Please visit Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation by Athreya and Mouza at

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Acceptable Evidence

In the Vedic psychology and logic, three kinds of evidences are admissible during debates. They are prathyaksha (perceptible), anumaana (inference) and aagama (testimony). I learnt this from the Nyaya Sastra of Gautama.I did not know that there are subheadings in each one of them.

Prathyaksha is not only what is seen and heard but also what is perceived by the “inner self”, consisting of ego, intelligence and wisdom. This is elaborated in the Buddhist psychology with variations. There is a set of Greek Philosophy on this issue beautifully summarized in a book written in the 6th century called “Consolations of Philosophy” by Boethius.

Anumaana can be poorvaka, feeling the effect and inferring the cause, samaana, seeing the same in two different places and dhrishtru, seeing the cause and inferring the effect. These are the foundations of modern day scientific approach.

Aagama is testimony from a reliable source, like the Vedas, of course. The testimony can also come from sampragnaatha, one who has “known”. They are of two kinds: one who has realized the “Truth” and is able to explain the experience. (Modern day experts in scientific disciplines come close to this category) The other is one who has merged with the Primordial Source and has no separate identity, like Ramana Maharishi.

There are several other kinds of proofs acceptable to other systems of philosophy. It is not surprising that our point of view is colored by the accepted and acceptable points of view. (see my post on Means of Valid Knowledge from February 16, 2009)

Only recently I realized a major point. The best proof is direct perception. Our Vedas say that each one of us can experience the Supreme here and now. In other words, direct perception of the Supreme is possible. Why then depend on other kinds of proof?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Inspiration from Brhadaranyaka Upanishad

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

Last week,I woke up one morning to witness a glorious sunrise. As many times as all of us have seen a rising sun and the arrival of a newborn, they are both awe-inspiring. They are full of spiritual meaning for me.

During morning meditation following that sunrise, I was thinking of Chapter 2, Section 4 of Brhadaranyaka Upanishad. I went back and re-read it. It is one of the most important and thought-provoking sections of the Upanishads, in my view. This is a dialogue between Yagnavalkya and his wife Maitreyi. Yagnavalkya has decided to go on Vanaprastha (leaving everything and retreating to the forest for meditation) and informs her of this decision. The conversation goes somewhat like this.

Maitreyi (M) says: “ what use is this wealth, once you are gone? Will wealth make me immortal?” Yagnavalkya (Y) answers: “ No, your life will be exactly like it is for people with all the wealth. There is no prospect for immortality in wealth (Amrthathvasya thu na aasha asthi vitthena)”.

M says that Y should teach her That by which she can attain immortality and do not bother with other things (such as wealth). Y is pleased and says: “sit down and I will explain” (aassva, vyakkhyaasyami) . Then he says: “The husband is dear to the wife not for the sake of the husband, but it is for her own sake that he is dear. Verily, the wife is dear to the husband not for the sake of the wife, but it is for his own sake that she is dear”. Then he goes on to explain that it is the same way with the son for the father, wealth for the owner etc! How much more psychology can one teach in one sentence?

Several passages later, Y says: “ Just as one is not able to grasp by themselves the particular notes of a drum that is being beaten, but it is only by grasping the basic and general note of the drum, or the general effects of particular strokes that these notes or grasped; ….. and Just as one is not able to grasp by themselves the particular notes of a lute (veena) that is being played , but it is only by grasping the basic and general note of the lute, or the general effects of particular playing on it that these notes or grasped….” ,even so the particular knowledge of the existing universe in the waking state has no validity of its own apart from the Supreme principle which pervades it"!

Here come two thoughts. This idea of relationship between the particular and the general are discussed by Greek philosophers also starting with Socrates, especially Aristotle. And, when Ramana Maharishi and Nisargadatta Maharaj ask you to go deeper and deeper asking yourself “who am I” and talk about the “Transient I” and Pure Awareness, this is what they are pointing to.

This passage was what inspired me to write my thoughts, as they appeared in my mind. Here they are without any editing:

I am the Basic Note
Of the flute
It needs a puff of air
The Breath of Life
The Puff from Whom?
and the Note from Where?

In the same chapter of the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, there is another remarkable question by Y in response to a remark by M that she is confused! (In Sanskrit the passage reads: Bhagavan maa amoomuha, meaning Your Reverence has confused me). Y says: “What is there for confusion? You are intelligent enough to know. Through what should one know That because of which all of this is known? Through what, my dear, should one know the Knower?”

I hope you will reflect on that question as much as possible. It will be a remarkable journey, I can assure you.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Socrates had objections to Written words

In Sanskrit there is a statement: “sahasram vada; ekam abhi ma likha” which means “Say 1000 words; but do not write even one”. Vedic tradition grew up on verbal recital and memorization. Greek tradition was also following the same course – until written words appeared at about the time of Socrates. It appears that Socrates was worried that students will obtain information from written words, but will not know how to think critically. We know he was wrong.

At present, we the “digital immigrants” worry the same way about our young “digital generation”. We worry that in the midst of these images and bits and “bytes” of information, the next generation may have problems with critical thinking skills. There are a few studies to substantiate such a concern.

The new generation of “technology-assisted” learners, are somewhat akin to the “book-assisted” learners that Socrates worried about. Our young ones learn from images and sound-bites and rapid summaries. There is no helping hand. Students multitask. They skim through information. They want instant answers. They forget that information is not knowledge and that they have to take an active part in making knowledge out of this information.
As pointed out by Maryanna Wolf in her book on Proust and the Squid (HarperCollins 2007) and in a recent issue of Science (August 19, 2011), writing and learning from written words was not natural for the human brain. It took several centuries for the human brain to evolve and adapt its structures and networks to this uniquely human activity. Will the neural networks developed over the past two millenia be useful in the new learning environment? Or, will the brain evolve new strategies to adapt to the new world of learning through images and streaming bits of information? How can we help the new young generation develop their reasoning and analytical skills and improve the so-called executive functions of the brain?

Socrates was of the opinion that spoken words are full of meaning and emotions, with added stress and nuances during the delivery. Written words are rigid. Written words “cannot talk back” if you ask a question. Nor can it offer clarification. Written words can be mistaken for reality if not examined critically with the help of a teacher, he thought. Decoding the words and their meanings is not the same as knowledge acquired by thinking about the thing words stand for with all their connections and implications. Socrates thought that reading from books might lead to superficial, false knowledge and “empty arrogance”.

The vedic teachers had similar opinion. They thought too that if students learnt purely from texts they may get arrogant with their superficial knowledge. That is one of the reasons for insisting on “gurukula” syle of learning and respect for the teacher (guru). Even now, an initiation by a “guru” is considered essential for spiritual enlightenment.

The second objection was that written books will be harmful to memory formation. We all know that it is true to some extent. It does not destroy memory; but there is less need for it. It is not all bad. Computers can store memory better than we humans can. They can store lot more facts and more important, they can recall in fraction of a second and without ever forgetting. So why use the brain like a “filing cabinet”?

The benefit of the arrival of written words and books is that the brain needed less territory and energy to store memory. That allowed the brain to develop its correlative and analytical functions. The other advantage of written words is that accumulated knowledge could be transmitted to the next generation. Clearly, the arrival of written words is the basis of human civilization.

With information technology, we can store more information in less space than in books. We can look for correlations and patterns with simulations and complex calculations. However, information is not knowledge. By focusing on information, looking at moving images and disappearing screens and with the use of immediate feedback and quick rewards, are we losing our ability to stay focused and think through a problem?

The answer to this last question happens to be “yes’ and “no”. Yes, our youngsters are not focused, they multi-task and are quick with joy-sticks but not with executive functions. At the same time, children’s ability to think analytically and creatively and to stay focused can be improved with the use of the same technology. It is interesting to note that working memory is an important component of creative and analytical thinking and this can be enhanced by specially developed computer programs.

What are the executive functions of the brain? These are the qualities needed to control our impulses, focus on a problem, think creatively, assign priorities, make proper judgments and plan for a course of action. These functions depend on development of neural networks which connect the sensory, motor, emotional and rational parts of the brain. Many of the circuits are not fully connected till late adolescence.

All of (Most of us) develop these functions over the course of our young lives. Can we facilitate the developments of these functions in children? Sure, we can. Recent studies on helping young children to develop executive functions show that approaches that seem to work include “computerized training” with specially developed lessons, hybrid computer-noncomputer programs, special “Tools of the mind” and classroom curricula. (Science 333:959-964, 2011). Yes, information technology can be used to maintain those functions which we are afraid our younger generation may lose.

