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Monday, June 21, 2021

Health and Well-being – Everyone’s need


Every life is precious.

Every life is sacred.

All forms of life come from the same source.

All forms of life derive energy from the same source.

Every form of life seeks food and safety.

Everyone – young and old; women and men; rich and the poor – can get sick and wants to get well.

Health and well-being are inherent needs of all human beings, just as the need for food and water are.

Safety from getting sick and opportunity to get well and stay well should be available and accessible to everyone.

It is a moral imperative and not a commodity.

If the current COVID pandemic did not teach this, what else can?

When else will we learn?

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Gautama Club - Topics to Think about (Part 2)


Session 2:  On loving-kindness, love, and compassion

                How many meanings are there for  the word “love” in the English language?

                What are equivalent words in other languages?

                What does “loving-kindness” mean?

                What does the word compassion mean?

                How does one express loving-kindness and compassion?

                What are some pre-requisites for developing compassion?

                How does someone know that you care for him/her, love him/her?

Session 3: Listening skills

                Are you a good listener?

                Do others think so?

                What do you mean when you say: “good listener”?

                How do you feel when someone keeps interrupting?

                How do you feel when you think that the “other person” is not listening?

                What are some good listening habits?

                What are some bad listening habits?

                What are your own “good” and “bad” listening habits?

Session 4: Fundamental questions

                What do you think are the fundamental units of nature and of the universe?

                What do you think Life is?

What do you think are the fundamental features of a living organism?

What is Consciousness?

Was the Universe started or was it always there?

If it was “started”, who or what started it? And why?

Where was He or It when the universe started?

If the current theory of expanding universe (Big Bang) is correct, what is it expanding into?

                 What was there before the Big Bang?


Friday, June 11, 2021

Gautama Club - Topics to think about

 Several years back, I came across a book . It is a small pocket-diary size book, by William Zimmerman. It was a book with just one  question at the top of each page. The rest of that page and the next page were empty. It was meant to record our own thoughts and answers to those questions. “It is a “Journal of Thoughts” as the author intended it to be.

The book had interesting questions such as: “What is your most valuable treasure? And why is it so?”; “Were you ever lost? What happened?”; “What kind of person do you want to be? How, if at all, would you change?”; “What are your hopes in life?”. And so on. I answered all of them somewhere in the 1980’s. Then, a few years later, I revisited them to learn about myself. I added a few newer thoughts.

Later, during my career as a medical educator, I created a set of questions for physicians in training to answer. They were focused on medical career. It included questions such as: "Do you think you are a good listener? Do others think you are a good listener?" and “If a patient does not follow your advice what will you do?”. At least one student wrote to me to say that this was the most helpful “homework” she ever did. 

Fast forward almost 50 years to my post retirement years. I wanted to organize sessions with friends thinking about what I consider to be “important questions in life”, which will help us all grow. I even gave a name to that group – The Gautama Club, after Gautama Buddha. The idea never took off, although I tried more than twice. 

I had prepared a set of questions to discuss in Socratic style and in the style of our ancient Rishis. The idea is for each one to reflect on these questions and to share their thoughts. The idea was not necessarily to convince others of our way of thinking but to learn different ways of thinking about the same issues.

I believe that it is important to reflect on these questions for many other reasons. There is great deal of reliable, evidence-based information on the physical aspects of the universe, on life sciences, heredity, and genetics and on functions of the human brain. There are hundreds of volumes on philosophy, religion, morals, ethics and so on. In fact, we have too much information now. This is the age of Information overload.  

But we are also carrying outdated information from the past out of respect for traditions, out of habit, or because it is convenient to follow and are afraid of letting go.

We need to merge reason with faith. We need to let go of dogmas and think with an open mind. We need to realign old ideas and beliefs with current knowledge. We need to develop new ideas on dharma (Ethics and virtues) for the 21st century and new ideas on sacredness common to all of humanity. 

Instead of burying the questions I had prepared for these session, I have now decided to put them in these blogs, hoping someone else will find them useful to think about. There are questions for 4 sessions. The following is the first set. If any one is interested in starting such a discussion group,  I will be very glad to help and participate.

Session 1: Four sets of Four  Questions:

                First set:               What is life?  

                                            What is the meaning of life, in general? 

                                            What is the purpose in life, for me specifically?  

                                            Who am I?                                               

                Second set:         Am I sure? 

                                            Am I present here and now? 

                                            Am I just following my “habit energy”?  

                                            Who cares 100 years from now?      (from Rev. Thich Naht Hanh)                                                                                               

               Third set:             What are my nourishments? Are they wholesome, noble, helpful? 

                                            What are the nourishments For the body? What do I eat and drink? 

                                            For the mind? What kind of books do I read, TV and other visual things I                                                  see, music and talks I listen to, and things I think most about? 

                                            For personal aspirations and goals in life: What I do, how I do, what I                                                        support and what I oppose? 

                                            For the community: Am I  working for the common good with a sense of                                                cooperation and compassion?                      

