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Friday, October 30, 2020

What we know, what we do not know: Science, anti-science


A well-educated person commented recently that we do not know anything about this corona virus which is causing so much havoc. I said: “No, no, we do know lot about this virus; but we also do not know many aspects about how it affects human body, why some get it and some do not and what it will do in the future. That does not mean we do not know anything.”  She said:  “they make too much of this virus”. It was obvious that this was getting to be a political view of the matter and so I did not pursue.

It is amazing that educated people develop their views on the basis of what they hear repeatedly on the channel they watch on TV or the social media “bubble” they are part of. Ever since the cigarette companies started making “doubt” a central piece of their advertising strategy, several groups have taken up that approach to challenge anything they do not like or want to cast a doubt on.  With the advent of social media, it has become easy to spread false claims and alternate theories. Wordsmiths and persuasive psychologists use visual and audio aides to spread these false and unsupported claims. What is worse, these false claims and rumors demand equal attention – attention equal to what is given to facts and properly obtained evidence.

It is generally wise to act on the basis of what we know and not on what we do not know. It is more likely to be beneficial. As long as human knowledge was limited in its understanding of virus infections such as smallpox and polio, millions of lives were lost. Millions suffered life-ling disabilities. Both these diseases are part of history, thanks to science. Civilization took several millennia to reach that stage.

Within a few months of recognizing this novel corona virus, its genome sequence was identified, and several vaccines are getting ready, thanks to scientific methods and other advances. How can anyone say that we do not know anything about this virus? How can anyone say that this is all exaggeration after we have lost so many million lives to this virus?

I am amazed that a country which built enormous intellectual stature by following scientific methods and gave so many advances to mankind has fallen to such low level. Sometimes I wonder what the next decade is going to look like, particularly if the anti-intellectuals, non-believers, and conspiracy theorists win the information war. That is not a baseless worry. I read that 12 states in the US are discussing anti-science education in their legislatures!

I wish everyone, particularly political leaders and policy makers read two classic papers which set the tone for all the advances we have seen in the US over the past several decades.

The first is a report to President Harry Truman by Mr. Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development in 1945. This report  ( was in response to a set of questions President Roosevelt asked. One question was “What can the Government do now and in the future to aid research activities by public and private organizations?” The report, entitled Science: The Endless Frontier includes the following statement: “ Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war. But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world”. 

The other is a small monograph entitled The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge. This book is important at this time when the push is for immediate practical application at the expense of fundamental, basic research. This was written by the famous Prof. Abraham Flexner, who reorganized the entire medical education and practice in this country with his now famous Flexner Report. He also founded the Institute for Advanced Study at the Princeton University. This monograph is available now in a new version with an introduction by Robbert Dijkgraaf. (Princeton University Press, 2017).

Monday, October 26, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence - Series 3


 Hope you used the link and  tried the practice. That guided meditation was one of the fundamentals I learnt from Rev. Thich Nath Hanh (affectionately call Thay) and his disciples during the retreats I attended with him. I have also been practicing them regularly since.

Sitting quiet is not easy. In Tamil language, an advice made famous by Thaymanavar, a saint from the 16th century is “Summa iru” meaning “stay quiet and/or silent”. Here is his full poem:  

சும்மா இருப்பதுவே சுட்டற்ற பூர்ணமென்று எம்மால் அறிதற்கு எளிதோ பராபரமே   

There is a beautiful poem on Keeping Quiet  by Pablo Neruda, the famous poet from Chile. Here is a link to that poem.

He starts with “Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still for once on the face of the earth, let’s not speak in any language” and ends by saying :”perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death. Now I’ll count up to twelve and you keep quiet and I will go”. 

It is possible with strong intention and determination to sit quiet for a few minutes and practice daily. How else can you focus and meditate if you cannot even sit for a few minutes? There are a few among us who just cannot sit still. The best method for them is to learn walking meditation. Yes, Buddhist system  teaches us how to walk mindfully. In Mindful Meditation, you learn to me mindful doing whatever you are doing.

One more point before I start the next session. This is about physiology. Focus on breathing is part of all systems of meditation. It is now well-established that slow breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which is a part of the parasympathetic nervous system of our body. Just breathing slow and even has been shown to be associated with slower heart rate, lowering of blood pressure and muscle relaxation. Conversely, you will experience slowing down of your parade of thoughts when the respiration slows down. In Mindful Meditation, normal breathing is the anchor. There is no special way of breathing. It can be practiced anywhere, any time. These are the reasons I am so much in favor of this method of meditation.

