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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Art of getting Things done

I knew a brilliant scientist who accomplished very little compared to his potential. He thought too much, way too much. And he thought about everything that could go wrong. He went so far that he never got started with his experiments!

I knew another person who was a great cook. But, for him to get started he had to get everything right. If I request that he make potato curry, and if fresh potato from a particular farm in Idaho was not available that day, I may as well forget potato curry.

Personally, I aim for perfection too. But, am willing to accept less than perfection. I know that the effort needed to move something from 99% correct to 100% correct increases exponentially. If I insist on 100% perfection, I will not get anything done.

Some physicians have the habit of “getting ALL the information” before they make decisions. I knew one such physician who will not even see the patient until all the old records were in her hands.  Yes, we should insist on collecting as much information as possible about patients. But, there is a risk of waiting too long for information and also a risk of having too much information. Medicine is the art of making decisions with incomplete information and under uncertain conditions.

One of my professors used to say: “Yes, do collect all the information. But, if you wait too long to make a working diagnosis and start treatment, you may have a perfect diagnosis, but there will be no more patient to treat”! You know what he meant.

I found a similar situation this week when I lead a seminar on legal documents every family should have, such as a will and a power of attorney. It was obvious that all of them knew what documents they should have and what needed to be done. But, some of them did not have these documents completed or updated. Of course, there may be different reasons for different people. Some of the expressed reasons I know are:

“Inertia”.    That does not say much!

“I am lazy”. This is more honest.

“I need more information”. This is one reasonable explanation. Sometimes, it is an excuse for inertia or laziness. Sometimes, there is a reason the person does not want to get the job done. That may be fear or an ulterior motive. Often, the person does not even know that there is a problem.

“I am only 50 and am not planning to fall dead”.  No one does! But, life is unpredictable. Since this has to be done anyhow, why not get it done? And, it is common for us not to want to think about death and understandable why all of us think we are immortal.

“It is too expensive”.  Another legitimate issue. One has to think through, but cannot avoid some papers such as a will. You may find a cheaper method. It is better than nothing; but may create problem later.

“It will be somebody else’s problem”.   Clever excuse, but irresponsible. 
"The Lord will take care". No, no, no. Some one here on earth will have to take care. That some one is more likely to curse you than wish you a Heavenly residence. But, then you are not here to care.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Big Bang Theory and its implication - A Time- for-Thought Exercise

              I was reading an essay on the “gravitational forces emanating from the early Universe” by Lawrence Krause (Scientific American October 2014 pages 59-67). It talks about “inflation” at the moment of the big bang. Similar ideas were expressed earlier by Stephen Hawking in his book on “A Brief History of the Time”.  

I do not understand many of the concepts and physical constants. But, I have no problem understanding the general idea expressed by these authors. If indeed our current Universe came out of “inflation” after a “big bang”, the implication is that time in this universe started with the big bang. Was there “time” before that? Second, scientists say that the universe expanded or inflated like a balloon. Great! But, into what space did it expand into? The way we use language makes me ask this question. For the universe to expand, there has to be some “space” already existent to expand into. Where did that space come from?  

When we use the word “inflate” do we not imply space outside and inside that which is expanding? Does that not suggest that our universe has to be part of another universe? Or is this a mental trap created by language? If so, how can we approach the question without the use of language and linguistic logic? Indeed, in a more recent article, I found that the entire concept of “space” is indefinite and relative, particularly at the quantum level.  

At another level, how are we able to detect signals generated billions of years ago and attribute it to “inflation”? The generating forces obviously left tell-tale signals. That does not surprise me. Human brain detected those signals. That surprises me. And, to perform that task, the human brain invented technology, special mathematics and so on. But, what force or forces made it possible for this brain, which is capable of detecting those forces, to come into being?  

The mystery is that everything we see in this universe (including us, human beings) came out of this “big bang” event – may be. And human, this improbable product of the universe, is capable of measuring the background radiation from the "big bang", speculating about events and things  he/she had not  seen……… Am dumbstruck at this point! 

We have to depend on inference and speculation to the best possible approximation in reconstructing the “big bang”. Scientists have to perform that function. Rest of us have to go on faith. 
The more I read and think, it appears that space and time are inter-connected, relative and always in relation to something. There is no absolute space or time. It is already "tomorrow" "somewhere" else in this planet. What we see is not really what there is or where it is!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Meditation Update

Recent reflections on meditation lead me in the following directions.

Everything we see in this world has five aspects. It exists, is seen and evokes an emotional response (desire or dislike or fear). It also has a form and a name. Meditation is the process of becoming indifferent to the name and the form, going beyond our perceptions and becoming one with the essence of the thing itself.

Life is sacred. Therefore, ALL lives are sacred. Life in this planet is impermanent, mortal. Yet, all of this must have come from ONE source. By logic, that source has to be immortal, permanent, self-generating and self-sustaining, all pervading.

If I can see that primordial source (Brahman, God whatever the name) in All lives and relate to IT, is it not an easy way to attain the Bliss that Buddha and other realized saints talk about? Instead, why should I look for immortality or eternal Bliss or Heaven or moksha or nirvana?

In Lord Krishna’s words (Uddhava Gita 22:48, 24: 12-19), the easiest way to reach the Immortal and the Permanent is through the experience of the mortal and the impermanent. In fact, meditation, chanting and religious rituals are all meant to connect the universal with the individual, impermanent with the permanent.

Why meditate at all?    

The universe is a mystery. How did it start? Why? If, as discussed earlier, all of us owe our origin to one Primordial Source (Him/Her/IT), each one of us must have a part of Him, Her or It, however miniscule that part may be. That “miniscule part” must be capable of making each one of us become aware of that source given the right conditions. This is particularly true of us, human beings, given our level of mental and language development. It is almost our duty to reflect on that source through meditation. If not, what a waste of the gifts we have!