                Fourth set:         If I am reflective, and spend time in meditation and “deep looking” without                                               justifying myself or tying myself into a knot? 

                                         Why am I meditating? 

                                        What is the goal: silence, curiosity, to know myself  better, to know the                                                     world around me better, for peace and harmony, to merge with the ONE?  

                                        What method am I using? Am I on my own? With a “guru” or a guide and a                                            coach? Is this the best for my personality and needs?  

                                        So what? What do you do with the insight?



Friday, June 4, 2021

Life cannot be defined

 Carl Zimmer is a famous science writer. He writes columns for The New York Times, National Geographic and other journals and has published several books. The latest book is Life’s Edge, The Search for what it means to be alive (Dutton. 2021). It is an extremely interesting book exploring humanity’s quest to understand what Life is. Obviously, it is an important question but defining life is an impossible task. In one passage he quotes a scientist – philosopher by the name of Carol Cleland as saying: “ We do not want to know what the word life means to us. We want to know what life is”. She follows that statement by saying: “ we need to give up our search for a definition”.

Reading this book stimulated my thoughts about life. I have written about this topic in my blogs and in my book on “Our Shared Sacred Space”. I am not a scientist or a philosopher. But I believe that all of us should be able to think about this question. We are alive, we want to live forever, we want to look for life in other planets and we are afraid of death. Don’t we want to know what life is?

The earliest awareness of a living creature must have been one of “being” and of “hunger”, which indirectly must have meant to that individual creature “ I am” and “alive” at a non-verbal level. The next awareness must have been “that other one is also alive” or “not alive”. That awareness is required at a primitive level for preservation of its own “life”. Life, awareness, hunger, and fear seem to be the order of evolution of the sense of self.

That means the earliest creatures were capable of “knowing” a living from a non-living “other”. They probably also knew intuitively a living “other” who stopped being “alive”, which means “death” in our language. “Non-living” could have never been a living thing (was always inanimate in our words) or a living thing which ended up not being alive (dead). Even animals and birds seem to have a sense of what death is, by knowing that the dead one was with life, earlier.

Life is manifest in a form limited by time and duration. Humans understand end of life to be inevitable. In a sense, death defines life. Is death the other end of birth, de-limiting the duration of life and part of a cycle or is it the end of life? Cultures differ in their answers to this question.

We cannot define life. But can understand it when it ends with death in an individual by observing the absence of some activities: Not moving even to feed or avoid danger; Not seeking food; Not exchanging energy and not reproducing by itself or by other means. Absence of all of these is not essential to define death. Nor can any one item in isolation define death. A recent report documents the existence of a bacterium which remained dormant under the seabed for millions of years and then came to “life” and reproduced when it was “fed”. (Scientific American June 2021, page 78)

In other words, we cannot define death. And we know life cannot be defined either.

Life is a phenomenon. It requires an individual “body” to manifest when “causes and conditions” are there. Life has an end in an individual. But as a phenomenon, Life was always there; will always be there, here on this planet. Also “life” probably exists in other parts of the universe in different forms with different characteristics.  That is why Astrobiologists are trying to define life so they can recognize it when they find one!

Life is a mystery. It is a gift.  It will remain so even after scientists and philosophers find a suitable definition and list its characteristics.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Reading the Classics

 My generation growing up in India during the first half of the 20th century learnt about India’s own culture mostly through the writings of western scholars. Even when we came across interesting sections in Tamizh classics such as Silappadikaram and Manimekalai, the emphasis was on the language, poetry and morals. I do not remember any teacher telling me that Silappadikaram had plenty to teach about music and drama, about musical instruments and how they were made etc. I did not hear about the fact that Manimekalai had passages about foundations of knowledge such as perception, inference, and logic. The fact that these Tamizh classics were written around 500 CE means that scholars in India were already aware of and teaching these foundations of knowledge.

When you see our artisans make bronze figures in Swamimalai, you realize that long before western scientists developed metallurgy as a special branch of science, our ancestors knew how to melt a metal, how to make wax caste and even how to recycle molten, unused metal. (Please view this video from the University of California at San Diego: Masters of Fire: Hereditary Bronze Casters of South India - YouTube)

It is high time children in India are taught not only science such as metallurgy but also how metal objects were made in India long before metallurgy developed into a science.  It is high time we teach classics in Tamizh and other languages to children not just to memorize but also to learn historical facts. For example, when the teacher talks about the description of foreign traders in Kaveripoompattinam in Silappadikaram,  why not talk also about trade with the Roman empire and about sea travels in those days based on Arikamedu excavations and other sources?

Here is a section from the Tamizh classic, Manimekalai from the 6th century, which prompted these thoughts. There is an entire section in which Manimekalai goes about asking teachers from various schools of thought about their views on the origins of this cosmos. This section is a review of  systems of philosophy well-established in India by the 6th century. They include the Vedic ideas, Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Ajivaka, Nigantha, Jain and Saiva Siddhanta.

