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Monday, November 11, 2013

Speech at Funerals – Is it a new Ritual?


Today is November 7, 2013. It is exactly five years since my “angel” passed away. It amazing how difficult it is for me to use the word, “died”! That sounds so final. It just does not sound final. It IS final. I know it; yet seem to deny.

During her final days, Ramaa (my angel) told me: “no speeches for me, please. No bhajans (prayer and chanting) either. Just feed our friends”. That was her last request about how the funeral should be. I agreed totally. My request to my children is the same. Please let me go in peace. Let the occasion be simple, subdued, dignified. Celebrate life with meals and friendship. No speeches, please!

I was at a funeral not long ago. The beginning was dignified. Soon, it deteriorated to the usual long-winded speeches! Why do we have to speak at funerals? When did it become a part of the death ceremony? It certainly was not so until about 15 or 20 years back. It has become a part of the procedure particularly in Indian funerals. I had the painful experience of attending a funeral in which the body was still there for “viewing”, when talks and music were going on for at least an hour or two! It was so bizarre and uncomfortable, we had to leave!

Why do we have to speak at all at funerals? Why do we have to speak for so long? Is it to please the dead? It cannot be, since the dead cannot hear us anyway. Is it to please the family? If so, most of them are not in a mental state to hear all this, particularly the humor. In fact they may not agree with the speaker’s assessment. Having lived with the deceased, they know the wrong impressions the speaker has. They know the real person. But, they are not going to get up and raise an “objection” even if they are given an opportunity to do so. The speaker will not and cannot talk about the “real’ person with the “warts and all” since it is not appropriate.

(The speeches are worse in weddings! Yes, it is a good time for the parents or the couple to thank the folks who came. Beyond that, what is the need? Actually, the way some of those folks speak about the virtues of the bride and groom, one would think that the speakers were talking about Rama and Sita, divine couples! ) 

Why we do we speak at funerals and weddings? Why do we speak so long and sound so “phony”?

That made me read and think about rituals. Rituals are necessary part of a society and culture. The word itself comes from a Latin root called “ritus”, which means “to fit together”.  It is meant to bind us with the cosmos and with the larger society. (Do you see the similarity of the root word to the Sanskrit word rthum, which means “sacred custom or Divine Law”).

Rituals are usually celebrated during important changes in seasons and during cosmic events (eclipse). Rituals are practiced during changes in our personal lives, such as birth, wedding and death. This is the basis of the 40 samskaras in the vedic tradition.

Rituals are meant to be spiritual. They are useful to bring a sense of group identity and togetherness. They are to connect us with the cosmos and the divine. They are to bring the families and the community together at times of happiness and sadness. They are helpful to get children involved and teach them the traditions which they, in turn, can pass on.


Have rituals lost their true meanings and spiritual connections? Have we changed these into occasions for showing off wealth, social connections and status, or our own ego?

Friday, November 1, 2013

Brahman and Atman - 2


What are similar concepts in the sacred texts from other traditions?

Lao Tze says: “The Tao which can be expressed is not the unchanging Tao; the name which can be named is not the unchanging name”. This appears to be close to the definition of Atman and Brahman.

Plutarch refers to an inscription on a statue of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of motherhood, magic and fertility located in the ancient city of Sais as follows: “ I am all that hath been, and that is and that shall be, and no mortal hath ever raised my veil”  (from The Source Book of Indian Philosophy by S.Radhakrishnan and Moore  page 624)

In the section on Exodus 3:14-15, God asks Moses to go to the people of Israel slaving away in Egypt and tell them that God sent him (Moses) to release them. Moses asks: “What shall I tell them when they ask which God?”. God replies: “Just say ‘I am’ has sent me”. Then says: “Yes, tell them Yahweh sent you” . Yahweh stands for God who cannot be named.

I mentioned Buddha’s view earlier. Buddha did not believe in atman as a separate entity. He said that he has looked deeply and never found an “atman”. Adi Sankara’s objection to this view is as follows: “When one accepts the position that both Atman and Brahman are illusions, not real….. all that remains is a group of impermanent things; and permanent happiness and someone who can realize that permanent happiness cease to exist”.  He went on to say that “anatman” and “sunyatta” (emptiness) are dark and bleak. If you can see “Brahman in it, it is blissful and full of light".

But, my understanding of what Buddha said is different. To him, the idea of anatman was not a doctrine. It was an insight which he thought will help people live a deeper life. What he meant was that everything in this world is made of things other than itself.  Man is made of “non-man” elements. Impermanence and anatman belong to the world of phenomenon. Nirvana is the ground and the basis of all this. Similarly, what we call Atman is made of non-atman elements. Everything is in everything else – inter-penetrating and interdependent.

What is the relationship between Brahman and Atman?

Ribhu Gita points out how the 4 Mahavakyas represent the relationship between Atman and Brahman in various stages. Thath thvam asi stands for meditation at the level of duality. Ayam atma Brahman is in the witness mode. Aham brahmasmi is in the undivided mode. Pragnanam brahma is in the mode of undivided Bliss.

A passage in Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, states that particular notes of a drum or a conch or a lute have no separate existence apart from the general note of the instruments themselves - drum or conch or the lute. Particular knowledge of the universe has no validity apart from the intelligence which illuminates it. The particular note is the atman and the basic general sound of the instrument is the Brahman.

In Advaitha, Brahman is the same as Atman. Brahman is also called Paramatman and Atman is also known as Jivatman, when it identifies with the body .

In dvaitham, Jivatman stays apart from Paramatman even in Moksha (liberated state?), is full of bhakthi (devotion) towards Paramatman, and is therefore blissful.