By meditating on that source which is part of me, I should be able to connect with His, Her or IT’s other parts in all other things and lives in this Universe. That should lead to respect for life and compassion. Inner peace and outer harmony will follow. Is that not a reasonable goal for meditation?

Besides, by starting with meditation every morning, I set for myself a positive, relaxed, serene tone for living through the rest of the day. It teaches me to ”let go” and relax, everyday. It gives me a discipline. I may not be able to reach and experience the “oneness” with the Divine and non-duality. But, that need not be a prime motive to meditate for most of us, ordinary human beings, such as myself.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Five Great Philosophies of the Western Tradition

Based on a book by William DeWitt Hyde published originally in 1904. 

The five great philosophies are Epicurean, based on atomic theory and with emphasis on pursuit of pleasure; Stoic based on the psychological principle of apperception with emphasis on self-control; Platonic based on universal ideals and cardinal virtues with emphasis on subordination; Aristotelian, based on empiricism with emphasis on sense of proportion and practicality; and Christian based on the spirit of love. 

Epicurean philosophy is about leading a “simple life” of “pleasure” based on the observation that all of us want to be free of pain and fear. Pleasure is defined as “the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul”. What is emphasized is not on blind pursuit of pleasure, but on an attitude of the mind which focuses on what is immediately at hand, prudence and moderation in everything. It also emphasizes not getting hung up on the results. One can see a similarity to the teachings of Gita in the emphasis on moderation in effort and also on “accepting what comes”. 

It says: “Do not hurry; do not worry”. There is “no useless regrets of the past; nor profitless foreboding for the future”. These are also similar to some of the Vedic and Buddhist teachings. 

Although the attitude of the mind recommended by Epicureanism leads to relaxed life, not pursuing wealth and fame, it is also self-centered. It is somewhat similar to the Caravaka system of India. Its biggest weakness is that it treats other lives as means to one’s pleasure.  

According to Dr.Hyde, some famous proponents of Epicureanism are Herbert Spencer and Walt Whitman. John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism is a variant of this philosophy. 

Stoic philosophy says that external facts, possessions and experience get their value from the way we respond to them. Sensation and associated experiences come from without; ideas and reactions come from within. We cannot control the external factors which follow universal laws. Health and wealth affect us all differently because we react to them with our inherent patterns which are different. But, we can unlearn. We can learn to accept reality. Stoics emphasize self-control and change of attitude to external events. In this, this idea is similar to the modern day version of Cognitive-Behavior psychology. But, this attitude is to apply to oneself and not to impute to others. 

Stoics teach us how to accept vicissitudes of life by surrendering to the Universal Law. Some of the proponents of stoicisms are Epictetus, Aurelius and Matthew Arnold. They taught us “the secrets of that hardy virtue which bears with fortitude, life’s inevitable ills”.  

The weakness is that unconditional surrender to one’s fate takes away the incentive to change things that can be changed. One can see the similarity to some of the Vedic teachings. 

Philosophy of Plato deals with the worth and the relative value of things. It says that it is virtue that determines how far one goes to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Pleasure and pain are good up to a point. “What is the point? What is the limit? Virtue is the point up to which the bearing of pain is good, the limit beyond which the bearing of pain becomes an evil”. Virtue is the supreme goal and whatever makes it attainable is good, whether it is pleasurable or painful. Whatever hinders that virtue is bad, whether it is pleasurable or painful. Virtue has to be practiced for its own sake, not expecting rewards or honors; in spite of hardships. The philosophy is very similar to that of Gita and actually favors asceticism.            

What are some of those virtues? What makes them virtues? Plato talks about righteousness and unrighteousness – both in the “republic” (the state) and the individual.  In the Republic, unrighteousness is “….each of the great classes in the state – working men, capitalists, police, politicians, scholars – are living exclusively for themselves and are ready to sacrifice the interests of the community  as a whole to their private interests.” In a righteous state each one of these classes will be working towards the welfare of the whole.  Good or bad, righteousness or unrighteousness, virtue and vice of actions are defined by their ability to contribute to the welfare of the whole. It is the sacrifice of the whole for its parts which constitutes vice.  

When these ideas are applied to the individuals, Plato defines the actions by their driving force – was it driven by appetite, spirit or reason?  None of them should be allowed to dominate. Any one of them acting alone ignoring the interest of the “self” as a whole (the whole person’s welfare) is “bad”.  This is where Reason comes in.  Reason has to bring in balance between appetite and spirit.  

That particular form of virtue “that results from the control of the appetites by reason in the interest of the permanent and total self is temperance”. One needs fortitude to control the spirit’s “inability to bear a transient, trifling pain patiently and bravely for the sake of the self as a whole”.  The third virtue is Wisdom which “consists in the supremacy of reason over appetite and spirit; just as temperance and courage consists in the subordination of appetite and spirit to reason”.  In essence “Virtue and vice are questions of the subordination or insubordination of the lower to the higher elements of our nature, of the parts of ourselves to the whole”.  

Righteousness consists of the three cardinal virtues – temperance, courage and wisdom, as noted earlier. At the level of the state, it “consists in each citizen doing the thing to which his nature is most perfectly adapted…….with a view to the good of the whole”. In an individual, it consists “in having each part of one’s nature devoted to its special function: in having the appetites obey, in having the spirit steadfast in difficulty and danger, and in having the reason rule supreme”.  

Plato goes on to describe the four stages through which a state can degenerate, if there is no harmony or righteousness. Those stages are: ambition, democracy (defined as a state where each citizen does what he pleases), tyranny and aristocracy! 

The weakness of this view is that it favors acts based on an ideal which is not practical in this world. It leads to asceticism and other worldliness. Indeed this view is close to the mysticism of the east (and of the west) and Neoplatonism of early followers of Christianity such as Boethius and Plotinus.  

