Sunday, October 23, 2016

What is Vaidῑkam?

The word Vaidkam means that which follows the Vedas. All branches of Hinduism claim their roots to the Vedas. Therefore, they call themselves Vedic religions (Vaidkam). But they are not, as defined by Kạnchi Periyavạl. He says that a Vedic religion has to accept all portions of the Vedas and not oppose any part of them. They should also follow all the 40 samskạrạs mentioned in the Smriti texts and not add new ones. They should follow all the varnạṣrama darmas, not just portions of them.

For example, some focus on only one aspect of the trinity, such as iva (pạśupáṭam) or Viṣnu (pạncarạtram). They tend to exclude other aspects of the trinity. They add samskạrạs not mentioned in the smritis, such as placing mudras on the body as in some sects of Vainavaites. Some of them also promote the idea that the authority they derive is not only from the Vedạs but also from the ạgamạs and purạnạs. They also tend to claim that their method of worship was given to them by their favorite deity. They become separate sects when combined with tạntric rituals.

There are also the straight tạntric religions such as that of kulạrnava sạktam. In general, Tạntric religions 1. Claim independent authority apart from the Vedas. They have their own “purạnạs” which they claim to be revealed texts. 2. Claim exclusive loyalty and have initiation rites. They may even condemn other Gods. 3. Follow separate rituals not given in the Vedạs. 4. Some  follow esoteric and extreme practices such as the five “M” s (the five Ms are: madya (wine), matsya (fish), mạmsa (meat), mudrạ (hand symbols or dried grains) and maituna (sexual union).

It appears that there were over 70 religions in India at one time, most of them calling themselves as Vedic religions. SAt times past, some of them practiced very crude rituals such as  animal and human sacrifice. Adi Sankara is credited with eliminating many of these sects and consolidating the rest into five major branches of theistic Hindu religion – Ganapatyam (of Ganapti, or Ganesha), Saivam (of Shiva), Vaishnavam (of Vishnu), Sauryam (Of Surya or the Sun) and Saktam (of Shakti or Mother Goddess). One caveat is that neither the word Hindu nor the word religion (as used in English) were known or used at that time. The name was “Sanatana Dharma”.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Information Overload

This is the age of Information, nay – it is the age of Information Overload. We are inundated with all kinds of information – useful, not-so-useful, wrong, misleading and outright false information. The situation is so bad that there is an Information Overload Research group! (URL:

How do we deal with this overload? There are several ways and the British Medical Journal published a humorous essay on this topic. In summary, the essay lists five different ways people deal with this problem. Here they are, together with an appropriate metaphor for each strategy.

1. The Ostrich strategy, which needs no explanation;  

2. The Pigeon strategy, which is hanging around with others who read, and pick up bits of information here and there;  

3. The Owl strategy, which is to stay with a question doggedly, and refine the question and reflect;  

4. The Jackdaw strategy, which is a mixture of the above two – some scavenging and some real effort;

5. The “inhuman” (the authors probably meant non-human) strategy, which is to make use of machines and publications, which synthesize and catalog. In medicine, there are such publications. For example,  UptoDate and BMJ Point of Care.

Reference:  BMJ 2010;341:c7126. December 15, 2010

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Time - Some Personal Reflections

What is Time? One view is that it is a perception of the human mind. We perceive the “passage” of time based on movement from here to there and by changes (increase or decrease in size or modification) in the structure of objects around us and in us. The alternating cycle of day and night is probably the primary determinant for the experience of time for life in this world. Do animals and plants have a sense of time?

Can there be “time” if there is no perceiving mind? The answer probably is “yes” since the primary determinant is the day and night cycle, at least in our world. Is the perceiver of “time”, namely me, who is the subject also  a part of time, the object? Again, the answer seems to be “yes”. But, Time is also independent of the perceiver and the process of perception. Time, indeed, rules space and what is in space, since no two physical things can occupy the same space at the same time. Space and Time are inter-related.

Time implies space or change. To go from one place to another requires time however short that distance may be. The movement gives the sense of passage of time.  What about change? Does passage of time causes change or does change gives a sense of time? For a change to occur, time is needed. But, if there is no time, will there be change? And why should change occur at all? If things are static, with no change, will there be time? Some would say that the perception of change is what gives us a sense of time.

What was there before time? That is a silly question. If we talk about time like we talk about any other object, we need to ask “when did it start?” If it did have a beginning, then what was there before time? That is also a silly question.

