Please visit Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation by Athreya and Mouza at Springer.com

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Everything in a Continuum


 In the process of being awake and aware, and aware of nothing in particular – it was an empty screen, no forms or feelings – I realize that without life, there is nothing to reflect on, not even awareness. But what is life? Is it an opposite of life? If so, how can life arise out of and made of inert things? Life and “non-life” are parts of a continuum. One comes out of another and merges into another. They are interdependent.
That is true of space and time as shown by Einstein and others. That is in the realm of the physical universe. 
Consciousness and emptiness seem to be such a pair too, in the realm of thought. 
At the micro/quantum level, wave and particle seem to be such a pair as fundamental units of the universe.
One cannot think of one in each pair without the other. They are part of a continuum. They are relative to each other.
It appears that there is no absolute, independent entity called space or time or life or non-life, conscious or comatose, particle or wave. They are relative to the other of that pair in a continuum. Our mind, which thinks with concepts made of sensory impressions and images, classifies everything and names each one. In the process of classification, the mind forgets that these separations are its own creations.
Come to think of it, color is a continuum. So are soundwaves. Our mind makes everything dichotomous for practical reasons – to live in this world. “Either or”, “yes-No” thinking is the mind’s survival mode. However, to understand the true nature of things, the mind needs analog thinking. That is why we humans have the pre-frontal cortex. It is our duty to use mind in both its “survival” mode and in the “understanding” mode.

But what is mind? How did it come about? What if there is no mind, like it was millennia ago, before humans came on the scene. Everything – particles and waves, space and time – was there. But there was no life. Therefore, no need for a category called life. Since there was no life, there was no mind to start classifying either.

Does any of this make sense?

Friday, December 21, 2018

Contemplative Science/Contemplative Prayer


Alan Wallace uses the term Contemplative Science to refer to meditation, since it is a scientific study of our minds although subjective in nature. Thomas Merton calls meditation practiced by Christians as Contemplative Prayer. Whatever name we give, the process of meditation includes reflecting on our own mental experiences as they appear in our consciousness. 
Consciousness has become a major subject of scientific scrutiny. There are several books on this subject. However, there is no definition of consciousness, agreed by all disciplines interested in this topic. That is because it is subjective and there are no objective means, as yet, of detecting and measuring consciousness. Two other topics defying definition are life and health.
The best we can do is to list its characteristics as experienced by each one of us and compare the list with those of others based on universal and uniform features. This is consciousness from the neurophysiological point of view. Not from a metaphysical point of view.
Buddha lists two features as characteristic of “pure” consciousness: luminosity and cognizant. The Vedas of India say the same thing. They are vague terms. However, both Buddha and the Vedas say that this is basic awareness (meta awareness) which illuminates everything – physical, mental, phenomenal, thoughts, emotions etc. It is aware of the objects of the mind and  of the mind itself.  In the Upanishad it says: tameva bhaantam anubhaati sarvam; tasya bhaasa sarvamidam vibhati. It shines on its own and illuminates everything.
This sounds interesting and intriguing. This also suggests that there is something else outside of our mind which gives the power of awareness to the mind. I have problem with that. Without a living body and a functioning brain, there is no mind. Without mind, there is no awareness. Granted that life is a mystery and consciousness is a mystery. Even if science figures out the “how” of life and of consciousness, I doubt we will ever find out “why”. 
This does not rule out the fact that everything we see and experience must have come out of “Something with Its Inherent Knowledge and Energy”, the Brahman, Father in Heaven, Allah or whatever name we have given.  
The best answer is ‘I do not know”.
The awareness of awareness is indeed special. My guess is that even some animals have this capacity. This is the faculty which leads to the ego (the I and the mine) and human arrogance. Therefore, it is worth reflecting on it to understand the realities of this universe and develop humility and compassion.
On a related note, I read in Aurobindo’s writing that the three worlds listed in the Vedas (Bhu, Bhuva and Swa) represent the body, mind and the connecting breath. Kaushitaki Upanishad says this too. Breath is another mystery without which there can be no life. Without life there can be no awareness.
It makes sense to focus on the breath, as the connection between the body and the mind and then focus on consciousness and the contents of the mind. The next step is awareness of consciousness of life and of our own awareness of that consciousness. The next step is to empty the contents and stay with pure awareness only.
That is what the original writings of the Upanishads and Buddha recommend. We get carried away by our arrogance. We refuse to consider the possibility that there are/ may be dimensions we are not aware of because of the limitations of our own brain and the mind. We get side-tracked and buried in so many side-paths and diversions.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Meditation can be at several levels



                Thinking deeply about something – concentration (may merge, immerse) (?dharana)

                Thinking about thinking – metacognition

                Being a witness to thinking – mindfulness (Dhyana?)

                Total silence, aware of the silence - Samadhi

                A state beyond thinking and silence, not for ordinary mortals.

“Meditation is the first-person science of the mind” says Alan Wallace, in that we are observing the subjective reality of the mind itself. During meditation, objective sensory inputs and our perception of those inputs, become objects of inquiry. They form the substrate of deep-looking. At the same time, the thoughts and emotions that are generated by those perceptions become subjective experiences. The substrate for this subject-object nexus is the substrate consciousness (Thich Naht Hanh calls it Store Consciousness). Becoming aware of this substrate consciousness is meta-awareness.

Information is that which informs. What informs us is the input by sensory systems. We then interpret and modify these perceptions, codify and name them, using our thinking, memory, imaginations, bias etc. Whatever it is, Information about things is the content of the mind. When we reflect on it, it should be clear at the outset that Information about a thing is not the same as the thing. We can look deeper at what the connection is and what reality is. In deeper meditation, we learn to focus on the mental space without information. No one has seen space, atom, energy and mass. Nor has anyone seen information.

Both Buddha and Ramana ask us to reflect on the “I”. What stage am “I” at in this quest?

Who am I? On reflection, I decided to split this question into two parts.

1. Who am I? “I” am Balu, an impermanent, inter-being (as Thich Naht Hanh would define). In this sense I am a practical entity existing and interacting with the world around “me”. “I” am part of a whole. “I” interact with and depend on the whole and its contents and occupants. The whole resides in “me”, is part of me and in everything else. In this sense, "I" was there always and will be there in the future. In a more tangible form, "my" thoughts, words and actions will be the residues of this brief existence. But, who is asking that question?