Aristotle’s philosophy relates all of our actions and thoughts to means, ends and social context. He rejects the epicurean idea of pleasure since it does not pay attention to the welfare of the individual or of the society as a whole. He rejects the stoic principle of “surrendering to the laws of nature”, since it gives no scope for the worth of the individual and human effort. He was not a follower of Plato, his own teacher, and his ideas of an ethereal “supreme good” and the “ideal”, but prefered concrete and practical ideas to live in this imperfect world.  

Aristotle was closer to the Vedas when he said that effect is in the cause. Happiness is the effect if one performs his functions and duties with a view towards “permanent personal interests” and “wide social ends”. “Goodness does not consist in doing or refrain from doing this or that particular thing. It depends of the whole aim and purpose of the man who does it, or refrains from doing it”. “It is not what one does; it is the whole purpose of life consciously or unconsciously expressed in the doing that measures the worth of the man or woman who does it”. Finally, “Virtue and vice reside exclusively in the will of the free agent”. 

Aristotle’s first doctrine is that “we must work for worthy ends”.  It equally important that the means with which we gain those ends are used wisely – just as much as need to aim the noble end, not too little, not too much. This is the doctrine of the “mean” in discussing the instruments required to function. In Aristotle’s own words, “By the mean relatively to us, I understand that which is neither too much nor too little for us; and that is not one and the same for all”.   What is right for one man in one set of circumstances may not be right for another man in another set of circumstances.  In these, the teachings are so similar to the concept of Dharma, flexible to time and context. 

In order to get this, Aristotle emphasized knowledge for its own sake, “for only he who knows how things stand related to each other in the actual world, will be able to grasp aright the relation of means to ends on which the success of the practical life depends”.  This is the driving force behand all modern advances in science.  
Wisdom is the next requirement and also courage to follow the means once the end has been determined.  These virtues can be acquired by repeated practice like any other art or skill.  “You must do the thing before you know, in order to know how, after you have done”. In Aristotle’s words: “We acquire the virtues by doing the acts, as is the case with the arts too. We learn art by doing that which we wish to do when we have learned it; we become builders by building, and harpers by playing on the harp”.   

The fifth system covered in this book is Christianity. The essential teaching of Christianity, according to this author is Love, and the humility that goes with it. The “love” taught by Jesus is not the word with its current meaning(s); but “the outgoing of the self into the lives of others”, particularly to the meek and the poor (as is shown by the current Pope). The “negatives” of the early teachings of the prophets (such as the Ten Commandments) as to what to avoid and what the prohibitions are, were converted into a simple, “positive” value – that is LOVE. If you carry Love in your heart, those prohibitions become unnecessary.  

“Treat both others and yourself as their place and yours in God’s coming Kingdom require……All things, therefore, whatever ye would that men should do unto you”. We come to this same spiritual place if we accept that He or It is in you and me, and both of us have the same predicaments and needs in life and your life is sacred, and so is mine. How can I hurt you without hurting a part of myself? How can I not make you happy, without making myself happy? 

Besides, “Law and institutions are made for men, rather than men for institutions and laws; and the instant an old law ceases to serve a new need in the best possible way, Love erects the better service into a new law or institution, suspending the old. Any law that fails to promote the physical, mental, social and spiritual good of the persons and the community concerned, thereby loses Love’s sanction and becomes obsolete. Law for law’s sake, rather than for the sake of man and society, is flat denial of Love” says the author of this book.  This statement supports placing morality over legality and covenant over contract, in human interactions. 

Love implies reverence for the other. It “is kind to the evil and the vicious and magnanimous to the hostile and the hateful”. It does not make fuss about its sacrifices. It is given to all of His creatures, expecting nothing in return.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Things we need to be afraid of ……………..

                “Having eyes, but not seeing beauty;

                Having ears, but not hearing music;

                Having minds, but not perceiving truth;

                Having hearts that are never moved, and therefore never set on fire.

                These are the things to fear, said the headmaster”.

                The headmaster’s name was Sosaku Kobayashi, a lesser-known Japanese educator. The quote is by Ms. Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, one of the students from the school, in her book Totto-Chan (The Little Girl at the Window), a Japanese best-seller and translated by Dorothy Britton.


Saturday, August 1, 2015

21st Century Wish-list for Peace and Harmony


“Mankind is always advancing; man is always the same” says William Osler in his book on “A way of Life” (Paul Hoeber Inc 1937). Looking at the recent world events, I wonder when humanity will ever learn to live in peace and harmony. One side of me says “never” considering the nature of some of the human beings. Another side says “It will, someday; look how far we have come!”  

That made me think about events around 500 and 600 BCE when there was so much flowering of intellect in India, China and Greece. I wondered what conditions should have been present for such intellectual flowering to occur. Here are some possibilities:
There was adequate food and shelter.

There were intervals of relative safety in some pockets, even though there were wars and skirmishes all the time.

At least, a few minds went past fears of the unknown and of natural phenomena, so that they could look for natural causes of events (rather than supernatural causes)

There was freedom to think (although some lost their life, notably Socrates)

Dogmatic traditions of Organized Religions had not taken hold yet

Language had advanced to a level at which communication was for more than food, shelter and mates. It was possible to make and express concepts.

Civilization had advanced to a state at which there were settlements of people with different skills and interests with whom it was possible to interact. There was intellectual stimulation. 

Fast forward to the 21st century: what conditions do we need for humanity to think like our wise ancestors and attain its full potential?  

Food for everyone – not a feast; but adequate nutrition

Education for everyone – not Ph.D s; but basic education to be informed, on thinking skills and skills to earn a living

Free flow of information

Ability and freedom to think

Education of children on Love, Compassion, Forgiveness, Open-mindedness and Tolerance

Education of parents so they can teach the children “their roots” and also give them “wings” to think on their own and fly

Encouragement of parents to teach their children about “tolerance”.

Education of religious teachers to renounce teaching violence against anyone, for any reason.

Education of political leaders to unite and fight against poverty, injustice and violence.

Development of a “shared sacred” item for all of humanity, as suggested by Scott Momaday.

