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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.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's comments 40 years back

 While clearing out old papers from my files, I came across excerpts of remarks made by Nobel Laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn at his address to the Harvard University Graduating Class of 1978. These were published on page 8 A of The Philadelphia Inquirer, on Wednesday, June 14, 1978. Here are a few of them:

“A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days”.

“I have spent all my life under a communist regime, and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either”.

“We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we are being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life”.

“Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic disease of the 20th century and  more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press”.

What will he say now about 24 – hour news cycles, spreading of dangerous misinformation in the social media and our response to the pandemic?

Friday, February 5, 2021

“Dialog of the Deaf” (T G Ash)

When we think, we are talking to ourselves. When we speak or write, obviously we are communicating with others. We use language for both. I have always felt intuitively, long before I started reading in several languages that language can facilitate or hinder inner conversation (thought) and external communication. Language can be liberating or constricting. Language can help expand our imagination or make us think in circles and make us into verbal pretzels!

When people from different cultures and languages speak (discuss), I often wonder whether they agree fully on what they are talking about. It is relatively easy to find words for concrete things such as the name of a tree or a flower or an animal in different languages. Even in naming concrete objects, there may be difficulties in languages which use pictograph for words, such as Chinese. My guess is that it will be even more difficult to find corresponding words in Chinese (and other languages) for concepts such as freedom. In such a situation, a discussion may be nothing more than a “dialog of the deaf” as pointed out by T G Ash in his book on Free Speech:  Ten Principles for a Connected World (Yale University Press, New Haven 2017).

T G Ash points out that Chinese authors had difficulty finding suitable Chinese words for concepts such as liberty and freedom. When asked to find translation for the title of the book On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, the best the Chinese scholars could come up was “The boundary between self and group”! The closest Chinese expression of the English word “opinion” was “true or false”!!

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Fundamentals of teaching in the Vedic period

 When I think about education in general and teaching methods in particular,  I am most impressed with how the rishis and gurus of the Vedic age transmitted knowledge at a time when there was no written language. They used different methods to make sure that the reproduction of the sound was accurate and the transmission of the meaning effective and efficient.

They used different methods. First and foremost was the language itself. The alphabets made sure that when they are combined to form a word, there is only way to pronounce them. When written alphabets came into being, this phonetic structure got grounded.

When several words were combined to make a sentence, the rishis went for sutras or aphorisms which, by definition, had to be made of very few words, unambiguous in meaning and faultless. It is easier to remember such terse short sentences than long essays.

When short sentences were combined into stanzas or slokas,  a rhythmic structure was introduced with chandas or meter so that it is easy to memorize. All of us know how much easier it is to remember a song than a paragraph. In addition, the recitation included inflections, prolongation and shortening at specific points, as part of chanting.

Going one step further, the gurus used a method of memorization called ghanapata in which consecutive words were used in combinations of 2 and 3 words and memorized forwards and backwards. Long before written words came (and even now), Vedic students memorize entire texts using this method. It may take several years to fully memorize all 10 mandalas of Rg Veda. But once memorized, it is easy to recite the entire Veda without any mistake in sequence or in pronunciation. Once mastered, these scholars can recite Vedas at whatever point you want them to!

The teachers also defined all the wrong methods of reciting Vedic chants. Speedy chanting, mumbling, shaking the body while chanting and chanting without knowing the meaning were prohibited.

One other remarkable feature about the Vedas, particularly the Upanishads, is the idea of explaining concepts in the form of questions and answers. In fact, the name of one of the Upanishads is Prasna Upanishad, which means Upanishad of Questions. Another Upanishad is called Kena Upanishad, because the first word in that Upanishad is “kena?” which means “how come?”

In another Upanishad (Chandogya), Narada asks Sanat Kumara to teach him. Sanat Kumara says: “Please tell me what you know; I will start from there”.

In addition to explaining several philosophical concepts with examples and logic, at a level the students can understand, the teachers always said: “Think about what I said. Then, do what is right”. They never ordered students to follow blindly. The following two best examples are from Bhagavat Gita and Yoga Vasishta.

In Bhagavat Gita (18:63), at the end of all his teachings, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna: “ Thus I have declared to you secrets if the secrets. Reflect on it fully and act as you like”.  In Yoga Vasishta, at the end of the story on Bhusunda ( 21: 64), Vasishta says: “I have thus narrated the story of Bhusunda. Having heard and examined it within yourself, do what is proper”.

 In addition, when I read rishis such as Dirghatamas, who ask profound questions about the nature of this universe with humility, I feel great respect for them and to the tradition of teaching in Vedic India.





Saturday, January 23, 2021

Magic Number Seven

 Number Seven has significance in many traditions. I thought this has something to do with lunar cycles. In Vedic literature and Hinduism, there are several lists with seven items.

Seven rishis (sapta rishi mandala constellation is called Ursa Major in the west)

Seven rivers (Five rivers or Punjab and Saraswathi and Sindhu which is now called Indus)

Seven days of the week

Seven flames of Agni

Seven colors

Seven lokas (worlds) corresponding to Seven levels of existence (objects of senses, senses, mind, intelligence, ego, Purusa and a state beyond)

Seven chakras (muladhara, svdhishtana, manipura, anahata, vishuddi, aagna and sahsrara)

What I did not know was that there are seven Pranas. I thought they were only five. Apte’s dictionary define these five as  (prana, apana, samana, udana and vyana)  ह्रुदि प्राणौ गुदे अपानः समानो नाभिस्तिथे उदानः कण़ठेशस़थो व़यानो सर्वशरीरः Where are the other two pranas? They seem to be at the cosmic level. One is the unmanifest energy behind all creations. It is Pure Awareness. Some call it Purusha. The other is the manifest Prana from which the other five in the individual (Jiva) derive their energy.

In the west, we hear about the seven great sages of Greece in the 6th century BCE. They are Thales, Pittacus, Bias, Solon, Cleobulus, Periander and Chilon.

In the Akkadian and Babylonian systems, there are the seven demi-gods or Apkallus who were created by the god Enki and emerged from the waters. They are Uanna, Uannedugga, Enmedugga, Enmegalamma, Enmebulugga, An-Enlilda and Utuabzu.

The seven pillars of Islam (Shia) are Shahadah, Salah, Zakah, Taharah, Sawm, Haaj and Jihad.

Number Seven seems to hold the imagination of people of all traditions, faiths, and cultures.

PS: I forgot the seven notes of the music scale, as pointed out by one of the followers in the Comment section.