Finally,Socrates thought that written words will result in loss of control over language. I do not know what he meant. Socrates probably thought that learning from written mode will lead to superficial understanding since there is no teacher to push the student to ask questions and ask for clarifications, make sure the student understands the meaning of words and the structure and the beauty of the language. The student is likely to move on with incomplete knowledge (not looking up the dictionary and ask for clarification) and thus lose control over knowledge. He said that “Once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it but equally of those who have no business with it…..”. In essence, we know how when a word is put on print, we lose control over it. We do not know who will use it and for what purpose. Is it not true even more when something is written into cyberspace?

As a physician-educator, I know that those concerns are still valid. Look at text messages, e mails and Twitter. There is no need for spelling or grammar. In medicine, when a clinical question arises, the students are able to get a reference or two about the subject in a second by signing into Pubmed or Google Scholar. But they read only the abstract. Very few go to the original and read it carefully and critically assess the quality of research and the validity of the conclusion. Much less time is spent on deciding whether the “information” in that article is relevant to the specific situation.

This problem is even worse when patients search the internet and come up with everything that can go wrong with their condition. When they read everything available on that subject in the internet, they do not realize that most of the material is unfiltered and untested and there may be even some dangerous ideas. The anxiety generated becomes worse than the disease itself.

We all know that Socrates was wrong in opposing written words and “books”. If he were alive he would admit his mistake. We also know that his concerns are of relevance once again. However, the age of information is here to stay. It has unleashed an explosion of available information. But information is not knowledge. The technology of acquiring information should not become an end in itself. Like all new technologies, information technology comes with its strengths and weakness. Like all new technologies, we will not know the full impact of this technology on individual learning and on the society for several decades to come. We do not know how this will alter the need for our brains to rearrange its circuitry for analytical thinking.

We have to adapt the information technology and adapt to it wisely and with prudence.

Proust and the Squid. Maryanne Wolf. HarperCollins, New York 2007.
Science Issue of August 19, 2011

Saturday, October 1, 2011


Recently, I was asked to speak about Upanayanam, one of the Rites of Passages in the Vedic tradition of the Hindus. I did not give the talk. But, having collected some interesting information I decided to share it with all of you.

The word upanayanam in Sanskrit is composed of two parts – upa, meaning near and nayanam meaning to bring. (There are other meanings also, such as nayanam, meaning the eye). The Sanskrit word for rites of passage is samskara. The literal meaning of the word samskara is “to make perfect”, “to polish”. The ceremony is one of 16 major rites of passages. Actually there are 40 rites of passages from birth to death.

All cultures have rites of passages. These are rituals full of symbolism. They are meant to re-enact myths, to connect the individual to the community and society and to connect the individual to nature and universal principles. In addition, they are the best way to teach the children about the myths and the culture of the traditions.

Upanayanam is traditionally performed for the boys in the Hindu Brahmin families and is supposed to be completed at about 7 years of age. After the upanayanam, the boy is initiated into the study of the Vedas. The first birth is physical. Upanayanam is the second birth, birth into the spirituality. (Hence the name dwija, twice-born)

In olden times, girls also had upanayanam. In addition to the brahmins, kshatriya and vaisya varnas also were and even now are allowed to perform upanayanam. However, the age at which upanayanam is performed is 12 to 13 for kshatriyas and 13 to 16 for vaisyas.

What is the significance of the age of the ceremony? Age 7 is chosen for brahmins, because the boy should be able to read and recite so that he can be initiated to the Vedas. Our ancestors thought that the age of 7 will allow margin for the slow learners. But, they wanted to get the boy interested in spiritual matters before his hormones came into play and distracted him.

The brahmin boy was supposed to stay in his teachers (guru’s) house for 12 years after the upanayanam so he can be proficient in all the vedic rituals and other matters. Ksahtriys and vaisyas had to learn other skills and therefore their age for initiation was delayed.

The sudras belonging to the fourth varna were excluded from this. (In spite of all the explanations given for their exclusion, personally I find it a major mistake of our ancestors. As I have mentioned in other places, all systems of religion exclude one group or another resulting in the mistreatment of that group)

This initiation into adulthood and study of religious texts is not special for the Hindu religion. Other traditions have similar ceremonies. For example, in the Jewish tradition, it is called Bar-Mitzvah for the boys and Bat- Mitzva for girls. The age for the girls is 12 and for boys, it is 13. This is when adolescent maturation starts. This is also when most children become capable of abstract thinking. They are considered to be ready to take care of their adult functions and duties, including religious ones.

In Christianity it is called Confirmation. This is one of 7 sacraments, similar to our 16 samskaras. The age is set at 13.

The most relevant one is the Navjote ceremony in the Zoarastrian tradition. Upanayanam might have had its origin in this ancient Persian tradition. This is for both boys and girls and is usually performed after the age of 7 and before they attain maturity. In this ceremony the adolescent gets invested with a shirt called sedreh and a waist-band called kushti which they are supposed to wear all their lives. A waist-band akin to kushti made of straw is tied in the Hindu upanayanam but is discarded the same day. The three threads that are given in upanayanam are considered to be a variant of the Zoroastrian sedreh.

Upanayanam ceremony is celebrated for the boys in all parts of India and Nepal. But the names are different. It is called Poonool ceremony in Tamizh, Odugu in Adhra Pradesh, Munji in Karnataka, Janeu in Hindi-speaking areas, Munja in Marathi and Pravibandha in Nepal.

The upanayanam ceremony has two parts.The main part is the introduction to spirituality and religious studies in the form of OM and Gayatri mantra. This is called brahmopadesam. The other part is the investiture of the sacred thread which is called yagnopavidam. The sequence, however, is wearing the sacred thread first and then the learning of the Gayatri mantra.

What is the meaning behind the three threads? These threads are made of cotton for brahmins, hemp for the kshatriyas and linen for the vaisyas. Why three threads? There are several explanations. That is understandable knowing that three is such a holy number in many traditions. The three threads represent the three Vedas (Rk,Yajur and Saama), say some. Some say that mind (Gayatri), words (Sarasvathi) and deeds (savith) are represented. Other possibilities are: the three states of wakefulness, dreamless sleep and deep sleep; three gunas,namely sattva, rajas and tamas; the three primordial substances of thejas (fire), aapah(water) and anna (food,earth) and so on. Some ayurvedic people think that the three dosahs, humors of vaada, pitta and kappa are represented.

I prefer the explanation given in Brahmopanishad, one of the minor Upanishads of Atharva veda. I prefer this text because, this Upanishad gives adequate explanations for the upanayanam, names the three threads as trivit sutra and explains the meaning of the word sutra and of the three threads. But the most important reason is that the mantra that is used even now when wearing the scared thread is taken from this Upanishad.

Let us start with that mantra first and then look at the meaning. It starts with:
Hrdistha devatah sarva hrdi pranah pratishtithah
Hrdi pranah cha jyotih cha trivitsutram cha yanmahat
Hrdi chaitanye thishtathi.
This means: “In the heart live the Devas. Pranas are installed in the heart. In the heart reside the Supreme Prana and the Light, as also the immanent cause with its threefold constituents and the Mahat principle. It exists within this heart, that is within the consciousness”. This clearly refers to the Samkhya philosophy according to which the universe comes out of the modification of the three gunas (satva, rajas and tamas) in the Prakriti (primordial Matter) and the first evolved part is the Mahat. If you interpret the three parts as that of Prakriti, it will be fire, water and food (earth). The three threads represent the three original substances or principles.

In a subsequent sloka, it says “sutrat sutram ithi aahuh” meaning that it is called sutra (or a thread) because it is the warp and the woof of this universe. Then it says,
Yagnopavidam paraman pavitram
Prajapatheh yatshajam purastat
Aayushyam agryam pratimuncha shubram
Yagnopavidam balamasthu thejah.
This translates as: “Put on this sacrificial thread which is supremely sacred, which became manifest long ago with Prajapati, the first created being and which embodies longevity, eminence and purity. May it bring strength to you”. This mantra has to be uttered while putting on the sacred thread.

The practice is to wear the thread(s) so that it crosses the left shoulder, middle of the chest and then goes under the right arm. The knot which ties the three threads is placed in front of the heart, on the left side. (Ramana Maharishi says that the vedic heart is not on the left). The idea is that the sacred trivit sutra worn outside the heart is an external symbol of the three primordial principles which are inside the heart with the knot lying just in front of the heart.