In Visishtadvaitham, Jivatman is considered to stay apart from Paramatman, is full of devotion, but also fully cognizant that Paramatman is the indweller (antharyaami) of the Jivatman.

In Saiva siddhantham, the idea is that jivatman has a separate existence ( as in dvaitham), but it can lose its identity and merge completely into the Paramatman.

In Advaitha, Purusha is both Brahman and Atman. Prakriti is Maya. In Visishtadvaitham, Purusha is Paramapurusha, Narayana and Prakriti is Leela. 

Atman and Brahman in the light of modern concepts of Consciousness and Self

Since the word atman implies self, consciousness and super- consciousness, it is important to look at it from the point of view of the neurosciences.  Radhakrishnan states that the relationship between the self (the sense of I) and the consciousness is like that between fire and heat. Consciousness is an attribute of I, like heat is that of fire. I is the agent or the subject with an attribute called consciousness. Its object can be anything, including itself, the “I”.  As Sankara pointed out, something has to illuminate the consciousness; in other words something that makes consciousness what it is and that is Atman.

One neuroscientist refers to the“I” as a self-referring loop. In his book on I am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter shows how it is possible to set up a video camera looking into a television monitor, and taking a picture of itself from the TV screen creating a picture of a picture of a picture, ad infinitum. He uses this analogy and points out that our nervous system functions in a similar manner and is thus capable of making self-referential, nested loops. In this process it uses language and semantics and an ability to build patterns out of abstracted view of the world it perceives. One such abstract pattern gives rise to the feeling of an “I”, a sense of self the knower and the doer.  He compares this with the self-referential loops of Godel’s theorem. In essence he thinks that our awareness of awareness ad infinatum is just the emergent property of the brain.

Scientific method breaks down things into manageable parts that can be manipulated and studies those components and then try to extrapolate. Problem comes when it tries to build the whole from the parts! That has not prevented scientists from looking at the components of such forbidden topics such as self, wisdom and consciousness.

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 four 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. The spiritual self is sometimes combined with the social self.

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 atman or spirit, independent of the body which activates the functions of the human body, including that of the brain. I am also leaving out the study of “self” by neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio who suggest 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.

To some neuroscientists the self as explained above is personal identity and when we use the term self it includes personal identity and in addition, a sense of awareness of the personal identity. Personal identity is made of 1. Spatio-temporal continuity of the body: The substances of which I am made have changed over the years and are new, but the changes occurred within the same physical structure. 2. Continuity of structure itself over the years: the body has grown taller or bigger or older and yet the person has continuity.  3. memory: All the individual moments of my consciousness are strung together as a continuous whole with the aid of memory. This was pointed out by Buddha long ago. 4. Continuity of personality although there might have been changes over time based on experiences or illness.

John Searle (John R.Searle  Mind: A Brief Introduction  Oxford University Press, New York 2004)  comes to the conclusion that the concept of self is needed to explain the notions of “rationality, free choice, decision making and reasons for action”.  In his own words: “… in order to account for free rational actions, we have to suppose there is a single entity X such that X is conscious (with all that consciousness implies), X persists through time, X formulates and reflects on reasons for action under the conditions of rationality, X is capable of deciding, initiating and carrying out actions under the presupposition of freedom and X is responsible for at least some of its actions”.  This X is the self. But is this atman as defined above – the principle which makes awareness of self possible?

Ancient scholars used much less words and said:  mano buddhi ahankarah chitham karanam antharam; samshaya nishchaya kurva smarana vishaya ami. In this classification, mind is the faculty of perception of each of the five sense organs. It is also the aspect with doubts (samshaya). Buddhi is the discriminative and deciding aspect (nischaya). Ahankara is the ownership portion, with the I, ego, volition. What is chitham? It appears that conscious mind devoid of thoughts is chetanam or pure consciousness. Chitham is that part of the individual mind which is made of memories of the past and mental formations (vikaras) based on memories (vasanas) and past experiences and also that function which makes it possible for the mind to function. Mental impressions formed without reflection constitute vasanas. All of these functions of the mind take place in the light of the Atman, although it is not touched by any of these activities of the mind or of the body.

But these descriptions still do not answer the metaphysical question of whether there is something over-arching, a “cosmic intelligence” which permeates the consciousness itself – the illuminator of the mirror.  Or is it a “strange loop”?

What is my own idea of Atman and Brahman, based on my readings and reflections?   

Atman or supra-consciousness is the Subject of all of our thoughts. Atman in the body is Jivan. Atman soaring free and reaching for its source is Brahman. The source is Brahman.

Brahman  is a concept to visualize a Primordial Principle which came or existed by Itself and from which all of this universe has come about. Some writings equate Brahman with physical basis of the Universe and also of the conscious aspect of the universe. I do not know whether there is a non-physical entity called Universal Consciousness, not dependent on any support and thus free from following laws of nature such as physical laws.

On the basis of logic, that Primordial entity called Brahman has to be a physical entity with energy and information (knowledge) inherent in it. It has to be “two-in-one” (matter and energy) or “three-in-one”(matter, energy and information). Energy acts on the matter to bring out the inherent, “potential” information (Knowledge) as manifest “information” in the form of various objects. The cause is in the effect. It is like butter coming from the curds on churning. If that potential information in Brahman is what is called universal consciousness and that is what is equivalent to what our ancestors called Atman when it is experienced in individual bodies, I find it acceptable.


That is where I am today. But, I know that there are dimensions not amenable to my senses and to my mental abilities.  Therefore, I continue to seek and understand. I do not know the destination. But, the journey is Blissful.