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Friday, December 31, 2021

"Lived forward, understood backward"

“Life is lived forward but understood backward”, says T S Eliot.

Living forward, we carry with us everything we have learned over the years from our parents, our family, school, friends, books we have read, lectures we have listened to and our lived experiences at home and at work. All of these were observed, experienced, interpreted, stored in memory, and recalled as we “live forward”. We live forward with a cluttered mind – with everything we have learnt, helpful and unhelpful perceptions, interpretations, and conclusions. Yet, we cannot live forward without that cluttered mind with its useful and essential information and also all its unhelpful/wrong ideas, biases, prejudices, and expectations.

In addition, we develop our own values; at least we should, if we devote any time to this task. We tend to cling to those values, even if shown to be unhelpful or harmful.

We think we act rationally, always. Do we? Is it possible to be so, always?

We think we are wise. Are we? Are we just being clever?

To understand our lives backward, we obviously will and must use what we have learnt and remember about ourselves and about the world around us. Can we truly understand the world around us and ourselves as they truly are, and not what we perceive them to be?

To understand the world, we have to observe it both from the inside – from being in “it” and also observing from outside. By this criterion, we just cannot know the world for sure and fully, because it is impossible to be outside of the world to observe it. The images of the world taken from satellites are just images and that too from inside the cosmos. We cannot have a complete understanding of this world because of this absolute reality.

We have some sense of the world from being inside of it, our lived experience, of being a human. There are as many experiences as there are living organisms with a nervous system and a sense of awareness. Those experiences are colored by the nature of the species and their way of life, and their niche in the web. As pointed out by Prof. Nagel, how can we know what it feels like to be a bat – living upside down in dark caves, unless we can get inside of them?

Our perceptions are colored by many factors such as nation of origin and its geography, language, customs, religion, economics, and status in society. These perceptions are further colored by individual experiences in life. They are colored by reason and emotion. They change throughout life as they should. We cannot, therefore, have a complete understanding of ourselves either.

It appears to me that to understand life and this world as they are, we must reflect from a child’s point of view. In other words, let me imagine myself as a 3- or 4-year-old. How would I have looked at the world and myself without a cluttered mind? This is what the Buddhist scholars call the “innocent mind”.

I am looking at the people, the plants, the animals, the sun and the moon and the stars for the first time. No one told me what they are, and if they did, it did not register. (This is the attitude of great poets. To me, Rishi Dirghatamas of Rg Veda is the best example)

With Innocence, I will wonder: “I have never seen this before. Have no prior experience. What is this? How did this come about?” In other words, my reaction is one of awe and mystery. My reaction is that of a newcomer, unbiased, full of curiosity, and of fear, without prior expectations or notions.

With Curiosity: “What is it? How can I find out? Will it hurt me if I go near? On the other hand, it may be useful to me, help me?” I approach cautiously because that is how I am made – to explore. If it harms me, I have learnt something. (At this stage I would not even know that I can get killed, because I do not know what death is)  I will remember and will not do it again. May be, I can eat it? May be, this person may become my friend? Unless I explore, how else can I find food or a friend?

With Trust, Faith and Hope: “At this stage I do not know what those words mean. But, if I get into trouble when I explore something, will there be someone (like my parents) to bail me out? Can I go to them to help, to give a hug and to protect me?” When I reach out to a thing I have seen before, will it behave the same way as it did before? Will my mother be there always, whenever I need help?

Thinking further on this issue, I get the feeling that I can trust Mother Nature to give us food and water and shelter, if I know my limitations; She will give me a hug and comfort me when I need. But Father Law (s) of Nature is strict. I can trust him also to strictly enforce the law. I will find out quickly if I disobey.

There lies the problem. When I am alone, I am good. When I become part of a “mob”, I tend to break this trust and get into trouble.

With a wide-eyed sense of awe: “Vow; what mysteries? these colors; these mountains; these rivers; the rainbow and the thunder; and the volcanoes and earthquakes. How did they come about? Did I behave badly? Will they go away and come back?”

I do not know whether I make sense even to myself. But am going wherever my mind and my heart take and putting them in words, a poor substitute.

If I cannot reach that state of the child’s mind - the innocent mind – I can practice daily meditation with a sense of Innocence, Curiosity, Faith and Hope of a child’s mind and with Humility, Open Mind, Loving Kindness and Compassion which I learnt later in life.

Let me close this year with the following message: May you be well; may you be safe; may you be free from suffering; may you lead a life of sharing knowledge and wealth, and may you lead a life of Harmony with the external world and Peace with the internal light.  




Friday, December 24, 2021

Civilization advances

Viewed from a historical perspective, humanity seems to have passed through periods in which a dominant mode of thinking and force(s) behind it have determined people’s way of life – beliefs, customs, laws, and living conditions.