2. What am “I”? “It” is a conceptual entity created by “my” mind as part of its function in dealing with the physical realities. It develops as I live and experience every moment, by owning up to each experience (saying that it is “mine”) and storing them for future reference. It also owns up to the actions of the physical body (“I did it”) in which it is generated. By repetition, it gives an impression of powers such as ownership and will which it does not have. There can be no more of “It” (Balu in “my” case) once the body and the brain (with the associated mind) are gone. 

That is where I am now.


Monday, December 10, 2018

Sermon on the Mount – Three Points of View: Part 2


Lord’s Prayer

 A famous passage called The Lord’s Prayer starts with the words: “Our Father which art in Heaven”. This prayer is used by Christians in their personal prayers and church services daily. It has a simple message of piety and thankfulness for all the good things we have. It has also deep spiritual meaning – not just requesting personal favors and material goods but seeking Spiritual realization.

 “Our Father which art in Heaven” is addressed to the Divine as if we are requesting our worldly father. Heaven is not somewhere else because the Kingdom of God is within us. Brother Lawrence said: “We must make our heart a spiritual temple wherein to adore Him incessantly.  He is within us; seek Him not elsewhere.”

Swami Prabhavananda interprets the words “Thy Kingdom come and Thy will be done……..” to mean that the Kingdom of God is here and now and the disciple asks for His guidance to carry out His will. It is  for realizing our own limitations and approaching the Divine with humility. Besides, unless one is spiritually illumined and has become one with Him, how can one know what His will is?

“Give us this day our daily bread” refers to the bread of Divine Grace and not in the simple meaning of bread to eat. “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” is a pleading for His forgiveness for all our physical and mental actions. Hinduism and Buddhism will interpret the “debts” to mean our Karma, the accumulated consequences of our actions in this and prior births. Even without this concept of karma, we are responsible for the consequences of our actions. If we take that responsibility and do not blame others it will be easy for us to forgive others for their actions and the consequences. Only when we have this forgiveness in our hearts can we appreciate forgiveness from God.

“And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil…………” is the next passage. In the Upanishad it says: “asato ma sat gamaya; tamaso ma jyotir gamaya; mrtyo ma amritam gamaya” meaning “O Lord, lead us from untruth to truth; from darkness to light; from death to immortality”.  It is an approach with humility to ask for help to resist temptations towards impermanent pleasures of the world. It is to ask help to go towards Light and away from darkness. It is to turn inwards towards the Kingdom of God and away from outward gaze of the senses.

The passages on forgiveness (Matthew 6:14,15) are well-known and make the essence of the teachings of Christ. He said to forgive “until seventy times seven”. He asks us to forgive those who hurt us physically and verbally. Not to react to violence with violence; but react with forgiveness, compassion and love. He asked his disciples to love even one’s enemy. These are the same teachings as those of Buddha and Hindu texts. Gandhi, Mandela and King showed us how.

This is followed by advice on practicing religion and spirituality sincerely, not just for others to see. When Jesus says “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal” he is asking his disciples to develop discrimination and seek abiding bliss in the midst of fleeting worldly pleasures. He says: “But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven……”. This advice has been repeated by the wise in all traditions, all through history.

The remark that “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single…..” seems to suggest the need for one-pointed concentration and devotion. In other words, the advice is to let go of attachment to and pursuit of worldly pleasures of the senses and seek the Divine with single-minded focus, because “No man can serve two masters…………Ye cannot serve God and mammon” says Jesus.

In the next passage, Jesus advices his disciples not to worry about where the next food will come from, because He who made us will provide for us. Similar words can be heard in other tongues too as in Tamizh language “The one who planted the tree will water it too”. It is not practical. And it is also true that we have to make our efforts for His Grace to yield results. But, when one lives truly in a state of union with the Divine, live in the Kingdom of God within, questions such as “what will I eat? Where will I sleep?” seem to lose their weight and urgency. The advice is about maintaining poise in the midst of life’s uncertainties.

Besides, Jesus is not suggesting that we go starving, but says “ for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you”.  In a similar passage in Gita, Krishna says: “…if a man will worship me, and meditate upon me with an undistracted mind, devoting every moment to me, I shall supply all his needs and protect his possessions from loss”. 

“Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”. This is a teaching on living in the present moment deeply involved in prayer and reflection, not worrying about the past and anxious about the future. This is same as the Buddhist tradition of being mindful of and in the present moment.

A famous poem in Sanskrit says:

“Yesterday is but a dream,
Tomorrow is only a vision.
But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness,and every tomorrow a vision of hope.”

In his advice “judge not, that ye be judged”, Jesus asks us to work on our own weaknesses and improve our virtues and not to judge others.  “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considereth not the beam that is in thine own eyes”.

The next advice on not to “give that which is holy unto the dogs and cast your pearls before swine” is also common in the teachings of other traditions. In the Vedic tradition, there is a passage in Gita in which Krishna says to Arjuna: “Do not tell this truth to anyone who has no devotion and self-control, who despises his teacher and does not believe in me”.  Mundaka Upanishad says that the knowledge of Brahman is to be given only to those who obey Dharma and who are pure in heart.

The famous passage in the Sermon which says “…….all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them…” is echoed in Maha Bharatha with almost the same words. This teaching is common in all traditions and religions.

After saying that the gate is wide and the way is broad for the path to destruction, Jesus continues with “….straight is the gate and narrow is the way which leadeth into life, and few there be that find it”. In an identical passage in the Katha Upanishad: “Like the sharp edge of a razor, the sages say, is the path. Narrow it is, and difficult to tread”. This became the title of a book on the Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham.

Jesus closes his sermon by warning against following false prophets, which does not mean other religions. It means recognizing a realized soul as one who has studied the scriptures and who acts out of unbounded love for everything on earth and following what he preaches.

Finally, I like a simple summary of the Sermon on the Mount by Tolstoy (My Religion, page 87):

“Not to be angry and not to consider oneself better than others.

To avoid libertarianism, choose one woman, and remain faithful to her.