In a later passage, this Upanishad says that although this sacred thread is essential for those who want to perform vedic sacrifices, it may be discarded by the realized souls (true gnanis).

After investiture of the sacred thread, the boy is ready to learn the secret of the Vedas, in the form of the pranava mantram (OM) and Gayatri mantra. The first guru is the father who teaches Gayatri to his son. In olden days, the boy went to the house or ashram of a guru after initiation by the father. During those 12 years with the guru, the boy is supposed to learn all the vedas, live simple life on food given as alms by householders. This is not “begging” in the modern sense, but in essence it is. The first person, he asks for food soon after wearing the sacred thread and learning the Gayatri is his own mother. This is still enacted in modern day Upanayanams.

Let us get to the famous Gayatri mantra. The derivation of the word Gayatri is : Gayantham thrayate yasmat gayatri ithi abidhiyate. This means: It is called Gayatri because it protects the one who sings (says) this mantra. The sloka is directed at Goddess Savitha. The name comes from the chandas (prosody) or meter in which this poem is set. This consists of 3 lines (called pada) in the stanza and each line has 8 syllables (akshara). Please do not look for the eight syllables, as in English. Sanskrit syllables are counted differently.

There is also a Rk gayatri mantra with 4 lines to a stanza and 6 syllables in each. This meter is called anushtup. I am aware of at least 27 types of chandas or meters and I am not even a Sanskrit scholar.

The Gayatri of Atharva veda is completely different.

Each line of the Gayatri mantra is supposed to represent the essence of one of the three Vedas. The three lines also come from a, u and m, which combined together become the OM sound. Therefore, here is how Gayatri mantra reads:
Om Bhuh Bhuvah Suvah… This is the pranavam and the three parts of the Universe.
That savithur varenyam ……. From the A sound of Om and Rg veda
Bhargo devasya dimahi………..From the U sound of Om and Yajur Veda
Dhiyo yonah prachodayat…….From the M sound of Om and Sama veda.
The meaning is: OM, earth, intermediate universe and the higher universe
That adorable splendor of The Savithr, the originator of the universe, (is to be sought by one seeking the Atman)
(Let us meditate on Savita) who is the Light of the Devas
And may He inspire our thoughts (too).

There are many more parts to the ceremony including the rituals a boy has to practice three times a day after upanayanam etc. They are for a different occasion.

Let me close with a passage from Ramana maharishi on the significance of Upanayanam. I quote: “Upanayanam does not mean just putting around the neck three strands of cotton thread. It means that in addition to the two eyes we all know about, there is a third eye. That is the gnana netram (wisdom eye). Open that eye and recognize your swa –swarupa (own from)”.

Brahmopanishad. Commentary by Swami Madhavananda Advaitha Ashrama Publication. 1973
OM – Gayatri and Sandhya. Svami Mukhyananda. Sri Ramakrishna Math. 1989
Daivathin Kural (Tamil) Lectures by Jagadguru Chandrasekhara Saraswathi of Kanchi. Part 2. Vanathi Padhippakam. 1978. Pages 822-861.
And. Several others.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Vidura Nithi

Vidura Nithi is a small section within Mahabharatha. These are the morals taught by Vidura. But, who was Vidura?

Vidura was a beacon of virtue and righteousness. As the story goes, he was Sage Vyasa’s son, born of a maid servant of Ambika, the mother of Dhrithrashtra. The story also says that Vidura was none other than Yama, the Lord of Death. Yama had to take a human form for his sin of punishing a child unjustly.

Vidura Nithi consists of 8 chapters in Mahabharatha. The setting is just before the Kurukshetra war. The Pandavas had returned back from the forest after the stipulated 13 years and were asking for their kingdom to be given back. Duryodhana and his people wanted to hold on. Dhrithrashtra sent a message to Yudhistra that he and his brothers should go back to the forest and do penance. Yudhistra declined this suggestion and demanded his kingdom. Dhrithrashtra knew that he was wrong and that there will be war. He gets agitated and unable to sleep. He seeks out Vidura for counsel. Thus starts the Vidura Nithi.

This classic deals with individual and social morality and is full of wisdom. These values are universal and there is no reference to any God or threat of punishment. There are many classic passages. Here are a few.

Vidura lists eight virtues in Chapter 3, sloka 69. They are sacrifice, charity, study, penance, truthfulness, forgiveness, mercy and non-covetousness. You can practice the first four to look good in the eyes of others and out of vanity. The latter set of four are inherent only in the virtuous.

(In some other place I read that the word Charity was originally meant to mean disinterested love as in divine love. It was associated with humility and tranquility. Thus charity is the root of all morality.)

Chapter 1, sloka 73 says: “One should give up lust, anger and covetousness, the three sure gates to hell”

One who wants prosperity in this world should give up “sleep, drowsiness, fear, anger, laziness and procrastination” (Chapter 1, sloka 85)

A wise man is not impetuous in his actions; speaks only the truth when asked; does not like to enter into quarrels even for the sake of a friend and does not get angry even when treated with disrespect. (Chapter 1 sloka 116)

Chapter2, sloka 4 says: “Do not give advice unasked, good or bad, agreeable or disagreeable”.

Chapter 2, sloka 8 has one of my all time favorites: “sahasaa na samaachareth” meaning “Do not act on impulse and in haste”. The first portion of this sloka says that there are several components to an action such as the nature of the act, its purpose, your ability to do it etc. Consider all of these and also about the pros and cons. In a subsequent sloka, Vidura says that one who acts without reflecting on the consequences of his action is like a fish who swallows the iron-hook concealed within the fine food dangled in front of it.

In Chapter 2, sloka 42, Vidura says that he is of the opinion that mere lineage and ancestry is no cause for respect, if the person lacks morality.
Later he says: “ Poor people eat their food with relish because hunger begets taste; that is rare among the wealthy”.

Chariot is a common metaphor in the vedic and the Greek literature. In my earlier blog on Symbols and Substance, I have described the meaning of the scene from Gita in which Lord Krishna is the charioteer for Arjuna and also about Plato’s chariot with two horses. Here is Vidura’s description in Chapter 3, sloka 60: “A man’s body is the chariot, the driver is the mind within, senses are the horses. With these well-trained horses, a wise man, like a clever charioteer goes on the journey of life comfortably”.

Here are two gems: Chapter 2: slokas 79 and 80. A wound caused by an arrow heals quickly. A forest cut down by axe sprouts again. A verbal wound never heals. Arrows that pierce the body can be extracted. But a dart made of words cannot be. It remains stuck to the “heart”.

Chapter 3 sloka 61 says: “ A hero is known in danger; a valiant during difficulty; a friend and a foe during times of calamity.

Chapter 4, sloka 12. Silence is better than speech; speech, if at all, should be truthful; Truthful utterances should be beneficial; beneficial utterances should conform to Dharma (virtue).

In Chapter 4, slokas 46 and 47 talk about vicissitudes in life and reiterates what Gita teaches: Equanimity. Man dies and is born again; becomes poor and flourishes again; he begs and then others beg of him; he mourns and he is mourned. Happiness and misery, prosperity and poverty, gain and loss, birth and death, these visit by turns. Be in self-control and do not go “wild” with happiness and “down” with despondency.

Here is a wise advice. “One should not give expression to what one is going to do. Matters of virtue, desire and prosperity (dharma- kaama-artha) should be revealed only after the action is completed. Secret counsel is not to be divulged”.

And in Chapter 6, sloka 43 Vidura says: “ I regard them as wise, those who are intent on the general ends to be gained and not stuck on particulars, because particulars are but subordinate to the general”.

“Knowledge is improper and incomplete when the attainable is not known and the known is not put into practice”. (Chapter 7 sloka 34)

Vidura asks for “kshama sarvatra sarvada”, meaning patience at all places and at all times” (Chapter 7 sloka 58) And “Do not do unto others what is disagreeable to yourself” (Chapter 7 sloka 72) Is it not the same as in the Bible?

Two additions:  "Do things during the day which will help you pass the night in happiness. Do that during eight months of the year which will keep you pass the rainy season without worry. Do that during youth which will keep you happy during old age. Do that during your life that which will keep you happy in the here after".

Thursday, September 1, 2011

What are the “Values” of Science?

I am a typical oriental; a mixture of spirituality and skepticism. The side soaked in tradition looks at the universe from a spiritual point of view. It says that everything we see and experience in this universe must have come from ONLY one source. We are all made of similar, if not the same materials of the universe and we are all energized by the same source of Light.

