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Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Essence of Being Human (Humanness) - (manidam)

There have been several prominent writers in Tamizh during the 20th century. Of these, five are my favorites: Subramania Bharathi, Kalki, Jayakanthan, Pudumaipithan (alias Vriddhachalam) and Kannadasan. Under different conditions, each one should have received a Nobel Prize in Literature. I wish everyone can read their writings in Tamizh and enjoy the beauty of the language and the beauty of the writer’s thoughts. Since that is not possible, I will try my hand in translating one piece by Kannadasan, who had the genius to express deep insights in simple Tamizh. Obviously, you cannot get the beauty of his use of the  language. Hope you get the beauty of his thoughts.

From Kannadasan’s book with the title: Andhi, Sandhi, Ardhajamam 

Man invited Mother Nature

She came.

Man asked:

“Mother, give me a boon”

“Son, what boon do you want?” asked Mother Nature

“I want unlimited wealth”

Mother Nature poured wealth on him

She gave gold

She gave property

She gave dazzling mansion

With brilliant lights

And she gave him all kinds

Of vehicles

Wardrobe full of clothes

Mother Nature receded

The man got immersed in his wealth

Spent his money like water

Days passed

Wealth was there

But the man diminished

Roamed around for peace

Wanted love

Invited Mother Nature again

She came

Man asked

“I want something else”

“What do you want?”

“I want love”

Mother gave him beautiful girls

With stunning looks

Like artist’s portraits

Sculptors creations

Mother receded again

Man enjoyed, indulged

Made day into night

Night into day

Forgot the world

Stayed inside the mansion

The body started going down

Mind started to tire


There was no difference between

Touching a girl and touching a handful of sand

Man called for his Mother again

She came

“Mom, I want more”

“Son, what is it you want?”

“You gave me wealth; I enjoyed.

You gave me girls; I enjoyed.

But I am still

An ordinary man.

I want to be a king

I want to rule the land”

Mother gave that too.

Now, the Man is the King

If he hummed a request

Thousands came to serve

If he ordered

More came to obey and follow

The earth trembled at his command

He made people into puppets and peons

Got drunk on power and ego

People got mad

And got together

And shouted:  “Where is the King?”

And started chasing

The King ran

And called for Mother again

“Mother, Mother”

“Son, what is it?”

“My body is shaking; boiling; always angry. Refuses to cool down”

“OK, what do you want now?”

“You gave me everything. But I need one more last thing”

“What is it?”

“The essence of being human; humanness”

The Mother laughed, and said:

“Son, everything other than humanness is inside of me. Humanness is only in you. You have to get it from inside yourself”

And She vanished!

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Connective and Substitutive Thinking

Speaking of Correspondence and Connections, no one has given a better description than Roberto Calasso in the final chapter of the book Ardor. He describes the sacrifice of Soma and describes King Soma arriving with his retinue. The retinue is made of poetic meters (chandas) and the footprint of the cow described in the mantra is speech or vac. These sound silly, meaningless flights of fancy, “meaningless hallucinations” to the secularist and modern ethnographers. “Not so” says Calasso.

Calasso discusses two kinds of thought processes. One is what he calls connective thoughts. The other is substitutive thoughts. Connective thoughts are about continuities and similarities and are based on analogy. Substitutive thoughts are about discrete parts, gestures in rituals and events. Vedic rituals including sacrifices are about resemblance and similarities. They connect the humans with the invisible through symbols and gestures.

 The word symbol itself is not the correct translation of the word used in Sanskrit, because there is no appropriate word in English – just as there is no correct word in English to correspond to the words dharma  (universal process of establishing order, but translated as morals and ethics) and vigraha (that which cannot be contained, but translated as idol).

The word symbol stands for what is called bandhu (that which connects), sampad (equalization of similar things or concordance) in Sanskrit. These Sanskrit words are used in prescribing various rituals in sacrifice as suggestive of similarities between two elements such as agni and gold or corresponding elements in the celestial sphere (moon and Soma) and in this world (mind).

In ancient times, people thought that earthly events were influenced by celestial beings and events and that every earthly object and event had a celestial counterpart. For example, myths in Hinduism relate the milky way and the constellations to earthly events and Vedic rituals. For example, the seven rishis and seven sisters of mythology probably correspond to the constellations Saptarishi mandala (Ursa Major in the West) and Seven sisters(Pleiades in the West). The seven steps ceremony in Hindu weddings is a corresponding and connecting act in individual life.