Do not bind yourselves with oaths and promises to the service of those who may constrain us to  commit acts of folly and wickedness.

Do not return evil for evil lest the evil rebound upon ourselves with redoubled force.

Do not consider men as foreigners because they dwell in another country and speak a different language”.




Saturday, December 1, 2018

Sermon on the Mount – Three Points of View: Part 1

Sermon on the Mount is one of the most well-known sections in the New Testament. It is from Chapters 5,6 and 7 of the Gospel of Matthew. It includes the most important moral teachings of Jesus Christ and therefore, forms the central tenets of Christianity. Recently, I read three different interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount. They are Sermon on the Mount according to Vedanta by Swami Prabhavananda, Tolstoy’s interpretation and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis (German-Dutch Christian theologian of the 14th century). Here are some of my thoughts on reading these three versions and the original. 


The Sermon on the Mount, which is the essence of the Gospel, as given by Jesus was meant for non-Christians, because there were no Christians at that time in history. It starts with the words “AND seeing the multitudes, he went up into the mountain:  and when he had sat down, his disciples came unto him”. This is interpreted by a scholar as an indication that whereas Jesus taught many “tribes”, he reserved his highest teachings for those who were spiritually ready.

One idea that comes out of Vedic, Buddhist and Christian teachings is that enlightened spiritual leaders usually gave two sets of talks, one for the common folks to be applied to their daily lives and another to those who are serious about spiritual life and are more disciplined. Buddha was explicit. He gave just five precepts to follow for the lay-followers and more elaborate ones such as celibacy for the monastics.

In the Hindu tradition, the more ascetic practices are suggested for those who want to become sannyasins (ascetics) and to those at the end of one’s family life in preparation for liberation. The Upanishads repeatedly point out that a good teacher will tailor his lessons to the readiness of his pupil. In his interpretation of Rg Veda, Sri Aurobindo points out that the rk verses contain two meanings, one referring to physical world and worldly life and another to mental life at a higher plane. Sanskrit words make this possible by their very structure.

It is amazing - it should not be – that several passages in the Sermon and the Vedic teachings (Upanishads) are literal translations of each other.

One of the early statements (5:5) in the sermon is “Blessed are the meek; for they inherit the earth”. The word “meek” suggests an attitude of surrender, freedom from ego. The idea of surrender and humility are recurring themes in Hindu tradition also. Separation from the divine accentuates the ego. The ideas of me and mine come in. Both Buddha and Ramana ask us to find out who the “I” is. “Nothing belongs to us. We just borrow for our life time” says Swami Prabhavananda.

“Blessed are the merciful; for they shall obtain mercy” says the Sermon. This is same as, or similar to, the teachings of Loving Kindness by Buddha. Patanjali says (The Yoga Philosophy Book 1 Sloka 33) that for peace of mind one need to develop benevolence, mercy, detachment and equanimity transcending vice and virtue.

“Blessed are the pure at heart for they shall see God” are the words of the Sermon. The Vedic system teaches observances to purify one’s mind. They include ten virtues (yama)based on abstaining from something, such as forgiveness, truthfulness, non-injury to all life forms. There are also ten other steps (Niyama) which require active participation such as charity, control of the mind, silence and fasting.  These are meant for the purification of the body and the mind. Letting go of the ego leads to purity of the mind according to Bhagavat Gita (2:61-64) and Buddha’s teachings.

Jesus said: “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25 and Mark 8:35)

Once we can see ourselves in others and others in ourselves, the teachings on “love thy neighbor”, “do not kill”, “make peace with your brother” (reconciliation) become easy to practice. Isa Upanishad (6) says: “He who sees all beings in one self and one’s Self in all beings feels no hatred”.

“Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called sons of God” says the Sermon. To send this kind of message of loving kindness to others, one must learn to forgive. Jesus said: “Forgive them for they know not what they do”. Buddha said the same thing before Jesus. There are some scholars who think that Jesus was aware of the teachings of Buddha.

There is a section on adultery and divorce in the Sermon which has been interpreted in various ways. They are contradictory to the basic teachings of Jesus about forgiveness and compassion. Therefore, Tolstoy made a deep study of this issue including verifications of the meanings of the words in the original texts and their translations in different languages and came to the following conclusions. The main point is that sexual passion can easily lead one to what Tolstoy calls “debauchery” or corruption of the mind and lewdness. Therefore, this advice in the Sermon is to help a man and a woman to live as pair, husband and wife and avoid chances for the corruption of the mind.

In summary, Tolstoy’s opinion is that it is best for a man and woman to be in stable relationship with an avenue for sexual satisfaction within moral and legal boundaries. If the wife is divorced by man for whatever reason, he is responsible since a woman then is exposed to sexual advances and she cannot protect herself.

After consulting several version of the Bible in several languages, Tolstoy states: “And thus once more I found a confirmation of the terrible fact that the meaning of the doctrine of Jesus is simple and clear, that its affirmations are emphatic and precise, but that commentaries upon the doctrine, inspired by a desire to sanction existing evil, have so obscured it that determined effort is demanded of him who would know the truth”. The same can be said of sacred texts from all religions.

What are the teachings in the other systems? In the Vedic system, adultery is discussed under self-control, self-mastery and control of passions. Buddha talks about control of passions also and in sexual matters is part of non-injury to a woman.

The sermon also points out, as do Hindu and Buddhist texts, that control of actions of lust alone is not adequate. Lustful thoughts must also be checked.

There have been many erudite discussions on the passage in the Sermon which says: “Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, for thou canst not make one hair white or black”. This comes soon after Jesus asks us “Swear not at all”, neither by Heaven which is His nor by the land which is “His footstool”. In his book on Confessions, St. Augustine spends several pages on this passage. According to Swami Prabhavananda,  this passage only means that we are full of ego and think we own this world and we can make what we want and explain everything. In fact, we do not own ever our own body and cannot fully control what happens to it. We must realize that He is the owner and the doer. In other words, this passage is to teach humility.

In the subsequent passage Jesus does not favor the custom of revenge of the Old Testament (eye for an eye) but asks his disciples to resist evil by not striking back but “turn to him the other cheek”. He asks his disciples to forgive, love the neighbor and, also the enemy. He says “what is the use of being nice to your kith and kin only. Anyone can do that. It requires special character to be nice to an enemy”.