Now, you may wish to practice breathing mindfully using the following link before we meet again:

Mindful Breathing Meditation with Thich Nhat Hanh

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion, Non-Violence - Series 2


A simplified Mindful Meditation*



It is to silence the “mind” and to expand the “heart”.

Several masters tell us that meditation is not for bliss after death or for immortality, but to experience the immortal in us here and now with compassion and humility. It is to open the heart and the mind and experience the parts in the whole and the whole in the parts.


Find a location you are not likely to be disturbed

Sit in a comfortable position on the floor or a chair

Better to keep eyes closed to reduce distractions

Focus on the breath

Just observe the in-breath and the out-breath

Let it be just natural, except you are noticing it. You will be using breath as an anchor to come back to every time the mind wanders away

Every time you realize that the mind has wandered off, gently bring it back to the breath

Bring the mind to basic awareness of just being here and now,

Start with a short meditation – just 5 minutes, for example

Just the fact you devoted this time is great. Congratulate yourself for the effort

We will go into greater details, and for longer periods as we progress.


NOTHING, no goals to accomplish, no expectations, no grasping.

This sounds contradictory to what we said earlier. Is it not?

In the long run, we wish to reach a state of calmness of the mind and openness of the heart. For this session, for each session, it is best to go with small steps and an open, accepting mind. 

Accepting whatever comes at the sitting without being harsh on yourself, without judging.

Just Let it be

Grasping and reaching are the opposites of what meditation masters teach.

This is the simplest, but not so simple. In the next essay, I will give steps to go from observing the breath to observing sensations in the body associated with breath and to awareness of being alive and awake.

You can start your practice by using the link here and listening to the voice of Rev.Thich Nath Hanh.

 ·         A disclaimer: If anyone is looking for meditation techniques that will lead to “bliss” or “nirvana” or some special states of physical feats, they will be disappointed with these blogs.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Sutra (aphorism) and Twitter

    The second part of the series on Mindfulness, Compassion and Non-violence is ready. But, I plan to share thoughts on other topics also, in between those posts. Thank you.  

I was thinking about the fact that the rishis who “saw” the Vedas, put them down for posterity before there was writing. How did they do it? One of the methods they used was to express their ideas in a condensed form, called sutra.

Common meaning of the word sutra is a thread. It also stands for a tightly woven thread. In English, an equivalent word is aphorism. By definition, a Sutra or an aphorism has to be a condensed cryptic statement. Obviously, these were philosophical statements which will, by nature, require explanation, elaboration.

It is easier to remember a few words in a cryptic sentence such as “satyameva jayate” (Truth alone wins) than a paragraph on what satya is. The sages wanted to express concepts in as few words as possible so that the concepts are easy to remember, recite and pass on to students and future generations.

One definition (?Vayu Purana) in Sanskrit says: Sutra is one which is made of minimum letters, precise, unambiguous, presenting the gist of many thoughts, and faultless that makes sense. In Tamil language it is “சுருங்க சொல்லல் விளங்கவைத்தல்” which means “to explain with the least possible words”.

When thinking about this, it occurred to me that Twitter is a modern version of sutra. But there is a huge difference. Twitter is used for sending messages with emotionally charged words which stimulate the lower parts of our brain and evoke unhealthy emotions. Sutra (an aphorism) was used to express profound thoughts and stimulate the upper parts of our brain and make us think.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence Series - 1

 Friends, today I am starting a separate series on Mindfulness, Compassion and Non-violence. I have been thinking in the past few years about starting a physical or a virtual center to focus on these topics. I even had chosen a name for it – Gautama Center for Ahimsa, Karuna and Pragna.  Initially I considered the possibility of making it a center on a social media platform. Later I decided to stay with this blog site which I have maintained for more than 10 years and  is easier to maintain. Hope you like this series. More important, hope you find these mini-essays helpful.

Meditation as an English word has several levels of meaning. It stands both for the process and for a state of being, a mental state. Patanjali who wrote the earliest treatise on this subject says that meditation is to control the modifications of the mind (second sloka of his treatise on Yoga shastra). At the end of the treatise he says that it is for reaching a state at which one becomes merged into the supreme cause. But what is the supreme cause? What is meant by merging into it?

