Saturday, August 27, 2016

Maha Bharata - Some Hidden Gems 9: Odds and ends from Book 1

Book 1, Section 172 lists seven streams of water: Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Vithashtha, Sarayu, Gomati and Gandaki. It also states that Ganga is known as Alakananda in the celestial sphere and Vaitarini in the ancestral sphere.

The story of Tapati suggests that the illuminator of the universe is Vivaswat who is also called Surya and Tapana. He has a son called Savitru and a daughter called Tapti. This is interesting because the sun is known by several names which includes Surya, Savitru, Vivaswat and Aditya. The root words savitru stands for "illuminating" and tapana (tap) stands for "heat" or "ardor" (also the root word for tapas).

One statement in the story of Vasishta: “When someone with power to prevent a crime being committed does not prevent it, he is also tainted by that crime”. Another statement in Section 197: “Morality is subtle. We do not know its course”.

There is an interesting discussion about whether a woman is allowed to have five husbands. In the original episode, Arjuna marries Draupadi during his lonely travel. When he comes home and wants to surprise his mother and calls for her, Kunti is busy and says “whatever it is, share with your brothers”! Kunti is surprised when she finds out what the surprise is, but it is too late. Kunti’s words have to be honored even though she said it without knowing the situation. It is interesting that everyone’s opinion was asked on how to resolve this dilemma, except that of Draupadi.

As the story goes, in a previous life, Draupadi had asked Lord Mahadeva to bless her with a husband like the Lord himself. She kept asking again and again, in fact, FIVE times. Therefore, her marriage to five husbands was preordained!

Vyasa’s explanation is that Lord Narayana came down to earth as Balarama and Krishna and Shri Devi was born as Draupadi from the sacrificial altar. She was preordained to marry five Indras’s of previous eons who were incarnate in the Pandavas. The word preordained is repeated in several places.

We learn that Yudhistra thught that it will be impossible to win a war with the Kauravas because of the presence of Bhishma, Drona, Kripa and Karna on their side due to loyalty. That is why he wanted Arjuna to go and get celestial weapons during the period of their vanavasa (stay in the forest). He uses this argument to calm down Bhima and Arjuna (also, moral on timing of actions and preparations).

In the section where Arjuna and Ulupi meet, Arjuna says among other things: “Virtue (dharma) is superior to the body and remains long after the body is gone”. Also, some statements which I interpret to mean: “Keeping a promise and a pledge is a virtue. We encounter several situations in life where our duties and morals come into conflict. Each one has an acceptable solution. Do not be rigid”. Dharma is not a rigid concept in the Vedic tradition unlike western ideas of ethics and morals. It will be difficult to write a law book based on the Vedas! Rigid codification seems to be a product of the western traditions and Greek logicians.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Brother Lawrence

I just read a book on The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence (1611-1691). Brother Lawrence’s original name was Nicholas Hermon born into a poor peasant family in Lorraine, France. He was a common man who became a “saint” through the simple practice of Love, Faith and Charity. His words resemble those of Thayumanavar, the Tamil saint. His practice is one of Bhakti (devotiona) which is in essence unconditional love of God, expecting no earthly gains. His constant thinking of God when engaging in activities are exactly what is taught in Mindfulness meditation.

A barren tree of winter made him reflect on the sure hope of bountiful green leaves in the spring. He felt a similar spirituality hidden inside. Although he is barren like the tree, he felt that God was waiting inside to bloom at the proper season. He felt that reading books and listening to sermons did not get him anywhere. He wanted to experience. He started thinking about God at every waking moment. Whenever his mind wandered, he brought it back by refocusing on God within. Is this not the practice of focused attention in Mindfulness practice?

Brother Lawrence speaks of the God with him and in him. He talks of the need for all of us to focus inwards. He also says that for true practice of spirituality we must empty our hearts of all things other than God. (A similar teaching in Buddhism is emptying oneself of oneself, implying that we are made of elements other than ourselves)

He says: “Let us enter into ourselves” and “It is not necessary for being with God to be always at church….”. And also says: “He is within us; seek Him not elsewhere”; “I believe no more; but I see” and “I never prayed for relief; but for strength to suffer with courage, humility and love”. He prayed for others the same way, asking God to give them strength and not relief from pain.