This is exactly the teaching of Buddha 500 years earlier. This is the principle of non-resistance towards people who hurt you and who are unjust. It is not to be interpreted as bending to evil. It is offering resistance to injustice and cruelty without striking back. Buddha did this to Angulimala. Jesus did.  Mahatma Gandhi did. Nelson Mandela did. Martin Luther King did. Only those who have mastered themselves and are compassionate can do this.

In later passages Jesus asks his disciples to do charitable things, help the poor, pray in a humble way, in private, quietly and not with pomp and show for the world to see. There is a similar passage in Vidura Niti of Maha Bharata in which eight virtues are listed. (Chapter 3, sloka 69). They are sacrifice, charity, study, penance, truthfulness, forgiveness, mercy and non-covetousness. You can practice the first four for pomp and show, to look good in the eyes of others. The latter set of four are inherent only in the virtuous.

In interpreting Matthew 5:48 which states: “Therefore, ye shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect”, Swami Prabhavananda says that it is to encourage the disciples to seek inner perfection, a Divine perfection by realizing God within. It is to indicate that all the perfections we seek in this world are imperfect and impermanent.

Jesus teaches us to seek the Kingdom of God within each one of us, here and now. Vedas teaches us the same thing. The original source, the Father, the Divine is called Brahman; the individual soul is called Atman. Brahman is inherent in Atman. In other words, in us. “The Spirit of God dwelleth in you” says St.Luke.  Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman, the Primordial) says the Upanishad. The true nature of the Spirit is not in the body or in the mind. It is that which illuminates, energizes both. “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you true” says the Bible.

Therefore, the goal is seeking perfection or realizing the divine within us. That is the teachings of these Sermons and those of the Vedas. When the Bible speaks of rebirth, it need not be interpreted as the rebirth of Jesus or of us individuals. It is the spiritual rebirth by each one of us by merging with the source. The same can be said about the concept of rebirth in the Hindu philosophy.

This perfection of god-realization is called Samadhi in Hinduism, Nirvana in Buddhism and the Kingdom of God in Christianity. This state can be sought in different ways. Hinduism says that we are all made of different personalities and a method which works for one may not work for another. Therefore, Hinduism suggests four different paths, namely Karma marga or Path of Actions, Gnana Marga or the Intellectual Path, Bhakti Marga or the Path of Devotion and Raja Marga or the Path of Meditation.

 Most branches of Christianity emphasize faith and piety as the preferred mode and some as the exclusive mode. However, there are passages in the Bible which seem to support the path of action, and path of intellectual discrimination. For example, karma yoga or the path of action is nothing but offering all our actions to God as a sacrament. When Jesus said “In as much as ye have done it unto the least of these brethren, ye have done unto me” he suggested that serving others is worship of God.

In Gnana yoga the emphasis is on discrimination between the eternal and ephemeral. Both the Upanishads and Buddha ask the aspirants to reach for virtue and eternal bliss (Shreyas) and not for worldly rewards (preyas). Jesus said the same thing in: “..lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, whither neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through to steal……..Ye cannot serve God and mammon”.            

In Raja marga, the aspirant stays focused like a laser on the Supreme until he attains complete absorption with that One. This is called Dharana in Yoga sastra and St. Paul calls this “prayer to be offered without ceasing”. In recent times, Thomas Merton speaks of this approach as Contemplative Prayer. He calls it “a wordless total surrender of the heart in silence”. Jesus is also reported to have gone into the mountains for meditations in solitude.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Comparative study of Cultures


 Churinga is an object, which could be a rock or a bird or an animal and which is of religious significance to one indigenous tribe in Central Australia. In his book on the primitive religions of the world, Emile Durkheim describes an initiation ceremony. During the ceremony, the initiate is shown a Churinga, when the following words are spoken: “You are this body; you are the same thing as this”.

Is it not amazing that these words are practically the same as what the Upanishad says: “Thou art that”? In this ceremony, the churinga stands for the universal, primordial force. It is a symbol of the infinite, a totem, an icon.  

This is one of the benefits of comparative study of customs, myths, rituals and religions of different countries, societies and tribes. In ancient time, when travel was confined to relatively short distances these customs and myths evolved with very little admixture. With increasing ease of travels and of communications we became aware of several societies and their customs and comparative studies became possible. These studies have shown the commonalities between societies and their concepts of the universe. These studies show that knowledge is not a private property of any one society and great ideas have arisen from different sources. Hopefully this awareness will lead  to better understanding between cultures, customs, beliefs and religions.

What we find is that every culture faced the same set of problems in different settings and solved them in its own way suitable to its contexts. Human conditions are the same all over. Our solutions are different. No one solution is better than the other. Each solution is appropriate to its context and level of understanding. All solutions belong to all of humanity. There is no need to feel superior or inferior. It is wiser to be open and tolerant, not be possessive or clannish about ideas, treat others with different point of view with respect and learn from all cultures.

An Indian philosopher-poet said: “Wisdom is in accepting truthful knowledge, whatever its source”.

For those who wish to look at the origins of human societies and understand the common substance behind the outward symbols which divide us, I suggest four books.

                Emile Durkheim   The Elementary forms of Religious Life. (Karen Fields Translator) 1995

                This believing world   Browne L. (1926)

                The Lessons of History – Will and Ariel Durant (2010)

Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind (published in 1802) - Marquis de Condorcet (Kindle Edition 2010)

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Depth of Thoughts in the Vedas


When I delve deeper and deeper into Rg Veda, the Upanishads and Panini in the original, I see what a beautiful ancient temple the Vedic system is. Because it is so old, more than 3,000 years to be exact, it is covered by so much overgrowth by the interpretations and myths built around it.  It is difficult to see the original structure, very much like what has happened to the Angkor Vat temple. If we are bold enough (or, foolish enough, like me) to venture into it on our own, a veritable feast awaits us.

Thanks to a retired life and a basic understanding of Sanskrit and sound understanding of Tamil, I have been roaming inside this temple. My aids are curiosity as the primary vehicle and some dictionaries as the lamps. When you read the classic texts in the original, and let go of all the crust and dust that have accumulated, what we experience is a sense of awe and deep respect for our ancestors.