The other side of me wants to deal with the realities of this world. Here we are. Here is the world. Here are other people, plants, animals etc. How do I deal with myself and how do I behave towards others? In this pragmatic world, I like to make my decisions based on observed and observable facts. Where facts are not known or not available, I make my decisions which by nature will be imperfect. There is place for the heart (emotions) and the head (logic) but no place for superstition and fanaticism. Here is where my training in the methods of science comes.

Professor Ismail Serageldin of the historical Alexandria Library of Alexandria, Egypt has written a remarkable editorial on the values of science (Science Vol 322: page 1127, 2011). It is in the best scholarly traditions of Alexandria. He points out how the values needed for an open, democratic society are the same values that science demands.

First, Truth, only absolute truth. This can come from anyone who can back up the conclusions with evidence, and not imagination, wishful thinking or “manufactured-data”.

“Science is open to all regardless of nationality, race, religion or sex”.

“Truth and honor are of utmost importance. …..A scientist may err in interpreting data, but no one can accept fabrication of data. What other field of human activity can rival this level of commitment to absolute truth?”

Modern scientific work is team work. “Contributions are also cumulative”. No superstar can claim he or she did all the work. It is routine to see a listing of all the collaborators and contributors and supporters at the end of any scientific article or talk in the field of biology and medicine. It is that democratic and transparent.

“Science requires the freedom to think, to challenge, to imagine the unimagined. It cannot function within the arbitrary limits of convention, nor can it flourish if it is forced to shy away from challenging the accepted. Science advances by overthrowing an existing paradigm or substantially expanding or modifying it. Thus there is a certain constructive subversiveness built into the scientific enterprise……. This constant renewal and advancement of our scientific understanding is a central feature of the scientific enterprise. It requires a tolerant engagement with the contrarian view that is grounded in disputes arbitrated by the rules of evidence and rationality”.

“Science demands rationality and promotes civility in discourse. Ad hominem attacks are not accepted. Science treats all humans equally”

Is scientific enterprise perfect? No. Are scientists beyond all human failings such as vanity, self-promotion, fabrication of data? Most of the time, “YES”. There have been violations, of course. But the scientific community does not tolerate them. “Truth and honor are of the utmost importance”.

Dr. Serageldin quotes Jacob Bronowski and points out how all of the values and requirements of science as described in earlier paragraphs are what civilized, democratic societies need. The scientific enterprise adopts all of these values with exceptional vigor. “These values also provide the basis for enhancing human capabilities and human welfare”.

Before I close this essay, may I suggest to you a remarkable movie on the life of Hypatia, a female philosopher-mathematicians who was the Chief Librarian at the Alexandria Library in the 5th century CE? The movie is available in DVD format and the title is Agora.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi, Ariana

At my level of understanding , it appears that matter, energy, time and space are the basic units of the physical universe. When you add “life” to the universe, awareness becomes an additional essential element. When I take the liberty of equating awareness with “information” (a code for complex organisms) and add it as another unit, I see a “wholeness”.

When you strip away all complexities, it appears that in Nature, all these elemental units are interconnected and interdependent. It appears to me, a non-physicist, that these units pair up as three sets of two-in-one items. They appear to be two separate entities; but they go together. One cannot be without the other. The pairs are: matter and energy; space and time; and source of information and outcome of information.

Information implies a source, a medium for transmission, the process of transmission and reception. This is the absolute basis of life, starting with reproduction (DNA and genes), exchange of energy (breath and metabolism), exchange of information with external world (all the senses and the mind/brain functions), internal messages (chemicals, hormones etc) and maintenance of integrity of the physical self (immune functions). All these have a message source and a receptor mechanism, some simple and some complicated. The source determines the output, but with plenty of variations.

To start with, let us look at matter and energy duality. It appears that matter as we define is different from the way physicists define. Matter has mass and energy. The relationship between mass and energy in a space-time continuum is the famous equation of Einstein. Mass and energy are interchangeable, it seems. At a subatomic particle level, the bosons (transmit forces) and fermions (constitute matter) are actually two phases of the same fundamental matter. We also know that photon is a particle and a wave.

Next pair is space-time. Even at an atomic level, we have to speak of space. There is a relatively vast amount of space between the nucleus and the electron orbits. Energy transfer implies movement which implies space between two “objects” however small that may be. It also implies time for the movement through that space, however short that may be. At macro-level, space and time are clearly visible. Space and time form one unit. They are inter-dependent. Buddha knew it. Physicists know it.

Living forms (objects) are made of “matter”. Once the forms get “animated”, we get life forms. At a basic level, life is energy exchange. Life depends on energy exchange depending ultimately on the sun. Life cannot exist without energy exchange; but energy exchange can go on without life.

All living creatures are “aware”. They all react to the environment. This is possible only if there is a “receiver” and a “responder”. This is “awareness” at a fundamental level. Awareness is information exchange, dependent on energy exchange. Without awareness and ability to respond to internal and external signals, life cannot exist.

Enter higher life forms and human beings with their special brains and their capacities. Their awareness is different. Their brains are capable of meta-awareness, an awareness of awareness. When this is explained and understood through the use of symbols of language and of concepts, we reach the highest form of awareness (third-order) in the humans.

I wonder whether it is logical to think of information as inherent in matter to act in space and time at the micro and macro levels. Seth Lloyd is quoted as saying: "To do anything requires energy.To specify what is done requires information".

I am not qualified to talk about atomic physics. I do not even understand those concepts. But I know as a biologist that information is fundamental to the existence of life-forms. Every cell, every tissue, every virus, bacterium, plant, animal and human live by exchanging information within oneself and with the other living and non-living entities in our environment. Information exchange is the basis of metabolism, immunity, reproduction, genetics , memory, and communication.

It appears that physicists have been discussing information as a third fundamental unit – after matter and energy. Stuart Umpleby, a Systems Scientist has attempted to bring these three concepts together although our knowledge about units of information is not as rich as on physical objects. He points out how information is recognition of signal difference and how Leo Szilard has described relationship between energy and information as early as 1929. More recently Bremermann has suggested a triangular relationship between matter, energy and information at an atomic level. (Systems and Behavioral Science 24:369, 2007)

More recently, Hans Bremermann and others have suggested that combining the relationship between matter and energy with the relationship between energy and information, a new relationship between matter and information may be revealed at an atomic level. Indeed Bremermman has calculated a constant (1047 bits/gm/sec) as the limit at which symbols can be processed by matter.

Information is inherent in the universe and information exchange is a fundamental requirement for life forms to exist. But exchange of information requires the receiver to have a receptor and a responder system. This is a chemical servo system like a thermostat in lower forms of life. It is a complicated nervous system in higher animals. The nervous system acts through electrical messages and chemical messages.

There is no “brain” in unicellular organisms or trees. But there has to be “awareness” at some level to sense the environment and respond, as pointed out in an earlier essay. Awareness by definition denotes information reception and response. Awareness is “about” information. It also denotes sending signals or messages or bits of information and receiving such bits of information. Information exists inside and outside each life-form. This has to be exchanged for survival.

In higher forms of life, awareness implies that there is a subject and an object. Higher animals know and also know they know. This is because of the ability of the brain to make second order neural map, a “strange loop” as Hofstadter pointed out.

This gets even more complicated with evolution of the human brain. Human consciousness is a higher order of awareness in which a subject is always present. Subject, object and the process of knowing form one unit, as pointed out by Buddha. In Vedic literature it is called dhrk-dhryshya viveka. There cannot be one without the other. In addition, humans can make a third order representation by the use of language.

Whether there is a supernatural or supra-natural consciousness above and beyond the third-order awareness is a philosophical question. Even if there is one, it has to depend on a functioning brain in a living body.

Brain is the hardware on which this matter-energy-information software acts. This triad is a fundamental unit of this universe and therefore may be capable of understanding its “origins” as suggested by Charles Pierce and others. Pierce is quoted by Walker Percy as follows: “since the reasoning mind is a product of the universe”, it is natural to suppose that the laws and uniformities that prevail throughout the universe should also be “incorporated in his own being”. This has been emphasized in the spiritual literature and myths of all traditions.

