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Saturday, August 8, 2020

Skin, the outer cover



The other day I was peeling off the sheaths covering a cob of corn. For no reason, it became a mystical experience – the mystery of its design and beauty. I almost felt guilty boiling it, leave alone eating it. The overlapping sheath, the arrangement of the pearls inside and the silky tuft require more than genetics, physics and chemistry to be explained.

Today, I was peeling a cucumber admiring its beauty with similar feeling. Later in the day, I was reading about the color of human skin as an immutable reality.

All these are covers. They are covering something essential inside. The cover (sheath, cover or hide or skin) is the limiting structure, margin between one individual life structure and its surroundings. It sets limit to the contained. It separates. It separates one from the many and from the whole.

We must look deeply and look past the separation our “skin” creates between what is inside us and inside the “cover” of others. As was pointed out several centuries back, a pocket of air inside a pot is the same as the air outside. Break the pot and see the wholeness of the interior landscape.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Information and Consciousness

While reading Roberto Calasso’s book on The Unnamable Present, I was thinking about collective consciousness and group knowledge. It is amazing that there is no proper definition of information as applicable to consciousness. There is no acceptable definition of consciousness either. Calasso’s comments made them clearer for me.

To me, definition of information must state that it is the content of consciousness. Calasso points out that information is discrete, refers to individual fact and can be digitized. Consciousness is continuous, global and an analog. Just like what we know about recorded music in the modern world, digitized music is crisp and clear, sanitized. But, does not have the nuances and subtle noises of the original which gives the full flavor.

“Information by encircling thought, basically suffocates it…” says Calasso. Yet, without bits of information based on experiences and perceptions woven into memory, there will be very little or no content for thought. Consciousness is the light that shines by itself mysteriously in a living body and also lets us know we are alive and make us aware of our own  thoughts.

What do I mean by “group knowledge”?

When I saw a group of birds flying in formation, I noticed that two birds from the rear of the formation came over to the front to take the lead. This is a well-known observation and I have seen it many times, particularly when we were sailing in the waters of the Galapagos.

I asked myself: “ is group knowledge activating individual minds”? Birds do not have language to think “I have to go and relieve those guys in front” etc., The birds in the back probably do not know the concepts of back and front as we do either. But they must have some neural representation in their brains to know that they are in a cluster of “many” with some of their kind  visible in the field of vision (which has to be presented as in front, if they think like us). Why not call it “group knowledge” or “group mind”? If so, that should be able to affect the “individual minds” of members of the group and their knowledge. This group mind transcends the individual mind and affects it. The individual mind does not make the group mind; but knows it and operates through the group mind.

Is this similar to Universal Consciousness (Brahman) inherent in and influencing individual consciousness? As the famous Upanishad (Kena 1:6 )  says: “Brahman is not the mind that thinks, but it is that by which mind thinks”.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Meditation and Mandala Brahmana Upanishad

There is no end to learning about meditation.

The Mandala Brahmana Upanishad gives an excellent definition of Meditation. It says: “Meditation is the contemplation of unity of consciousness within all bodies”. Knowing the identity of the individual self (?soul) with the universal self (universal consciousness) and therefore, of the self of all lives is the goal. Meditation is the process of knowing that connection.

In learning to meditate, we have to learn to make the connections at the physical level, the mental level and the metaphysical level. In the Buddhist tradition this connection is learnt as meditation on the five elements, namely earth, water, fire, air and space. In the Hindu tradition, it is meditation on the five sheaths of the body – of food (anna), of life (prana), of mind (mano), of knowledge or wisdom (vignana) and of Bliss.  At the mental level, it is meditation on the different states of consciousness – wakeful (jagra), dream (svapna), deep sleep (sushpti), and the background on which all of these are known (turya). At the metaphysical level, it is learning to meditate on the senses (indriya), mind (manas), intellect (buddhi), unmanifest (avyakta) and purusha (the source of being). One can take any one of these paths which often happens to depend on the teacher (guru) one encounters.