I am no scholar and am sure that I am losing many nuances and deeper meanings in these texts. But, the beauty is there for all to savor. The brilliance of those thinkers is dazzling.  I can savor the thoughts of our ancestors in the original to the level of my understanding on my own without others interpretations and admire. 

The following are some examples.  

The idea of mind as one of the six senses and differentiating the functions of the mind, intelligence, self or ownership and consciousness. This allows meditating on the mind and its contents and dealing with the Self (I) as the subject and also as the object. Western science is yet to catch up with this concept. 

The concept of sphota; the word means "bursting forth". It is the science of how meaning bursts forth when words are uttered. It divides speech into three stages: conceptualization of an idea (pasyanti), medium in which it is expressed (madhyama) and the final utterance (vaikari). There have been several treatises and books on this subject over the centuries and you will find reference to these concepts in Lalitha Sahasranamam (Sloka 81)

The idea of inherent sound (naada) and the movement needed to produce audible sound (sabda); the idea of inherent sound in the abdomen and the produced sound (vaikari) resulting from the banging around of the sound waves in the chest, throat, mouth, tongue and teeth. The kinds of sounds (and the alphabets)  produced based on these movements are given in detail both in Panini and Tolkappiam. Our musical system has elaborated on these ideas. 

The concept of samavaya which means inherence as in fire and heat; ice and cold. 

The admonition that we humans are forever prevented from “knowing the original” because we are “covered”. Emphasis on the humility to accept that we can never know the origins. As Nasadiya Suktam states "even the Gods do not know because they came after".

 The blunt statement by Yagnavalkya that others are important to us not for themselves but only because of their value to us.  (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4.5)

 The profound statement:  “Thou are That”.  (tat tvam asi

And, so many more. 

Friday, November 9, 2018

“What meaning does life have for you?”


                                     “What meaning does life have for you?”

                That was the question Will Durant wrote and sent to prominent people in different walks of life in the 1930’s.  The list included Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, Will Rogers and H.L.Mencken among others. The responses were included in a book with the title: On The Meaning of Life. 
 The answers were obviously different. They included faith in something beyond what we know, able to work in an area one is passionate about, such as art and writing and creativity, doing things for others and society, desire to share and appreciation of nature. Some thought that there is no purpose in life unless we find one for ourselves. One advised Will Durant not to think too much. Most approached this question with optimism and humility.
George Bernard Shaw answered: “How the devil do I know? Has the question itself any meaning?” Will Rogers answered: “The whole life is a “racket”, so get a few laughs, do the best you can, take nothing serious…. live your life so that whenever you lose, you stay ahead.”
Some of the most interesting thoughts were those of a prisoner who was spending life-sentence in the Sing-Sing prison. His remarks suggest that he was a thoughtful man, who had read a lot and had thought about life in general. Why he was chosen for this task is not clear. But, here are some of his remarks.
It (meaning of life) “depends upon my ability to recognize its (life’s)great truths and learn by the lessons they teach me. In short, life is worth what I am willing to strive to make it worth”.
In discussing what Durant has written about Truth, he says: “Custom and tradition have caused us to confuse truth with our beliefs”.  Later he says: “Confinement in prison does not cause unhappiness, else all those who are free would be happy. Poverty does not cause it, else the rich all would be happy”.
“That life was accidental is a theory I am willing to accept; but it does not follow that it need be meaningless”.
“In the knowledge that I am an inalienable part of this great, wonderful, upward movement called life, and that nothing, neither pestilence, nor physical affliction, nor depression – nor prison- can take away from me my part, lies my consolation, my inspiration and my treasure”. Profound thoughts indeed. 
My personal thoughts follow.
The meaning of life in general is different from the meaning in one’s life. In general, life does not seem to have any purpose or goal except to reproduce. Why would so many species of plants and animals appear and disappear in large numbers in repeated cycles?  Therefore, each one of us must make meaning out of our lives. 
Tolstoy came to the same conclusion. He says that work, family life and nature gave meaning to his life. This is probably true for most people.
The answer to the primary question will also depend upon one’s stage in life and circumstances. For me, at this age and stage – Being and bringing Peace, being useful, and sharing effort, knowledge and wealth give meaning to life.  
How does one develop meaning in life? Some avenues are the same as what gave meaning to Tolstoy’s life – working on things that is of interest to you or that are helpful to others, spending time with family and friends and enjoying nature. But those are not adequate by themselves without adding values and virtues (dharma). 
Connecting with other lives and with the universe are great avenues which will force us to develop values and virtues. In addition, we (the isolated me, the wave) need to connect with the whole (the cosmos, the ocean). I cannot understand the function of a part without understanding the whole from which it came. The cosmos will be there without “me”; but this “me” cannot exist but for the cosmos.
Other questions suggested by Will Durant worth thinking about are: What keeps you going? What help, if any, does religion give you? What are the sources of your inspiration? What is the goal or motive force for your toil? Where do you find your consolations and happiness? Where in the last resort does your treasure lie?   
Of course, one need not think about these at all to be happy. But, I am more with Plato when he quoted Socrates as saying “An unexamined life is not worth living”.




Thursday, November 1, 2018

Humility and Surrender


Humility and surrender are mentioned repeatedly in the literature of all religions that I have read. That led me to think about these two mental states.

Humility (In Sanskrit, it is vinaya (masculine gender), namrata (feminine) and amanitva (neutral). It is panivu in Tamizh) comes out of realization of one’s limitations. It comes in the presence of a mystery or in the presence of someone who knows more than you. It is self-arising. It is a positive state and leads to a better understanding or to wisdom of knowing one’s limits. It leads to an open mind and spiritual tolerance for ambiguity.

Surrender (In Sanskrit, it is saranagati or prapanna; in Tamizh, saranadai or oppuvi) is a state of mind in the sense of defeat. It may come out of fear or frustration or a sense of weakness. It is external and often demanded. It leads to obedience.