 The only universally “shared sacred” item in this world is Life. Therefore, teach all children and adults to respect life, one’s own and that of others.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Major Upanishads - 8

Praśna Upanishad is from the Atharva Veda. The Sanskrit word Praśna means “question”. The name itself says that this Upanishads is based on questions, six questions to be exact. Six students approach sage Pippalāda and request him to be their guru. He asks them to live with him for one year with discipline (tapas), self-control (brahmacharya) and faith (śraddha) before he starts his lessons. They do, of course. 
The most important lesson for me in this Upanishad is from a passage where sage Pippalada says “yadi vijn͂yāsyaamah vakṣyaamah”, which means “I will share with you what I know”. What humility!  

            The first question is about the origin of everything we see in this universe including life. (“From what, are all these things born?”) Pippalāda says that the Prajāpati (the Lord of creatures) desired progeny and so he “created” a couple! They were prāna (life energy, breathing) and rayi (food). 

It is interesting that prāna also stands for the Sun (therefore the day), Fire, Energy and the eater (therefore Self and Ātman). In gross form it is called Prajāpati and in the subtle form it is Vaiśvānara. Rayi stands for food (the eaten), the moon (therefore, night) and matter. Then it goes on to say that since the sun and the moon are responsible for the cycles of day, they are also called samvatsara (year) and kāla (time).  The metaphor of a chariot as representing Time is seen here also (other places are Gita and Kathopanishad). There are seven horses, as in seven days of the week. The wheels (six for the six seasons as per Indian system) are for the movement of time. The spokes of the wheel are for the twelve months. 

            The second question is “How many deities are there? Who is the first among them?” The answer is “the deities who energize the five elements and the five organs” are the deities. Prāna is the first among them. “It is prāna which burns as the sun, rains as the cloud (Indra) and the source of what all we eat. He is the eater and the eaten. Everything is fixed on Prāna, just like the spokes of a wheel”.  

            The third question is: “How is this prāna born (which implies the many, and therefore how does the one become many), how does the prāna leave and how does it sustain everything?” The words Brahman, Ātman, Prāna and Puruṣa are used interchangeably – rather the same word Prāna is used to stand for all these concepts.  

            Śloka 3:5 lists prāna (out breath ), apāna (in breath ) and samāna (assimilation) as the basis of our lives. This implies “breath” because it says that prāna makes it possible for us to see, hear and smell. The “heart” is imagined to be the location of the breath, from which the absorbed energy spreads throughout the body, through special channels (threads) called nādi. (Please note that Ramana Maharishi says that this metaphorical “heart” is not the same as what we know to be the “heart”) Prāna is distributed throughout the body by 72,000 nādi’s. This spreading is called vyāna. One of these nādi’s travel upwards and it is called udāna. I am sure you recognize these five words when you listen to priests chanting during offering of food in puja.  

When applied to the external universe, prāna is the sun and apāna is the earth. Udāna is energy, luminosity (tejas) and vyāna is space and the air we breath.  

 The fourth question is: “Which one of these aspects of prāna experiences sleep, dream and the state of wakefulness? Which one of these experiences emotions, such as happiness? Which one is the basis and support of all these (mental) states?” 

 Pippalāda says that prāna is responsible for these functions of the mind. In one place prāna is said to be something that “strings” together the sense organs and mental functions. When the sense organs merge into the mind (as in sleep or dream) but the mind itself is not absorbed in its source (namely the Brahman), the Self (Ātman) falsely identifies itself with the various states of the mind. Once the ignorance is removed, the self-effulgent Brahman is naturally manifest.            

            The fifth question is “What is the benefit one gets by meditation on the symbol OM? Which one of the worlds does the meditator reach?” The answer is that OM is the symbol of the Supreme Brahman, superior to the knowledge of the immutable Puruṣa or the inferior Prāna, the first born. (Implication is that there is something beyond both, which can only be indicated by OM) 

            The sixth and the final question is: “Where does Puruṣa exist?” The answer is: “The entire world (universe) gets unified with that immutable (akṣara) Truth called Puruṣa, the all-pervading entity. It is Brahman”.  And what is more, that Puruṣa is right here and now in this body. He is the antarātmin. You have to know Him as an absolute entity (Brahman) by eliminating the parts which “condition” Brahman in our minds. Attention to those parts and conditions lead us to perception of duality.  

In addition to these six questions, there are several comments by Śankara which are interesting. He says that “experience is the nature of the soul or self” whereas “action belongs to the intellect”. He seems to differentiate the awareness of perception and feelings generated by the perception to one division of the mind (manas) and the emotions generated, discriminating function and the will to act to another portion (buddhi or intellect). Together they belong to ahankāra or individuation. 

He also points out that all different philosophies are possible only when duality is the premise. In Unity (advaitam, or no-two) there is no need for discussion. “Since the dualistic theories lead only to conflict, non-dualism alone is true”. To my thinking this is a questionable statement, even though I realize that I am contradicting the great Adi Śankara. I learnt recently (do not remember the exact source) that loyalty to our ancestors do not demand loyalty to all of their notions.







Saturday, June 20, 2015

Major Upanishads - 7

            Mundaka Upanishad is part of the Atharva Veda. Its two main themes are: 1.There are two kinds of knowledge – para (higher) and apara (lower). Knowledge of Vedas is considered to be lower since it leads to actions and results which result in bondage and cycles of births and deaths. Higher knowledge is that of Brahman, which leads to removal of ignorance, freedom from bondage and bliss.   2. Brahman and Ātman are the same. The entire Universe is Brahman alone. Meditating on Brahman who is param (higher), variṣtam (highest) and prajn͂anam (Consciousness) leads to bliss. How? Like a bow and arrow. The bow is the mantra OM, the arrow is the Ātman and the target is Brahman (Om ithi evam dhyayata ātmānam).  