Ancient Vedic teaching of India also says that the Supreme Force (or God, if that is the preferred word) is within each one of us and IT cannot be understood or reached by reason or logic, but can be experienced.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Dealing with Stress - A letter to my grandchildren

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi, Ariana, Roma and Sai, 

I wish to share several ideas on one aspect of life, namely stress. These ideas are based on personal experiences in dealing with stresses in my life. How did I manage during these periods? What were the sources of my strength? What did I learn? What suggestions do I have for you, grandchildren, if you have to face a crisis?

The most important lesson I learnt is that one does not know when the calamity will strike and therefore, cannot be ready all of a sudden. All of us will have to prepare throughout our lives for potential crisis. I am not a pessimist and am not asking you to live in fear of an impending disaster all the time. That is no way to lead a life. What I am saying is that you will not have time or energy to go for help in the middle of a crisis. You certainly cannot learn meditation in the midst of a crisis. So, what are some of the things you can do now, which may help you if and when there is a crisis?

I do not know what will work for you. But here are some ideas.

First, Faith in something larger than us and the Universe. It need not be a religious faith. I am in favor of a spiritual path. It is faith in something beyond this world and this universe which we do not fully understand and which gives an inner strength by “connecting” to other lives, to this earth, to this Universe and to the ultimate dimension. In Buddhist terms, I consider myself to be a wave in this vast ocean (water) called the universe. As long as I consider myself to be a wave, I will be lonely and suffer. Once I connect with the ocean, of which I am a part, there will be peace and stability. Why am I looking for water, when I am water myself?

Hopefully your parents gave you faith in yourself and in a primordial force which we are parts of. You have to develop it within yourself, by reflecting.

You cannot alter all situations in life. But you can change your attitude. Indeed, Buddhist psychology talks about how the external experience is like a passing cloud. It will pass. But it is our response to it, the fear or anger it evokes and the way our mind concocts internal stories that cause suffering. This is cognitive psychology.

Buddhist psychology also teaches how to be mindful of what we are doing and how we are feeling at the moment. The idea is to acknowledge the sadness or suffering and not bury it. By reflecting deeply, you can touch its source, realize the causes and conditions that brought this stress about. Hopefully this will show you the way out of the suffering and stress. May be, you have to change your ways. May be, you have to approach the other person with a different attitude. May be, you have to seek external help. May be, this is the way life is going to be and you just have to adjust to it and deal with it.

A famous prayer goes as follows: “Lord, give me the courage to change things I can change; serenity to accept things I cannot change and Wisdom to know the difference”.

Self-pity will lead to frustration and stress. When disaster strikes a common question that comes to our mind is: “why me?”. The best answer was given by Tolstoy in his book on The Death of Ivan Ilyich. There is no answer; there will never be one. Do not dwell on self-pity. But how?

In Buddhist psychology, vitarka is the word for the first time a thought occurs. Vichara is when this thought persists. It is said that there are five stages before vitarka becomes vichara. The idea is to catch the self-pity as soon as you sense it. Then acknowledge it and tell yourself that it will pass too. Also, realize that you have several other strengths inside of you and replace self-pity with one of your strong points. May be, you have a strong support in your mother, father, sister or brother. May be, you have a great sense of humor. Think about those strengths. Build on them. (Incidentally, this technique may help with emotions other than self-pity such as anger).

Trusting relationship with someone will help. This has to be someone whom you respect and in whom you can confide. Talk to him or her. Ask for suggestions.

Meditation every day for the past 40 years helped me deal with crisis better. I am able to completely silence my mind for at least a few minutes a day. I do not know whether it has helped me in the spiritual path. But it has certainly helped me relax and think clearly during periods of stress.

If you do not know meditation, you may wish to attend meditation courses. I am sure one is available in your community. If possible, you may even want to arrange for someone to take care of home or work and go away for a weekend retreat. You will be better off going to meditation camps run by Buddhist teachers. They deal with psychological issues and life’s-problems more effectively.

Writing a journal or a diary is another major stress-reduction device for me. If you do keep one, review periodically to find out how much you have learnt from the past experiences.