Human mind is bound to keep asking questions and exploring. There is no forbidden territory for an inquisitive mind. But, the mystery of the universe will be there always. We may be able to figure out the “how”. But not the “why”.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"It from bit"

So said John Wheeler 1.
What is a Bit?
Bit is a piece of information. It is a message. It is a code.
In this age of computer, internet and information, I need to be careful and define “information”.
To Claude Shannon and the information scientists2, the physics of communication is the focus.
To them, it is about sending a message from here to there.
The contents did not matter. Emotions involved in the message did not matter. Not even the purpose.
My focus is on the content and its purpose.
The root verb for the word information is in forme which means to form, to shape.
Information in biology is a message, a code for a “purpose”.
A message (information) is carried on physical agents, by physical agents.
Therefore, it can be or is an attribute of a physical agent and inherent in it.
Like ghee in milk; like life in this planet.
Information is a fundamental unit of nature, like matter and energy. Not being a physicist, I am not sure about this.
Information in the form of codes is certainly the basis for life and consciousness.
Being a physician and a biologist and as one who has delved deep into meditation, I am sure about this.
Information (message) in life sciences is a code for a potential future event.
I used the words, potential and future.
For information to unfold, for the potential to come into being, causes and conditions have to be in place.
The information, the code, the message can be accessed only in the future.
It can be accessed any number of times without depleting the source.
It can be accessed from far or near. But it needs time to unfold.
Thus, information is tied intimately with time.
Unfolding of information is what gives the sense of time and its unidirectionality.
Emergent properties of atoms and molecules and compounds and cells are due to inherent information unfolding over time.
Past events can be inferred from the unfolded information. Milk can be inferred from ghee.
But the source cannot be reconstituted from the effect.
Milk can become ghee; but ghee cannot become milk.
You cannot put the chicken back into the egg; the tree into its seed.
That is because, Time in unidirectional. Information unfolding makes it so.
Information can point to the source. But it is not the source. It is an attribute of the source.

References: 1. Wheeler, J A and Ford K. Geon, Black Holes and Quantum foam: A Life in Physics. New York: Norton, 1998.
2. Gleick J. The Information. New York: Pantheon Books, 2011.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Life and Consciousness

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi, Ariana

You know that I reflect on the mysteries of life and nature every day. During recent reflections, I stumbled on a major insight and I wish to share it with you. It is not original. Other great souls have thought about this, but this is a personal synthesis.

There were several triggers for this personal insight. One was a book about human consciousness by Dr.Nunez. He proposes a “crazy” idea that mind and brain are intertwined just as particle and energy are at a quantum level. Another trigger came from meditations using ideas given by Ramana Maharishi. He asks us to reflect on the “I” which is at the core of every thought. Finally, there were two experiences with nature which made me realize that a basic sense of awareness (without ownership) is essential for all human thoughts and perceptions and that there has to be a “life” for “awareness” to be experienced.

Let me start with the experiences observing natural events.

The other day I soaked some green gram (a variety of pulse/ beans from India) in water to make sprouts. When I opened the lid the next day to assess progress, I felt a thrill. It was almost a spiritual feeling. I was looking at “life” unfolding in the form of tiny sprouts and bubbles of gas. The once “lifeless” seeds are now “breathing”. In scientific terms, the seeds are responding to the presence of water. They are now exchanging energy with the environment. In the process, the form is changing in front of my eyes. How thrilling! How humbling!

Causes and conditions are right, once again, for the dormant "code" for life in the seeds to express itself. The cause was there already. The “seed” became “aware” of the new environment and the “code” in the “seed” is unfolding. The effects are here for me to see. The cause is information specific for the green gram coded in the molecules and atoms. The unfolding of that information is life. But, what is life? Where did the “first seed” receive its "code" for "life"?

With life comes awareness. All forms of life are “aware” in the sense of being in touch with the environment. We know it by the way all of them react and respond to the environment. Individual cells of the body do. Micro-organisms do. Even a virus does. Trees do. Animals do.

Trees grow their limbs towards sunlight. They anticipate the arrival of winter and of spring. Trees tend to pollinate at the same time. Trees seem to “remember” past events! How is that possible? You may say that they sense the change in the inclination of the sun, duration of the sunlight etc etc. Whatever it is, trees and plants are “aware” and respond.

A few years back, I observed a pair of ospreys raise a family over a period of many months. They had built a nest in the Choptank river on a wooden pillar meant for mooring a boat. We had a vacation home in Maryland and this nest was literally in our backyard. I observed this osprey pair from the day they built their nest through an entire breeding season. I observed how the mother built her nest in time for laying her eggs, protected them through rain and shine, saw them hatch, fed the chicks and stayed with them until the youngest and the weakest learnt to fly!

How did the female and the male know that they are a “pair”, leading to loyalty and caring? What told them that they have to build a nest? What made the male help build the nest? Once I saw the mother stay on top of the eggs through a harsh thunderstorm. What made her do that? How did she know that those were “her” eggs? When the mother was hatching, I have seen the “father” bring fish for her. How did he know? I have seen the adult birds take turns caring for the chicks. It was amazing to see the mother teaching the young ones to fly. And she stayed in the nest until the youngest and weakest learnt to fly and then one day all of them were gone!

Obviously the birds are conscious. They are aware. They know. They do not have our language. They do not know love, loyalty, commitment etc. the way we define in words. In principle, they “know”. They know their territory. They know where food is. They know their babies. But, do they know that they know? In other words, do they have an “I” every time they have a thought?

We humans know that we know. We can express it. We can communicate it. That is why we have a responsibility to think, to reach greater heights, to be humble, compassionate and considerate.

What I learnt from both these episodes is about the mystery of life and the secondary nature of consciousness. What I also learnt is that information is the inherent force of life process. “Information” IS the basis of life. It is the basis of consciousness.

But, what is "Information"?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

What are the main messages?

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

I have been writing on several topics. Now it is time for me to take stock of what I have been writing about. When you read them, I hope you see that my main messages for the future generations are:

1. There has been an explosion of knowledge in the past century and a half.
2. Explosion in technology has made human lives richer, but also more complicated.
3. Excess reliance in technology has blinded humanity to thinking that all human and societal problems can be solved purely by technological means.
4. The technology to generate more information and more knowledge is here; so is the technology to store all of this information.
5. It is not necessary, nor is it possible to remember all the available information.
6. But, it is important to focus on how to find useful, reliable, relevant information out of all this mass of information and deliver it to the sites where they can be used.
7. It is also very important to learn and teach how to think, using all the available information and knowledge.
8. The technology of media is used by commercial, political and religious organizations to get your attention and more importantly to influence your thinking.
9. That makes it imperative that all of us learn what the tricks of the trades are and how peoples’ minds can be manipulated by others.
10. We have to know the sources of information, how the source is funded and for what purpose.
11. All of us have to learn how to think for ourselves and ask critical questions.
12. The increased understanding of physical phenomena based on proofs creates conflicts in faith-based systems which still follow ancient texts. This creates unnecessary confusion among the followers of various faiths leading to rejection, guilt feelings or hypocrisy.
13. It is, therefore, essential to periodically reinterpret sacred texts to realign them with known facts. As pointed out by Kierkegaard, items of faith are place-holders till more definite answers are available. When we know that the earth circles the sun, it is more sensible to change the texts than punish the truth-teller. Changing the text based on solid facts will not reduce its sanctity in anyway. Indeed it will make it easier for the followers to live their lives without feeling guilty or becoming hypocritical.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Consciousness, Empathy, Self and Wisom - 3

More recently the term Self has also come under scrutiny. The idea of self is both physical and philosophical. William James is credited with showing that the so-called “self” (he called it the me self) has three components: the material self, the physical self dealing with one’s care of one’s own body with clothing etc, the social self that is recognized as a consistently predictable individual and the spiritual self which determines one’s internal philosophical values.

I will leave out for the present, the “self” as defined by philosophers and religious scholars who suggest that there is a non-material entity called self or atma or spirit which activates the functions of the human body, including that of the brain and independent of the body. I am also leaving out the study of “self” by neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio who suggests that there is a proto-self, core self and autobiographical self.

Based on the suggestions of William James, one group of neurologists defined self as “temporally stable, trans-situational consistencies in behavior, dress, or political or religious ideologies”. Since patients with dysfunction in frontal lobe functions have been shown to exhibit dramatic changes in their beliefs and self-care, these neurologists studied 72 patients with fronto-temporal dementia. The studies included documentation of change in the core aspects of “self” as defined above, such as changes in style of dress, social presentation, political and religious ideologies and self-concept related to their work.Imaging studies (MRI and SPECT) were also completed on these patients.