            In the discussion on lower and higher knowledge, Śankara says: “All actions are meant to acquire, produce, “purify” and modify. Then the product is gone. This world of karma is full of seeds and sprouts, full of suffering, devoid of inner substance, appear and disappear like mirage and comparable to dreams and bubbles of water – ever-changing and impermanent. We need to aim for the permanent and for that we need brahmajn͂anam”. 

            In another passage (II:2:2) Śankara compares all creatures coming out of the ONE Supreme to pots and bubbles. There is only one space. But, pots make it look as if there are separate spaces within each pot because of the mud around. So are bubbles which look like there are many because of water around. Once the pot breaks or the bubble breaks, there is only Space. The Upanishad describes our bodies as limiting adjuncts of the One Supreme responsible  for Its appearance as “several”.  

            Section 2: 2-4 asks the aspirant to meditate on that subtle, immortal, indweller which is the basis of the mind and speech in the form of OM. OM is the bow. Our mind is the arrow. That Supreme Brahman is the target. This Universe is nothing but that Brahman. Once you reach that sphere, the sun does not shine, nor the moon and no stars either. Everything shines as He does so; everything shines as diversified because of His light. (These last two sentences in 2:10 are recited during ārti or nīrājana ceremony during daily worship) 

            Part 3 section1 of this beautiful Upanishad talks about the famous two birds sitting on the branches of aśvatta tree as a metaphor. Aśvatta by root meaning of the words indicates impermanence, because “a” is “no” and śvah is “tomorrow”. One bird is Ātman, enjoying the fruits of the tree (of this world). The other is Brahman, not eating, not seeing, just being there without any attachments (the Witness).  

            Mundaka Part 3, section 1, śloka 6 starts with satyameva jayate which means Truth alone wins. This is the motto of the Republic of India.  

            Another major pearl from this Upanishad is in 3:2:3 which says that the attainment of Brahman is not possible through study or listening  (to scriptures) and intellect. You cannot seek It. It (Brahman) reveals Itself. (Vivrunute svaam) The idea is that We are Brahman. The Ātman in every one of us is already Brahman. Once we let go off our spiritual ignorance, the natural state will reveal itself! 
            In 3:3:8, has another well-known passage which states that “Just as all rivers become one with the ocean giving up their names and forms, the illumined soul becomes liberated from name and form and merges with the One Supreme Brahman”.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Major Upanishads - 6

Aitreya Upanishad: This is part of Aitreya Aranyaka of Rg Veda. The main theme seems to be “life after death”. 

It starts with Cosmology of how the ONE became many. Part 1 is a remarkable piece and gives the foundations of many of the basic Vedic thoughts such as Brahman, Atman, Devas and the five primordial units of life-forms. Some passages in Part 1 indicate that Prana (vital energy) is the foundation of life (similar to Kaushitaki Upanishad).

A commentary on Part 2 suggests that there are 3 “Self”s” or Souls. They are: The all-pervading Consciousness (also Brahman according to Vedantha and Purusha according to Samkhya);  the Devas, the first created entity being Brahma or Hiranyagarbha or Indra; and the transmigrating soul, also called Atman by Vedantha or Jiva. The sequence of cosmology according to this plan is – Brahman, the creator or Brahma and various elements and creatures. (3:1:3).

One of the four mahavakya is from this Upanishad. This states: "Prajnanam Brahma", which means "Consciousness is Brahman".

In another commentary to 3:1:2, Sankara quotes Kaushitaki Upanishad thus: “That which is the vital force (prana) is intellect (Mahat or Buddhi); that which is intellect is the vital force”. It seems that life and intellect are intertwined according to these observers. That does make sense based on current knowledge of life and consciousness. There is no consciousness without life. Without consciousness we will not be aware of life. 

What fascinated me more is how close these views are to the views of Socrates and of Plato. Plato’s writings of the teachings of Socrates says that “those with intelligence are superior to those without intelligence”. Intelligence is not possible without a “soul”. Therefore, “the Creator implanted reason in soul; and soul in body” (page 43 of Timaeus and Critias Penguin Classiscs 1977).

According to this view "This world came to be through God’s providence, a living being with a soul and intelligence”.  There are three kinds of souls as created by God, according to Plato (Socrates). They are the world soul, the souls of the stars and the planets and the human soul. 

When we try to equate these ideas from ancient Greece with those of the Vedas, the “living” is equivalent to the breath or prana; the human soul may equate with atman or jiva in the individualized mode and intelligence equates with Mahat or Buddhi. The world soul is akin to Brahman; the soul of the planets and stars is akin to the Devas.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Ahimsa (non-injury) and Vegetarianism

             Please note: I plan to write about a few more Upanishads. But, I am also eager to share ideas on so many other topics. Therefore, let me break the routine and add this piece for you to think about.
Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word which stands for an attitude of not injuring any life. This was the essence of Buddha’s teaching. Gandhi emphasized this in his life. Both of them got it from the Vedic Dharma Shastra or from the Jains.
 Here is a passage from one of the Dharma Shastra as discussed by the sage of Kanchi. This is a Sanskrit poem which on translation reads as follows:   “Every house has Five items which promote injury to life forms. They are: knife, food-grinder, oven, water-pot and broom”. This is the ultimate of Ahimsa (non-injury)and just not practical. If we follow this poem to its logical conclusion no one can live.
What is important is to recognize that one cannot avoid harming life even with the utmost diligence. Our scriptures say so. A famous passage in Taittriya Upanishad (2:2:1) says: “annath bhuthaani jaayanthey; jaathan annena vardhanthey; adhyathey atthi cha bhuthaani; thasmath annam thath ucchyatha” . When translated it says: Creatures are born of food. Being born, they grow on food. Since it is eaten and it eats (ath) the creatures, it is called food (anna).
 The strict meaning of the Sanskrit word anna is not cooked rice, but anything that is eaten.  The root verb for the word anna is ath, to eat. 
Therefore, what we have to do is to be thankful to the various life-forms, plants, animals or fish that give their lives so that we may live. This is why prayer before eating is common in all traditions. This why the Native Americans give prayers to the spirit of the animal they killed before eating. That is why the Eskimos thank the ocean for their food. That observance of Thanksgiving in several traditions is for this purpose.
In his book on Carnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan suggests eating meat per se is fair, if you can hunt for it yourself. In other words “give the animal equal chance to run away or kill you”. The dilemma comes in when we raise animals for the sole purpose of killing them to eat.
But Thich Nath Hahn suggests a special prayer before meals to reflect on every natural phenomenon and every human being involved in getting that food to our mouths. He asks us to reflect on the fact that the food we are about to eat would not have been possible without the sun and the moon and the sand and the rain. We think of them and thank them. The food also has the toil of the farmer who did the sowing, watering and the harvesting. And without the person or persons who prepared the food we will not have this food. We thank all of them. Of course, we have to think of the food itself that will be nourishing us, whether it is vegetable or meat. In other words, he wants us to think of every item in this food - chain and thank. This is a more practical approach.
I am not saying that it is fine to eat meat. I am just saying that history does not suggest that vegetarianism is the only “proper” way to live. Reality suggests that life eats life. Besides, plants have life too. Also, our being a vegetarian or a non-vegetarian was not our choice when we started. We followed whatever our parents did. I grew up in a household of vegetarians. Someone who grew up in the Amazon basin probably will be very comfortable with eating fish. Children growing up in the Eskimo country cannot  even think of being a vegetarian. And so on.
Let us not be judgmental!


