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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.


Friday, June 12, 2020

More lessons learned

While translating Asya Vamasya Sukta, I used several dictionaries and texts. I also read two interpretations. As you can see, I was trying to translate the great rishi and my main aid was my imagination of his state of mind at that time in history. I did not try to interpret. In the process of learning about the rishi and his suktas, I learnt a few other tit-bits. Here they are.

The cock is a symbol of Vac (speech) in the Vedic writings because the sound a cock  makes, which is ko, koh, Kowh is said to resemble the short, long and protracted vowels in Sanskrit. This is according to Panini himself.

Seven male children of Agni represent the seven principles of manifestation, namely Mind, Life, earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space.

The wheel is a symbol of Dharma (dharma chakra) and, also a symbol of Time because dharma is a counterpart of rta or cosmic order and it is driven by time. One horse chariot is a symbol of time.

Seven sisters may be the same as seven divine mothers, seven rays of the sun (colors), seven scales in music.

 Self-existent creator is called Svayambhu. He is the father principle – dyau, Prajapati, purusha. He projects himself into the female principle – prithvi, viraj, prakriti.

There is a woman principle in each male and vice versa.

Mind is cosmos. Brahman is mind.


Friday, June 5, 2020

Asya Vamasya Sukta - 18

            This is the final segment of Asya Vamasya Sukta of Rishi Dirghatamas. I cannot close without paying the highest respect possible to this remarkable ancestor of ours. It is a privilege to be able to say that we are his heirs.  

One other remark. In Mantra 46, I did not give the well-known Sanskrit version of the statement that "There is only one Truth; the wise call it by different names". It is "Ekam Satyam, vipra bahudha vadanti". 

Mantra 48: “The wheel is single. There are twelve fellies (segments of a wheel to which spokes are attached). There are three naves (axles). Who has understood this? Three hundred and sixty spokes are fixed together, and they cannot be loosened.”

The wheel stands for time – cyclic, rhythmic and for a year with 12 months, 3 seasons and 360 days and 360 nights. They cannot be altered; they move with no variation. The poet is struck with the mystery of time and its cyclic occurrence.

Mantra 49: “O Sarasvati, you feed us all the best things from your breast which cannot be exhausted;  giver of wealth and riches and knower of Vasus, please nourish us.”

I think, the rishi is referring to the river Sarasvati, which was an important river in the Vedic days. It must have been a rich source of food and the site of a great vedic civilization at one time. We know that it dried over a period of time and it is believed that people moved east towards Ganga after this major event.

Sarasvati comes from saras meaning water and the word saras comes from the root word sru, to flow. We are also told that in Vedic days, the river Indus was called Sindhu, which means “to flow”. An earlier name for Indus river was susoma. The land of Sindhu became Hindustan in Persian.

Mantra 50: This is an exact reproduction of  Purusha Sukta 10:90:16. Therefore, scholars will argue whether Asya vamasya Sukta was an earlier one, or Purusha Sukta.

Either way, here is the translation of the hymn. “The devas performed yagna by means of yagna. They were laid as the earliest duties or law (dharma). Those great sages attained higher abodes where Sadhya devas dwell.”

The idea of yagna performing yagna or the “egg or chicken” riddle was always part of the Vedic ideas. “Prajapati sacrificed himself in the beginning from which Devas came” say the puranas which came later. Purusha sukta says that. But the seeds of this idea were there earlier, it seems. The rishis also wondered about how the first life started. “Fire is produced from fire; life from life” says Aitreya Brahmana 1:16.

By the time devas attained higher abode or heaven, and the rishis got there, it was already the abode of the Saadhya Devas. Who were they? Sādhya (साध्य) are  devatās who  play important roles in Purāṇic stories. They  were the grand-children of Dakṣa-prajāpati. It is said that ten of the  sixty daughters of the Prajāpati  were married to Dharmadeva. Dharmadeva’s sons by his wife Visva were the Viśvadevas  and the sons by Sādhyā were the Sādhyas. In other words, these devas were already in the higher abode when the rishis were performing sacrifices.

Mantra 51: “The same water moves up and down with the passing of days. The clouds (from above) give life to earth and the fire (from earth, below) give life to heaven.”

