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

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Rishi Narada - Maha Bharata Series 13


Book 2, Section 5:  Rishi Narada, is described as one who is conversant with the Vedas and the six Angas,Upanishadas, with ithihaasas and Puranas, Nyaya (logic), Samkhya and Yoga systems of philosophy, with knowledge of everything that ever happened throughout the ages. He was eloquent, resolute, intelligent, possessed of powerful memory. He was ever desirous of humbling the celestials and Asuras by fomenting quarrels among them. He was a thorough master of every branch of learning, fond of war and music, and possessed of these and numberless other accomplishments.

Narada tends to roam in the realm of the gods and of men and having wandered over the different worlds, came into that Sabha and asks Yudhishtra a stream of questions all pointing to the details of a good monarch. “ Is the wealth you earn being spent on proper objects? Do you enjoy the pleasure in virtue? Are you enjoying the pleasures of life? Are you weighed down by them? Are you pursing dharma and wealth without sacrificing one for the other or both for pleasure?  

Narada also states: The six attributes of kings are cleverness of speech, readiness in providing means, intelligence in dealing with the foe, memory, and acquaintance with morals and politics). Their means are seven: sowing dissensions, chastisement, conciliation, gifts, incantations, medicine and magic. Are you aware of your strengths and weaknesses? Are you aware of the strength and weakness of your foes? I hope your seven principal officers of state the governor of the citadel, the commander of forces, the chief judge, the general in interior command, the chief priest, the chief physician, and the chief astrologer have not succumbed to the influence of your enemies.  

The victories of kings depend on good counsels and I hope you have such learned ministers who are well-versed and incorruptible. Are they under your control?

Narada asks other questions such as: Are your forts always filled with treasure, food, weapons, water, engines and instruments, as also with engineers and bowmen? Is the commander of your forces possessed of sufficient confidence, brave, intelligent, patient, well-conducted, devoted to you, and competent? Do you know that the misery caused by arrears of pay and irregularity in the distribution of rations drives the troops to mutiny?

I hope you recognize persons of learning and humility, and skill in every kind of knowledge with gifts of wealth and according to their qualifications. Do you also support the wives and children of men that have given their lives for you?

Can everyone in your kingdom approach you without fear, as if you were their mother and father? Have you constructed large tanks and lakes all over thy kingdom at proper distance? Do you supply your farmers with seed and food and not tax them too heavily. Make sure you take care of the blind, the dumb, the lame, the deformed, the friendless, and ascetics that have no homes.

Do you administer justice fairly without any favoritism, with punishment for those who deserve it and worship for those that deserve it? I hope you seek to cure bodily diseases by medicines and fasts, and mental illness with the advice of the aged?

Narada goes on: I hope that with passions under complete control and with singleness of mind, you strive to perform the sacrifices called Vajapeya and Pundarika ?  And keep free from the fourteen vices of kings, viz., atheism, untruthfulness, anger, incautiousness, procrastination, non-visit to the wise, idleness, restlessness of mind, taking counsels with only one man, consultation with persons unacquainted with the science of profit, abandonment of a settled plan, divulgence of counsels, non-accomplishment of beneficial projects, and undertaking everything without reflection? Also get rid of these six evils, O monarch, viz., sleep, idleness, fear, anger, weakness of mind, and procrastination?'

Somewhere during this discourse, Narada says: “ Vedas bear fruit when one performs agnihotra and sacrifices; wealth bears fruit when one enjoys it and also gives to charity; a wife when she bears children and knowledge when it results in humility and good behavior”.


Sunday, October 23, 2016

What is Vaidῑkam?



The word Vaidkam means that which follows the Vedas. All branches of Hinduism claim their roots to the Vedas. Therefore, they call themselves Vedic religions (Vaidkam). But they are not, as defined by Kạnchi Periyavạl. He says that a Vedic religion has to accept all portions of the Vedas and not oppose any part of them. They should also follow all the 40 samskạrạs mentioned in the Smriti texts and not add new ones. They should follow all the varnạṣrama darmas, not just portions of them.

For example, some focus on only one aspect of the trinity, such as iva (pạśupáṭam) or Viṣnu (pạncarạtram). They tend to exclude other aspects of the trinity. They add samskạrạs not mentioned in the smritis, such as placing mudras on the body as in some sects of Vainavaites. Some of them also promote the idea that the authority they derive is not only from the Vedạs but also from the ạgamạs and purạnạs. They also tend to claim that their method of worship was given to them by their favorite deity. They become separate sects when combined with tạntric rituals.

There are also the straight tạntric religions such as that of kulạrnava sạktam. In general, Tạntric religions 1. Claim independent authority apart from the Vedas. They have their own “purạnạs” which they claim to be revealed texts. 2. Claim exclusive loyalty and have initiation rites. They may even condemn other Gods. 3. Follow separate rituals not given in the Vedạs. 4. Some  follow esoteric and extreme practices such as the five “M” s (the five Ms are: madya (wine), matsya (fish), mạmsa (meat), mudrạ (hand symbols or dried grains) and maituna (sexual union).