Make sure you get adequate sleep. I found that meditation tapes which help you to relax your body are very helpful. I found that 20 minutes of these relaxation exercises were almost like getting 4 to 6 hours of sleep. These relaxation tapes may also “send” you into a meditative state.

Treat yourself to frivolous things periodically. This is just to reward yourself and keep up your cheer. But, watch out if this leads to compulsive eating of junk food or to alcohol or drugs or shopping sprees.

Engage your mind and keep doing things which will keep you occupied with matters other than the crisis. Learn to switch tasks. Read some books you like. Listen to music. Constantly brooding over the situation will not make things any better. It is indeed harmful to your mental health.

If you are one of those who find it easy to go the path of “faith”, you may wish to go to your Church or the synagogue or the temple. You may wish to meet with a priest or a rabbi or a Guru. Religion is a time-honored path for help during periods of stress.

If you are a person who deals with things intellectually, you may wish to go to support groups or take counseling.

If you are action oriented, you may wish to join a support group. Better still you may volunteer for a cause you believe in. I have observed over the years that some of the parents of children with chronic diseases who coped best were those who found time to organize parent support groups and helped others with similar problems. There are research studies to support this observation.

All or some of these ideas are wholesome by themselves, not just to prepare for a crisis. I hope you will start some of these habits NOW. In a recent article in a medical journal, there was a list of things to help prevent burn-out in physicians who take care of seriously ill patients at the end of life, such as those with cancer. The first two items were: “mindfulness meditation and reflective writing”. You can practice these anywhere, any time. Why not start now?

Let me repeat. You may not find time, energy or methods to cope with crisis when you are in the midst of one. Develop helpful habits now.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Evaluations and Drudgery

I have not been an admirer of  evaluation systems in hospitals for physicians and nurses, or at any other place for that matter. Nor am I an admirer of a system where everyone has to account for every minute of their time, particularly in childhood and during education. I am for choosing the “correct candidate” and give them an atmosphere of excellence and support to learn. They will grow and develop. Some may not grow, of course. I do agree that the problem of defining the “correct candidate” is a tough one. Even if one can develop criteria for such a candidate, how can one spot them? It is certainly not possible during a short interview. Some executives will say that they know how to spot talent, although several studies have shown that this claim does not stand to scrutiny. The only two ways I know how to choose a “correct candidate” are to look at their past activities and performance and at their passion for the task they choose.

Two great educators have commented on “evaluations” several decades back.  Carl Rogers said in essence that when you “evaluate” a human being, you “devalue” them.  John Dewey said that external evaluation is inimical to growth, and self-evaluation is more effective in learning and improving. The reason this practice is prevalent because it is easier to do when dealing with large number of people and it has a number attached to it. It is easier to document for comparisons. It also happens that some managers use evaluations  to “fire” someone they do not particularly like!

John Dewey compares children’s play and adult’s work. In play, the end result is not important; the process is. In adult work, the end is the priority. Process is not. If the end result is something to be proud of or meaningful, one can transfer that satisfaction to the process of work and enjoy it. If not, work becomes unpleasant.  John Dewey says: “Exclusive interest in the result alters work into drudgery”. (Incidentally the word “robot” means drudgery or serf labor or hard work in the Czech language, coined by Josef Kopec. This word “robot” was used for the first time in literature by his brother Karel Kopec in his famous play called Rossum’s Universal Robots or R U R, published in 1921)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Maha Bharata - Some Hidden Gems 8. Kanika's Advice

In Book 1 Section 142, Kanika who is referred to in the Mahabharata as “the foremost of ministers” to King Dhritarashtra gives his advice to the King. Dhritarashtra tells Kanika that he is jealous of the Pandavas and asks whether he should go to war with them or not. Here are some excerpts and remarks from Kanika’s answer on a king role in those days.