The poet seems to emphasize the mutual relationship between humans and the devas (deities). Humans perform sacrifice (agni) and feed the devas. In turn, the devas give rain to earth so humans can grow food for themselves and to send to the devas through agni in sacrifice. This mutual relationship is mentioned in many Vedic and Puranic text.

Mantra 52:  “I pray to/invoke Sarasvan (Surya), who is celestial, golden-winged (rays) bird (Suparnam, divyam, vaayasam), who is growing (bruhantam)  and who is born of waters (apaam garbham) for protection.”

Every word in this hymn can be easily understood. In Vedic Sanskrit, ocean of this earth is arnava and the celestial ocean is sarasvan.  Sarasvan is the sun because he is one who stores water. Vedic texts mention the understanding the rishis had of the sun drying up the oceans by taking the waters up and giving  back as rain.



Friday, May 29, 2020

Asya Vamasya Sukta - 17

Mantra 45:  “Speech has been determined to be made of four parts. Intelligent/ wise/ learned Brahmanas know them. Three of them do not move and are hidden. Man speaks only the fourth part.”

In the Vedas, Vac is next in importance to Brahman. It is not surprising since it is speech that made it possible for the rishis to express their thoughts and imaginations. If Brahman is the male (or Purusha of later philosophies), Vac is the female part (or Prakriti of later concepts).

But, what does Dirghatamas mean by “four parts” of speech? In later philosophies, speech is said to be an outcome of paraa, pashyanti,madhyama and Vaikari. In fact, any sound is made of these parts. Vaikari, which means articulated utterance, is the only the final outside part.  Paraa is the first stage when it is just a thought. Pashyanti is the stage when the thought gets activated to produce sound (naadam). Madhyama is when the effort to produce sound comes against the throat, mouth, tongue and teeth to make the actual sound/ or speech. Finally comes vaikari.

The problem is that I do not know whether these ideas were known at the time of Dirghatamas. If not, what did he mean by “four parts”? He still could have thought of several stages  between the time one wants to make a sound and actually makes it.

In addition, he refers to Brahmana, which is the name for one of the four priests of sacrifices in those days. Three of them (Hotr, advaryu and saman) were performing the sacrifice, when the Brahmana was always practicing silence, just observing and making sure the rituals were performed correctly and no mistakes were made in recitation or practice. Did Dirghatamas refer to these four?

Mantra 46:  This is one of the most famous passages from all the Vedas. The well-known statement "Ekam satyam, vipra bahudha vadanti" is from this mantra. It reads as follows:

“They call that Divine Golden Wing Garutman (Dictionary meaning of garutman includes bird and fire), Indra, Mitra, Varuna and Agni. The sages speak of the One by many names such as Agni, Yama and Matarishvan (Vayu).”

(“He is one; the sages call Him by many names” is the famous quote from Rg Veda)

Garutman, if interpreted as Fire can be correct since Agni is considered the primary deva, the leader of sacrifice in the Vedas. If interpreted as bird, I do not know what it might have meant to the poet. Did he imagine Brahman as a golden-winged bird?

Mantra 47: “The cow-pen (niyaanam) is dark. The rays are golden. (or the birds are golden-winged). Robed in waters they fly to heaven. From the region enveloped by Vrtra (aavavrtran)  they come again and again following cosmic order( rta). The earth is moistened with sprinkles (ghrta).”

Is the poet referring to the clouds  when he says “cow-pen” since it  is symbolically referred to as the place where  cows were hidden by Ila and Indra released them? The golden colored bird may be the sun. The second line seems to suggest the seasonal return of rainclouds and rain. One meaning of ghrita is sprinkling and Rg Veda itself refers to pouring ghee into Agni as similar to rain.


Thursday, May 21, 2020

Asya Vamasya Sukta - 16

Mantra 42:  “The oceans flow from her; The four regions of space (cardinal directions) are sustained by her. The imperishable akshara becomes kshara; the cosmos is sustained.”

Akshara suggests alphabets and therefore the entire hymn may be addressed to Vac, speech. But, it is more logical to see this hymn being addressed to Divine Mother, or Brahman from whom/which all of the waters and the space came. Also, akshara means something from which nothing can be removed; something that does not diminish. That can be only Brahman, the Primordial Force. And, kshara is the material world, which can decay and diminish.

