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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Prophecy and Prediction


Prophets and prophecy seem to play significant roles in the Abrahamic faiths. When I read the Bible and  and the Qua’ran, I noticed an extraordinary emphasis placed on prophecy and prophets. 

 In trying to understand the definition of the word, prophecy, I came across the following passage from David Deutsch’s book on The Beginning of Infinity.

Prophecy is anything that claims to know what is not yet knowable. “Trying to know the unknowable leads inexorably to error and self-deception”, as pointed out by Deutsch.

Contrast this with definition of Prediction. “Prediction is a conclusion about a future event that follows from good explanation.” Prediction is testable or verifiable and therefore, more reliable.

Astrology and astronomy are good examples. Astrology is prophecy. Astronomy allows prediction. Predictions are more likely to turn out to be true. If not, the idea is discorded. But people cling to prophecy.  

All cultures and traditions believe in miracles. In the Indian tradition, although miracles performed by Krishna and Rama are described, the emphasis is NOT on the miracle but on the compassion and love of Krishna and Rama. In other words, the emphasis is on Krishna’s and Rama’s love for their devotees, and the extent Rama and Krishna will go for the sake of their devotees. It is that Divine love which has to be believed and cherished and nourished, even if you do not believe those miracles.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Discord and Reconciliation

 Siddharta Gautama, alias Gautama Buddha, recommended the use of Sangha (community) as one of the two boats to cross the ocean of life with peace and equanimity. The other was Mindfulness.

Human nature is such that when there is a community of people, variations in personalities lead to conflicts and clash. Indeed, this happened during Buddha’s life among his disciples. In order to bring harmony in the Sangha, the bhikkus (early students of Buddha) came up with seven steps. They are:

                Sharing common space (home and land)

                Sharing essentials of life

                Observing the precepts together

                Using ONLY words that contribute to harmony

                Sharing insights and understanding

                Respecting other’s viewpoint

                Not forcing others to follow your viewpoint

Fast forward to the current scene in US, it is painful to hear people in general, politicians in particular, talk as if  they do not belong to the same country. When I reflect on some recent developments on discourses between people, I can see trends in thinking and messaging which have led to these deep discords.

                Name-calling those who do not agree with “our” viewpoint was the first development. This phenomenon was there always in human history. But it became a political tool around the early 1980’s.This is facilitated by a special brand of specialists called the “word-smiths”, who develop emotionally charged words to refer to those who look or think differently.

                Repeat a word thousand times ( make it a slogan) hoping it becomes the truth in the minds of people. This is also a well-known tool in propaganda. We have experienced many examples of this phenomenon  in recent years. When people cling to the "slogan" and do not open their minds, we know what the consequences are. Semanticists have been warning about this for many decades.

                Social media which incubate, propagate and disseminate these and other “mental viruses” is the most recent vehicle for “echo-chambers” and discords.

                One more phenomenon causing discord among people is the general lack of trust of each other. We do not know whom to trust. Even respectable professions such as medicine, respectable organizations such as the Church and our own elected representatives have behaved in ways to undermine our confidence in them. We think we are on our own. Therefore, we seek our own sources of information and end up in “echo chambers” and conspiracy-theory factories.

Now going back to Buddha’s teaching on how to bring harmony in a community, the first step in reconciliation is acknowledging the problem and be open to reconciliation. we must stop calling others with derogatory and demeaning names. We have to stop speaking harmful things and spreading misinformation and rumors. We need to speak the truth. We need to respect each other. We should respect other's viewpoint and their right to have them. We should convince others with facts and reasoning, not by bullying and shouting.

We should remember that we belong, to the same humanity, to the same nation. We have to compromise to get things done.

We must think for ourselves and not be led by propagandists and “word-smiths”.

We must follow the Golden Rule.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Adi Sankara and C S Lewis - comparison of their concepts

 It is surprising that so many people know Aristotle but not Adi Sankara. Adi Sankara’s intellectual prowess has to be experienced by reading his philosophical discussions. His devotional writings (hymns) are equally impressive particularly for its poetry. Even what little I have read is amazing.