Sacrifices are meant to connect humans with the invisible, using impermanent things to connect with the permanent. They require detachment from our own possessions (na mama, is the mantra meaning “this is not mine”) and destruction (of a plant or an animal). In the process the gestures and rituals are meant to recognize the correspondence between discrete items on this earth and the Completeness of the universe.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Correspondence and connections in the Vedas

Meditation is a mental activity trying to imagine, intuit and experience the links between the visible and the invisible, the immanent and the transcendent, the mundane and the divine and also between different levels of reality.

It appears that the Vedic rituals were designed to make connections between items of correspondence, between counterparts in the celestial world and the human world. Also between the mental and physical worlds, and between thoughts and actions. The counterparts are defined by similarities and resemblances.

The links can be made and are indeed made during rituals with postures and gestures. For example, in preparation for the sacrifice, the sacrificer had to retreat to a lonely hut and lie in a fetal position. He wore a white cloth over his head to “resemble” being hidden in amnion.

Since the sacrificer wants to be like the devas (gods), he has to remain awake for several hours before the sacrifice, because Gods are always awake and vigilant. He has to remain awake during the rituals lest errors creep in and the oblations are taken away by evil spirits.

Another example of correspondence lists Dawn, Sun, Wind and Fire in the earth (prithvi) and the corresponding deities in the celestial world namely Ushas, Aditya, Vayu and Agni.  

The links may even be based on words which sound similar. For example,  Ka is sukha for bliss and/or dukka or shoka for suffering. Ka is also Prajapati.

Since Prajapati is Time, seasons are Prajapati. So is mrtyu or death. So are the gods and the creatures that came out of Prajapati. Since the human who came out of Prajapati performs the sacrifice and sacrifices himself, he is himself Prajapati.

Prajapati and Death are like twins. Prajapati eats mrtyu and makes death part of himself. Satapata Brahmana: says: “Now, that man in yonder orb (of the sun), and this man in the right eye, are no other than Death; and he becomes the body (self) of him who knows this: whenever he who knows departs this world he passes into that body, and becomes immortal, for Death is his own self.”  (purusho mrityurûpah)

In the process of performing the rituals, the Rishis saw the incongruities of killing of life. They gradually replaced the killing with chanting of mantras with sticks, clarified butter and grains and with rituals requiring internalization and mental activity. As they moved from the sacrifices of the Brahmanas with the meditations of the aranyakas and Upanishads, they internalized the external fire with internal ardor, tapas, intense mental activity. Satapata Brahmana says (11.2.6):  “He again draws in his breath: thereby he establishes that (fire) in his innermost soul; and that fire thus becomes established in his innermost soul.”

The connections made between corresponding domains are clear in the following description of Asvamedha sacrifice. This section is in the beginning of the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (1.1.1). “The head of the sacrificial horse is the dawn. The eye is the sun. Its vital force is the air. The open mouth is the internal heat (vaisvanara)…. The back is the heaven and the belly is the sky. The hoof is the earth…….The vessels (guda) are the rivers. … the hairs are the herbs…… Its yawning is lightning. Its shaking the boy is the thunder. Its making water is rain. Its neighing is the speech…”.   How much clearer can the connections be established?

We must remember that this is the transition period between the age of sacrifices and the age of metaphysics. The sages were interested in convincing the people that rituals are not as important as an inward journey. They were trying to stop the killings and rituals and move towards meditative practices to see the Brahman inside. In the process they were developing this concept of correspondence between the celestial world and the mental world.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

The First Thought and the First Desire

The most significant ability of the human is the ability to “imagine”, make a mental diagram of something that he/she wants to do, an ability to envision. Before that happens, there has to be a desire to make something or do something. This was well-known to our earliest ancestors. In Pancavimsa Brahmana, the One Primordial says: “I will give forth this word so that she may produce and bring forth into being all this world.”

 In the chapter on Genesis in the Bible, “Then God said ‘Let there be light’. And light appeared” (Genesis 1:4,5). In Genesis 1:26, “Then, God said: ‘Let us make a man’.”

A mind with thoughts and desire comes before any creation. That is so for the human. Therefore, man thinks that it is the same for the gods too.

We humans desire something, imagine or visualize and then do. Our ancestors knew this and that is why when they developed creation stories, they attributed the same faculties to the gods. But desire and thought require a living figure. How did that figure appear and from where? Who gave that god life and a mind to desire? That is where Rg Veda went deeper and asked “Do the gods know? May be even they do not know because they came after.”

Friday, September 20, 2019

Empathy in the age of Social media

I was listening to Dr. Sheryl Turkle of MIT who was an early supporter of Information Technology(IT). Her research has been on human- machine communication. She is now concerned about the negative aspects of IT, particularly the social media. She finds that people using social media all the time are losing empathy since they do not communicate face to face. She is correct. To develop connection with others we have to speak with them, face to face.  We have to understand their facial gestures and body language to truly understand them. This is completely lost when we are looking at the screen and twiddling with our thumbs and not looking at the person in front of us.

