinking of an audacious idea for your consideration. Please smile and indulge in me.

 I have made a very crude version. Basically to give you an idea. We will have both the upside versions of the front cover. The actual narration can be worked by the copy writers. The headlines are what matters and require your permission.

 Don’t chide me please.”

End quote

His reply made me smile. Here is what he wrote back:

Quote

Kiran,

 I like audacity in general, and I like yours a lot!

 I would suggest that the headline read, “Professor Langdon has found a new symbol.”

I am, in fact, a full professor. While you and the copywriters cannot legally refer to Angels & Demons in the promotion of my part in your product. You may (in my non-lawyerly opinion) refer to Dan Brown’s most recent book, and the character Robert Langdon, and take advantage of the ambiguity inherent in your idea, but I think that not using Robert or John is a good idea…

 John

End Quote.

Taking his advice this was the advertisement we released in Yoga International.

Advaita - Joyful Living - Ad - 8.75 x 10.pdf - Final for process copy

——————-

As I look back at the ambigrams I had requested John to do, I have become more steeped in my understanding of the role of words in Self Knowledge. My own attempts to chisel the words (using the skills of John) to convey their meaning is making me realise the importance of shabda. Each of the words for which he made an ambigram were words or sentences from the scriptures. Like wise the intent of the pun was to state one thing,while trying to convey something else. Again using the words to communicate something deeper.By choosing to graphically represent the words in unity or as an ambigram, not only did I seek to convey their essence to others, I  myself contemplated on their meaning regularly. Slowly but surely, the transformation, and the unconditional faith in shabda pramana is manifesting and the wonderful world of shraddha is opening up to me, the stage where there is no ego nor is intellect a barrier to the study of scriptures.

Thank you John.

Om Tat Sat.

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