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Monday, September 16, 2013

Quotes from the masters

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi, Ariana, Roma and Sainath,

I hope you know by now that my primary purposes in writing these columns are 1. To bring to your attention the treasures “our ancestors, from both the east and west”, have left for us in the form of books and 2. To make you interested in reading them in the original and 3. To encourage you to think on your own in addition to reading them.

With those goals in mind, I have written about the meanings of symbols and rituals ( in the book with the title Symbols and Substance), about reading from the sacred texts, about concepts such as Dharma and Karma.  I wrote an entire piece on Balthazar Gracian’s writing (Blog from   January 17, 2012), one on Vidhura Nithi (Blog from September 15, 2011) and one devoted fully to Boethius ( blog from  October 1, 2012).  In addition, I have collected quotes from several other authors I have read. They are full of wisdom and observations of nature and human nature, true for all ages and all societies.

I plan to make these quotes parts of future blogs. I will add the references, hoping you go for the originals. Here are the first ones from Mr. Ambrose Bierce.

Ambrose Bierce

He was born in Ohio and studied in Indiana, lived during the later part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th (1842-1913). His writing skills were extraordinary. He is known as a supreme satirist. But, I find him more of a cynic than a satirist. Here are a few pithy definitions from his book on “The Devil’s Dictionary”.
Childhood: “The period of human life intermediate between the idiocy of infancy and the folly of youth”.
Consult: “To seek another’s approval of a course already decided on”.
Diagnosis: “A physician’s forecast of a disease by the patient’s pulse and purse”.
Religion: “ A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable”.
Peace: “In international affair, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting”.
Patience: “ A minor form of despair disguised as a virtue”.
Vote: “ The instrument and symbol of a free man’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country”.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

AAcharam - Conduct and custom

Aacharam plays a big part in the life of a householder following the vedic dharma., or Hindu religion. By simple definition, it means conduct and behavior. In other words it stands for external actions. But according to Kanchi Periyaval, aacharam includes inner character, outward actions and symbols one wears on the body. An extended meaning includes not just any practice, but established customs and traditional practices.

By further extension, the word aacharam includes both ethics and morals. Whereas ethics and morals deal essentially with relationship to this world, aacharam includes activities to purify one’s mind in preparation for spiritual practices. Aaacharam practiced with faith is said to remove the sins (papa) and produce merits (punya).  But it can do so only when practiced with faith.

It is also said that good and bad results as a result of aacharam may not be seen at once. They may show up only in the next birth. That is why followers of vedic religion are instructed to practice good aachara (sadaachara) and accumulate punya. Breaking aacharam will result in papa.

Kanchi Pariyaval talks eloquently and passionately about the need for not abandoning aacharas established in our dharma shastras. As much as I respect Periyaval immensely and his logic sounds excellent, I have problems with many of the statements because his premise is questionable.

For example, when you say “in your next birth”, the concept of next birth is assumed to be true and established. When you say that unless you practice with faith it will not succeed, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to circular reasoning. It is not logic at all.

Periyaval wants you to trust the elders. I do. I will. But, how can a human being with mental faculties suspend reasoning altogether? As Hutchins pointed out “What can be accepted for no reason, can be rejected also for no reason”.

I agree however with Periyaval when he says “just do not take convenient ones and let go of inconvenient ones by calling them superstitions”. He is perfectly correct.

Nor do I like the idea of “inventing” explanations to satisfy the persistent skeptics who keep asking questions. In essence most of the explanations for various aacharas given by modern scholars belong to this last group. These individuals have absolute faith in aacharas. They also know there is no valid reason applicable to the present state of the society. They are also afraid of breaking them because of bad consequences. Therefore they invent reasons.

The example I have chosen is not aacharam. But, it is to make a point. The modern so-called scientific explanation for performing homas (ceremonies using fire and pouring oblations that create smoke) is that the smoke can “purify” the air and get rid of mosquitoes etc. The word “purify” begs the question. Purifying from what pollution? Smoke from burning cow dung is considered to be insecticidal. I have big doubts about that statement.

But, our ancestors were not at all concerned about these issues. They were interested in appeasing the Gods and attaining moksha by performing homas. They thought they were sending their requests to the devas through food offerings. The devas were supposed to get pleased and send their blessings in the form of food and prosperity to the humans. The hygiene explanation is our invention without any proof.