Friday, March 27, 2015

Major Upanishads - 5

Taittreya Upanishad:  This is part of Krishna Yajur veda. This is equivalent to a convocation address to students at the end of their gurukula (living with the teacher) period of 12 years. Many mantras in common use today come from this Upanishad. Examples include:  

1. Satyam vada, dharmam chara, Acharya devo bava, athithi devo bava in 1:11:1 (Speak truth; do the right thing (duty appropriate to your position in life); respect the teacher; serve the guest who arrives on his own)

2. Mata, Pita, guru and daivam in 1:11:2-4. (Respect mother, father, teacher and the Divine in that order)

3. OM is Brahman in 1:8:1

4. It eats (atthi) and is eaten (athyathey); therefore. It is called anna (food)

5. It desired to be many, to be born. Having “created” that, It entered that very thing.

6. Brahman IS satyam, gnanam and anantam. (Brahman is the ultimate truth, knowledge and without limits) It is a definition. These are defining principles and not adjectives.

7. The Being that is in the human and the Being that is in the Sun are one.  

This upanishad also gives a description of the five sheaths (kosa) of an individual, namely anna maya, prana maya, mano maya, vignana maya and ananda maya. They are the fields of food (body), of breath, of mind, of knowledge and of Bliss. The Sanskrit word for bliss is aananda. This has to be differentiated from the word ananta, meaning infinite, eternal, boundless, without limits.

The main message of the Upanishad is about reaching the blissful state of one with Brahman.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Major Upanishads - 4

Mandukya Upanishad is from the Atharva Veda. There are only 12 slokas in this Upanishad. But it is well-known probably because Sri Gaudapada wrote a Karika on it. His student's (Govinda Bhagavatpada) student Adi Sankara wrote a long explanation of these Karikas. The subject matter of this Upanishad is OM. In discussing this concept of OM, Gaudapada clearly established that the concept of Advaita is not just dependent on the authority of the scriptures, but also on reasoning. In his Karika, Gaudapada gives arguments for Advaita and against Samkhya, Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Mimamsa and the Buddhist concepts. Adi Sankara elaborates on them. 

This Upanishad with the karika has four sections. The first section called the agama prakarana gives the meaning of the mantra OM.  The Upanishad starts with Om iti etat aksharam idam sarvam. The very next sutra gives one of the four mahavakyas (major statement) of the Upanishads which says “ayam atma brahma” (The Self is Brahman).  Section 2 called vaithathya prakarana argues that the duality of the phenomenal world is unreal. Section 3 called advaita prakarana argues that non-duality is the true state and Section 4 called alatasanti prakarana argues that non-vedic (non-advaita) points of view are invalid.  

Section 1:7 defines atman as follows: “unseen, beyond empirical dealings, beyond our grasp, not arrived at by inference, unthinkable, indescribable, whose valid proof consists in the single belief in the Self, in which all phenomena cease and which is unchanging, auspicious and non-dual”.  

Gaudapada defines jiva as individualized atman in the transmigration state. Once the jivan  (atman) recognizes its identity with the Brahman, there is no more transmigration. We falsely identify the Atman in us, which is the substratum of all consciousness, with various states (awake, dream-sleep, dreamless-sleep) and various individual lives (jivas). If we get in touch with that Atman, we will see that all these states and lives come and go, whereas Atman stays steady, immutable. All other states characterized by perception of duality depend on that Unity. In that state (turya), the duality does not disappear, but the notion of duality does. The state of absolute bliss in which there is no duality at all is turyathitha, beyond the turya state. 

Section 1:8 points out that OM is made of a, u and m; a stands for the wakeful state or vaishvanara; u stands for dream state or tejasa and m stands for deep sleep state or pragna.  Vaisvanara or Virat is the state of seeing external things. Tejasa is the state of seeing internal things (dream state with false perceptions). Pragna is the state of undivided consciousness (non-perception of anything as in deep sleep), whose existence is inferred only on waking up. Turya is beyond all of these.  

In a commentary by Adi Sankara, it is explained that meditation on A (of AUM) is the waking state at the macro or the gross level (also called Virat), meditation on U is at the mental or subtle plane (Hiranyagarbha or the cosmic mind) and the meditation on M is on Pragna which is at the causal plane (also Isvara). Gaudapada’s Karika 23 is a summary and is easy to remember. It runs thus:           

            Akaro nayate vishvam            The word A refers to Vaisvanara

            Ukarah cha api thaijasam        The word U refers to Tejas

            Makarah cha punah pragnam  The word M refers to Pragna

            Naamathrey vidyathe gathih.  The Soundless is Brahman

There is a difference between the deep sleep state and the fully awakened state of Realization in deep meditation state called the turya state. In deep sleep, the mind loses its self, is free of ideation, and is in a state of potentiality, dark and un-differentiated. In the Turya state of realization, the mind does not lose its self, is not in darkness but indeed in a fully awakened state of unity with Brahman.  