May be, I am wrong. To my thinking, humility is a healthier spiritual mode than surrender. It has another strength. It is its inherent contradiction. When I say: “I am humble”, I have lost it. That is why in an analogy I have read eighteen human virtues are compared to an army of foot-soldiers. Humility is the very last one, because it is the read-guard to protect us from attack from behind by arrogance.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Glorious Ending of the Maha Bharatha (Blog # 97)


It is said that Maha Bharata deals with every subject of importance in human life (virtue, wealth, desire and liberation). This claim is made in Book 18, Section 5, Sloka 38. It says: “That which occurs here occurs elsewhere. That which does not occur here occurs nowhere else”.

धर्मे चार्थे कामे मॊक्षे भरतर्षभ
     यद इहास्ति तद अन्यत्र यन नेहास्ति तत कव चित

Later it is said that the great Rishi Vyasa, having composed Maha Bharata, made his son Suka to read it along with the following four Verses.

माता पितृसहस्राणि पुत्रदारशतानि
     संसारेष्व अनुभूतानि यान्ति यास्यन्ति चापरे
हर्षस्थान सहस्राणि भयस्थान शतानि
     दिवसे दिवसे मूढम आविशन्ति पण्डितम
ऊर्ध्वबाहुर विरौम्य एष कश चिच छृणॊति मे
     धर्माद अर्थश कामश किमर्थं सेव्यते
जातु कामान भयान लॊभाद; धर्मं तयजेज जीवितस्यापि हेतॊः
     नित्यॊ धर्मः सुखदुःखे तव अनित्ये; जीवॊ नित्यॊ हेतुर अस्य तव अनित्यः

The translation is as follows: “Thousands of mothers and fathers, and hundreds of sons and wives have come into this world and gone. Thousands more will come and go. There are plenty of occasions for joy and for fear in this world which affect only the ignorant but not the wise. With uplifted arms I am pleading to everyone to follow the path of Righteousness (Dharma) to acquire Wealth (artha) and Pleasure (kama). But no one seems to hear me. One should not let go of righteous path (dharma) for the sake of pleasure, or out of fear, or out of ignorance. Indeed, even for the sake of life one should not let go of Righteousness (dharma). Pleasure and Pain come and go. Righteousness is eternal. Jiva is eternal. But the body is not”.

This is the end of my remarkable journey through Maha Bharata. Thank you for staying with me and following these remarkable dialogues. I learnt a lot. I am glad I was able to share what I learnt with all of you.

 Let me wish all of you Loving-kindness, Peace and Harmony in life. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be free from suffering.

Dear Reader:

In my eagerness to complete the Maha Bharatha, I have been holding back several other essays I have been writing on life, nature and philosophy. It is time I get back to those ideas. Hope you will spare some time to follow these other ideas also.

One request. I would like to publish the series on Maha Bharatha as a book. I have contacted a few publishers. But with no response. If anyone can connect me with a publisher, I will be thankful.

Thank you

Reference: For both the Sanskrit version and the English version is The Mahabharata of Krishna - Dwaipayana Vyasa, Translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, published between 1883 and 1886.  
Source: www.sacred-texts.com






Friday, October 19, 2018

Ascent to Heaven - Maha Bharatha Series 96


We are now in Chapter 18, the final chapter in Maha Bharatha. I skipped several chapters since I did not find any significant conversations in them. 
The final sections of Maha Bharata are about the departure of Dhridhrashtra with Gandhari and Kunti to the forest and their death in a forest fire, the fight among the citizens of Dwaraka and their annihilation, the departure of Krishna and Balarama and the ascent of the Pandavas to “heaven”. In one episode, Arjuna requests Bhima to forgive Dhridhrashtra and give him whatever he needs to perform ceremonies for the dead before he goes on Vanaprastha, because “it is noble to forgive other’s faults and remember the good deeds”.  ( समरन्त्य अपराद्धानि समरन्ति सुकृतानि च)

When Dhridhrashtra goes on Vanaprastha with Gandhari, Kunti decides to go to the forest with them. Yudhishtra and his brothers request their mother to stay back. She refuses and her last words to her sons are: “Let your intellect stay with virtue; and let your mind think high (noble)” (धर्मे ते धीयतां बुद्धिर मनस ते महद अस्तु च)

On hearing the destruction of the Vrishni race, Yudhishtra says that it is all because of Time, the destroyer. It is interesting that the Sanskrit word for time is kaala and it also means death. Throughout Maha Bharata, Time, Fate and influence of Karma are given as responsible for every event, including the war itself.

When, it is the turn for the Pandavas and Draupadi to ascend to heaven, first Arjuna falls down on the way. When Bhima asks how this can happen, Yudhsishtra says that Arjuna’s pride and his inability to keep his promise caused his fall. Sahadeva falls because of his boasting about his knowledge and Nakula because he was proud of his physical beauty. Bhima falls because of his self-centeredness (and his temper?) (“not attending to the needs of others while eating”). Yudhishtra says that Draupadi falls down because of her partiality to one of the brothers (Arjuna, of course). Only Yudhishtra and a dog which follows them remain. 

Indra comes in person to take Yudhishtra to Heaven. But, Yudhishtra refuses to go without his brothers and Draupadi. Indra says that they have all gone to heaven casting off their human bodies, but “You shall go there with this body of thine”. Yudhishtra wants the dog to go with him. Yudhishtra refuses to leave the dog behind saying that “it will not be virtuous to cast off one who has been devoted to me”. Indra asks him again to let go of the dog. Yudhishtra replies: “It is sinful to abandon one who has been faithful and devoted. I will not let him go so that I can have my happiness. I will not give up someone who is afraid, who is devoted to me, one who is a destitute and is seeking my protection. Nor will I abandon someone who is afflicted, and one incapable of protecting himself”.  At this point, the dog transforms into his true self – Dharma himself, Yudhishtra’s father and is very well pleased.

After entering heaven in his human form, a rare privilege, Yudhishtra insists on joining his brothers and Draupadi. He first sees Duryodhana living in splendor and is outraged. He asks his companions how such an evil person attain to heaven and says that he does not want to stay at a place where Duryodhana lives but to where his brothers are. Narada tells him: “In Heaven, all enmities cease. Besides, since Duryodhana fought according to his Varna Dharma and died in a battle, he attained Heaven”. Narada asks Yudhishtra to forgive and forget.

