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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Markandeya’s remarks about women - Maha Bharata Series 22

Yudhishtra asks Markandeya to explain the morals and virtues of women and of Kshatriyas. He wonders how Kshatriyas who are obliged to fight and kill can obtain virtue. But, his remarks are more towards women’s virtues. He acknowledges how women risk their lives and undergo pain and suffering in the process of giving birth and raising children. He also says the others deserve special respect because of that. He also goes on to say that women who are chaste, who keep their senses and hearts under complete control and regard their husbands as veritable gods are of the highest virtue.

In order to make this point clear (women who are devoted to their husbands are special), Markandeya tells the story of an ascetic by name Kaushika. When he is performing his prayers under a tree, a she-crane who was sitting pollutes him on his head. Kaushika gets upset and looks up at the crane and the bird dies instantly by “the heat” of his anger. The ascetic repents but goes on his way.

In the next village, he goes for alms to a familiar house. When he calls for alms, the lady of the house is ready to bring some water and food to the guest. But, her husband comes home at the same time. She asks the ascetic to wait and starts taking care of her husband. Her chastity and her devotion to her husband are emphasized in the story. By the time she finishes feeding him and comes out, the ascetic is angry.

Sensing the anger, the lady asks to be forgiven, because she was doing her duty as a “good wife”. She adds that his anger will not do her any harm and tells him “I am no she-crane”. (This is a famous story in the south even now. In Tamil, the woman says “Kokku enru ninaithayo”). She goes on to tell Kaushika what the virtues of a Brahmin and an ascetic should be. She also refers Kaushika to go to the next village and meet a butcher who can teach him all about virtues. Yes, a butcher. This is another important episode in Maha Bharatha and the words of the butcher (Vyadha Gita) are full of practical wisdom. (in the next post)

The main point made in this section  seems to be  that a woman who is chaste and serves her husband and her family has powers which are superior to those of the ascetics and those who perform penance (tapas).

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The essence of Vedic Teachings and the Indian Culture  


The two most important differences between Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma) and other religions are: 1. Openness to varying world-views. 2. No organizational structure and hierarchy.

Looking for some general statements about Hinduism, I came across a few gems in a talk given by Swami Ranganathananda and published in 1999 by Advaita Ashrama (5 Delhi Entally Road, Kolkata 700 014)

First, what is meant by “culture”?  It means “…. The total accumulation of material objects, ideas, symbols, beliefs, sentiments, values and social forms which are passed on from one generation to another in any given society”. (The source for this is The future for traditional Cultures by K.A.Nilakanta Sastry  UNESCO Chronicle May 1959)

The word “culture” includes both material and mental. Once a society is self-sufficient in food and prosperous in a material sense and is free from external and internal threats, it can spend its resources to mental pursuits. That is when arts, literature and science and innovation flourish. This is all also the time when a culture (nation) tends to start pushing its boundaries and start wars.

Ancient Greece started pursuing the position of man as part of nature and as a member of a society. The world is seeing the fruits of the remarkable insights and wisdom of these pursuits which focused on understanding the world we live in.

India and the Indian culture did not choose this path. Instead, it started a remarkable inward journey. We are yet to reap the benefits of its wisdom and foresight.

One sloka (stanza) in Katha Upanishad (4:1) summarizes the direction. It says that the Primordial Source (the IT or Brahman) created the sense organs and the mind with a major defect – a tendency to look outward. Therefore, man perceives outside things, not the Self within. Wise men turn their senses and the mind inwards and realize the Self.

The spiritual lessons which such direction gave are summarized by Swami Ranganathananda as follows: “The ultimate reality of man and the universe is spiritual through and through, It is One and non-dual, It can be realized by man, this realization is the goal of human life, this goal can be reached through different paths….. these constitute the fundamental ideas which have inspired Indian life; these have provided a spiritual base and a spiritual direction to Indian culture and shaped the destiny of the Indian people”.

Rigidity and exclusiveness are not in the province of the Indian culture. As Bertrand Russell pointed out when rigid cultures meet each other, they behave like billiard balls with hard collision as the only possible mutual relationship. Instead the Vedas teach tolerance for multiple views and multiple paths. Ekam satyam, vipra bahudha vadanthi  (Truth is One; people call It by different names) is the Magna Carta of Vedic teaching according to Swami Vivekananda.

S. Radhakrishnan said in his book on Eastern religions and Western thought that “Toleration is the homage which the finite mind pays to the inexhaustibility of the Infinite.”