In 1:17, Gaudapada says that “This duality is non-duality, because the perception of duality is based on maya which is defined as non- and false perception of reality”. In other words, the perception is due to the way our minds thinks and not due to the thing as IT IS. This is pointed out in Buddhism also.  

Mandukya Karika Part 2 (Sutras 19 to 32) lists all schools of thought on the nature of Brahman and says that none of them is valid. “Non-duality is the correct view” is the assertion.  

The list starts with the statement that this Self is imagined to be various objects such as Prana. Those who know Prana consider Prana to be the Reality” (implying that they do not know Self to be that Reality”) and includes the following schools of thought:  Vaiseshikas who consider Prana as the Reality (they also talk about the large and the small prana); Lokayatta or materialists who consider the elements (panchabhutas – space, air, fire, water and earth) to be the Reality; Samkhyas who emphasize Gunas (sattva, rajasa and tamasa) as the source of this world; Saivas who emphasize Self, Ignorance and Shiva; Vatsyayana school which emphasizes the sense organs; those who follow puranas for whom earth, heaven and intermediate world are important;  those who worship various devas (Gods); the Vedic school who follow the major Vedas and some who focus on the yagnas (sacrifice) such as the Baudhayanas and those who emphasize Karmas (mimamsaka); those who consider Reality as possessed of forms (with vigraha and puja, as in agamas) and those who swear that Reality is formless; astrologers who think time and planets are the Realities; “dabblers in theories of Reality” who think that mantras (tantrics) and metals (siddhas) hold the secret of immortality; those who call the mind as Self and those who call intelligence as Self; Buddhists who consider that the only Reality is purely subjective and not based on external realities; those who emphasize virtue and sin as the cause of realities;  some who say that Reality is made of 25 principles (Samkhya), those who consider 26 basic elements (God was added as 26th by Patanjali in Yoga) or those who consider 30 as the ultimate as in Pasupata sect. That is as comprehensive a list as one can get. Gaudapada and Sankara list all of the above categories. 

Then the Upanishad goes on to say that when a teacher points out one thing, a particular object as the Reality, the individual focuses on it, gets absorbed in it at the exclusion of all other objects and mistakenly considers that to be the Reality, not realizing that Self is the ONLY reality behind all.  Such a person is like one who is focusing on the finger when the finger is pointing to the moon. 

The Karika for part 3 (sutra 33 and 47) implies that the base-consciousness on which awareness, knowledge and the process of knowing depend is the Brahman. In other words, Brahman is Knowledge/Information/Consciousness and not some material thing or object.  Sutra 3:33 (ajena ajam vibhudyatey) states that Brahman is known by that unborn Knowledge, which is the nature of Self itself.  Sutra 47 states “ajam ajena gneyena” which means that the birthless (Self) is known by the birthless (Brahman) which is the thing to be known. In another sutra (3:35), the karika says: gnana aalokam samanthah which refers to Brahman who has knowledge as Its expression or light. All of these imply Brahman as inherent and potential repository of information, energy and material source of what we experience as the Universe. Such a view is very much aligned with the view of cosmologists and physicists.  

Another passage (3:36) says that the state of the Sun is that it is there always; but when he is shining we call it a day and when he is not we call it night. So is Brahman. He is there always. We either experience or not due to our limitations says the Upanishad.   

Another passage asks the question: “One portion of Veda teaches rituals and rites; another says meditate on the Self. Which is correct?”. The answer is clearly on the side of meditation and Realization of unity of Brahman and Atman. It says that  rites and rituals are for purification of the mind and not for Moksha (release from the cycle of birth and death). It also says the end is always the same, namely union with Brahman. The means may be varied (such as puja, sacrifice etc).  It says: “do not mix up means, which are varied, with the end, which is Only One”. 

The Karika also defines Yogi (3:40) as one who controls the mind (mano-nigraha) and becomes fearless (because there is no two), has no sorrow and misery (since he has no desire and attachment), attains knowledge of the Self (praboda) and everlasting peace (akshaya shanti). 

Gaudapada takes up various philosophical systems and shows that none of them can explain the idea of cause and effect in this cosmos. This problem of not being to explain the cause and effect puzzle is the reason for Gaudapada to state that the very idea of cause and effect is absurd in a cosmological sense. This also leads to the Advaitic position that Brahman or the Unborn, eternal, immutable first principle just exists always in every object and in every living thing.  It is neither born nor made. It appears to be born because of our ignorance.  

 One of the profound statements by Gaudapada is that the idea of cause and effect cannot be proved at the primordial level. Karika 3:39, says that “in reality it cannot be established that anything has any causal relationship in any way whatever”. That was hundreds of years back. Now read what Bertrand Russel has to say in one of his talks in 1913. (Papers read before the Aristotelean Society 1912-1913.  1. On the notion of cause  Bertrand Russell).  

“All philosophers of every school, imagine that causation is one of the fundamental axioms or postulates of science, yet, oddly enough, in advanced sciences such as gravitational astronomy, the word “cause” never occurs. …….the reason why physics has ceased to look for causes is that, in fact, there are no such things. The law of causality, I believe, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of the bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm.”

 In his elaboration on Gaudapada’s Karika and Sankara’s commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad, Swami Nikhilananda points out that there are four cosmological and two theological views on the “creation” of the Universe. The cosmological are: 1. Creation is a manifestation of the divine power of God; 2. Creation is the nature of a dream or an illusion; 3. Creation is a manifestation of Divine Will which cannot but be fulfilled; 4. Creation is manifestation which proceeds from Time.  The two theological are: 1. Creation is for the purpose of enjoyment of God and 2. Creation is an act of God’s play.  Advaitic philosophy says that it is none of these. There is no creation. IT is always there as Brahman. Brahman is everything, everywhere and all the time. There is no duality.