" Please do not get angry with me for what I am about to say. Kings should ever be ready to increase their prowess. They should watch over the faults of their foes and take advantage of them. If the king is always ready to strike, everybody will be afraid of him. He should conduct himself such that his foe may not detect any weak side in him. But he should study the weakness of his foe and pursue him (to destruction). He should always conceal his plans and his weaknesses from the sight of others like a tortoise concealing its body. When he starts a particular act, he should ever accomplish it thoroughly. A thorn, if not extracted wholly, will produce a festering sore. Therefore, if your enemy is in your hold destroy him without scruples and without mercy. There can be no allies and partisans if the principal is destroyed”.

He then describes the four methods of state craft – appeasement, charity, divide and rule and punishment (sama, dana , bedha and danda) later expanded by Kautilya. He then tells Dhritarashtra the story of a jackal, fully acquainted with the science of politics, dwelling in the forest in the company of four friends, viz., a tiger, a mouse, a wolf, and a mongoose. The jackal cleverly cheated all of them by appealing to pride in the tiger, disgust in the mouse and fear in the wolf. When the mongoose came, the jackal claimed to have killed the other three and frightened him out of the kill. Kanika says that A king should be adept at all these techniques against his enemies. He should carry out his plans ruthlessly with a smile on his face. “Even when he is killing his foe he should say soothing words – that is how hard the king should be!” says Kanika.

            The king should not trust either the faithless or the faithful. He should have spies all over – specifically in 18 places which includes places of amusement, temples and other holy places, drinking halls, streets, and with the chief priest, the heir-presumptive, the commander-in-chief, persons in the inner apartments, the head of the treasury, the chief of the town police, the chief of the frontier guards, and in all places where people congregate.

A prudent king should act in such a way that neither friends nor foes may know his motive before he acts. He should pay attention to details and act calmly according to the time and place.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Maha Bharata - Some Hidden Gems 7 - Mandapala

In the story of Mandapala in Book 1, section 281, the four debts of human beings are mentioned – to the Gods, to the Ancestors, to animals and birds and to all visitors (athithi). Mandapala is told that in order to discharge his duties to his ancestors he needs sons. Mandapala, wondered how best he could obtain the largest number of offspring within the shortest period of time. He realized that of all creatures, birds produce the maximum number of offsprings. Assuming the form of a Sarngaka bird, the Rishi married another bird of the same species (name Jarita) and had four sons who were all reciters of the Vedas. The youngest of them was Drona.

Leaving all those sons (still in the eggs), Mandapala went to Lapita (another wife). When he found that the forest was about to be consumed by fire and that his sons will also be destroyed by the fire, the Rishi prayed to Agni. The contents of the prayer seems to indicate the importance of fire (Agni) in all the Vedic rituals, including the sacrifices to the demi- gods (devas) and the ancestors (pitris). It also shows that Agni is the medium of communication between the demi-gods and the humans.

The prayer is as follows: "Thou art, O Agni, the mouth of all the worlds! Thou art the carrier of the sacrificial butter! O purifier (of all sins), thou move invisible with the frame of every creature! The learned have spoken of thee as One, and again as possessed of triple nature. The wise perform their sacrifices before thee, taking thee as consisting of eight (mouths). The great Rishis declare that this universe hath been created by thee. O thou that feed on sacrificial butter, without thee this whole universe would be destroyed in a single day. O Agni, the learned represent thee as the clouds in the heavens charged with lightning. O Agni, the flames put forth by thee consume every creature. This universe hath been created by thee. The Vedas are thy word. All creatures, mobile and immobile, depend upon thee. Water primarily depends on thee, so also the whole of this universe. All offerings of clarified butter and oblations of food to the pitris have been established in thee. O god, thou art the consumer, and thou art the creator and thou art Intelligence. Thou art the twin Aswins; thou art Surya; thou art Soma; thou art Vayu”. Agni was pleased and agreed to spare the four children.

During the fire, Jarita, the mother is trying to protect her children without the help and support of their father, Mandapala.  Jarita and her sons have interesting discussions in their attempt to escape from fire. I found the following comments made during that discussion very interesting and shows the wisdom of the writer of Maha Bharata.

  1. A position in which death is uncertain is better than that in which it is certain.

 2. A wise person remains wakeful in the presence of death. When the hour of death approaches, he feels no fear. But the person of perplexed soul is afraid in the face of death and never attains salvation.