Katha Upanishad (1:iii:13) says: “merge speech and mind into the consciousness, merge consciousness into wisdom, wisdom into the Superior Intelligence of mahat and mahat into peaceful atman”.  This is the internally directed homa, as opposed to the yagnas with fire preferred in the Brahmanas.

One learns to use these steps to practice. The process of integration into higher and higher state is called yukti. In one interpretation, liberation or mukti/moksha is seeking this integration , not escape from death, which is impossible anyway.

Another point about meditation is about the word yoga. The dictionary definition is union. Upanishadic scholars tell us that yoga is the effort to attain union, not the result.

Finally, dissolution of the physical body of one individual does not terminate the universal life force.

The intensity of contemplation is the equivalent of fire in the external homa, sacrifice. This is tapas, or penance, or what Roberto Calasso calls Ardor. This, in turn, requires restraint or control  of the senses, reduction of distractions and focus on just one thing, steady and unwavering. This is what is called “laser – focus” in modern usage. This focus is what we are told in Maha Bharata Book 1, Chapters 134-15 in which Drona is testing his pupils. Drona asks them to aim at the eye of a bird (toy bird) placed on the branch of a tree. When each one comes up to take the test, he asks “What do you see?”. Each one says that he sees the tree, branches of a tree, a bird and then finally come to mention the eye they were supposed to strike. When Arjuna comes and Drona asks “What do you see?”, he says: “The bird’s eye”. That is focused attention, laser-focus. 


Friday, July 17, 2020

Courage to live with nature : Compassion and Love to live with people

(An earlier version had some mistakes. This is the corrected version)

That title is from an essay on the Tamil classic Thirukkural. Before I get into the topic of courage, compassion and love, a word about phonetics.

The alphabet l in the word Tamil is not pronounced the same way as in the word Thirukkural. The alphabet l in the so-pronounced Tamil does not have a corresponding alphabet in English. The closest is the combination zh. Tamizh with a sibilant sound is a little better than Tamil. Even that does not make it.

Here is what the mouth and the tongue must do to pronounce the zh in Tamizh. The tip of the tongue has to bend backwards (called retroflexed), go to the back of the palate (roof of the mouth) and gently move towards the front without touching the palate while outgoing air makes the sound. Here is another way to compare. If you do the same movements with the tongue but with the tip of the tongue touching the palate, you will get the sound “sha”.

Now, in English, the letter l in the word Thirukkural may stand for the sound l as in the word lake or for the sound l as in clay.  The correct way to pronounce this l in the word Thirukkural is as in clay. If we go to the mechanics of making the sound, it is similar to the other two sounds we discussed, namely “sha” and “zha”. The tongue bends backwards and touches the back of the palate but stays there while making the sound. The tongue does not slide forwards. In making the sound l as in lake, the tip of the tongue touches the root of the upper front teeth.

If anyone thinks that I am making too much fuss about nothing, grammarians of both Tamizh (Tholkappiam) and Sanskrit (Panini) did not think so. It is amazing to read the original texts in which these authors tell us in the very beginning how to use the lips, tongue, teeth, palate and the voice box to make specific sounds. According to the classification in Sanskrit, the l of lake belongs to the Dental group of semivowels. And  “sha” belong to the Sibilant group. The l of clay is aspirant lingual in Sanskrit. I do not know where the zh of Tamizh will come in Sanskrit since this sound is not part of Sanskrit. My guess is that it will also be lingual aspirant.

Grammarians of Sanskrit and Tamizh were way ahead of time.

 Thirukkural deals with what in Tamizh is called “aram”, which is equivalent to “dharma” in Sanskrit. The word stands for natural order of things and what is right conduct in life. It stands for custom, law, morality and ethics.

The author of the essay I read refers to poems written in Tamizh before the period when Thirukkural was written. They were written when the people followed Nature’s rhythm and its bounties and the subject matters were family life and regional conflicts. Those poems were called “puram”, which means “outside” conflcits. There was also “aham” literature, on the inner life of man and woman.

 Thirukkural emphasizes yet another aspect, namely “aram” or dharma.