Kannadasan, a major Tamil poet of the 20th century said that there are two kinds of time.  One is cyclic and one is eternal. The cyclic one is associated with life, and therefore with pain and suffering. The eternal one is associated with bliss. Kannadasan thinks that there is only one time; humans see it as two. He goes on to say: “I am in charge of the drama called Time. I keep today for myself and leave tomorrow for time.  If time asks me I do not answer. I do not cry when time hurts me; and I do not laugh when life hugs me”.         

Life is a mystery. Time is an even greater mystery. Time was existent before life appeared on this planet. But, there was no one to call it by a name.

Time is a constant of the universe. There are only two ways to look at Time, as Kannadasan pointed out – as eternal, with no beginning and no end or cyclic, in which case it has no beginning or end. The word cyclic implies passage of time.

Once we human came into existence and found the ability to speak and invent words, we coined the term Time to explain two things: A. changes that take place in our own selves as modifications of the body and around us with the rising of the sun and setting of the sun, flowers blossoming and withering etc.  and B. relation between objects in space and the process of moving from one place to another,which takes “time”.

Time is a constant of the universe, but only at the present moment. Sloka 1:14 in Uddhava Gita calls the Lord as Time (kaala) which is beyond matter and energy. Bede Griffiths (in his book on The Marriage of the East and West, page 168) says: “We are conditioned by time so that we see one thing after another and can never grasp the whole. But the intuitive vision is a vision of the whole. The rational mind goes from point to point and comes to a conclusion; the intuitive mind grasps the whole in all its parts”. He implies that spiritual intuition is the grasping of the whole, all in one moment, not sequentially in time.

All these musings are based on metaphysical, spiritual and common sense views. Obviously this topic is a complex one and one has to be an astrophysicist or an expert in topics such as Einstein’s Theories and Quantum mechanics to fully understand the physics of Time. If you wish to delve deep, please read Stephen Hawking’s book on A Brief History of Time and Richard Muller's recent book with the title Now – The Physics of Time.

Sunday, October 2, 2016


“Your blood is red; so is mine. Your tears are salty; so are mine”. (Buddha)

Comte is said to have defined altruism as “devotion to the welfare of others, based in selflessness*”.  I just read a book on Altruistic Personality based on studies of common individuals who went out of the way to help Jews in Europe during World War II. According to the definition used in this book, voluntary acts, which may involve risk to one’s own life and/or personal sacrifice, in order to help someone in need, for no material benefit are acts of altruism.

Two defining characteristics of the individuals included in this study who took part in rescue operations as compared to the bye-standers were 1. “inclusiveness” which means an ability to care for all people and 2. “attachment” which means an ability to relate to others and a sense of commitment to the others.

In their analysis of the characteristics of rescuers during World War II, the authors note that “it was the values learned from their parents which prompted and sustained” their altruism. (page 142). The mother of one of the rescuers had taught him never to consider any human being as inferior. She would never look down on anyone. His father told him “All people are people”. The authors call this common quality of the “rescuers” as “inclusiveness”.

When comparing how the core values of the rescuers and non-rescuers shaped their world views and their interpretation of events, the authors noticed that the attitudes and the values of the parents played some part. “The willingness and ability to transcend oneself under such conditions (conditions of stress and threat) is usually based on sustained habits of orientation to the world, largely developed early in life”. (page 160).

To be an altruistic helper, one has to be aware of the needs of others (sensitivity), has to have desire to help, ability to help (such as finding resources), courage to act and be prepared to take risk, when needed. (It is interesting to note that compassion is defined in the Buddhist texts as the desire and ability to help.)

During periods of extreme violence and social unrest, some tend to accept the situation passively and close their eyes out of fear, hopelessness, uncertainty and fatalism. Caring for others requires an orientation different from that required for rational action. This requires “caring” for even those they do not know. It also requires empathy and sensitivity to the other person irrespective of their color or religion. 

Some decide to help or not  tohelp based on rationality. They can rationalize their non-action. Rationality is based on thought. Those who emphasize rationality and equity will emphasize “access to procedures and impartial application of those procedures”. But, caring requires subjective feelings towards the welfare of people without regard to fairness and equity. (page 163)

 Fairness and equity emphasize procedures (objective features); caring requires kindness and benevolence (subjective features).