It appears that there were over 70 religions in India at one time, most of them calling themselves as Vedic religions. SAt times past, some of them practiced very crude rituals such as  animal and human sacrifice. Adi Sankara is credited with eliminating many of these sects and consolidating the rest into five major branches of theistic Hindu religion – Ganapatyam (of Ganapti, or Ganesha), Saivam (of Shiva), Vaishnavam (of Vishnu), Sauryam (Of Surya or the Sun) and Saktam (of Shakti or Mother Goddess). One caveat is that neither the word Hindu nor the word religion (as used in English) were known or used at that time. The name was “Sanatana Dharma”.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Information Overload


This is the age of Information, nay – it is the age of Information Overload. We are inundated with all kinds of information – useful, not-so-useful, wrong, misleading and outright false information. The situation is so bad that there is an Information Overload Research group! (URL: http://iorgforum.org/).

How do we deal with this overload? There are several ways and the British Medical Journal published a humorous essay on this topic. In summary, the essay lists five different ways people deal with this problem. Here they are, together with an appropriate metaphor for each strategy.

1. The Ostrich strategy, which needs no explanation;  

2. The Pigeon strategy, which is hanging around with others who read, and pick up bits of information here and there;  

3. The Owl strategy, which is to stay with a question doggedly, and refine the question and reflect;  

4. The Jackdaw strategy, which is a mixture of the above two – some scavenging and some real effort;

5. The “inhuman” (the authors probably meant non-human) strategy, which is to make use of machines and publications, which synthesize and catalog. In medicine, there are such publications. For example,  UptoDate and BMJ Point of Care.

Reference:  BMJ 2010;341:c7126. December 15, 2010

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Time - Some Personal Reflections


What is Time? One view is that it is a perception of the human mind. We perceive the “passage” of time based on movement from here to there and by changes (increase or decrease in size or modification) in the structure of objects around us and in us. The alternating cycle of day and night is probably the primary determinant for the experience of time for life in this world. Do animals and plants have a sense of time?


Can there be “time” if there is no perceiving mind? The answer probably is “yes” since the primary determinant is the day and night cycle, at least in our world. Is the perceiver of “time”, namely me, who is the subject also  a part of time, the object? Again, the answer seems to be “yes”. But, Time is also independent of the perceiver and the process of perception. Time, indeed, rules space and what is in space, since no two physical things can occupy the same space at the same time. Space and Time are inter-related.



Time implies space or change. To go from one place to another requires time however short that distance may be. The movement gives the sense of passage of time.  What about change? Does passage of time causes change or does change gives a sense of time? For a change to occur, time is needed. But, if there is no time, will there be change? And why should change occur at all? If things are static, with no change, will there be time? Some would say that the perception of change is what gives us a sense of time.



What was there before time? That is a silly question. If we talk about time like we talk about any other object, we need to ask “when did it start?” If it did have a beginning, then what was there before time? That is also a silly question.



Kannadasan, a major Tamil poet of the 20th century said that there are two kinds of time.  One is cyclic and one is eternal. The cyclic one is associated with life, and therefore with pain and suffering. The eternal one is associated with bliss. Kannadasan thinks that there is only one time; humans see it as two. He goes on to say: “I am in charge of the drama called Time. I keep today for myself and leave tomorrow for time.  If time asks me I do not answer. I do not cry when time hurts me; and I do not laugh when life hugs me”.         



Life is a mystery. Time is an even greater mystery. Time was existent before life appeared on this planet. But, there was no one to call it by a name.



Time is a constant of the universe. There are only two ways to look at Time, as Kannadasan pointed out – as eternal, with no beginning and no end or cyclic, in which case it has no beginning or end. The word cyclic implies passage of time.



Once we human came into existence and found the ability to speak and invent words, we coined the term Time to explain two things: A. changes that take place in our own selves as modifications of the body and around us with the rising of the sun and setting of the sun, flowers blossoming and withering etc.  and B. relation between objects in space and the process of moving from one place to another,which takes “time”.



Time is a constant of the universe, but only at the present moment. Sloka 1:14 in Uddhava Gita calls the Lord as Time (kaala) which is beyond matter and energy. Bede Griffiths (in his book on The Marriage of the East and West, page 168) says: “We are conditioned by time so that we see one thing after another and can never grasp the whole. But the intuitive vision is a vision of the whole. The rational mind goes from point to point and comes to a conclusion; the intuitive mind grasps the whole in all its parts”. He implies that spiritual intuition is the grasping of the whole, all in one moment, not sequentially in time.



All these musings are based on metaphysical, spiritual and common sense views. Obviously this topic is a complex one and one has to be an astrophysicist or an expert in topics such as Einstein’s Theories and Quantum mechanics to fully understand the physics of Time. If you wish to delve deep, please read Stephen Hawking’s book on A Brief History of Time and Richard Muller's recent book with the title Now – The Physics of Time.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Altruism


“Your blood is red; so is mine. Your tears are salty; so are mine”. (Buddha)


Comte is said to have defined altruism as “devotion to the welfare of others, based in selflessness*”.  I just read a book on Altruistic Personality based on studies of common individuals who went out of the way to help Jews in Europe during World War II. According to the definition used in this book, voluntary acts, which may involve risk to one’s own life and/or personal sacrifice, in order to help someone in need, for no material benefit are acts of altruism.