Seven patients showed dramatic changes in “self” as defined above. Six of those with change in their “self” showed clear structural abnormalities on fMRI with asymmetric loss of function in the non-dominant frontal lobe.
In other words, some of the components of what we call “self” in our daily, practical usage are represented in specific areas of the brain.That is not surprising at all.It is surprising that it took so long to figure that out.

The reason I am summarizing all of this is because with an increase in aging population, we see many patients with loss of mental functions including awareness, a personal self and judgment. In addition, patients with several types of neurological diseases based on organ pathology manifest behavioral problems and mental illness in which they have lost or have exaggerated mental functions. I believe neuroscience can help our patients based on solid evidence. It is obvious that these studies are important in understanding mental illness with objective data and are essential to developing reliable treatment modalities.

In addition, compassion, empathy, altruism, wisdom are important in the making of a physician. If we understand what wisdom is and what empthy is, we may be able to train our future physicians better.

Further reading:

Singer T, Lamm C. Social neuroscience of empathy in The Year in Cognitive Neuroscience 2009: Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 2009; 1156: 81–96.

Budson AE, Price BH. Memory dysfunction. New Eng J Med 2005; 352: 692-699.

T R Insel . Faulty circuits. Scientific American April 2010 pages 44-51.

J W Buckholtz et al. Dopaminergic network differences in human impulsivity. Science 2010; 329: 532-534.

Mohammadreza Hojat, PhD, Michael J. Vergare, MD, Kaye Maxwell, George Brainard, PhD, Steven K. Herrine, MD, Gerald A. Isenberg, MD, Jon Veloski, MS, and Joseph S. Gonnella, MD.The Devil is in the Third Year:A Longitudinal Study of Erosion of Empathy in MedicalSchool. Academic Medicine 2009;84(9):1182-1191.

Steve Twomey. Phineas Gage: Neuroscience's Most Famous Patient - An accident with a tamping iron made Phineas Gage history's most famous brain-injury survivor., Smithsonian Magazine, January 2010.

Damasio A. The Feeling of what happens. Harcourt Brace. 1999

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Consciousness, Empathy, Self and Wisom - 2

Empathy is an essential requirement for any physician. Also note that empathy and altruism are characteristics of a “wise physician”. At a time when patients think that physicians value technology more and do not truly understand their suffering, it is important to re-establish the value of empathy in patient-physician relationship. (DeWitt Stetten, a brilliant physician- scientist said that his ophthalmologists were interested in “vision”, not in his blindness). Patients are more likely to comply with treatment regimes when they feel that their physician is empathic. They are more likely to feel comforted and supported by an empathic physician.

However, empathy is a double edged sword. Too much empathy may cause earlier burn-out among physicians. In an interesting study from the Thomas Jefferson University School of Medicine, 400 medical students were studied for their level of empathy during the entire four year period of medical school. The researchers used a well-tested questionnaire to study empathy and noted that medical students show decline in their level of empathy during the third year of medical school. It is also interesting to note that women in general show more empathy. In a separate study senior physicians were noted to learn and modulate their level of empathy so they do not burn out.

We also know that it is possible to learn empathy. Meditation studies on Buddhist monks have shown that areas of brain which are active when one experiences compassion is more active in an experienced monk practicing compassion-meditation than in a novice. In other words, it is possible to improve the neural correlates of empathy and hopefully empathy. If we can teach skills in developing appropriate empathic connection with their patients, it may help prevent emotional stress and burn-out among our young physicians. It may also enhance professionalism and patient-physician relationship.

Is it possible to study the neural circuitry involved in what we call wisdom? Some may say that it is a quality that cannot be studied and quantified. But, it is possible to list qualities that are present in someone whom we call “wise”. Indeed all cultures have an idea of what wisdom consists of.

In an article summarizing neurophysiology of wisdom, Meeks and Jeste show that many of the elements which are listed as component of wisdom are common in different cultures. They are “rational decision making based on general knowledge of life, pro-social behavior including empathy, compassion and altruism, emotional stability, insight and self-reflection, decisiveness in face of uncertainty and tolerance of divergent values systems”. Interestingly, neuro-imaging studies show that prefrontal cortex and the limbic striatum are the two regions of the brain connected with several of these mental functions, when studied separately.

The limbic system is involved with emotions. Prefrontal cortex is essential for what are called the executive functions of the brain. Executive functions control and regulate other behaviors and include the ability to form concepts, think in abstract, adapt to new situations and change behaviors as needed and plan future actions based on observation, experience and insight. Wisdom involves balancing one’s emotional and rational aspects. Therefore it is not surprising that when you define wisdom by its component parts, it is possible to find out what its neuroanatomy is.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Consciousness, Empathy, Self and Wisdom

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

This is the first in a series of essays on the neurobiology of empathy, wisdom and consciousness. These are heavy topics even for grown-ups. I do not expect you to read these now. But, by the time you go to college, you will find these in text-books, I am sure. My goal is to add these to a book that is shaping up through these blogs.

These topics were in the domain of philosophers and religious scholars. Not any more. Neuroscience has started studying these functions of the human brain. Yes, these are functions of the human brain. The results of investigations by the neuroscientists are exciting and will have practical applications in the future.

Observations of patients undergoing brain surgery and patients with head injury and tumors had helped localization of functions to specific areas of the brain, even before the availability of recent research techniques. (Please read articles by Broca and Penfield and books by Oliver Sacks for details). Ancient Egyptian documents (Edwin Smith Papyrus) describe paralysis of the right half of the body in a person who fell off a chariot and had injury to the left side of the head. More recently the famous Mr.Phineas Gage had a remarkable recovery from a missile injury to the frontal cortex (front part)of the brain and lived to show changes in his personality and behavior suggesting that this area of the brain is necessary for our “executive functions”.

Now there are powerful tools such as fMRI and SPECT which can study the brain of normal persons in action when experiencing specific emotions and during specific mental activities. An even more powerful tool called optogenetics may open up study of the brain at a cellular level.

Observations of patients with specific mental deficits and functional imaging studies have shown that memory functions of the brain are mediated by several areas of the brain, each one specific for particular aspect of memory. Episodic memory (example, remembering what you are for lunch or dinner yesterday) depends on the medial temporal (side)and prefrontal (front) cortex. Semantic memory (word and speech based) depends on the integrity of the inferolaterl temporal lobe (side and bottom). Procedural memory (example, driving) is mediated through cerebellum (back and bottom) and motor cortex (top and side). Working memory for spatial details is carried out by prefrontal cortex and visual-association areas.

More recently, studies using functional imaging show that coordinated activity in specific areas of the brain (neural circuitry) determine specific mental functions, mood and behavior. For example, coordinated processing of information between amygdala, hypothalamus and hippocampus (that are located deep inside the brain)is involved in determining our moods. Fear circuitry involves amygdala (deep in the center) and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (front) and dopaminergic circuitry is involved in reward and expectation of reward functions. Abnormalities in the functioning of these circuits have been implicated in depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and impulsivity.

Several years back, the so-called “mirror neurons” were described in the ventral premotor cortex (front)of the brain. These neurons get activated when a subject is involved in a specific motor activity such as grasping an object. What is interesting is that this area will get activated in an observer also. Now we know that this mirror activity is not confined to observing someone in activity. It is applicable to seeing someone else in pain. Activation of specific areas of the brain occurs both in someone who is experiencing physical pain and someone dear to the subject who is observing this experience.

It appears the that “the ability to project ourselves imaginatively into another person’s perspective by simulating their mental activity by using our own mental apparatus “ is involved in our ability to read each other’s mind. “To understand what another person is doing, we simulate his movements using our own motor programs; to understand what another person is feeling, we simulate his feelings using our own affective programs”.
For example when one experiences pain, several areas of the brain show increased activity. They include several parts of the brain which neuroscientists have localized and numbered for the sake of communication and scientific accuracy (specifically, periaqueductal grey, thalamus, insula, anterior cingulate,and areas 9,10 and 44 of the prefrontal cortex. When someone dear to you is getting stuck with a needle for a medical procedure and you are watching it, the same areas of the brain that light up in the other person will light up (become active) in you also. In other words, this is the neural correlate of empathy.

We can see how “mirroring” of neural representation is important in human relationships and in the survival of early societies. This is the neuro-biological basis of empathy, compassion, helpfulness and altruism.