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Great Floods - Maha Bharata series 21 

You might have heard the words “vaivasvata manvantarey” during the initiation of any Hindu rituals or worship. The words mean that this current era is under the protection of Vaivasvata Manu. In the cosmic cycles, according to the Vedic concepts, each major cycle is governed by one of 14 Manus. Vaivasvata is the 7th in the series.

In Sanskrit, Vaivasvata means the progeny of Vivaswan. In other words, Vaivasvat’s father was Vivasvan. His story is recounted by Markandeya to the Pandavas. Vivasvan was a great ascetic and he performed very difficult austerities such as performing “tapas” (penance) hanging upside down from a tree for many years! 

Once, a small fish came to him and said “Oh, divine sage. I am a small fish being chased by a big fish. Please save me”. (Was that the beginning of the corporate world?) The sage obliged, picked the fish up and placed it in a small container. Soon, it grew and the sage took it to a large container. The fish outgrew that too and had to be transferred to a lake, then to river Ganga. He soon became huge, very huge and so the sage brought him to the ocean. The fish was happy and told the sage: “You are special. Therefore, I am going to tell you that there will be a huge flood and a deluge. Before that happens, please collect all the seeds of all plants and creatures and save them in an ark. When the flood comes, think of me. I will show up but with a horn. Tie your ark to the horn and I will take you to safety”.

Well, you can guess the rest of the story. Vivasvan’s son recreated the entire population of plants and animals and that is why our period is called the age of Vaivasvata Manu. The interesting part is that there is a flood story in almost every tradition and every part of the world. The most famous in the west are the stories of Noah’s Ark and of Gigelmesh.

Noah’s ark is narrated in Genesis, Chapters 6 to 9. God warns Noah of an impending flood one week before the actual event. God spares Noah from the floods and ask him to build an ark, and asks him to take into the ship his three sons and their wives and also a pair of all living creatures together with sufficient food. When the flood comes the boat stays afloat and comes to rest on Mount Ararat (in the current day Turkey) once the waters recede. All living creatures we see now, according to this mythology, are descendants of the original pairs.

In the Gigelmesh story, which preceded the Noah’s Ark version, the favored pair are Utnapishtim and his wife. God sends in six days of rain and winds but gives instructions to Utnapishtim to load the boat with his wife and as many creatures as possible. The details and sequence are so similar to that of Noah’s story that scholars believe that both these myths owe their origins to an earlier flood myth.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Spiritual Exercises and Meditation

As I get deeper and deeper into mindfulness meditation, and as I start sharing this with others, my silence meditation is also getting deeper. In addition, I realize few more things.

Learning about meditation is different from learning meditation. In learning about meditation  you have made it into a subject of inquiry, an objective field of study. That will be good to give you knowledge and will be useful if you are taking an examination on that subject. But, it cannot help you meditate. For meditation to become part of you, you have to practice, experience it.

This is true of other aspects of life and learning. It is true to about philosophy. You can learn about philosophy. But, ideally you have to make it a way of life. This is what Pierre Hadot emphasizes in his book on Philosophy as a Way of Life. This was what ancient Greek philosophers did.  In India we call it sanatana dharma, a way of life. According to Hadot, philosophy became an object of study in the west when it became a “maid-servant of Christian theology” after the period of St. Thomas Aquinus.

The other important insight about mindfulness showed me that our perceptions of the world and actions are based most commonly on our desires and fears. Our brain is made for those basic drives in its amygdala and hypothalamus and hippocampus. So are the brains of animals. But as humans we have the higher regions of our brains and language (prefrontal cortex, insula, speech and language areas) which make is possible for us to develop values. We need to develop these values to live the full potentials of being human. If we do, we will not be driven always and only by desires and fears. Now I can see why both western and eastern philosophers said that living without fear and desires can lead us to bliss in this life.

 We need spiritual exercises and reflections to develop these higher values. That should be the purpose of daily meditation. Meditations should be spiritual exercises, inner dialogues, thought exercises to locate ourselves in their proper place in nature – alone and together, a wave and an ocean at once, real in one sense and ephemeral in another (mithya of Sankara). 

Pierre Hadot points out that spiritual exercises should "involve the entire spirit, one's whole way of being".  To me, the words "one's whole way of being" should mean my physical body and the mind in their individuality as a person (the I) and in the totality as part of the Universe, in space and in time, in their historical dimension and cosmic dimension, in all their inter-connections and inter - dependence and also as they appear to me and as they truly are. That is a tall order.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

What does “being a human” mean?

