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Friday, September 23, 2022

Wants and Fears

 

It appears that the modern, consumer-oriented, commercial, competitive, and complex world, is driven by never-ending “wants” and an atmosphere of living in constant “fear”.  Both the “wants” and the “fear” are driven mostly by ads and messages in the 24-hour news cycles and in the social media. Fear is driven by the existence of violence in the minds of a few who hurt innocent people for no understandable reason and the availability of lethal weapons in their hands. This danger is so pervasive that children have to learn how to protect themselves from this danger at schools.

 We know from the writings of people of wisdom from the past and modern neurosciences that actions triggered by “desire” and “fear” are the causes of our suffering.

Will it ever be possible to create a society in which the basic needs of every person - namely a roof over the head, decent nutritious food, basic education, and basic health-care needs - are available and accessible? Will it ever be possible for children to go to school to learn without fear and parents to be able to send their children to school without fear of losing them? 

 

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Dharma for the 21st Century - Revisited (2)

 This discussion on the importance of ethics and morals have been going on in Western philosophy also since the time of Socrates as documented by Jamie Susskind in his recent book with the title The Digital Republic. Most thoughtful people agree that the internet and social media are affecting human behavior in a self-destructive way and some rules and regulations are needed to make large corporations in control of Digital technology behave in a socially responsible way. How can such rules and regulations be developed and implemented in a democratic way, to allow private enterprise to thrive, to preserve First Amendment Rights and to build in boundaries for these multinational corporations? Jamie Susskind gives a thoughtful analysis and offers several ideas to consider.

My understanding of the book is that Jamie Susskind is clearly for developing some rules and regulations. He points out that moral standards based on societal values should guide development of these rules and regulations. In his discussions, the author points out how laws should be contextual. But details of what contextual means will be contested. Therefore, he says that exceptions should be clearly defined. This is where Jamie Susskind’s ideas triggered my thoughts on Dharma and how the principles of dharma include context, exceptions and rules for what those exceptions are.

Jamie Susskind also points out that moral standards and exceptions must come out of democratic deliberation by people who are affected (users of technology) and cannot be left to the corporations or politicians. The rules should not be solely for profits, feasibility, and ease of implementation. As David Attenborough pointed out People and the Planet should also be included in the equations, in addition to Profit. (He called it P, P and P).

When I thought about Dharma after reading the book, I realized that the following questions must be answered before developing and implementing laws, if they are meant to be fair, relevant, and practical. 

Does the law reflect societal values? This means participation by the public, which in turn requires a forum to express, freedom to express and public debate conducted in civility. In other words, ethical and moral values cherished by the society should be the guide in a democratic society. 

Is the law contextual? This requires revisiting it periodically, as context changes. As the semanticists will say “You cannot drive in a new territory with old maps".

 Is the law reasonably flexible and allow conditions for exceptions? Yes, not twisted like a pretzel beyond recognition but flexible to suit the specific situation. In other words, there should be agreed-on provisions for exceptions as had been suggested by Jamie Susskind in his recent book on The Digital Republic and by Prof. Gert in his book on Morality: A New Justification of the Moral Rules (Oxford University Press, 1988). The public should be involved in making the conditions under which the rules may be broken. 

What are the mechanisms to enforce the law?  

Will the law be enforced without "fear or favor"? 

 I suggest an additional layer of consultation and discourse in developing societal values as I had written in my essay on Cabinet of Collective Conscience on January 29, 2013 (http://wwwtimeforthought.net). The summary of that essay is that every head of a nation may wish to consult with members of a Cabinet of Collective Consciousness of the people of the nation. This should be a triumvirate made of a trusted person who is considered best in expressing the moral voice of the nation, a respected poet and a humorist, someone who can look at the foibles of the people and of the leaders and express them with civility and humor (harmless satire, court jester).  (Concluded)

 

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Dharma for the 21st century (revisited) - 1

     I have always felt that morality should be more important than legality and that moral standards are needed to guide legal restraints.  I wrote about developing new set of moral values and ethical standards for the 21st century and applied the well-established Sanskrit word Dharma for defining them. (http://www.timeforthought.net, June 16, 2009) Later, I made it part of my book on Our Shared Sacred Space. A book I am reading currently (The Digital Republic by Jamie Susskind) stimulated me to update this idea.

Early societies functioned basically on moral values appropriate for the conditions of the societies in which they developed. Since the groups were small, everyone knew everyone else in the group or clan. Since the safety and welfare depended on everyone doing his or her “duties” properly without cheating, and the cheaters and disturbers of peace could be identified easily and ostracized immediately, there was no need for “laws”.