It probably started with fear of nature’s mysteries such as cycles of sun and the moon, season, rain, and drought, and natural disasters and death itself. Magical thinking dominated. Shamans were the leaders.

Then came the early philosophers who went beyond magical thinking, started using observation and reason to study nature and its laws. Warriors and local rulers were the leaders. Thinkers provided ideas.

Some went beyond such observation of external phenomena and looked deeply into man himself, his thinking, and his relationship to nature. They were the seers and wise ones and the spiritualists. But they did not have many followers.

Religions started appearing in many parts of the world with rigid dogmas, belief systems and rules of conduct, and organizational structure. Religious heads were the leaders, often in conjunction with powerful warrior-kings. Individual thinking was not favored and was even punished.

After many centuries, a few bold thinkers, and reformers, questioned the authority of religious institutions and local monarchs and defied them. Thus came a period of observation, empiricism, and reasoning as drivers of knowledge in understanding nature. Scientific mode of thinking combined with the release of individual initiative, academic freedom and reward for success dominated civilization for a few centuries. Democracies started and flourished. Innovations of science and technology enriched the lives of many people and reduced poverty and eliminated many diseases.

It is too bad I had to put science in the past tense. The reality is that we seem to be living in an era when both science and religion are questioned, if not denied. Everything seems to be driven by politics and politicians – even science and religion. Individual variations are not tolerated. Academic freedom is disappearing even in US. Authoritarianism in some form or other is emerging all over the world. Civil discourse is disappearing. False and mis-information demand equal attention and same respect as truth. Legal documents seem to be more important than moral and ethical values.

This does not bode well for humanity.


Saturday, December 18, 2021

Satyam, Asatyam and Mithya

 I have written about my understanding of satya and mithya – which I translate in English into Truth and Relative Truth – in several posts in the past. In the present post, I wish to go a little deeper. The stimulus for this attempt is my recent reading for the nth time of Kanchi Periyaval’s lectures.

The word mithya was introduced by Adi Sankara. He acknowledged Truth as Absolute Truth (satyam) and its opposite asatyam, non-existent truth, which is obviously untruth, a lie. He compares asatyam to a horse’s horn, which, of course, does not exist.

Adi Sankara divides Truth into three varieties. One is the absolute truth, eternal, ever-present  satyam. Then comes relative truth or phenomenal truth, true from one point of view and not true from another point of view. This is vyavaharika satyam. The root word vyavahara captures the essence since this point of view is necessary for day-to-day transactions (vyavahara) in this world.

The third variety is called pratibhasika satyam by Adi Sankara. In English, let me call it Reflected Truth or a Mirage. The example given by Sankara is the way a piece of metal may look like a coin when light reflects off it at a particular angle. When approached closer the coin disappears but the metal which was the base for the misunderstanding remains. The other example is a piece of rope mistaken for a snake in darkness. Once a light is brought in, the snake “disappears”and the root cause of that false impression is left behind.

Satyam is True always. Vyavaharika satyam and pratibhasika satyam appear to be true and disappear when the basis of their relative truth is realized. These two categories are referred to as mithya by Adi Sankara. Asatyam is not true ever. 

The false impression due to Vyavaharika satyam is cleared when the permanence behind the ever-changing is recognized. The false impression due to pratibhasika satyam is cleared when one obtains true knowledge or attains gnana. In both these situations, the absolute truth is the basis (aadhara) for whatever appears to be true to our perception due to our projecting or hoisting (aarobhyam) something else on it.

The mechanism behind this mistaken belief due to mithya is called maya by Adi Sankara. Maya is, of course, is an activity of Brahman if you believe in Nirguna Brahman with no form.  If your belief system suggests Saguna Brahman with a form and a name called Iswara, the word lila is used instead of maya.

(If anyone finds errors in my understanding, please feel free to suggest corrections)

 

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Reading Skills for Pleasure and Benefits - 7

(This is the final section of this series on Reading Skills) 

When I read about ancient Indian literature in Sanskrit and Tamizh, I try and read the original and use a standard classic dictionary, a dictionary of synonyms and other aids. My habit is to look up in the dictionary for even words I know, because the context in which we use the word currently might not have been the same in the past. In other words, the meaning might have been different. For example, the word veguli in Tamizh means an innocent, ignorant person, the way I have heard it used in conversations. But the word was used in the past to indicate “anger”. The word kolgai is used to mean one’s firm belief or doctrine. But it was used to mean “proper conduct” in Thirukkural (1019).