Patanjali also gives the necessary steps including control of the body, purification of the mind etc. Several schools of meditation have sprung over the millennia based on this original writing. But many of them, including the tantric schools have caused confusion, with each school emphasizing different aspects of Patanjali’s ideas and developing its own special interpretation. In the process, they have conflated the process with the goal. Most individuals seem stuck with the process such as “how do I sit?”, “do I keep my eyes shut or closed or semi-open?” and “do I breath with the right nostril or left nostril?” etc. As I have mentioned elsewhere, during meditation symbols do not matter, substance does; duration does not matter, intensity and regularity do; rituals do not matter, inner feeling and intentions (bhavana) do.

My view is that the only system which has given simple, practical steps on meditation comes from Buddha’s teachings and is now supported by modern neuroscience. It is not surprising since Buddha focused on how to live this life well and deal with the ups and downs of our lives. These methods utilize what we all know (breath) and experience (agitated distracted mind) and teach us how to focus and look deep inside ourselves. Of course, the roots are in earlier Vedic insights. But the practical methods focus on the known and not on esoteric concepts which may or may not be true.

There are several schools within the Buddhist tradition also. My focus will primarily be on Mindfulness as taught by Rev. Thich Naht Hahn and developed further by neuroscientists into Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.

Buddhist metaphysics and psychology acknowledge that all of us are capable of experiencing several states of mind (51 by their count), some of them wholesome and helpful (compassion, gratitude) and others not helpful (anxiety, laziness) and some clearly harmful (anger). It acknowledges that all of us are capable of developing our wholesome traits with practice. The methods focus on developing the strengths in every one of us such as attention, awareness and compassion. What is remarkable is that modern day neurosciences give support to the psychology on which Buddhist meditation practices are based.

I plan to write several essays bringing the essence of mindfulness meditation to the digital generation growing up in the age of science, technology and social media. I have been writing about these  topics in these blogs and elsewhere over the past several years. Now, I plan to consolidate and update them.

The reason for starting this series now is my concern for the future. Human civilization is experiencing several stresses all at once with cumulative effects. As I wrote in my essay on Competition, Cooperation, and Collective values on June 29, 2020, humanity has reaped the benefits of science and technology coming out of the empirical approach of western philosophies. Humanity is facing the negative side of those developments. Now is the correct time for humanity to learn from the wisdom of the east which emphasizes inner dimensions and interconnections.

Although these ideas on meditation come primarily from Hinduism and Buddhism, other traditions also had elements of these practices. But Western traditions de-emphasized meditation for various reasons.  Many people in the west considered it as a religious practice. In fact, meditation is a spiritual practice open to all of humanity. It is to do with mind-body-spirit connection.

There is now more openness to meditation all over the world. Meditation is taught in schools, colleges and workplaces as part of holistic health and wellness programs. Most of them are based on mindful meditation concepts popularized by Rev Thich Nath Hahn, Dr. Kabat-Zinn, H.H.Dalai Lama and others.

I am focusing on Buddhist methods, particularly mindfulness, because they do not ask you to suspend rationality. They do not orient towards any religion or personal gods. In fact, Buddhism is classified as atheism in Indian philosophical texts. The practices are in line with objectivity and rationality and supported by neurosciences, particularly  neuroplasticity and neural states of the mind. Any one from any faith can practice mindfulness meditation as part of daily life. The new branch of contemplative neuroscience has developed tools (example: healthyminds innovations) which any one can use.

I plan to write about meditation practices and theories behind them. I also plan to write about compassion and non-violence because I believe in them as the only sure methods for peace on earth. And as Rev. William Sloane Coffin said: “The world is now too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love”.

I start with a suggestion for what we can hope to accomplish with meditation. In other words: “why should one meditate?”    

My preference is: Meditation is to calm the mind and to expand the heart. 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Angels, Devils, Devas and Asuras

 Angels, devils and genies are extraterrestrial creatures common in the western literature and myths. In India, there are the devas, asuras, rakshasas, gandharvas and so on. What if one of them arrives on earth and we humans encounter them in real life? This is a great theme for fiction writing and I have read a few of them. I am not counting fables and children stories, but good modern short stories or novels.