Yudhishtra does not see his brothers or other noble souls and warriors and wonders why. “Heaven is where all of them are; not this” says Yudhishtra. Therefore, the gods take Yudhishtra to where all of them are. But, the path is full of darkness and obstacles, stench and filth. Yudhishtra asks: “What is this place anyway? How long do we have to go through this path? Where are my brothers?” The celestial messenger stopped and told Yudhishtra: “This is how far I am authorized to accompany you. Now, you are on your own. Of course, you can return back with me”. Yudhishtra was confused and stupefied and was ready to go back. Just then, he started hearing the voices of all his brothers, including that of Karna and of Draupadi, wailing in agony and requesting him to stay a little longer so that their suffering is bearable.

Yudhistra wonders how can this be – that Dhuryodhana and his accomplices are enjoying in comfort and all the noble and sinless ones are suffering. He even wonders: “Is this real? Am I dreaming? Is this my delusion? Or is it due to some disorder of my brain?” He gets angry and curses all the gods and even curses Dharma, his father. He asks the celestial messenger to go back to “his” gods and tell them that Yudhishtra wishes to stay with his brothers, Draupadi, Karna and Dhrishtadhyumna and others and give them comfort. The messenger duly does what he was told to do and informs Indra of what had happened.

Immediately, Indra arrives accompanied by Dharma, all the devas, and rishis. The place changes from a desolate, bleak, dark “hell” into a divine abode full of light and splendor.

 Indra addresses Yudhishtra: “You have attained success and your period of illusion is over. The Heaven is yours. Do not yield to anger. Life is full of good and bad. He who enjoys the results of his virtuous deeds must endure hell later. Those who endure hell first must experience heaven afterwards. Those who have committed many sinful acts go to Heaven first before they fall into hell. I wanted you to see hell also and that is why I sent you there first. You had committed a sin too by deceiving Drona during the battle. That is why all of you were shown hell by an act of my deception. All of you have been cleansed of your sins. The Heaven is yours. All of your people have attained to heaven. Come and see them”. And, Indra points out Karna, Arjuna, Bhima, Nakula, Sahadeva and his ancestors.

The concept of good acts (Virtue, punya), reward of Heaven for virtuous acts and of sinful acts (papa), for which the reward will be Hell are recurrent themes in Maha Bharata and they come out clearly in this section.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Anugita - Maha Bharata Series 95



Arjuna and Lord Krishna (Nara and Narayana) are taking time off after the coronation of Yudhishtra. Arjuna asks Krishna to repeat the teachings (Bhagvat Gita). The conversation is interesting. Arjuna says: “Please repeat what you said earlier in the battlefield. I was too distraught and distracted to understand those teachings fully”. Krishna replies: “That was so long ago. I do not remember everything I said. Let me give you a short version”. These are not the exact translations of the original. But, it is accurate understanding of the conversation between these bosom friends, or may be two halves of the same “person”. This teaching of Krishna is known as Anugita.

Everyone knows Bhagvat Gita. Many know about Uddhava Gita. In Maha Bharata we already saw Kama Gita and Ashtavakra Gita. Did you know that there are more than 25 Gitas? Anyway, here is Anugita.

Anugita spans from the 11th to the 50th section of Book 14. Most scholars think that this was not part of the original Maha Bharata but inserted later by one or several authors. There are three major sections extolling the virtues of penance and dharma and about Samkhya and Yoga philosophy. I am not writing about of all of these since these are repetitions of basic ideas. Some interesting passages include the following.

Joy is classified under three headings. Joy felt at the certainty of attaining what one desires is called praharsha; joy felt on attaining the desired object is priti and Ananda or satisfaction is when one enjoys the desired, attained object. Our folks were superb classifiers, even of a feeling as simple as JOY.

Passion consists of greed, anger and hatred.

Darkness or Ignorance consists of laziness, procrastination and delusion (?confusion).

This classification is followed by a sloka recited by King Amvarisha on sovereignty. After attaining great successes in his life, the king says to himself: “I have killed my foes and have controlled my faults. But there is one great vice which has not been destroyed by me. That is desire. Urged by that one fault one enters darkness and commits sinful and forbidden acts. That leads one to the cycles of birth and death. Subduing desire with intelligence, one should seek sovereignty over the soul. That is true sovereignty”.

This is followed by a story of King Janaka and a Brahmana in his kingdom. When the Brahmana commits some crime, King Janaka wants him banished and asks him to leave Janaka’s territory. The Brahmana says: “Yes, I will. But, please tell me what the limit of your territory is”. King Janaka plunged into deep thinking and did not say anything for some time.

He then said: “I inherited this dominion from my ancestors. When I tried to find what my dominion actually is, I could not find any on this earth. Everything is my dominion or nothing is. Even this body is not mine or the whole earth is mine. Thinking deeply, I realized that this earth is as much of others as it is mine. Therefore, please stay as long as you wish”. The Brahmana wants to know how the king came to this understanding.

King Janaka says: “The Vedas advise us not to covet other’s property. But, how am I to ascertain which property belongs to others? Therefore, I concluded that nothing belongs to me. But, how did I come to the conclusion that everything is mine? The whole world is represented in our minds as the objects of sensations. I have transcended the sensations and therefore, the objects these sensations depend upon. Thus I am the master of the world and the world is in my control. Whatever I do now is for the sake of guests, deities and ancestors”. The Brahmana reveals himself to be Dharma and says: “You have set the wheel of dharma in motion with Goodness (Virtue) as the circumference, Vedas as the nave and proper understanding and knowledge as the spokes”.

One can sense touches of Buddhism in these statements about desire, impermanence and inter-dependence.

Towards the end, there is a story of Utanka, a rishi who lives in a desert between Hastinapura and Dwaraka. Lord Krishna meets him on his journey back home after the war is over. The conversation between Utanka and Krishna is interesting, because Utanka is upset with Krishna for not settling the fight between the Kauravas and Pandavas without a war. He is so angry that he is ready to curse Krishna. Krishna says: “I do not want you to curse me and lose all the fruits of your long penance. Please listen to me about the events and then do what you desire”.