(References will be given at the end of the series)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Kierkegaard’s ideas on Faith

Fear and Trembling is a classic book by the 19th century Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard. This book published by Penguin was reviewed in the website of by one Mr.Xue Tian from Hong Kong in November 11, 2006. I quote a few passages from this review since it gives the gist of the book in a few paragraphs.

“While believers in many religions will argue that their faith is logical and rational, Kierkegaard fully grasped that if conviction is based fully on logic, it does not need faith to support it.

True faith is a radical departure from the status quo, a renewal of personal conviction despite all contradictions and a recognition of UNCERTAINTY. Without a recognition of uncertainty, faith has no meaning. The strength of true faith is that it acknowledges that uncertainty exists, and yet still forges on in spite of the uncertainty, willingly accepting and embracing the consequences of conviction in the face of uncertainty. There is no fear that the conviction may be misled and flinching because of the uncertainty, there is a recognition that this lack of absolute rational proof and certainty is what gives faith its supreme virtue”.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Reading the Sacred Texts

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

At present I am reading Bhagavatha Purana, one of the ancient texts of the vedic tradition. I am reading it in Sanskrit with English translation, word by word. As I was reading, I remembered a section on the Puranas (epics) in the scholarly book on The Wonder that was India by A L Basham. That led me to an insight, which I wish to share with you.

It so happens that recently I read a Chapter on the Kingdom of Judea by William Durant in his Book 1 of the ten volume History of Civilization. In this chapter, William Durant connects the various chapters of the Old Testament to historical events happening in the Kingdom of Judea when these chapters were written.

I decided to re-read the Chapters in Bhagavatha Puranam using the eyes of historians, such as Basham and Durant. I wanted to look for comments about the history, geography, and customs of India at the time when this epic was written (according to most scholars). I also looked for comments on astronomy, cosmogony, health, ethics and morals. I decided to enjoy the beauty of Sanskrit and look for special meanings of words. I was looking to see how profound philosophical statements were interwoven with mythological stories, to make them accessible and appealing to the masses in those days.

Here is a summary of what I found. And all of these within the first 7 chapters! There are 11 more chapters to go!!

First, the primary point of view of Bhagavatha Puranam is to show the importance and simplicity of Bhakthi Marga (devotional approach to God). The book has several passages that teach surrender to Lord Vishnu (also called Lord Narayana, Lord Vasudeva) as the proper means to attain moksha or release from samsara (cycles of birth and death).

Second, historically we know that the emphasis in the early Vedic tradition was on rituals and yagnas (sacrifices). We know that some members of the society (women, lower castes) were excluded from these activities. It appears that puranas were “written” to bring the profound teachings of the Vedas to the common man. They perform this task remarkably well. The puranas state repeatedly that listening to these stories will bring all the benefits and happiness in this world and the next. Book 1 Discourse 1, sloka (stanza) 25 explicitly says so. “ Vyasa composed Mahabharatha knowing that women, sudras and those who were failures in the other varnas were debarred from hearing the Vedas and seeing that they did not know how to perform vedic yagnas and sacrifices”.

These epics are interesting to read and to listen to because they are full of stories and stories within stories. Interspersed within stories are profound lessons on morals, ethics and philosophy. For example, Book 1 Discourse 16 has this remarkable story of a Bull and a Cow. The bull is Dharma and the cow is Mother Earth. (Incidentally, cows and bulls are common symbols in the mythology of ancient civilizations. They are the fertility symbols. It appears that “earth goddess fertilized by the moon-bull, who dies and is resurrected” follows the gradual shift of early farming and pastoral communities and the arrival of warrior classes and kings. Joseph Campbell in Oriental Mythology – The Masks of God. Penguin Books. 1976 pages 37-45, 87-94) The bull has lost three legs and is hopping about on only one leg! He sees the cow sad and crying. The bull asks the cow in several ways what has brought her such sadness. The questions are so tender and so sensitive, I wish all of us will learn to ask similar questions when we are trying to comfort those in distress.

The story goes on to say that the cow (Mother Earth) is sad that Lord Krishna, the storehouse of virtues has left to perform other duties and that the world (with its inhabitants) is losing all its virtues. Later still, we learn that the four legs of Dharma are austerity (thapas), purity (sowcham), compassion (daya) and truthfulness (satyam). The three legs that are missing represent the loss of austerity, purity and compassion over the course of time (eons or yugas) due to pride, attachment and hatred. In the current eon (Kali yuga) the only virtue left is truthfulness. If we lose that also, there will be chaos. That is the reason for the cow’s sadness.

It is a beautiful story to tell us the value of virtues, particularly the need for truthfulness in the society.

In Book 7, Chapter 2, there is a section (slokas 28-60) describing the Hindu view of death. It is at once a deep philosophical and psychological treatise on death, as told by the God of Death (Yama) himself. This happens to be a story within a story (within a story).

Tucked into other stories are explanations of the Samkhya philosophy. For example, Book 2, Chapter 5 outlines the vedic view of cosmogony as explained by the Samkhya system. This also lists various deities which rule over the cosmic functions (for example, Sun god is in charge of the eyes and sight).

In a later section, we see how our ancestors thought about the planets and stars. Time (kala) and atom (anu) are defined in the first 4 slokas of Book 3 Chapter 11 followed by description of time as defined by the movement of the sun.

Bhagavatha puranam states that Narayana or Vishnu is the GOD ruling this universe. Most scholars tell us that Bhagavatha puranam was probably written somewhere around the early Christian era. This leads to two points about the trinity in the Vedic pantheon. According to the Samkhya system, which is the primary system of Philosophy of India, the origin of the universe is based on 24 principles. It is an atheistic system. There is no place for a God in it. The idea of Ishvara or God at the head of these 24 primary principles of Samkhya system came with Svetaswatara Upanishad. It appears therefore that Vishnu could have been placed in this position of Ishvara only after this particular Upanishad was written.

When you compare this idea of Vishnu as the Lord of the Universe with the pantheon of Gods in Bhagavata puranam itself and other puranas, you find that initially Vishnu was one of the 12 Adityas (born of Aditi and Kashyapa). It appears therefore that Vishnu was elevated to the trinity and as the Supreme Ishvara at a later stage in the history of India.

Let us look at some prayers. Slokas 6 to 17 in Book 4 Chapter 8 is a prayer as uttered by Prahlada. (Incidentally, Bhagavatham calls him Prahrada and not Prahlada) . This prayer is so beautiful that anyone can use it for daily prayers. It is full of spirituality. Besides, you can insert any name that is sacred to you such as Vishnu, Siva,Yahveh,Jesus or Allah, and this prayer will be your own.

Another sloka in Book 7 Chapter 9 is beautiful in its use of Sanskrit and is full of inspiration. Yasmin Yatho yarhi yena cha yasya yasmat yasmi yatha yaduta yastu aparah paro vaa……… And what a beautiful way to express a sense of mystery, a sense of connection with the Universal force, and a sense of surrender to the unknowable! The book is no less sacred just because you look at it from its literary and linguistic beauty.

Here are some geographical facts I found. Padma Puranam which is the initial chapter, before Book 1 of the main text, mentions Dravida kingdom and Tunga river. There is mention of Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gurjara (Gujerat). In a later chapter, the south Indian river Kauveri is mentioned.

Book 2 Chapter 4 lists several groups of people. This includes Hunas (Huns), Pulindha (a group of hunters in the south of India in which tribe Valli, the second consort of Subrahmanya was born), Aandhra and Yavanas (from ionians, Romans and Greeks). You read the names of several trees, animals and birds which were present in those days.

Bhagavatha puranam has documentations of several customs that are still practiced. For example slokas 47 to 54 in Book 6 Chapter 18 lists the following: “must not go out of the house without rinsing the mouth after eating; must not eat food brought by a sudra or a menstruating woman; should not retire without washing the feet nor with wet feet; should not lie down with head towards the north or the west; should not sleep bare-bodied; should not sleep in the twilight periods (dawn and dusk)”. I have heard all of these injunctions repeated by my grandmother, who could not read or write! It is amazing how strong these customs are passed on by word of mouth for over two millennia and still retain their potency!

There are other customs mentioned in other places in the book. True, several of them are superstitions. As pointed out by Will Durant “superstition seems to be the very lifeblood of our race” and “Underneath all civilizations, ancient or modern, moved and still moves a sea of magic, superstition and sorcery”. Every culture has its own set of superstitious beliefs and customs but laughs at other’s .