In an earlier version of this post, I made the mistake of confusing “aram” with “aham”. A reader pointed out that error. I went back to the source. The author uses the word “puram” as opposed to “aram” of Thirukkural. He did not call it “aham” literature.

Based on the essence of the subject matters of these kinds of poems, it should become obvious that Courage is needed in dealing with Nature and external forces. Love and compassion are need for living an ethical and moral life. Although I have been aware of this literature and have read a few of them with meaning, I did not realize the significance until now.

Poets of these ancient classics make it clear. The “puram” poems talk about “veeram” (meaning courage, boldness) and aham emphasizes life of man and woman and their relationship in specific geographic and seasonal settings.  It is more about physical love.

But, Thirukkural is an “aram” poem which emphasize “arul” (this l should be pronounced as in clay, means compassion). One other embellishment to these thoughts is given by another writer. He says that arul is the term for outward action (loving acts of kindness) that indicates the inner state of karunai or compassion. 

Friday, July 10, 2020

A simplified Mindful Meditation

Purpose:              It is to silence the “mind” and to expand the “heart”


Method:              Focus on the breath

                           Every time you realize that the mind has wandered off, gently bring it back to the breath

                           Bring the mind to basic awareness of just being here and now,

   Being aware of the subject of the thoughts themselves and of the mind

   Being an observer of thought, a witness without judgement, not chasing after, not pushing off either

  Just accepting as is

Goal:                NOTHING   

No thoughts

No grasping

Just Letting go

Grasping and reaching are the opposites of what meditation masters teach.  

Spiritual goal is commendable. But I do not know what it means, after almost 50 years of practice. Several texts tell us that bliss and moksha (release from samsara) are to be experienced in this life and not something to attain after death. Also, death is not opposite of life, but opposite of birth. Therefore, meditation is not for bliss after death or for immortality, but to experience the immortal in us here and now. It is to open the heart and the mind and experience the parts in the whole and the whole in the parts.

Buddha and JK tell us to keep the mind open, like windows in a room, after letting go of all kinds of dogmas and let whatever comes, come. That is bliss and not a special state to work for.

Just let go and surrender to whatever is.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Beginner’s mind

“Beginner’s mind” is an important concept in Buddhism. This is opposite of an expert mind. Beginner’s mind imagines infinite possibilities, since it has an innocent, uncluttered mind, is curious and is open to all ideas.

In contrast, an expert mind is full of what it has learnt which is useful and practical. At the same time, to an extent, it is a closed mind and has a restricted view.

We need both. Expert mind is helpful to deal with the physical universe. An innocent mind is helpful to imagine and relate to other lives and the cosmos.

In their book on Instructions to the Cook, Glassman and Fields compare this to a child learning to walk. The child takes a few steps and falls. Gets up, takes one or two more steps and falls. But she does not go into a funk and says: “I am so clumsy and will never be able to walk”. If children develop that mental attitude – thank goodness, they do not – they will never walk.

It is so with meditation. You will fall, fall again and again. You just have to get up and walk.

You must do so with an open mind and curiosity. That comes only if you let go of all pre-conceived notions of what you are and what meditation is. You have to ask with curiosity – Is that so? Is that who “I” am? Am I sure?

Curiosity is the first component of the Beginner’s mind.

Then comes faith, in yourself, as you are with all your defects. It is self-compassion.

And, determination to practice – in the form of intention to let go of concepts and to meditate every day.

Then comes Attention, initially to breath. Later, to whatever you are doing.

Attention is Focus.

Then comes Awareness, awareness of your breath first.

Then, awareness of whatever is happening to you and in you.

Awareness of what you are, what your strengths and weaknesses are.

Those strengths and weaknesses are compared to the kitchen pantry by the authors of the book on Instructions to the Cook. You may not have all the ingredients in your pantry. You have to cook the best dinner with what you have.

You can replace your weakness with one of your strengths. But you can also use your weakness as a strength, just as you may “use one of the spices to change the flavor of your meal”. 