What Krishna says is fascinating. He tells Utanka that He is Brahman and also Vishnu, the creator and destroyer. This is similar to his statements in Bhagavat Gita. Then he says: “I come alive in different communities, among the Devas, among the Gandarvas and among the Rakshasas and among human beings. I perform my actions consistent with that community. In this situation, I tried to talk and persuade the Kauravas into reconciliation. They did not. Even after Bhishma and Vidura told them that I am Vishnu, the Kauravas ignored and did not listen to me. And they reaped the consequences of their actions”.

Utanka is satisfied. He asks Lord Krishna for one boon. That is for Krishna to show His Universal form. This is the second time in Maha Bharata when Lord Krishna shows His True Form.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Titbits and Big Things - Maha Bharatha series 94



It is amazing to see the influence of epics such as Mahabharata on the Indian psyche and therefore in the beliefs and conduct of the people of India. The best example is the respect for elders. It is such a pleasure to see the younger ones consider it their duty to take care of the elders. It is to show respect for their knowledge and to thank them for all their sacrifice. This is lacking in many western cultures.

Two practical examples are 1. Treating elders with respect and not addressing by their first name. Mahabharata has a passage on this topic in Book 13.  2. As a mark of respect, the habit of getting up when an older person comes on the scene. Soon after I arrived in US many years back, I was appalled when I found my colleagues sitting with their feet up on the table with cigarette in their mouths and addressing teachers by their first name. Even after 60 years in US, I cannot bring myself to calling my teachers by their first name. Dr. Lewis Coriell was my teacher and was as close to me as my father and my brother. I could never bring myself to addressing him by his first name.

But then, people in India go to the other extreme of not questioning wrong and false statements by elders purely out of respect. Elders also demand respect just because of their age and demand obedience. It is possible to respect elders without “obeying” every one of their commands and dogmas. It is not a mark of disrespect when the younger ones ask questions. That is the way they learn. 

It is not just what we do and ask. It is how we do (and ask) that makes a difference. 

Other statements we commonly make in our daily lives seem to go back to the Mahabharata period. Some examples: “Whatever I say to you seems to be just carried away by the wind”  (Vyasa speaking to Yudhistra when he keeps persevering with his guilt trips).

“Your head will burst if you disobey” -  a rishi talking with a king

“I will burn you to ashes”

“It is as clear as a gooseberry (amlaka in Sanskrit and nellikkani in Tamizh) on the palm of the hand”

“When the proper time comes, it will happen”

Gift-giving (dana) as a virtue is mentioned in several places in the Mahabharata. In Book 13, towards the end there is a whole section on this topic. The two main points are 1. Give gifts according to your capacity. 2. The recipient should be worthy of the gift.

There is also a classification of the motives for gift-giving. Bhishma says that some give gifts with a desire for merit, some with a desire for profit, some out of fear, some out of pity for the recipient and some  just because it is the right thing to do in that context.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Bhishma's discourse on Right Conduct - Maha Bharatha series 93


Yudhishtra asks Bhishma: “Between direct perception and  the scriptures, which is a better authority to arrive at conclusions?” Bhishma admits that it is difficult to answer. Logicians imagine themselves to possess all that is knowable and insist on direct perception as the better method. They assert that nothing, however true, is existent which is not perceivable. But, Bhishma thinks otherwise. One that is open-minded and deeply involved in answering the question will find the answer. “When one reaches the end of reason, one comes upon that vast source of effulgence which illuminates the Universe. That, that Brahman, is not defined or comprehended by words. Therefore, Inference and reason cannot lead you to the ultimate knowledge which is beyond words and logic”.

Then, Yudhshtra asks: “Which among the following four is most authoritative: direct perception, inference from observation, agamas and scriptures and practices of the wise and the good”? Having answered the question about perception and inference, Bhishma says that wicked people will always try to undermine righteousness and sometimes righteousness acts as a mask for unrighteous. But, “seek those of mental purity and good behavior and follow them in addition to what you learn from the scriptures”.

Yudhishtra says: “If you say that Vedas, perception and mental purity together constitute what is to be regarded as authority, there must be some differences between them. Righteousness is probably of three different kinds”. Bhishma says that it is not so. But, it appears so because of three different points of view. He says in effect: “Do not get stuck with these arguments and wrangling. Just follow me like a blind man. The eternal righteousness include non-injury, truth-telling, gift-giving and forgiveness.” In a later section, Bhishma says that righteousness leads to purity of soul and shields against unrighteousness.

In describing the righteous conduct of good men, Bhishma includes the following. Good men eat only after feeding the deities, the ancestors, guests, relatives and other living creatures. A guest should never go away without having been fed. Thy do not ease in public roads or in paddy fields. They do not talk while eating. They give way to (yield to) elders, ladies, those carrying weight, those who are important officials and the king. He talks care of his relatives, guests and those who come under his protection. He is polite to the visitors. He eats only twice a day. In between, he does not eat (and this is also called fasting, although fasting for several days and even up to one month are mentioned elsewhere). Brahmacharya is defined as not having congress except at specified time. One is not said to incur sin by eating meat as long as it was sanctified with the use of mantras from the Yajur veda(!).

One should offer dakshina (some remuneration) to a preceptor. One’s preceptor should be received with respect and seated when he arrives. One should not let an elder go on errands or scold them. When an elder is standing, one should not be sitting. One should start and end a day listening to the wise counsels of the elders.

One should not stare at a naked man or woman. Sex should be in private. Eating also should be in private. The right hand should be used to hold the scriptures and for eating. One should keep one’s senses, mind and speech under control.

When someone sneezes, others who are present should say “bless”. One should pray for the sick and bless them (for recovery?).

An eminent person should not be addressed in familiar, second person singular terms (such as common YOU, in Sanskrit it is twam; term to show respect is bhavan for masculine and bhavathi for feminine). (There is an episode in Maha Bharatha in which Arjuna gets angry at Yudhistra and  is ready to kill him so he can keep his vow. Krishna asks Arjuna not to kill but to insult Yudhishtra with harsh and familiar terms because it is equivalent to killing an elder) When you do this to a learned person also, it is as good as killing him! But you can use second person singular term to address an equal, an inferior or a disciple.

If a sin is committed, it is best to admit it in the presence of good men and make propitiations.

One should be righteous for the sake of being good and noble; not for showing off or for specific gains. Those who do so make a trade out of righteousness and do not accrue the virtue associated with it.