It is interesting how all the injunctions listed in the earlier paragraph are woven into a story of Diti (sister of Aditi) asking for a male child. She begs her husband Kasyapa for a male child (remember that Aditi is also married to Kasyapa). She had her own motive for this request. Leaving that apart, she was able to get this request, but on one condition. She had to promise that she will follow all the rules without any error, for one year.

Later still, the practices of each of the four varnas (brahmin, kshatriya, vaisya and sudra) are described in Book 7, Chapter 11. Duties during the three of the four stages of life (ashrama), namely brahmacharya, grahstha and vaanaprastha are outlined Book 7, Chapters 11 and 12.

It appears that people knew some biology and medicine even in those days. There is mention of a complication of pregnancy called transverse lie of the baby, in Sloka 47 of Section 4 of Introduction. A little bit of biology and taxonomy is seen in Book 3, Chapter 11.

The point is that the puranas (epics) are a rich source of history, geography, art, culture, language, customs and practices of the societies of the past. This is true of epics from all cultures. If you read these strictly as religious texts, your mind is closed to several more points of view. If you are open to these books as sources of knowledge and wisdom, you learn so much more. You get inspired by the wisdom of our ancestors. You learn morals and ethics.

You also realize that many of the current practices started centuries back and have no relevance to current realities, although they probably served some purpose then.

When you compare similar sacred texts in other traditions, you find that they have similar stories too. All of them have myths of creation and of cosmos. All of them have myths of floods. All of them teach morals through stories. All of them have their own unique superstitions. Wisdom is not the private property of any one culture!

I hope I have convinced you of the importance of reading these epics (puranas) yourself instead of, or in addition to, listening to scholars and professional story-tellers. If you listen to scholars and story-tellers, it may be interesting and entertaining. But, you will hear only one version. If you read on your own, you can look at all angles. You will learn more. You may even learn a new language!

I suggest that all of you, members of the future generations, read all Sacred Texts from several points of view. If you read them with an open mind, you will see more than a demand for blind faith. There is so much knowledge, wisdom and emotions enshrined in these books. There is so much language, literature and poetry. There is so much mythology. There is so much documentation of the history of the land, the geography, the customs and the moral foundations of the land. You will be amazed at how much more you learn and how much more your mind opens.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Thinking Shallow, Thinking deep

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

There is a whole new book on how the internet is changing the way our brain works. It is called The Shallows. (Nicholas Carr, Norton, New York. 2010)

Your generation is called “digital natives”, as opposed to us oldies who are called the “digital immigrants”. You are growing up in the information age. The volume of information available at your finger-tips, at the click of a "mouse" is truly mind-boggling. I do not think our human brain is capable of managing all of this information. It will adapt, but over time.

There are a few known facts about the brain. For example, the amount of information arriving at the retina (the actual image-capturing part of the eye) is estimated to be the equivalent of 10 billion bits per second. But, only 10,000 bits per second reach the area of the brain where vision is processed. The brain is made to survey the entire scene and make a quick decision and therefore it leaves out many details. It abstracts a manageable pattern without worrying about every particular.

It is also known that the brain cannot correlate and manipulate more than 7 bits of information at a time. Here also, the ability to abstract helps since that gives the brain less number of items to deal with. Indeed, the brain seems to do best when it groups individual items into categories and then compare them two at a time or smaller groups at a time. This is how physicians’ mind works in making a diagnosis, eliminating all the options except the one best answer.

It is essential that you learn how to get the most reliable, practical information from this vast amount of good, bad and outright wrong and harmful information. After you pick out the most reliable, relevant and useful information, you have to think carefully. When there is too much information, the brain is likely to get confused and be shallow in its analysis. It can either think deep with manageable amount of information or think shallow with vast amount of information. This is the theme of the book I mentioned at the beginning.

Collect all the information you want. But assign time to look at what you have collected. Discord useless, wrong and irrelevant information and make time to think on your own.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Organized Religion or Private Spirituality?

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

You know by now that I am not an admirer of organized religions. Please note that I said “Organized Religion”, not personal religion or spirituality. Humanity needs religion, if religion follows its original intent as shown by the root word ligos ( to bind, to tie) or the Sanskrit word Yoga (to unite) both of which stand for the concept of bringing together the individual (self, atman, pinda, wave) with the universal (spirit,Brahman, Brahmanda, Ocean). Although organized religions have served this function, they have failed miserably in bringing people from different faiths, and even within the same faith, come together.

There are many rational aspects of religion that have contributed to the development and welfare of humanity. We need them. However, once a religion gets organized, several problems creep in.

First, any organization requires an “organizational structure”. That means the appointment or selection or election of someone at the helm. We all know the extent human beings will go to be at the helm of any organization. We also know how several religious leaders have behaved irresponsibly in the course of history. Power corrupts.

Second, money is needed to run an organization. Thus enters the second corrupting influence. It is also evident that the person with true power in any organization is the one who controls the money!

Third, a set of rules are needed for members to follow in any organization. Once there are rules and regulations, there arises a need for a “police” to make sure they are followed. We know how this can be and has been misused by organized religions.

These are bad as they are. When these corrupting forces enter the arena of religion, the meaning of religion is lost. The sacredness is lost.

There is one more thing I have seen with organized religions which makes me less enthusiastic about all of them. They preach universal values such as “do not kill, do not steal, speak the truth” etc. But, these moral rules are written in such a way that they need not be applied to one portion of humanity. In other words, these rules can be and are interpreted by some of the followers as a license to condemn and harm those in the “excluded” group. Invariably this “excluded” group consists of women and “non-believers”.

Then, there are the irrational aspects of religions such as superstitions, blind faith and introduction of concepts and entities that defy laws of nature.

We need ethics; we need moral values; we need "individual" religion; we need spirituality. I prefer obtaining them on my own, outside of “organized religions”.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Dharma and Yoga for the Global Community

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

This is the continuation of my thoughts on the need for universal justice and harmony. Dharma and yoga are the words I wish to use to express my thoughts on how to reach these goals.

Dharma and Yoga are Sanskrit words borrowed into the English language. They carried several meanings even in ancient Sanskrit literature. These meanings have expanded more with modern usage. This essay is about establishing new goals for dharma and yoga for the 21st century.

The dictionary meaning of the word Dharma includes: religion, code of conduct, law, duty and virtue. In the earlier writings Dharma is considered one of the four ends/goals of human existence. The expectation is for Dharma to be the basis, the means for acquiring the other three ends, namely wealth, desire and release from life’s bondage.

As I pointed out in my earlier essays on Dharma for the 21st century (June 16th and 26th, 2009), the strengths of the concepts of Dharma are: 1. It consists of universal principles agreed on by all cultures and traditions, such as truth-telling, not taking others property and non-violence. It does not depend upon religion or theology. 2.It does not depend upon religion or theology. 3. It is flexible in that one’s dharma (duty) varies depending on one’s position and station in life and allows for change with changing times, knowledge and trends. 4. Universal dharma does not exclude anyone as inferior or as non-believers. For these reasons, I believe that humanity should adopt these secular principles as the Dharma for the 21st century.

Let me restate the ideas for the Dharma of the 21st century from my earlier “blog”-post. These are based on the writings of Prof.Bernard Gert, a professor of moral philosophy. They are:
Don’t cause death
Don’t cause pain
Don’t cause loss of ability
Don’t cause loss of freedom
Don’t cause loss of pleasure
Don’t deceive
Don’t cheat

Keep your promise
Obey the law
Do your duty

Now, let us look at yoga with its new focus. By definition the word yoga means “uniting” or “joining” what has separated (see the similarity to yoke). As used by the originator of the concept of yoga, it is meant to signify the union of the individual soul with the universal soul (oneness with the Divine). It has taken multiple meanings, as I pointed out in my essays on meditation (2010). I suggest that we apply the concept of union to a new definition of yoga for the 21st century.

The new definition of Yoga should be more than the union of the “individual” with the “Divine” at a spiritual level. We need union at a pragmatic level also. It should be the union between reason and faith.
Reason and faith are not either/or concepts. They are like two lenses of the camera. They are like the two halves of our brain. We need both of them, for different purposes.

Let us bring about union of reason and faith and call it the yuga yoga. We already defined the meaning of yoga. The meaning of the Sanskrit word yuga can be stretched to mean an era or an epoch.

Yuga yoga will be possible only if we “unite” the basic common tenets (dharma for the 21st century, as defined earlier) within various faiths and religions. This should be the primary goal of yoga (meaning, to unite) for the 21st century.