In our relationship to this world and cosmos, Adi Sankara asks us to jump from the world we experience through our sense perceptions to a different plane which requires intuitiveness,insight and faith. Logic cannot move us from the world of asat (not Real), tamas (ignorance) and mrtyu (death) to the world of sat (ultimate reality or truth), jyoti (light or knowledge) and amrita (non-death or bliss). We do not even know what that place is, because “ eyes cannot get there, nor can speech, nor mind”.

To Sankara, this world is real but “apparent real”, from one point of view. But from another spiritual cosmic point of view, it is not  “real” . It is a ‘”reflected real” like the same sun showing up in different pots of water. He used a special word called mithya, which is not the opposite of real, but an “apparent real”.

 Chandogya Upanishad says: “All this is Brahman”. Sankara said; “ brahman is the only real (satyam); the cosmos is mithya. Jivan is nothing but Brahman”. He said so because, everything exists on a base which is beyond and behind this cosmos. That constant is nirguna brahman. That is envisioned by our senses in  forms as saguna brahman, when individual life (jivan) comes into being. If there were no jivan to think about all this, cosmos will still exist.

For a jivan to reach the brahman, it must first comprehend the atman, which is the spiritual awareness factor in oneself and then jump to the Brahman. Sankara argues that atman (Self) is different from the mind because this Self (atman) understands several states of mind such as “I am sad, I am happy” etc., It is also common experience for all of us to feel “I know this” and “I do not know this”. Therefore, knowledge and absence of knowledge themselves are objects of knowledge of a “knower”. The Self of man (Atman) is that knower. Thinking cannot reveal Atman because the process of knowledge depends on a knower (Atman). Atman must be posited before knowledge. Atman is the “witness” and the light of the witness.

Now, I jump to a modern Christian scholar C.S.Lewis, one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. He taught at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. He has written several books, most of them in support of his faith in Christianity. His most well-known book is The Chronicles of Narnia. In his book with the title Mere Christianity, he spends the first two chapters establishing that just as there are Natural Laws (for example, Laws of Gravity)  in the physical world there are Natural Laws in the moral sphere. It is amazing that his logic in establishing the existence of an unseen moral force is similar to that used by Vedic scholars and saints, notably Adi Sankara.

Just as there are physical laws of nature, there are laws of Human Nature. C S Lewis starts by stating that we all know that we cannot choose to disobey laws of physical nature. If we do, the results will be definite and disastrous. But we can choose to disobey laws of human nature, which deals with human behavior in relation to others, other lives. These laws relate to whether we behave decently towards others. Most normal people will know that they are disobeying decent norms of behavior when they actually do. That is why they will ask for an excuse (excuse me), or explain why they did what they did, get into an argument to show that they are on the right (which means they know what wrong is) or tell you that you are wrong. In other words, that person was aware of right and wrong.

Or take an example of a situation in which I could have helped you but did not, because if I did I would have gotten into difficulty.  In other words, I ought to have acted one way; but I did not. When I behave in a way I ought not to have, “something” tells me that I was wrong. That “moral” voice says that I should have overridden my selfish “inhibition” and done the morally right thing.

Where did this knowledge of moral principle of right and wrong come from and how? In C S Lewis’s words: “There is something above and beyond the ordinary facts of human behavior and yet quite real – a real law which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us.” He then asks; “What is behind this?”

He answers as follows: “ Obviously there is a law which we did not invent and which we know we ought to obey”. This cannot be found by observation of facts alone. It is inside us. It influences us and commands us. It is shown in our behavior.

That unwritten origin of moral law of human nature, we know intuitively is a universal mind which is conscious and “has purpose and prefers one thing to another”. Though not exactly the same as the description of Atman by Adi Sankara, this definition of the moral force, which C S Lewis calls God is not much different.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

"Head and Heart"


Intellect is always asking questions. It is as it should be. It needs to grow, evolve, and mature. But it tends to get arrogant.