Laws came later when the groups became larger, jobs needed to keep the society functioning became diversified and complicated and particularly when people from outside the group came in as traders, warriors or seeking marital relationships. Before organized religions got established, these were unwritten laws or moral codes. These unwritten laws got codified by religious scholars and became laws sanctioned by religions. Those who broke these laws were ex-communicated or punished.

Written laws became necessary particularly to settle disputes on land, property ownerships, inheritance and bodily injuries.

All human societies have the same basic norms of moral conduct. The Golden Rule is the best example. The focus of this essay is on the Vedic Indian concept of Dharma and how ideas expressed in the book on The Digital Republic have been discussed for centuries in both the East and the West.

The strength of the Dharma concept resides in its foundational principles. Dharma acknowledges that human beings are different in their personalities. Their circumstances are different at different stages of life. Their roles and duties are different depending on their sex and positions in life. They perform different functions at different times in their lives. One rule cannot fit all. Therefore, Dharma allows for variables in setting rules of conduct.

These ideas are expressed in Maha Bharata Book 8, Chapter 69 in the form of a conversation between Lord Krishna and the warrior, Arjuna and later in Book 12 by Bhishma. Krishna points out that it is often difficult to discriminate between what should be done and what should not be in any given situation.  Between keeping one’s words and be truthful and having to kill someone because of that vow, killing is clearly worse. Krishna goes on to say that although truth is a great virtue, there are occasions when falsehood is acceptable as for example when life is in danger, or one is in danger of losing all of one’s property.

After giving some examples, Lord Krishna says: “Wish there is an easy way to know the difference between virtue and sin. Sometimes, scriptures help. But scriptures do not deal with all situations. Sometimes, you can reason it out. Whatever is inoffensive and whatever protects and preserves people is dharma”.

One other feature of the Dharma concept is that it is not rigid, the same for all times. It allows for exceptions to the rule and explains conditions under which assigned rules may be broken. The system also suggests methods to rectify for the lapses.

 Most importantly, the system prioritizes the importance of acceptable virtues. For example, not harming life is more important than telling a lie, if the lie was meant to protect a life. For example, if a helpless girl is running away from someone who is trying to kill her would you not want to help her by protecting her in your house? When the person chasing her comes to your house and asks for her, what is more important – saving a life or lying? Dharma concept says “saving life” takes primacy, by listing ahimsa (non-injury, protecting life) ahead of satyam (truth). 

(to be continued)

Saturday, September 3, 2022

Known, Unknown and beyond both

 Human mind categorizes everything, and categorization is always for a purpose. In general, it is to help understand a thing or a concept or a situation. This results in binary classification most of the time, such as “Black” or “white” and “good” or “bad”. Gradations in between are passed over or “pigeon-holed” into the nearest category. No wonder 0 or 1 algorithm originated with digital technologies created for a purpose.

But the real world is full of “may be” and “shades of gray”. It is more like the quantum world and indefiniteness of atomic particles and probabilities. Eastern traditions are better equipped to deal with uncertainties.

Now I can see that in meditation we are taught to think differently – rather observe things as they really are and not the way our mind categorizes. This kind of thinking will help our mind open to other possibilities such as

 “Life, no life, beyond both life and no life”

“Known, unknown and beyond the known and the unknown”.

“Measurable, unmeasurable, and beyond measurable”. 

“Beyond beginning and end”

“Universal self” in addition to individual life (jivan) and individual self (atman)

Friday, August 26, 2022

Beliefs and Practices through the Ages - 5 (Concluded)

In the Central Province of India (now Madhya Pradesh), there was a custom during a cholera epidemic for a priest to go from house to house collecting straw from the thatched roof of every house and burning them ceremoniously. Then a chicken was driven towards the direction of the fire carrying all the diseases away. A similar ceremony is described from another part of India in which a female black buffalo or goat was the “scapegoat”. The buffalo was driven out of the village never to return.

Then there is a section on the custom of bonfires in many European societies until as late as the 1700’s. These are eye-witness accounts. These were probably associated with human sacrifice initially, and then just beating or chasing away the victim chosen for this occasion, every year. (In my hometown, I have witnessed “sokkappanai”, which was probably meant to drive away evil spirits)

In his description of the bonfires, one can see practices like those described in the Vedas such as starting a new fire each year by churning or rubbing one wood with another and then maintaining it till next year in each house. He also refers to Agni as “born of wood and embryo of plants”.