Two defining characteristics of the individuals included in this study who took part in rescue operations as compared to the bye-standers were 1. “inclusiveness” which means an ability to care for all people and 2. “attachment” which means an ability to relate to others and a sense of commitment to the others.

In their analysis of the characteristics of rescuers during World War II, the authors note that “it was the values learned from their parents which prompted and sustained” their altruism. (page 142). The mother of one of the rescuers had taught him never to consider any human being as inferior. She would never look down on anyone. His father told him “All people are people”. The authors call this common quality of the “rescuers” as “inclusiveness”.

When comparing how the core values of the rescuers and non-rescuers shaped their world views and their interpretation of events, the authors noticed that the attitudes and the values of the parents played some part. “The willingness and ability to transcend oneself under such conditions (conditions of stress and threat) is usually based on sustained habits of orientation to the world, largely developed early in life”. (page 160).

To be an altruistic helper, one has to be aware of the needs of others (sensitivity), has to have desire to help, ability to help (such as finding resources), courage to act and be prepared to take risk, when needed. (It is interesting to note that compassion is defined in the Buddhist texts as the desire and ability to help.)

During periods of extreme violence and social unrest, some tend to accept the situation passively and close their eyes out of fear, hopelessness, uncertainty and fatalism. Caring for others requires an orientation different from that required for rational action. This requires “caring” for even those they do not know. It also requires empathy and sensitivity to the other person irrespective of their color or religion. 

Some decide to help or not  tohelp based on rationality. They can rationalize their non-action. Rationality is based on thought. Those who emphasize rationality and equity will emphasize “access to procedures and impartial application of those procedures”. But, caring requires subjective feelings towards the welfare of people without regard to fairness and equity. (page 163)

 Fairness and equity emphasize procedures (objective features); caring requires kindness and benevolence (subjective features).

Caring is based on the needs of the one who is suffering. Ideally, it should not matter who that person is; race, religion, nationality should not matter. However, perceptions of the victim as worthy or unworthy of help is a determinant, the authors found.  The victim’s “good” appearance and perceived innocence (as in a child) may create a favorable attitude in the rescuer, whereas laziness or lack of effort, “drunkenness” and “not worthy of trust” create a negative attitude. Media, of course, play a large part in creating negative “stereotypes” of groups of people, as it happened with the Nazi’s portrayal of the Jewish people.

When discussing factors that lead to “attachment” (relating to others), once again the major influence in the development of this character among the rescuers was the family. They had strong, cohesive family bonds as a primary psychological strength, often in the context of religiosity. The rescuers also had more friends among the persecuted group and knew their plight so that they felt a personal obligation to help them. Some had a deep sense of social responsibility and this also came from family values. Finally, there were some who were egalitarian, who felt the pain of others and had empathy.

In contrast, among the non-rescuers were those who had poor family and community relationship, those who felt distant from the lives of the victims (Jews), those who preferred to keep themselves and avoid social involvement and a few true “ethno-centric” individuals who considered some people as the “others”.

Although there was no difference in the religious affiliations and religiosity between the rescuers and non-rescuers, unfortunately “more intense religiosity is associated with greater prejudice” (page 155) as shown by Rokeach (A Mighty Fortress: Faith, Hope and Bigotry. M.Rokeach. Augsburg Publishing Minneapolis, MN 1973). This is a sad story of humanity.

In a more recent study of 1,170 children aged 5 to 12 years from six different countries, relationship between religiosity of the household was compared with parent-reported empathy and sensitivity to justice in the children. Children living in religious house-holds showed more empathy and sensitivity to justice. However, children growing up in “religious” households were less altruistic than children from non-religious house-holds. They were also more prone to punitive tendencies. (Current Biology  25: 1-5, November 16, 2015)



The most important lesson for me from this book is that children learn compassion, empathy and caring early in life from their family. It is from the family environment that children also learn intolerance and prejudice. That is where we have to start to reduce violence in the society, to develop peace and harmony in this world and to create a safe future for our children.



Fortunately, there are groups which emphasize early childhood education, not just about the world but also of values.  For example, The Loris Malaguzzi International Centre located in Reggio Emilia (central Italy) focuses on value and innovation in the education of children. (http://reggiochildrenfoundation.org/607-2/centro-internazionale-loris-malaguzzi/?lang=en)

 Another organization by the name of Living Values Education (LVE)promotes the development of values-based learning communities and places the search for meaning and purpose at the heart of education”. (http://livingvalues.net/index.html)

In matters of empathy, altruism and tolerance, education has to start very, very early and at home. And for that to happen, parents have to be educated. Parents have to be role-models - teaching children universal human values and an open mind (for "inclusiveness and attachment" as defined by Oliner*).  

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*The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. What led ordinary men and women to risk their lives on behalf of others? Oliner,Samuel P and Pearl M. The Free Press, New York. 1988. Page 4.