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Friday, January 17, 2014

The Lessons of History

Will and Ariel Durant wrote “The Lessons of History” (Simon and Schuster, New York. 1968) after they completed their 10 volume History of Civilization. Their observations are profound. Their observations are so appropriate for our current conditions that I wish this book is read and discussed at high schools all over the world. I wish political leaders and thought-leaders read and ponder the observations of these historians. The authors express their observations with superb choice of words. They construct their sentences with precision and elegance. Besides, this book is a distillation of wisdom of the entire humanity since the dawn of history.

Here are some of the quotes:

               Definition of Civilizations is “social order promoting cultural creation”.

               “On one point all are agreed: civilizations begin, flourish, decline and disappear – or linger on as  stagnant pools left by once life-giving streams”.

               “Life has no inherent claim to eternity, whether in individuals or in states”.

               “For, freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies”.

                Speaking about religion, they quote Lucretius: “it was fear that first made the gods”, and “Nature and history do not agree with our conception of good and bad; they define good as that which survives, and bad as that which goes under; and the universe has no prejudice in favor of Christ as against Genghis Khan”.

               In their chapter on Government and History, they say: “A right is not a gift of God or nature, but a privilege, which it is good for the group that the individual should have”. 

               “Since men love freedom, and the freedom of individuals in society require some regulation of conduct, the first condition of freedom is its limitation; make it absolute and it dies in chaos”.

                              “When a group or civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change”.

                              Speaking of “Is Progress Real?”, they comment as follows: “…all technological advances will have to be written off as merely new means of achieving old ends………  Comparing our ancestors during Renaissance, they “may have been wiser than we, who repeatedly change instrumentalities without improving our purposes” and “…. We are the same ‘trousered’ apes at two thousand miles an hour as when we had legs”.

                              “Have we really outgrown intolerance, or merely transferred it from religious to national, ideological or racial hostilities”……”Have we given ourselves more freedom than our intelligence can digest?”

                              “Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reigns, nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to keep his earn in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible, for the enlargement of man’s understanding, control, embellishment and enjoyment of life”.

 Finally, I wish to quote the last sentence from the last paragraph of the book, which was the actual stimulus for my blogs and books.  It says: “If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children”. Will and Ariel Durant certainly did.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Magic power of Words

In all ancient traditions, words are treated as if they have special powers. There is a section in Atharva Veda called Abhicȧrakalpa. It is a treatise on words with magical powers which were recommended to ward off evil and bring special favors to people etc. Such works are called Thaumaturgy in English. According to Yatindramatadipika of Yamunacharya, the premise of this section of Atharva Veda is as follows: “ If it could be demonstrated that certain mantras have powers with reference to the things of the world, it may convince even an unbeliever to have faith in the efficiency of the mantras in relation to the attainment of heaven etc…”  (page 176)

There is a basic belief in the power of words in all traditions. Hindus, in general, believe that words and sounds have mystical powers. There is a section called phalastuti at the end of all prayers which lists the benefits of reciting the prayer in general. They also list several sub-benefits depending on how many times you repeat them.

There are special benefits associated with chanting the mantrs properly and there are specific bad consequences for chanting the wrong way. If you make mistakes in pronunciation, there are special procedures to repent and make amends with.

Special sounds like bha, vaśa, astraya bhat, hoom bhat etc are used during homa ceremonies and daily chanting to drive off the evil spirits (asura) from taking away the food and offerings made into the fire (agni) meant for the ḍevs.

These special sounds and mantras with superior powers play a particularly big part in Tantra śstra.

In the Old Testament, there are references to the idea that God will not reveal his true name because once man can name a thing, he will have control over it! Then, there is the story of the Tower of Babel, in which God was concerned that man was getting powerful with the use of words and decided to separate them and send them to different parts of the world with different languages.