Various philosophical and metaphysical views are listed also in other classics in other languages such as Mandukya Karika (Gaudapada), Sarva Darshana Sangraha (Madhvacharya, brother of Sayanacharya) and Neelakesi. I have read the first two, not the third one (Neelakesi) in Tamizh.

As I have written in the past, when we read classics in literature and in spirituality, we can learn so much about other areas such as the language itself, how the language has evolved over the years so that the same word means a different thing now, the culture and customs of the people amongst whom the classic originated, geography, history and more.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

What is Wisdom?


Is wisdom defined by the characteristics of people who have been widely recognized as wise, such as Buddha, Jesus, Adi Sankara and Mahatma Gandhi? Or is wisdom defined by the components of mental functions such as intelligence, expert knowledge, and judgement? In the era of science, everything gets measured. Can wisdom me measured?

Neuroscience had ventured into studying all fields of mental functions. That includes happiness, self, and also, Wisdom.  For example, Meeks and Jeste have proposed a neurobiological model for defining wisdom based on available studies.  (Neurobiology of Wisdom: A Literature Overview Thomas W. Meeks, MD; Dilip V. Jeste, MD   Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009;66(4):355-365) Since components of wisdom such as cognition, emotional control, judgement, and empathy are involved in the definition of wisdom,  they suggest that wisdom requires an optimal balance between functions of phylogenetically more primitive brain regions (limbic system, in the lower part of the brain) dealing with emotions and newer ones (prefrontal cortex, in the upper part of the brain) dealing with the so-called executive functions.

In an article on Wisdom as Expert Knowledge System: A Critical Review of a Contemporary Operationalization of an Ancient Concept (Human Development 2004;47:257–285), Monika Ardelt defined wisdom as a three-dimensional personality characteristic. The three components include cognitive, reflective, and affective domains and wisdom is an integration of personality characteristics in these three dimensions.

She further points out with research and with examples that the presence of characteristics from these three dimensions is not only necessary but sufficient to consider a person as wise. She also points out that the absence of any one of these components may show the person as one with expert knowledge or thoughtful and self-aware or compassionate, but not necessarily wise.

Dilip V. Jeste and Ipsit V. Vahia studied conceptualization of wisdom in Bhagavat Gita (Psychiatry 71 (3): 197 – 209, 2008) and noted the following components: “Knowledge of life, Emotional Regulation, Control over Desires, Decisiveness, Love of God, Duty and Work, Self–Contentedness, Compassion/Sacrifice, Insight/Humility, and Yoga (Integration of Personality)”. This is similar to the major components of wisdom in the personalities of those considered to be wise, namely a great understanding of life and its vicissitudes, insight and ability to make good judgment under difficult conditions, control over emotions and compassion. A difference that stands out in the eastern philosophy is emphasis on control of desires for worldly things and renunciation of material pleasures.

 Here are some interesting quotes about Wisdom:

Knowledge is proud it knows so much; wisdom is humble that it knows no more”  (William Cowper)

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?  (TS Eliot  The Rocks)

Lord, give me the courage to change things I can change,

Give me serenity to accept things I cannot change  AND,

Give me the Wisdom to know the difference   (Reinhold Neibhur)

“Some day we will all die, Snoopy” says Charlie Brown. “True, but on all the other days we will not” says Snoopy, the wise philosopher, in one of Charles Schultz cartoons.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Mantra and the Zoroastrian tradition


The word mantra has several meanings. Most commonly it is understood to be a sound, or a phrase uttered within oneself as part of almost all religious traditions. The root word is man which in Sanskrit means “to think”. One definition says that mantra is one which protects an individual when uttered as part of a spiritual or religious observance. (manannat trayate iti,mantrah), which means that which protects when meditated on.

Use of mantra in religious services goes back millennia. In the Zoroastrian tradition, chanting mantra is referred to as part of Yasna. Yasna is akin to pujas and rituals in Hinduism. In Yasna 31:6  this is mentioned. The word used is different though. In the version I read, it is spelled mathra.

Going further into yasna, I read that it is meant to “maintain cosmic integrity” and was originally associated with preparation of a sacred drink called “haoma”. Knowing that the “ha” sound of Zoroastrian is akin to “sa” sound of Sanskrit, this sounds very much like the preparation of soma in the Vedic sacrifices.

In an article on this subject in, I read that Ahur Mazda, the supreme benevolent master, conceived the universe in his mind (vohu mana, in Vedas it is manas), fashioned it in His consciousness (daena, in the Vedas this is dhyana or dhi) and manifested it through His creativity (spenta mainyo, this is similar to the maya of vedic texts). He then set it in motion in accordance with his eternal law.

This eternal law in Zoroastrian is called asha, which is variously translated as truth, righteousness, God’s will and Laws of nature. In this, the corresponding words in the Vedas will be rta and dharma.

There are many more examples like this for some scholars to suggest that Hinduism has its roots in Zoroastrian tradition.