Caring is based on the needs of the one who is suffering. Ideally, it should not matter who that person is; race, religion, nationality should not matter. However, perceptions of the victim as worthy or unworthy of help is a determinant, the authors found.  The victim’s “good” appearance and perceived innocence (as in a child) may create a favorable attitude in the rescuer, whereas laziness or lack of effort, “drunkenness” and “not worthy of trust” create a negative attitude. Media, of course, play a large part in creating negative “stereotypes” of groups of people, as it happened with the Nazi’s portrayal of the Jewish people.

When discussing factors that lead to “attachment” (relating to others), once again the major influence in the development of this character among the rescuers was the family. They had strong, cohesive family bonds as a primary psychological strength, often in the context of religiosity. The rescuers also had more friends among the persecuted group and knew their plight so that they felt a personal obligation to help them. Some had a deep sense of social responsibility and this also came from family values. Finally, there were some who were egalitarian, who felt the pain of others and had empathy.

In contrast, among the non-rescuers were those who had poor family and community relationship, those who felt distant from the lives of the victims (Jews), those who preferred to keep themselves and avoid social involvement and a few true “ethno-centric” individuals who considered some people as the “others”.

Although there was no difference in the religious affiliations and religiosity between the rescuers and non-rescuers, unfortunately “more intense religiosity is associated with greater prejudice” (page 155) as shown by Rokeach (A Mighty Fortress: Faith, Hope and Bigotry. M.Rokeach. Augsburg Publishing Minneapolis, MN 1973). This is a sad story of humanity.

In a more recent study of 1,170 children aged 5 to 12 years from six different countries, relationship between religiosity of the household was compared with parent-reported empathy and sensitivity to justice in the children. Children living in religious house-holds showed more empathy and sensitivity to justice. However, children growing up in “religious” households were less altruistic than children from non-religious house-holds. They were also more prone to punitive tendencies. (Current Biology  25: 1-5, November 16, 2015)

The most important lesson for me from this book is that children learn compassion, empathy and caring early in life from their family. It is from the family environment that children also learn intolerance and prejudice. That is where we have to start to reduce violence in the society, to develop peace and harmony in this world and to create a safe future for our children.

Fortunately, there are groups which emphasize early childhood education, not just about the world but also of values.  For example, The Loris Malaguzzi International Centre located in Reggio Emilia (central Italy) focuses on value and innovation in the education of children. (

 Another organization by the name of Living Values Education (LVE)promotes the development of values-based learning communities and places the search for meaning and purpose at the heart of education”. (

In matters of empathy, altruism and tolerance, education has to start very, very early and at home. And for that to happen, parents have to be educated. Parents have to be role-models - teaching children universal human values and an open mind (for "inclusiveness and attachment" as defined by Oliner*).  


*The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. What led ordinary men and women to risk their lives on behalf of others? Oliner,Samuel P and Pearl M. The Free Press, New York. 1988. Page 4.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Maha Bharata - Gems between stories: 12

Saunaka’s discourse

     In Book 3, Section 2, the Pandavas have started their 12 year banishment to the forests after losing the game of dice. Soon after entering the forest, Yudhishtra meets a sage Saunaka, skilled in the Sankhya system of yoga. He addressed the king, saying, Grief and fear overwhelm the ignorant but not the wise. Sensible men like you should not be deluded by false knowledge of the world.  Men by nature are afflicted with both bodily and mental suffering. Disease, contact with painful things, very hard work and want of objects (desires) are the four causes of bodily suffering. You can cure diseases with medicine, while mental ailments are cured by seeking to forget them by yoga-meditation. Mental grief brings on bodily suffering and true knowledge allays mental suffering. When the mind gets at ease, the body also eases.

     Affection seems to be the root of all mental suffering. Affection leads to attachment and desire. Desire for worldly possessions leads to greater attachment and anxiety. It is the cause of joy, sorrow and fear and every kind of pain. Withdrawing from worldly possessions alone is not adequate for mental peace. He, who though is in actual contact with the world performing his duties, realizes its faults, and remains detached may be said to have truly renounced the world. He lives like the lotus-leaf on which water never sticks.
     Wealth is not conducive to real happiness. Both acquisition and maintaining wealth are fraught with miseries. Wealth leads to pride, fear and anxiety. One with wealth is in constant fear of the king and the thief, of water and fire and even of their relatives. Even people who are helped with wealth become enemies for the sake of that wealth.
     Contentment is the highest happiness; the wise are ever content. They do not covet anything.
     When Yudhishtra says that he is not interested in wealth for personal enjoyment but in order to help others, Saunaka replies: “Life is full of contradictions. It is easy to fall into the cycles of birth and death. Vedas teach us to perform actions but renounce interest in the results of the action. (forerunner of the Gita). Therefore, you should let go of attachment and motives, control the senses and perform the following eight duties: performance of sacrifices, study (of the Vedas), gifts, penance, truth (in both speech and act), forgiveness, subduing the senses, and renunciation of desire. Of these, the four first pave the way to the world of the pitris. The last four last are always observed by the pious for their own welfare.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Maha Bharata - Gems between Stories 11 - Bhima and Yudhishtra. Book 3