There are several pages of examples from many societies on the isolation of girls at their first menstruation with emphasis on not having them see the sun (keep them in a closed room without windows or hut) and not have them “pollute” the earth.

In the section on souls, Sir Frazier thinks that ancient man probably thought that the soul can be stored away from the body temporarily. According to the Aristotelian idea of “contagion”, two items “once connected are always connected”. Therefore, the soul or spirit survives even after death of the body and can then be stored away in a secret place. Until the soul is found and destroyed the person cannot die even if he is killed!

(Samkhya philosophy says that even after the stula sarira or gross body dies, the sukshma sarira or the subtle body lives on and clings on to another body such as a leech does)

The soul can be deposited in a plant or an animal. Therefore, clans for whom an eagle is the repository of the soul, eagle is the totem and people from that clan will not kill an eagle – and consider it sacred. And this applies to different animals, birds and things in different tribes and cultures.

Interestingly, some tribes believed in several souls for each person.

Frazier recounts mythological stories from cultures in all continents, which recount the story of a giant or a king who cannot be killed until his soul kept secret in a deep ocean or huge forest guarded by demons, or inside a bird or an egg is destroyed. The hero goes through the ordeal, find the secret hiding place of the soul of the giant or the king, gets hold of the bird or the egg and destroys it. Many myths and legends are based on such beliefs.

There are several passages to explain the importance of the Oak tree to the ancient Celtics, who considered this tree to be very sacred. (In Indian culture, pipal tree holds this sacred position)

Because oak tree was considered sacred, the celts also thought that mistletoe which grows as a parasite on the oak tree was sacred. Indeed, many European cultures, even the non-celtics thought that the mistletoe has magical and mystical properties and was capable of driving away evil spirits. 

In the West, kissing under mistletoe is still practiced during Christmas season. The current practice is related to a Norse mythology;  but in ancient times  men were allowed to steal a kiss from any woman caught standing under the mistletoe.  More significant, refusing was considered to bring bad luck.

Sir Frazier concludes by saying that mistletoe is what is referred to as the Golden Bough in the ancient Book of Nemi. That is the reason why he chose The Golden Bough as the title for his book.

Scholars do not agree with many of the explanations given by Sir Frazier. But no one denies that this book is a remarkable collection of religious practices in various ancient and modern cultures and that this book generated several serious studies in cultural anthropology.


Sunday, August 21, 2022

Addendum to a post on March 21, 2021: Adi Sankara and C S Lewis - comparison of their concept

In an earlier post comparing the thoughts and writings of Adi Sankara and C. S. Lewis, I referred to laws of physical nature and laws of human nature. C S Lewis points out 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.

Later I was amazed, but not surprised to learn that Vishnu Sahasranamam, a famous Hindu prayer, has mentioned the same two laws of Nature, one of Physical Nature and one of Human Nature, in Slokas (stanzas) 151 and 153. It goes on to say that both Laws are held together by Lord Vishnu. It is interesting to learn that the name Achyuta is used to refer to Vishnu, who controls both. The word Achyuta in Sanskrit means “steady”.

Just as there are physical laws of nature, there are laws of human Nature. The word Dharma can be applied to both. The Primordial Force behind both, bringing them together in harmony, is the same for all of humanity. But the names happen to be different.

 

 

 

Friday, August 19, 2022

Beliefs and Practices through the Ages - 4

       Sir Frazier suggests that the myths of Isis and Osiris in Egypt, of Aphrodite and Adonis in Syria, of Cybele and Attis in Phrygia (part of present-day Turkey) and that of Demeter and Persephone of Greece are counterparts of the same myth in different cultures. He also describes the Eleusinian mysteries as documented in Homer’s Hymn to Demeter in support of his suggestion. It is a story of a daughter and mother symbolizing seed and the corn according to Frazier. Demeter is suggested to be the Goddess of corn. Persephone living underground with Pluto for 6 months and on earth for 6 months is suggested to represent the growth of plants starting in the spring and going underground in winter. Spring festival is celebration of rebirth (arrival) of plants and animals and therefore the joy of the mother, Demeter on the arrival of her daughter, Persephone. He suggested that the celebration of Easter was probably borrowed from these ancient myths and celebrations.

Speaking of substitution of symbols and objects in primitive rituals, Fraizer points out the association of trees with spring and revival festivals and corn or barley with the harvest festivals. Symbolically corn may be called “the old woman” in the rituals. (In southern India, rice plays the main part in harvest festival)

He compares the spirits of the primitive rituals with the gods of later magical worships. Spirits are confined to one sphere of nature over which these gods have influence. Their specific names include wind-god, rain – god, tree-god, corn-god etc., The head of these “gods” (devas) also has a specific name such as Indra, Zeus, Jupiter, Demeter etc., and have more general influence over many things.