3. Mandapal’s comment to Jarita: “Women, when they become mothers, do not much care for their husbands". That is why he goes to another woman!

4. When people are in distress they say things without too much thinking.

 5.  One who abandons what he has in his hands for the sake of what he may acquire in the future is foolish.

Finally, Drona’s prayer to Agni to spare him and his brothers is also interesting:  'O lord of the universe, growing in strength and remaining within their bodies, you cause the food that living creatures eat to be digested. Everything therefore, is established in thee. O Sukra, O thou from whose mouth the Vedas have sprung, it is you who assumes the form of the sun, and sucking up the waters of the earth and every liquid juice that the earth yields, gives them back in time in the form of rain and cause everything to grow! From you, arise these plants and creepers with green foliage! From you have sprung these tanks and pools, and the great ocean also that is ever blessed! O thou of fierce rays, this our (human) body depend on Varuna (the water-god)! We are unable to bear thy heat. Be thou, therefore, our auspicious protector! O, destroy us not! O thou of copper-hued eyes, O thou of red neck, O thou whose path is marked by a black color, save us by going along any remote route, as indeed, the ocean saves the house on its banks!' 

In essence, Agni is considered of greater importance for the existence of even water and for all of life.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Maha Bharata - Some hidden gems 6 - Whose life is precious?

This is from Book 1, section 159-162

This episode occurs during the time when Kunti and her sons are in exile living in the house of a poor householder with a wife, one son and one daughter. There is a rakshasa in that town who gives protection to the people – if you call it protection – on one condition. That condition is that one family has to provide him with food every day. That includes one human being also!

On learning that this was his turn to send in a cart-load of food and one human for the Rakshasa’s food, the Brahmana lamented that this earthly life is hollow as the reed and so fruitless filled with sorrow. He says: “Life is sorrow and disease; life is truly a record of misery in pursuit of virtue, wealth and pleasure. Salvation (moksha) is the highest object of our desire. But it can never be attained. Now I have to give away one of my own family to the Rakshasa or give myself away”.

He addresses his wife and says “I cannot give you away. You have been my true friend, helping me in all my duties, as affectionate as my mother, and the mother of my children. You have been devoted to me, and so innocent.  I cannot abandon you to save my life. I cannot abandon my son or daughter either. Some people think that the father's affection for a son is greater; others, that his affection for a daughter is greater. But, I love them both equally.  The sacrifice of any of you would be cruel and censurable. On the other hand, if I sacrifice myself, who will protect you?”

On hearing these words of the Brahmana, his wife gives some interesting reasons for her becoming the food for the rakshasa. She says: “You talk like an uneducated man. You know that all men are sure to die; none should grieve for that which is inevitable. I will myself go there. This indeed, is the highest and the eternal duty of a woman and this act will make me happy, bring me fame in this world and eternal bliss hereafter. I had given you a son and a daughter and thus have discharged my duties and debt. You can take better care of children without me than I can without you. As you know, people will take advantage of a widow and her children. I will not be able to protect myself and our daughter from unworthy wicked men. I will not be able to teach our son either and all three of us will perish without you. So let me go to the Rakshasa. It is possible that the Rakshasa will not kill a woman. If he does you can always remarry according to our custom, whereas I cannot”.

Having heard this plea, the Brahmana embraced his wife and they cried in silence. On hearing her parent’s lamentations and dilemma, the daughter answered as follows: “I have to go away sooner or later to someone else’s house. Besides it is considered that the son is one's own self; the wife is one's friend; the daughter, however, is a source of trouble. Without my father, my brother will wither away and so will my mother. I will then be left alone. Besides, instead of waiting for my son to save my ancestors, I will protect them by rescuing my father’s life who can perform the rites for the ancestors. So, please let me be the food for the Rakshasa”.

Hearing all this, the young boy (son) came with a blade of grass in his hands and said with an infant’s lisp; “Do not worry dad, mom and sister. I will kill that Rakshasa with this weapon”.  All of them had to break into a smile with those innocent words. At this time, Kunti entered the room, and having heard all of this from her hiding place, told them that she will send her son, Bhima to the Rakshasa and assured them that Bhima will destroy him. And Bhima did!