Several recent events triggered these thoughts. The first was Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot which I had always wanted to, but had not read all these years. Finally, I was able to read it slowly and really savor it. I was particularly intrigued by the “robopsychologist”, Dr.Susan Calvin.

Then the book with the title R U R by the Czech writer by Karel Capek. The word Robot was the creation of this author, at the suggestion of his brother, and the expanded title reads as Rossum’s Universal Robot. This was the first time the word robot appeared in print.

The next is an essay on robots in a recent issue of National Geographic.

Finally, an essay on What is Human by Peter H. Kahn, Jr., Hiroshi Ishiguro, Batya Friedman, and Takayuki Kanda. They should know. Each one of them is a leader and a pioneer in their fields. Their focus is on “humanoid” robots. They show how developing a robot with human-like qualities requires an understanding of what a human is. Their focus was limited however.

Kahn, Ishiguro and their colleagues were interested in learning how to measure their success in building human-like robots, from the psychological point of view. For their purpose, they suggested developing “psychological benchmarks” defined as: “categories of interaction that capture conceptually fundamental aspects of human life, specified abstractly enough so as to resist their identity as a mere psychological instrument (e.g., as in a measurement scale), but capable of being translated into testable empirical propositions.”

Their suggestions are intriguing even with this limited definition of the “complex” that is human. They identified 6 items. They are: autonomy, imitation, intrinsic moral value, moral accountability, privacy and reciprocity. For details of these concepts and why the authors chose them, I refer you to their article. (What is a Human? – Toward Psychological Benchmarks in the Field of Human-Robot Interaction. Peter H. Kahn, Jr., Hiroshi Ishiguro, Batya Friedman, and Takayuki Kanda. The 15th IEEE International Symposium on Robot and Human Interactive Communication (RO-MAN06), Hatfield, UK, September 6-8, 2006) You can access this article through Google-Scholar.

What is intriguing, but not surprising is that all of these items except imitation impinge on moral and ethical characteristics. The way things are going, Isaac Asimov may be right. We may have robots with these characteristics in the future. Do we call them “human” or “humanoid”? 

Although we are the ones who taught them those values, the robots may be capable of making moral and ethical decisions more consistently, since they do not have to deal with emotions. That is my major point. If emotion is lacking, how can it be called “human”?

Since we are the ones who teach them “values”, how do we get ourselves out and judge the robots to be “objectively” correct?

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Atman and Meta-cognition are the same

The title is a bold statement. I am a novice. What credentials do I have to make such a sweeping statement? Nothing; except I have been reading and thinking deeply about this topic. Now, I find that passages I read recently in Book 12, Sections 240 and 241 of the Maha Bharatha seem to support that statement. These passages and the preceding ones establish that the following Sanskrit words are used interchangeably: sakshi, keshtragna, hrdaya and atman. The English translation uses the word Soul (sometimes, Self) for all of them.
It is said that mind (manas) “creates objects”. The mind itself is defined as of two varieties – one which is the receiver of information from sense organs and another higher one which makes perceptions out of them. Higher than mind is adhishtana, or understanding. This is also called buddhi ( Mahat becomes Buddhi immediately after emerges out of Prakriti, according to Samkhya).  Buddhi is often mistaken for soul, because it creates ideas of subjects and concepts within itself. Then, there is the witness (sakshi), which is translated to be soul. Soul is only a witness, but because of its association with the mental faculty (buddhi) it is mistaken for the soul. Buddhi also gets arrogant not knowing that there is a faculty behind it.
Universe is “creation” of this higher mind or buddhi, says the passage. This view is similar to that of Buddhist teachings. The passage also indicates that when this buddhi creates ideas within itself, it is called the mind, the higher one. When it desires something it is called ahamkara.
Then there is the “heart” which indicates what is agreeable and what is not. This is also called the soul or the self.
In the next passage atman (translated to soul or self) is said to present itself to our understanding as chit (consciousness) with knowledge as its attribute. Chit is also called perishable understanding. Atman is also called achetanabuddhi or understanding without consciousness. If so, atman is meta-awareness of our consciousness, witness of the witness. A later statement says that this (atman or soul) is identical with Brahman (which has no sex, not a he or a she or an it) and that evidence for the soul is provided by the soul itself. “That Brahman is the ultimate mystery and the highest knowledge”, says Vyasa in his dialogue with Suka and as narrated by Bhishma.
To me, all of these passages indicate that translation of several Sanskrit words into one English word is part of the problem. These Sanskrit words include sakshi, ksehtragna, chit and atman. They denote the same entity. The functions of  sakshi, ksehtragna, chit and  atman as described in these passages are the same as that of what modern neuroscience will call metacognition, awareness of awareness. And, then we are told that the jiva-soul or jivatman is the same as the Supreme Soul or Paramatman. This will be Brahman.
There is still the question of a possible support for this meta-awareness or soul or atman. If we reason backwards, is there one universal source of atman? That source will then be Brahman. In other words, there is no reason to let go of the idea of an ultimate Brahman. But, atman is meta-cognition arising out of the functioning of our brains. Neuroscientists know even the part of the brain which is related to this meta-awareness.
Buddha said the same thing. The idea of atman or self (lower self) is a product of the brain and is impermanent. It is not a non-material entity occupying the body.
I will add one more suggestion. Godel proved in mathematical theorems, that in any system there must be truths that cannot be proven from within the system. Those truths can only be known by looking from outside the system. If we use this as an analogy (analogies are not strong proofs), we humans cannot “know” from inside our system whether a statement such as “God exists” or “There is no God” can be proven or disproven.