“Heart” knows – just knows. If only it is open and humble and listens without judgement and without avoiding or suppressing, things can be so much better.  It needs to calm and transform.

Intellect needs to check with the “heart”. The “heart” needs to know its weakness and listen to the intellect. We need both.

when they are balanced, life runs like a chariot on a smooth pathway – just as Vedic texts of the east tell us and just as Plato envisioned in the western tradition.

That does not mean that there will be no ups and downs or happiness and sadness. They will be there. But they can be handled and managed better with equanimity. 

Saturday, March 6, 2021

“ The seeker is the sought; the journey is the destination”

 As a child, I was started on the Bhakti marga (devotional path) by my family. I was given Lord Muruga to worship and relate to. I am thankful to my family for that start. But I have moved past that stage and devotional path does not work for me anymore.

How can it when I do not think there is a human-like figure in the form of Muruga or one with six faces and two wives, sitting in some hidden place considering every move of mine? Even if I believe that, it is arrogant to think that Muruga has nothing else to do than following every one of my actions. That is giving too much self-importance to an impermanent inter-being.

If I believe, there is a divine person with form called Muruga somewhere, and He is known only to a select few born in south India, what happens to the so many millions over millennia who were born in other lands and in other faith traditions? “Who” takes care of them?

However, I do believe in a Supreme Divine Force. The concept of Muruga as a representation of that Supreme or the Divine was very helpful for spiritual development. I am thankful for that; but must proceed on the spiritual journey on my own, without Muruga – with humility and thankfulness.

What is that journey? It has to be meditative, reflecting on the mysteries of life and of cosmos. Where did life come from? Where did cosmos come from? Where did this awareness, consciousness come from? If they “came” where were they before they “came”? What was the source?

My intuition says that there must have been some force from which all of this came. That is the conclusion of all Sacred Texts, all the spiritual masters and all systems of philosophy.  The desire in every human’s “heart” (mind) to reach that source suggests that there has to be an answer. As pointed out by C S Lewis, every innate desire of human beings has a natural solution to it. We are hungry and there is food. We are thirsty and we have water to drink.  We seek our source, like pacific salmons do. There has to be an answer for that desire.

What is it that seeks answers to the mysteries of life? Where is it located? In one sense, it must be located inside of me, because the question comes from within. In another sense, it has to be outside, since it permeates every life. If so, it needs a switch inside of me to turn on or as a biologist would imagine, it needs a receptor inside of me to get attached to and activate.

That “something” outside is like the sun which gives light just by its inherent nature. As the Upanishad says, it shines and makes everything known and visible. Our eyes see objects made visible by the light of the sun. The sun illuminates and the eye sees.

So it is with the mind and its capacity to know. It knows that it knows. It is also capable of knowing what it does not know. It knows the past and the present; cannot know the future but can guess and imagine. It knows during the wakeful state and dream state. But not in deep sleep, when the sensory organs are shut out. When it wakes up, it knows it was asleep.

What is that universal state (called turya) on the basis of which the mind knows? To which, the mind wants to connect?   As pointed out by the Upanishads, “that which does not think, but that by which mind thinks” is that Sat, Brahman.

At a physical level, there is the lingering question. Why does that awareness depend on a perishable body and the brain? When the brain is damaged, that capacity to imagine the connection with the cosmos is gone. That capacity is not there at birth and takes time to develop. It tends to diminish for many of us as we get older. Why this barrier?

My reasoning says that I should stop questioning at that level and accept that mystery and the barrier. I should reach for that elusive, eternal  hidden source behind all that we see, hear and experience, while am still alive and the mind is functioning. As suggested by our ancestors, there is correspondence and inter-relationship between microcosm and macrocosm (particular and general). My effort should be to make the connection between the particular and the general, between the individual and the collective and between the wave and the ocean.