Primitive rituals such as harvest festivals do not have any priests (unlike religious festivals for the God), can be celebrated anywhere such as on the field (and not in the temples, which are late arrivals), and are celebrations and not propitiation to any God for favors. (This is true of Pongal of southern India, which is also a way of thanking the powers behind a good harvest, the cows and the bulls and the Sun “God”)

Sir Frazier describes rituals associated with harvesting of new crops such as corn, rice, and millet in various parts of the world and in ancient cultures. The first yield was considered sacred containing the spirits of nature and therefore special prayers were offered before eating the first yields. In this section, he refers to the Curumbars and Badagas of southern India, the custom of Pongal in the south and Navan in the northern India.

 He refers also to a Green Corn dance by the Seminoles of Florida. In similar rituals among the Thompson Indians of British Columbia, Canada, a prayer is offered just before eating freshly harvested first yields of Sunflower Roots. This prayer sounds like the prayer we in India offer, namely Brahmarpanam, Brahma Havih etc., It says: “Oh food, I am going to eat you so you can help me achieve great heights in my life etc.,”

There is a very good explanation for the practice of offering food, particularly the first harvest, to the Gods. In the sacred mode of thinking, food is infused with Divine Spirits and that food and harvest are gifts from the Gods. Therefore, man is obliged, bound by duty, to express his gratitude to the Divine benefactor by acknowledging that gift. This is about the best definition of Naivedyam in the Hindu puja.

In another section Frazier explains the meaning behind the offering of rice balls in the Vedic ceremonies. Rice balls represent ancestors. These rice balls are called Pinda and each Pinda represents an ancestor. Offering pinda is part of the funeral ceremony (anthyeshti) and annual ceremonies for ancestors. In the customs of southern India, there are seven balls of rice, representing seven generations.  During the ceremony, the Pindas are mixed suggesting merging of the latest one with the previous one.

According to Frazier, the rice itself is the hair; water sprinkled to make the pinda is the skin; mixing them gives the pinda a body and flesh; when it is baked it gets hardened and gets bone and finally when butter or ghee is sprinkled the body acquires marrow. I think the author is quoting this explanation from an ancient Sanskrit text because he gives them under parenthesis.

Frazier gives several examples of people transferring their physical or mental pain and suffering to a plant or an object or an animal and even to another person. He gives examples from ancient times and also from recent centuries. Although he talks about the “barbarous and the aboriginal” people with some sense of superiority of the European nations, he gives examples of “barbarous and the aboriginal” practices from England, Italy, Germany, Austria etc.,

In this section, he gives example of Rajah of Manipur and Raja of Travancore transferring their sins to someone in their kingdom. In one example, the subject who accepts all the sins of the king is sent out of the kingdom, not to return.

“Scapegoat”, we are told is a shortened version of “escape goat”, which refers to an object, plant, animal, or human who takes the blame (Or forced to take the blame) for someone else. The original scapegoat, we are told, goes back to Biblical times when the sins of the society were hoisted on a “goat” as part of Yom Kippur festival. However, we are also told that the goat was a wrong interpretation of the Hebrew word ez ozel, or Azazel, which meant an “evil spirit”.

There is a whole section on the sacrifice of a “scapegoat” in all societies, ancient and modern. This ritual was practiced when some one person is ill or a whole village is afflicted by cholera, plague, or smallpox. This was also practiced for removing the sins of individuals or of the society. Some were occasional events and some annual rituals. In many of these rituals, at the end of the ceremony when the “scapegoat” was sent away, people often said “Fly away, you devil. Never come back again” etc., There is mention of practices as late as the 16th and 17th centuries with humans as “scapegoats”, who were ceremoniously “sacrificed” (sent away).

When I was reading these passages, I skipped some of them, because I could not bear reading about the cruelty to animals and even to humans designated as “scapegoats”! What human beings will do in the name of faith and belief is beyond “my” belief.

Some examples from India includes the practice of sacrifice of langar monkey, as a scapegoat to get rid of evil from a village, in one part of Assam. It was an annual event called Asongdat. In one part of Mysore state (of those days), when there was smallpox or cholera, the evil was hoisted on an image. This image was carried from village to village at midnight and dumped into the nearest river.

From Nicobar Island comes an eye-witness account of a yearly ceremony in which boats with sails were constructed, which was laden with a special kind of leaf, representing evil and sin, and was taken to the sea or a river to float away.