I have three suggestions for those of you who are interested. They were written by some of the best writers.

1.      Screwtape Letters by C S Lewis. This is an imaginary conversation between a “devil” in training and his teacher who happens to be his uncle. The elder devil teaches the novice how to play on the weaknesses of the human beings.

2.       The Wonderful Visit – On the Night of the Strange Bird by H. G. Wells. In this mini-novel, H G Wells describes an angel who (which) gets shot by a Vicar. That is because the Vicar mistakes the angel for a strange bird. It is an amazing imagination and hilarious description of  how the so-called “angelic” behaviors and values clash with those of the earthlings.

3.       Kadavulum and Kandasamy Pillaiyum ( கடவுளும் கந்தசாமி பிள்ளையும்)  by Pudumaipithan. Obviously, you have to know Tamizh language to read this. It is based on a wild imagination of God landing in Chennai, India and meeting up with a common man at a Bus Stop. What happens when God wants Kandasamy Pillai to take Him to his home?  


Friday, October 2, 2020

Reading Ancient Texts

  In my book on Our Shared Sacred Space I devoted a chapter on how to read sacred texts. Some of those points are relevant to reading any ancient text. If we read with an open mind, we can learn many things about the history, geography, language, customs and so much more. This is true particularly to Indian literature. It is only through these texts that most of Indian History has been reconstructed, since our ancestors did not leave many monuments behind. Even what they left were ravaged by the weather and the invaders. Even the bodies were cremated and there are not many funerary relics either.

I re-learnt this lesson when I studied Silappadikaram, a literary Tamil classic written sometimes before the 6th century CE. The text suggests that it was influenced by writers from earlier generations and the grammar. Obviously, the south had already felt the influence of the north particularly the four Vedas, Samkhya philosophy and of the language, Sanskrit. Jainism and Buddhism came from the north.

The first fact I discovered, re-discovered was, that the Tamil language was very advanced. It had a vast amount of literature already. Its grammar was as advanced as that in Sanskrit. Music and dance were very advanced with their own grammar and structure. The port city of Poompuhar was a major center for foreign trade. The culture of the people of Poompuhar was probably so advanced that they were the envy of other city-states. 

Indeed, there was a settlement of foreigners – the name used was yavana, referring to people of Roman and Greek origin. It is a term suggesting the origin of these people near the Ionian Sea. Some of you may know that there is an archeological site near Puducherry called Arikamedu where there was a Roman settlement in the 1st century of CE.

I re-learnt the classic description of Tamil land as consisting of seashore (neydal, நெய்தல்), countryside (marudam,மருதம்), forest and pastoral land (mullai,முல்லை), mountain (kurinci,குறிஞ்சி) and arid land (paalai, பாலை). From the descriptions of these lands I learnt about the trees, flowers , birds and animals common in those lands. Some of them are familiar and some seem to have become extinct. Various deities specific to each of these five lands are given. It appears that early temples were already existent at that time because temples of Tiruppati and Srirangam are mentioned.

We know that the Goddess of the waste land was named Korravai, who may be the forerunner of Durga and Kali in our days. It also appears that those who worshipped her lived in waste lands and lived essentially by robbing travelers and that they probably practiced human sacrifice. 

I was amazed at the depth of knowledge the author (Ilango, a prince turned Jain monk) had of music and dance. Indeed, he must have been a scholar and teacher. I learnt that many of the ragams (melodic scale) we hear now and the taalams (rhythmic structure) that are used now had their forerunners at that time in history. It could not have been imported idea because the ragas and taalams had their own unique Tamil names with no hint of phonemic similarity. He also knew how the music instruments were constructed and how the strings were attached.

Finally, there are names of several food items (அப்பம், பிட்டு, எள்ளுருண்டை for example), various ornaments women dancers wore in the arms, legs, waist, and hair. 

Some new words in Tamil I learnt are:  கங்குல் (night, darkness), யாக்கை (body), வெகுளி (anger), குரவன்           (one worthy of respect, could be a parent), கடம் (path, specifically a path in an arid land) and              வாரணம் ( may mean elephant, a rooster or a pig). And many more words, some of them we still use.

Finally, even though I do not have any knowledge of ancient classic Tamizh, I still could enjoy the beauty of this classic. 

I also learnt that Tamizh is the oldest continuously used language in the world. (