It is interesting to note that all of these concepts are unlike the concept of “creation” in the western traditions, in which it is a historical event and time is linear. For the Vedic philosophers, time is cyclic. Therefore, there is no creation and destruction. There is only manifestation and absorption.  

Gaudapada takes on the Vijnanavada and Nihilist schools of Buddhism also as follows (Karika 4 – 25 – 30). Vijnanavada school says that all ideas are momentary. It also says that all objects have no existence of their own, except in the form of vasanas or ideas in the mind of the perceiver (subjective idealism). If so, consciousness of one moment is not related to the next moment and there can be no memory. In the absence of a common unchanging substratum, it is not possible to be aware of change of consciousness from one moment to the next. If there is no such perceiver or substratum, how can one know of momentariness of thoughts and of experiences of pain and misery?  It is like saying that the birds left footprint in the sky. It is even worse with the nihilists idea that denies everything, including the perceiver (sunyatta). If all that exists is a void, there still must be a perceiver of the void. Otherwise, who is there to assert that void?  

A reading of Indian history suggests that at one time, there were several schools of thought and of worship including some very violent systems of worship. The time between 400 CE to about 800 CE seems to be the dark ages in India. We do not know when exactly Adi Sankara lived. There are controversies. However, most scholars agree that he was responsible for bringing about some order out of the chaos and re-established the Vedic tradition. My guess is that Adi Sankara used many of these arguments of Gaudapada to win over members of others traditions and systems of philosophy including Buddhism and Jainism and followers of agamas, puranas and tantras and established Vedanta ( at that time only Advaita) as the dominant philosophy.





Sunday, February 1, 2015

Major Upanishads - 3

Katha Upanishad:  This is part of Krishna Yajur veda. This has the famous story of Nachiketas who is given over to Yama, the Lord of Death, by his own father in a bit of anger. Nachiketas goes to Yama’s place and has to wait for three days before he meets Yama. Yama feels he broke his dharma by not feeding a guest for three days and as a repentance offers three boons. Nachiketas’s first request is for Yama to forgive his father. The second is his desire to know about the role of agni and homa (fire sacrifice) in the vedic rituals. The third request is as follows in the words of Nachiketas: “ Some say Self (IT) exists; some others say it does not. Oh Yama, please tell me the correct answer”.  Yama says that this is a difficult question, offers several other boons and asks Nachiketas not to persist with this question. Naschiketas persists by saying “what is the use of all the wealth you are offering. They will perish. Life is short and all of us live only as long as you have determined. So, please tell me about THAT”.  

The main message is that Atman (Brahman) cannot be known by reason or by learning. It can only be experienced after instructions from someone who has experienced IT. It can be apprehended by intuitive insight.  

Some famous passages from this Upanishad are in Part 1:2.  In sloka 1:2:2, Yama says that the world is full of pleasurable (preyas) things and the preferable (shreyas) things. The wise choose the preferable, Nachiketas being one of them. The knowledge Nachiketas is seeking cannot be obtained through logic and dialectics (na tharkena). So, Nachiketas asks: So, please tell me about That which is different from and beyond the opposites of virtue and vice, cause and effect and the past and the future. Then, Yama says: That Supreme is indicated by the symbol OM (OM ithi ethath).  

Then in Sloka 18, Yama says that the Self is neither born nor does it die. It does not originate from anything nor did anything originate from IT. It is birthless, eternal, undecaying and ancient. It is not injured even when the body is killed. This sloka is repeated verbatim in Gita. (Therefore, Gita should have come into vogue after this Upanishad, although the reverse is also possible)   In Sloka 20, Yama says that the Self is smaller than an atom and larger than the universe; and is hidden in the hearts of every creature.  

Sloka 1:2:23 is the essence of this Upanishad, because after indicating what Self is, Yama says that It cannot be reached through study or intellect. It can be known through Self alone and then uses the word vivrunuthe, which means “reveals itself”. In other words, Self is the Seeker; Seeker is the sought. The seeker cannot know it, cannot see it by his efforts alone. It has to show Itself.

In Chapter 1, Section 3, slokas 3 to 9 compare the body, intellect, mind and the senses of a human being to a chariot, charioteer, bridle and the horses of a chariot respectively. The Self is the Master of the chariot. This is the famous pictorial representation of Gita in which Arjuna (the person) stands near the chariot with Lord Krishna in control of the horses (mind and the senses). Sloke 14 of this section asks us to wake up and learn the intellectual path, a passage made famous by Vivekanada to wake up the slumbering India. The last part of this sloka compares the path to realization of the Self to the edge of a razor, and these words became the title of a book (Razor’s edge) by Somerset Maughm. 

During my recent re-reading of Katha Upanishad I might have understood the symbolism behind homa (fire oblations) and the principle of inward looking in meditation. In Sloka 1:2:10, Yama tells Nachiketas “One cannot reach the Permanent through impermanent things. Therefore I piled up sacrificial fire with impermanent things”. This suggests that building a sacrificial altar with bricks, using firewood and leaves to light the fire and pouring ghee, milk and food offerings into the fire represent our desire to reach the Eternal, Indestructible Self through these perishable things.  

In Sloka 2:1:3, Yama says that when the Supreme Brahman entered the individual bodies He turned off His senses since he does not need them. But the Jivan which lives because of His presence and energy, has its organs of senses turned outwards towards the objects of perception in this world. Therefore, if you wish to experience that Brahman inside, you also have to turn the senses away from following sense objects. This gives the principle behind meditation. 

There are no Mahavakyas (Major quotes) from this Upanishad. If there should be one it will be Etatvai Tat, which is almost the same as tatvamasi (Thou are That) or OM ithi ethath.