After, Draupadi, it is Bhima’s turn to disagree with Yudhishtra and tell him that the Pandavas should go to war with the Kauravas and get their land back. He says: “Sometime forgiveness is mistaken for incompetence and weakness. Virtue itself can become a source of weakness.  Virtue (dharma) has to be practiced for a purpose. It should be the basis for the acquisition of wealth (artha) and objects of desire (kama).  He that practices virtue for virtue's sake always suffers, because he does not know the purposes of virtue, like a blind man incapable of perceiving the solar light”.

"One should regard virtue, wealth and pleasure one after another, in that order. One should ever pursue all three. The scriptures ordain that one should seek virtue in the morning, wealth at noon, and pleasure in the evening. The scriptures also ordain that one should seek pleasure in the first portion of life, wealth in the second, and virtue in the last. One should pursue all three, namely virtue, wealth, and pleasure dividing their time duly”.

There is a discussion on what pleasure is and how one gets it.  Bhima says: “Pleasure may be derived from the possession of various objects of enjoyment.  The joy that arises from the senses, the intellect and the heart when directed to the object of desire is called pleasure. But, once obtained the acquired objects do not remain the same. They undergo changes. At their loss or disappearance, or in the case of happiness involving people, when they get old and disabled or when they die, we experience distress. We are, at present, in this state of distress. Why not go and fight to get the land back?”

Yudhishtra acknowledges his mistake and says that he should not have played dice with those whom he knew were better at it than him and whom he knew may also cheat. But having given a promise that the Pandavas will go into exile if he lost, he had to keep the promise. He owns up to his mistake and apologizes to his brothers and to Draupadi for putting them into this distress.

He says: “O Bhima, you do not know how much I am hurting for all this, particularly to the insult heaped upon Draupadi. Having, however, given that pledge in the midst of the Kuru heroes, I am unable to violate it now. Wait, O Bhima, for the return of our better days. You can take your revenge at a suitable time.  But for now, O Bhima, my promise can never be untrue. I regard keeping one’s promise to be paramount”.

But, Bhima continues: “Only they who have unlimited life or know for certain how long they are going to live can wait for the right time. If we wait for thirteen years, our life will be that much shorter. As Kshatriyas we should fight for our kingdom and get it before we die. If we do not chastise our foes we are useless burden on earth. You are loath to violate your pledge out of weakness of disposition. Besides how are we going to be incognito for one whole year? Everyone knows us all everywhere. We should fight now”.

Yudhsihtra replies: "One cannot succeed with courage alone. In order to succeed one should think through and approach the task with well-directed energy, and all necessary implements. We know that all those kings we defeated and those who are already under Dhrithrashtra will be on the Kaurava side. In addition, Bhishma, Drona and Kripa are obliged to him because of the fact they are supported by the king. And then there is Karna. How do you expect to win the battle with such a formidable enemy?”

At this time, Sage Vyasa comes there and speaks with Yudhishtra alone and tells him that good times are ahead. He asks Yudhishtra not wo worry. He then gives him a special mantra called Pratismiriti to be taught to Arjuna. Vyasa says that Arjuna is none other than Narayana and that with the mantra in his possession, Arjuna should go the land of the Gods and obtain celestial weapons from Indra, Vayu and Yama. Vyasa also says something very inteersting: “Since you have a large retinue, continued residence here might exhaust the deer of this forest, and be destructive of the creepers and plants. Therefore, plan on moving to a different place” and then disappears. Yudhishtra gets the mantra and moves from Dwaitavana to Kamyaka forest near the river Saraswati.

In another episode, Arjuna is sent to obtain celestial weapons. In the section describing Arjuna entering Amaravati, there is a statement that “eaters of unsanctified meat are not fit to enter that town”. That suggests that “meat eating” was prevalent at that time particularly among the Kshatriyas. This statement also talks about “sanctified meat”. It probably means that meat offered first to the Gods, in the homa fire, and the left-over. The sanctification of meat is practiced in other traditions too.

