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

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.