You may wish to read the book on Instructions to the Cook to understand what meditation is and what it is for.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Cooperation, Collective Welfare, Common Good and Common Purpose

Dear Family and friends,

                just like all of you and so many others, I have been thinking about the stresses piling up on common folks, and particularly on the poor and the vulnerable, all over the world. I summarized the many lessons I learnt during this epidemic about humanity in general and about individuals and nations. If you agree with these ideas, please help spread the message. If you have additional ideas, please share them with everyone.

We, humans, are vulnerable. We, humans, depend on each other for survival. This virus does not care where you are from, whether you are a male or a female, white or colored, or whatever category you want to “pigeonhole” people into.

Some other lessons I learnt were 1.the recognition of who the essential workers are in a society; 2. that most of these workers are women and minorities; 3. This pandemic is taking an undue toll among the poor; 4. The socio-economic divide is made glaringly obvious by this small virus and 5. The most altruistic people of the society are the front-line essential workers.

I also made a list of things I would like to change, if only I had the platform to change. Then, I realized that listing problems and writing solutions are not adequate, if we, as a society, do not agree on a vision. 

Several factors during the past few decades have driven our civilization to a critical point in history. Scientific developments, technological advances and, education of  professionals in every field have contributed immensely to the uplift of millions around the world out of poverty. Rewards for contribution to the society and encouragement and recognition of individuals for such contributions have benefitted humanity in general. More recent developments including rapid travel and instant communication have brought peoples of the world together more than ever before.

At the same time, the social and economic divides have become wider. All kinds of “…isms” are driving people into corners and polar positions, thanks partly to social media. In addition to contending with rapid spread of infections such as the coronal virus, we have to deal with endemic “mental viruses” such as racial bias, gender bias, color bias, caste bias etc.,

This is a good time for the civilization to rethink its purpose, refocus on priorities and reimagine the future. What  should a broad and bold vision look like?  What are the values that should guide our remedies? Can we create a vision we can all agree on?

Here is a personal  point of view

Humanity has reaped the fruits of  socio-political philosophy emphasizing primacy of the individual (personal effort and success, in other words competition), pursuit of happiness and legal rights. It is time we turn our attention to and balance them with a system which emphasizes common purposes of collective welfare, cooperation, spiritual happiness, morality and ethics.

We live in a period in history when competition and pursuit of happiness are emphasized, may be overemphasized. When we compete, the emphasis is on the individual. In our desire to “win”, some of us are likely to use “unfair” means. Even if we win “fair and square” someone else loses. That someone will wait for his/her chance to get even. There will be inequality  and unhappiness. There is bound to be disharmony.

Add to this sense of competition, the fact that the competition is for physical possessions in the “pursuit of happiness”. The word “happiness” is connected in the minds of most people and most often with material happiness. Competition begets more competition because “I want to get what she has” and “I want build a house bigger than his”. More emphasis on individual happiness and individual success leads us to our own private islands. It leads to social isolation, suffering, sadness, depression, jealousy and anger in one group. It leads to anxiety, restlessness, fear and moral torpor in another group. In essence, there is misery all around.

On further thinking, I believe that one other cause for social disharmony is the primacy given to legality over morality and ethics. In settling disputes coming out of competition, conflicts in individual rights and injury caused by relentless pursuit of profits and happiness, the current ethos among a number of people, particularly in business and politics, seems to be that as long as one can get away with the “fine prints” of law, it is acceptable even if it is immoral. Morality and ethics do not seem to matter.

How can we escape this cycle? What are some principles which should form the basis of  a vision for the future?

For a peaceful and just society, competition must be moderated by cooperation.

The word happiness should include collective happiness and spiritual happiness. Individual happiness must be moderated by universal welfare. Pursuit of happiness should include not only  pursuit of material happiness but also happiness of others and spiritual happiness.

Morality and ethics should matter and, morality must take precedence over legality. Even if the law allows, one should not practice what the “inner light” says is immoral.

Responsibilities and duties of the individuals, organizations and the government should be considered covenants, in which the more powerful in the transaction takes care of the welfare of the weaker participant; and not mere legal contracts, buried in small prints and disclaimers, which can be manipulated by the rich and the powerful.

Great civilizations need lofty ideals to aim for and noble values to be guided by.