If so, there are two positions one can take. One is that of Blaise Pascal called Pascal’s Wager (see the post on Pascal, May 1, 2016) or that of Buddha.  I like Buddha’s teaching better. He would rather that we spend our time by learning how to live this life better than thinking about unanswerable questions such as “How did this Universe start?” or “Is the body a vehicle for soul or atman”?

The problem is that these arguments prove only the intellectual capacity, verbal skills, the speed of thinking and debating skills of the discussants. They do not answer the question convincingly. We can only silence our chatter and surrender to that Mystery. Those are paths of Yoga and Bhakti suggested by our ancestors.
Personally, I like the humility expressed in the Nasadiya Sukta of Rg Veda (see post on March 21, 2010)        which says that we do not and cannot know.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Cyclic Universe and Creations - Maha Bharatha Series 20

                 Answering another question, Markandeya who is always young and has no “death”, tells the Pandavas about the recurring manifestation and dissolution of this Universe and what happens in between (Book 3, Section 187). He is the only person who can tell us about such events since he was the only person to have witnessed those events. This is a myth too, but it is an interesting one.

According to Markandeya this is what happens. The cosmic cycle is divided into yugȧs (as outlined in a previous post). One day and one night of Brahma (Not Brahman, the Primordial source, but the creator in each cycle) is made of 1,000 mahȧyugȧs each. At the end of the day when Brahma goes to sleep, there is a pralaya or deluge called anvantara pralaya when three of the seven worlds namely, bhu, bhuvah and svah cease to exist.

Each Brahma rules for 100 years, each made of 365 of brahma days.  At the end of the current Brahma there is a big deluge and all the seven worlds disappear. Then the cycle starts again, with a new Brahma and of course, new Vishnu, Shiva etc. At the end of one such cycle, Markandeya is alone after the great floods and the only “person” he can see is a young boy. Markandeya asks the boy how he is the only one left and finds out that the boy is indeed That Brahman.

Brahman is described in the following words: self existent, primordial, eternal, without beginning or end and devoid of attributes. He is called the Lord, the Immaculate, and the Great one.

Brahman addresses Markandeya and tells him: “I call the water nara and water is my home (ayana in Sanskrit). Therefore, I am called Narayana. I am the creator of things and also the destroyer. I am Brahma, and Vishnu and Siva and Soma and Yama. At the end of each cycle, Brahma goes to sleep and all of the Universe is reposed in Me. When the next cycle starts Brahma wakes up and I create all creatures back again”. In the actual translation of words from the Maha Bharatha, Brahman says: “When the grandsire wakes up, I will alone create all creatures endowed with bodies, the firmament, the earth, the light, the water and all else of mobile and immobile creatures”.

The clear implication to my understanding is that Brahman is the Primordial Source of the Universe, the Universe has no time line as we understand in this Time dominated world, it is a recurring cycle and if there is such a real-life person called Brahma, or Vishnu or Siva, he has to come into being from the Primordial source called Brahman, at the start of each cycle. If Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are called gods, gods also have a beginning and an end. 
Other points mentioned are that dharma or virtues diminish through Krita, Dwapara and Treta and is the lowest in Kali Yuga and that towards the end of each cycle, all natural orders break down and the earth is over-run by animals and people with animal qualities.