My meditation must be an effort to connect the body with matter, life force with energy and awareness with knowledge or consciousness. The goal is not moksha or release because I do not know what moksha means. Besides, moksha is after death. When it is possible to experience the connections here and now, why wait for death? Why not take the journey now towards That source hoping to experience IT if lucky?

Our rishis said it best: “ The seeker is the sought; the journey is the destination”.


Saturday, February 27, 2021

Papam and Punyam (Sin and Virtue)

 Papam and punyam are two commonly used words in the Indian culture. The words mean the same in Sanskrit and Tamizh. They are the driving forces behind samkskaras (rites of passages) and dharma teachings.  

Papam means sin, evil, wicked, destructive action with bad consequences. Punyam means virtuous, meritorious and right conduct with good consequences.

Kanchi Periyaval  (vol 2: Daivatin kural page 818) says that we  accrue papam through our mind, speech and body. Bad thoughts, bad speech and bad actions result in papam. We have to suffer the consequences of those thoughts and actions. “The 40 samskaras are designed to decrease that accrued papam”, says KP.

The idea goes back to the Vedas. Chandogya Upanishad states explicitly the consequences of evil acts and virtuous acts and uses the words papam and punyam in Book 5  Section 10.

Puranas and Dharma shastras codified these acts of papam and punyam for use by common folks in daily living. These books list noble/ wholesome and cruel/unwholesome activities  through various characters in the mythological stories. Asuras are those with unwholesome and cruel qualities. Divine incarnations are described with wholesome qualities such as compassion.

The Puranas and Dharma shastras also say that if you perform good acts (punyam) you get rewarded at death and go to deva loka (heaven) for enjoyment or  to go to asura loka or hell (narakam) for punishment of bad acts (papam). But the stay at heaven or hell is temporary. Once you use up the credit either in heaven or in hell you will be sent back to earth. Earth is the only place for you to work out your karma. In other words, humans do get a chance to redeem themselves through good actions in this world. This world is the only place where humans can work out their fate!

The ultimate teaching though is release from this birth-rebirth cycle through meditation and full merger with Brahman.

It is important to note that we designate some acts as punyam or papam and so they become punyam or papam. Papam and punyam are sins and virtues with religious connotations because the consequences are rewards in heaven or hell. They are judgmental.  

I prefer defining actions on the basis of their effects on ALL LIVES, as Buddha suggested. Ask whether an action is harmful or beneficial?  Not, whether they  are papam or punyam? Not whether you will go to heaven or hell by performing specific acts.

Look how many people do horrible things (papam) and then go to the temple to propitiate or go on a pilgrimage or make donations to temples to obtain punyam! That is bartering with God.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Concentration, Meditation and Connection


                I read somewhere that if I am constantly fighting distraction during meditation, I am at the stage of concentration and not in total absorption. Reading the Upanishads, particularly Chandogya Upanishad, I see connections being made between the physical and mental levels during meditation, which is internal tapas and during performance of the Yagna (fire sacrifice), which is external tapas.

During yagna and meditation, connections are made at different planes and at various stages. At the level of the body, connections are made between physical body, vital force, thought (mind), intellect and source of bliss (Taitriya Upanishad). At the consciousness level, between the waking, dreaming and deep sleep states (Mandukya Upanishad). In the material plane, connections are made between the gross and the subtle, between part and the whole and between the small (atoms) and the big (cosmos). At the spiritual level, connections are made between the individual devatas (personal gods) and the cosmic counterparts and the Brahman.

Whatever path one takes and whatever connections one makes, finally it should end in “I am That”. Because “whatever you identify with deeply and intensely during meditation (or puja/worship) you become that”.

We learn about Unity in Diversity by reading and learning Vedic texts. We experience, or at least try to experience, that Unity in diversity in meditation. Swami Vivekananda says that such realization of the Divinity in us should lead to manifestation of that Divinity in activities of our daily living.