 

In addition, I like to read interpretation of these classics by both Indian scholars and scholars from other cultures. The best example is the interpretations of Rg Veda by Sri Aurobindo which is so different from those by foreign scholars. That should be no surprise. Outsiders see things locals do not see and vice versa. Differences in perspectives will be obvious.

 

I also like to read interpretations of Sanskrit literature in the English language and in Tamizh. Whenever such books are available, I encourage you to read them. The best example for me is the translation of Bhagavat Gita by Kavignar Kannadasan in Tamizh and in Marathi by Bal Gangadhar Tilak (translated into English by Balchandhra S.Sukthankar).

 

One more important point I learnt by reading several world classics in various languages translated into English is that some translators go for the meaning of sentences whereas others try to translate word for word. Both have value. It depends on what we want to do with the information. As already mentioned, the best example for me was when I was trying to compile all the conversations in Maha Bharatha. By reading critiques of various translations, I learnt that the translation by Prof. Ganguli is considered the best for word-by-word and stanza-by-stanza meanings.

 

When I was reviewing to make sure I put down in writing all the methods I have used in the past, I remembered one other item. I give a good glance at any book review I notice anywhere, if the title looks interesting. This is one filter I use to decide on which books I wish to buy and read and which ones I wish to get from a library.

 

When I am reading a book or essay, if I find reference to another article which is the source for the current author or appears to be interesting, I will find a source on the internet to look at it briefly. That has led me to several important books and articles.

 

One of the best recent examples is a reference to a Thanksgiving Prayer from the Iroquois Nations. This reference was in a book by  Ms.Robin Kimmerer with the title “Braiding Sweetgrass”. When I found that prayer, I found how profound that Prayer is and how similar it is to some of the Vedic prayers to the sun, the wind and the fire. In addition, I learnt that the charter which the Iroquois Nations developed to bind the warring tribes was a model for the federation of the original 13 colonies of the United States. Even more interesting was when I traced it back to Hiawatha who had a part to play in the 1500’s in bringing these original five (later 6) factions together.

 

One other recent example is a reference to a Sanskrit prayer called Shiva Mahimna Stotra by Pushpadanta. When I read that original in Sanskrit I found that this Stotra is the source for the well-known statement about the Vedic religion: “ Just as the sea is the final resting place for all streams of water, You are the final place to be reached for all people whatever path they choose and however straight or zigzag that path may be” (Sloka 7)

 

I have an annoying habit of scribbling along the margin or underline or highlight the text. (I must add that I do this only in books I bought. I also tend to buy books in which I may be tempted to make notes) It may be annoying to the next reader of the book. But I find it helpful when I decide to re-read the book or look for specific ideas and quotes from that book. It may also be helpful to someone who does not want to read the entire book but is looking for a glimpse of ideas. He or she can just read the underlined areas. True, it will be my personal bias. Therefore, it is better to read the entire book for oneself or get an unmarked book to read.

 

Let me finish with a quite from Albert Einstein: “Let every man judge according to his own standards, by what he has himself read, not by what others tell him”. He was writing about an author who was criticized for his views by those who had not read him or understood him. This statement resonates with me because it emphasizes both the need to read the original papers (or books) ourselves and to think on our own.

 

Thank you for letting me share my thoughts on reading. Hope you found some useful idea (s) for your personal use.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Reading Skills for Pleasure and Benefits - 6

 In addition to following “threads” (references) to the original publications, other methods I have used include tracking “interesting remarks” made by authors on an unrelated or related subject and casual remarks. For example, in the book on Braiding Sweetgrass, the author (Robin (she) Wall Kimmerer) mentions a school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania to which children from Native American families were sent after being separated forcibly. Tracking this remark, I learnt about the “Trail of Tears” of Native Americans who were robbed of their lands and were sent to reservations.

 

The author’s remarks on Federation of Iroquois Nations led me to articles on the Five Nation’s Peace Treaty and how it became a model for the federation of the original 13 colonies of the USA.

 

One more recent example is a reference to an “axle tree” in the poem by T S Eliot on The Four Quartets. When I looked it up, I found that in common language it stands for the wood used as an axle for the cart. The poet uses this as a metaphor and as a metaphor it is the same as the idea of Dharma Chakra. The axle is stationary while the periphery moves. Time is still and at the same time moves, is the idea.

 

The axle also means the cross of crucifixion – representing God outside of time.

 

More interesting is the similarity to the symbolism of the tree in all world cultures. The axle-tree is the Cosmic Tree and therefore may be the Aswatha tree of Hinduism, Bodhi tree of Buddhhism or the Ygdrasil of the Norse mythology. Now we can chase the mythology and symbolism of these trees, by more reading, if only we are blessed with good health, good eyes, good resources and more time on this sweet earth!