A young friend told me recently  that one of his social media pages has 687 “friends”. I asked whether he knew every one  of them. He obviously did not. I did not ask  whether any one of them will come if he needed help, if any of them will maintain long-standing and close friendship. Developing relationship requires face to face time and sustained effort. My guess is that he has very few intimate friends who can share his ups and downs and help him when he is in need. Probably my friend gets  a sense of “ Self-validation” to know that he has “687 contacts” or “followers”. I hope this is not the only way he gets his self-identity.  

It is no wonder that students who are endlessly texting are afraid of face – to - face transactions.
Many of them have lost social skills by spending time interacting with the tablet or phone instead of
with people. It is easy , of course, to deal with the machine or with someone somewhere else, since it
 is less demanding. May be this is one of the reasons that loneliness is a major problem among adolescents and young adults (millennials and Gen Z, I am told) growing up with technology and social media. They probably do not even realize what they are missing.

 I have written earlier that it is difficult to develop compassion in a world dominated by competition and pursuit of personal happiness. In living a life with focus on personal liberty and personal happiness, we forget others and their needs. Empathy and compassion take a back seat to aggressive pursuit of personal gains.

Now, technology has added another impediment to developing compassion and empathy. Technological devices such as smartphones tablets and social media hinder human to human  interactions. We spend more time with machines than with people and even when we deal with people it is through the medium of technology. Personal connections, better communication, empathy
 and compassion are more likely to develop through face to face conversations and sustained relationships. That requires time and effort.

As Dr.Turkle has suggested, our young friends need to spend less time interacting with screens and more time interacting with real people.  

Friday, September 6, 2019

Compassion - A personal statement

The posts during the past few weeks have been on the idea and practice of Compassion. Some of us have these as inborn traits. There is enough work in neurobiology to show that these traits can also be developed through practice. Metta meditation is one such practice. 

I have quoted several sacred texts and past masters on loving-kindness and compassion. How can I express these thoughts in my own words? Before I learn metta meditation, and to practice it, I need to keep the following thought in my mind during all my interactions: “How can I ever hurt you without hurting a part of myself? How can I not make myself happy when I make you happy?”

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Immortal in the Mortal

During my walking meditation today amidst tall trees, blue sky, vast space and relative silence except for nature’s sounds, I was able to be mindful of the fact that I was breathing the oxygen given out by those trees around me. They were in turn taking up the carbon dioxide I was breathing out to make energy for themselves. There was the sun looking at all this.

There were leaves on the path. They are younger than me. But they fell from trees older than me. Those leaves grew out of the soil, rain and the sunshine. Now, if no one removes them, they will become food for the next year’s crop. We are all made of things coming from outside of us. We are impermanent.

Standing in a corner with a beautiful view of the horizon, I was thinking what my 13-year-old grand-daughter was asking: “what is there way out in the sky beyond what we see?”. My  earth-evolved brain was thinking about what is up, what is down, what is in front and what is behind. This brain has to function that way to deal with space and time on this earth. If I can break out of this mind which is made to deal with this earth, I may be able to think of space and time without boundaries!

Even with the current constraints, my brain can imagine and visualize space beyond space and time beyond time. But it cannot experience it.

Thinking on these lines, I thought that looking for immortality and moksha or nirvana or liberation are distractions.  Instead, if we can experience this universe of limitless dimensions, it will be bliss. That requires a different kind of mind tuned to the messages of the Universe. Since we do not have it, we can imagine and visualize the universe not constrained by space and time. That is the best we can hope for given this earth-bound brain and mind.

Based on reason, I do not know how humans can be immortal. Prayers seeking immortality makes no sense to me.  Immortality is not escape from death or living after death. Neither is possible. For death is part of life itself. “Prajapati is death (mrtyu)” says Satapata Brahmana.

The only immortality we can hope for are through our physical progeny and consequences of our words and deeds.

Then I found this passage from the Rg Veda. In Book 1 (164:16), Sage Dirgatamas says that “the child is the father’s father.”

कविर्यः पुत्रः ईमा चिकेत यस्ता विजानात पितुष पितासत ||

What does that mean? I understand it to mean that the mortal (grandfather; it could as well be grandmother) passed on his immortal portion to his son. He might have died, but his life continues through in the son, grandson and so on. In other words, the role of us mortals is to carry the immortal in us and pass it on.  This body is mortal. But the immortal in us will live after this body is gone.