Some interpreters consider this hymn being addressed to vac, speech. But the explanations they give to explain words such as akshara and kshara and Samudra seem farfetched to me , considering that Dirghatamas lived long before such explanations were possible.

Mantra 43:  This is a puzzling hymn, difficult to understand. For one thing, the rishi uses the word “shakamayam”. The only meaning I can find is that it stands for something coming out of excretion. Therefore, two interpreters translate it to mean “cow dung”.

He uses other words which are also difficult to grasp. For example, the word Ukshana means sprinkled, consecrated. Prushni may mean spotted as an adjective; but as feminine noun this word may mean ray of light, earth, cloud, milk and the starry sky.

The hymn translates as follows, according to my non-scholarly understanding. “ I see smoke from afar, coming out of excretion. It is smoldering between (or at the center of) heaven and earth. They cook the spotted bull or they see (not apachyanta; apashyanta) the consecrated cloud (or earth or the rays of light). That was the custom in the beginning.”

 What is the poet referring to? May be, he is talking about the appearance of the sun in the sky from amidst smoke and clouds? Or, is he talking about a sacrifice in which the “divine person” comes through in the middle through smoke and fire? How do we make sense of the word “shakamayam”, if the meaning is really cow dung?  May be, the poet has used some other word and it got corrupted?

My note: I woke up one morning and realized that I should look for internal consistency and continuity of ideas to understand this puzzling hymn number 43. The preceding Hymn 42 refers to the cosmos and mentions oceans, earth, imperishable and the cosmos. The next Hymn 44 mentions(rather, implies)  components of cosmos such as agni, apah and vayu and probably Aditya or surya. Therefore, going back to hymn 43, it is possible that the poet was referring to the sun seen through the clouds and the rays (prishni) coming through the clouds(ukshana). Or, the fire in the sacrificial altar seen through the smoke in this world and the sun’s rays coming through the clouds in the sky.

Mantra 44: “Three deities with matted hair appear in ordered seasons. One of them sows (or cuts) (vapati) in these yearly cycles (samvatsare). With his powers one sees (supports) the universe. By its activity (shachibih) and its impulse or power (dhrajih), one is seen; but not His form.”

One meaning of Samvatsara is the first year in a cycle of five years, which might have been the custom in the days of Dirghatamas.

This hymn probably refers to the rta or rhythmic cycles of season and years and the three deities with matted locks may refer to agni-apah-and vayu or to Aditya. In some places agni-apah-and vayu are referred to as Aditya. Aditya also meant the Sun and his rays are often referred to as his hair. In specific seasons, which depend on the sun, people sow seeds or reap the harvest.

The hymn also implies that behind this visible universe is an unseen force which drives. We know of its presence by its activities and its powers, but we do not see his form. This must imply the Primordial Source of it all, Brahman.


Friday, May 15, 2020

Asya Vamasya Sukta - 15

Mantra 39: “All the gods have taken their seat upon the Supreme, Imperishable One (akshare) in the Veda. What will one who does not know this do, with the Veda? But they who know have assembled.”

They who know must mean all the rishis and the devas such as Indra, Varuna etc.,

Mantra 40: “She became glorious (bhagavati) because of the sacrifice (suyavasat; suya also means soma). O, Divine Cow, (aghnye) eat the grass and drink the water at all seasons, roaming at will.”

This mantra seems to be addressed to the Divine Mother to bestow us with riches. Also refers to sacrifice as a way to please her. And to endow us, her children, with food and water in plenty.

Mantra 41: The mantra is: “Gowri has fashioned out of water (or, making sounds with water), has formed one-footed, two-footed, four-footed, eight-footed and nine-footed. She is thousand-syllabled (sahasrakshara) in the highest heaven (parame vyoman).”

Gowri has several meanings: a young virgin, wife of Varuna, earth and speech (vac). Later, this term was also applied to Parvathi. Is the word Gowri applied to Divine Mother or to Mother Earth who has given birth to all kinds of creatures and as one who has become thousands?

May be, the poet is using the word Gowri to apply to Vac, Goddess of Speech (later became Saraswati). In that case the two footed, four-footed etc., may apply to the meters (chandas) of Vedic hymns and to speech in general with thousands of letters and syllables.