Later, when Bhima and others are sad at the absence of Arjuna, a rishi by name Brihadaswa arrives and narrates the story of Nala-Damayanti. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Maha Bharata - Some Hidden Gems 10: Discussion between Yudhishtra and Draupadi

When the game of dice is played for the second time, Lord Krishna is away in a country named Anarttha. Does this have a symbolic meaning? Anarttha means “no wealth or no substance”. Evil happened when the Lord was in a land of no substance?

Anyway, Krishna comes back and talks to Yudhishtra and says that if he were present, he could have prevented the calamity. He also says: “Women, dice, hunting and drinking are four evils that deprive a man of prosperity”.

Starting with chapter 28, we read discussions between the brothers and Draupadi after the Pandavas are exiled. Draupadi in particular is incensed and asks Yudhishtra how he can be so cool and collected. She asks: “Are you not a kshtriya? How is it you are not angry when you have been exiled? Your brothers are great warriors and are capable of killing the kurus in no time. They are quiet because of respect for you. Don’t you see me, a princess and wife of the Pandavas living under these conditions in the forest? Does it not make you upset? People will take advantage of weak people. One has to show might and forgiveness on appropriate occasions. (In other words, this is not a time for forgiveness).”

Then Draupadi lists conditions under which one should forgive: those who serve you sincerely but make a mistake, and those who make mistake out of ignorance. If one offends you knowingly but pleads ignorance, that person should be punished. You can forgive someone for the first mistake; but not if he keeps repeating.

Yudhishtra then lists all the consequences of anger and points out how the ignorant think that showing anger is strength  whereas it only leads to calamities and destruction. It is not that wise men do not get angry. But they know how to show it appropriately and channel it. An angry man cannot see things in their true light. A man by forsaking anger can exhibit proper energy, when and where needed. Excessive and uncontrolled anger leads to the destruction of the world.

“If a man who is attacked with harsh words returns with harsh words, if an injured man injures the one who hurt him, if fathers slay sons, and sons slay fathers and if husbands slay wives, and wives kill husbands, O Draupadi, how can birth take place in a world where anger prevails? The birth of creatures requires love and peace!”  “O Draupadi, one should learn to forgive. The continuation of species is due to our ability to forgive. He, indeed, is a wise and excellent person who has conquered his anger and who can forgive even when insulted, oppressed, and angered by a strong person”.

He then quotes Kashyapa:  “Forgiveness is virtue; forgiveness is sacrifice, forgiveness is the Vedas, forgiveness is the Shruti. Forgiveness is Brahma; forgiveness is truth; forgiveness is stored ascetic merit; and by forgiveness is it that the universe is held together. Forgiveness gives peace of mind. Forgiveness and gentleness are the qualities of the self-possessed. They represent eternal virtue. O Krishna, (Krishna is the other name for Draupadi) how can one like us abandon forgiveness?”

Draupadi says: “I have heard that virtue protects everyone. But I do not see virtue protecting you, a virtuous man. May be this is Gods’ will or fate. But, why does God behave unfair persecuting the superior and well-behaved while the sinful are happy? Why does he allow the crooked Dhrithrashtra in prosperity and punish you and us?  If this is the act of God, it is God himself who is stained with the sin”. She then talks about action and inaction; about karma in relation to prior births etc and says that those who believe in destiny and chance are worst among men.

These are powerful stinging words from the princess. But, Yudhishthira does not show anger. He says: “Your speech, is delightful, but the language is one of atheism.  It is the Lord who is behind whatever we do; creatures are inert by themselves. If man’s actions alone are adequate, everything should be successful. If God alone decides the outcome, everything should be good and pleasant. Since neither is true, I believe destiny and chance are the outcome of our action in the prior birth (karma)”.

“I never act, desirous of the fruits of my actions but follow the rules of Dharma and the examples of the good and the wise. I give away, because it is my duty to give; I sacrifice because it is my duty to sacrifice! I act regardless of the fact whether those acts bear fruits or not. The man who works to reap the fruits of virtue is a trader in virtue. His nature is mean and he should never be counted amongst the virtuous. Why the virtuous suffer and the sinful ones enjoy is a mystery even to the gods. Therefore, even though we do not see the fruits of our virtuous acts, we should not doubt the Vedas and the Gods. We should perform sacrifices and practice charity willingly. Reflecting on this, I hope your skepticism gives way to faith. Do not slander God; but learn how to know Him. Do not disregard the Supreme”.
Don’t you agree that these are profound conversations we should all read and think about?