 

Yet another example is an essay on appointment of an Atheist as the Chief Chaplain at Harvard (The New Chief Chaplain at Harvard? An Atheist. - The New York Times (nytimes.com). In addition to the surprising fact of an atheist being the leader of Chaplains, I learnt that the original intent of the Puritan founders for establishing the Harvard College in the 1630’s was to make sure that their clergymen were literate. I also learnt that the motto for Harvard is “ Truth for Christ and the Church”.

 

Many years back, when I was deeply involved in medical research, we did not have the internet. To do my literature research, I had to go to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia which had the largest collection of medical journals going back to the late 1800’s. Journals from each year were bound into volumes and kept in their stacks in the basement of the building. We could not go to the stacks and pick out the volume we wanted. We had to go to the beautiful large reading room at the College and fill out a request slip with the details of the  name of the journal, volume number and the year. An attendant will go down to the stacks and bring the volume we requested.

 

During my years of training, the only days I could go to the College of Physicians Library were Saturdays. I usually waited till I had a list of 10 or more references to look up before I went there. One habit I developed during those visits was not to stop with looking at the reference I went for. I used to look at the title of the articles in the entire volume of the Journal because I did not know how soon I will get free time to go to the College Library.  Using this habit, I often found articles on other subjects I was interested in or some classic papers I had missed.

 

Talking of classic articles, another useful habit is to read a biography of the author. You will be surprised to find other articles or books the author has written which are more interesting than the one you were looking for. It is also an additional aid to memory.

 

One of my habits has been to answer questions from students from memory during the encounter but go home and verify. That way, I can go back and give them the correct answer if I was wrong and also give the student the source so he/she can read. This is another aid to memory.

 

A recent example is a reference I made to Sayanacharya, a great scholar in the Vijayanagara kingdom during the 1500’s. I was correct when I gave that information during a lecture. But when I went back to look up the reference, I found another reference with greater details about his life and learnt more about his entire illustrious family.

 

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Reading Skills for Pleasure and Benefits - 5

 Next is an example of how reading the original article can help assess the validity of an essay in a non-medical journal. This method will also be helpful to read essays on scientific subjects in any journal or on the internet. Many journalists do not have the training or time to evaluate the accuracy and validity of scientific papers they review. They go for headlines, breakthroughs, press briefings and capsule summaries.

The essay I was assessing for its validity was on meditation. The conclusion of that essay was that meditation may not be helpful to many and may lead a few into more selfishness. This was written by a reporter based on an article published in a scientific journal.

It is easy to just accept that report and keep passing on that information, because it is interesting and may be true. If you are already inclined towards that point of view, you are more likely to accept it without any verification. But, before I accepted the reporter’s conclusion, I wanted to go to the original scientific report and read it for myself. But why?

First, most reporters are not trained in reading and understanding scientific reports. Most of them are not familiar with statistical concepts. They report on the conclusions, most of the time without knowing for certain whether the conclusion was valid.

Fortunately, most journals give us a reference to the source and several on-line publications even give a link to the source article. This is what I did and found the original using the link provided.

The questions I wanted to get answers for were: What was the hypothesis these authors were testing? How rigorous was their methods and procedures? Given the methods they used, do I think they could have tested their hypothesis correctly/ What was the data? What was their analytical methods? What were the limitations of the study such as selection of subjects, accounting for the biological and methodological variables? Is their conclusion valid given the data they got? If it is, how generally can this conclusion be applied? Is it applicable to just a limited group of individuals similar to the subjects in the study or to a wider group?

With these questions in mind, when I looked at the methods the authors used, here is what I found. (All the italicized sections within parenthesis are “cut-and-paste” from the original article)

The author's question (hypothesis) was: "Does mindfulness makes m people more generous and cooperative, or is it possible that it can actually make people more selfish?"

First, in biology and behavioral sciences, definition of words such as mindfulness, cooperative attitude and selfishness are essential. When you then try to quantitate these qualities which we cannot even define consistently, another layer of difficulty creeps in. In addition, there are several scales to measure behaviors such as cooperation mindfulness and selfishness. Which one of these scales did the authors choose and why?

Their hypothesis was that mindfulness which developed in societies in the orient which emphasize interdependence and cooperation may not work to the same level in the western societies which emphasize individuality and autonomy. The authors said that “Individuals with independent self-construals tend to act in ways that are consistent with goals of autonomy, separateness, and self-maximization; whereas those with interdependent self-construals tend to value the well-being of other group members, relationships, and interpersonal harmony (Gardner et al., 1999; Holland et al., 2004)”.

In addition to centuries of observation, recent studies have documented that mindfulness helps us learn to avoid distractions and develop sustained attention on the task at hand. Sustained attention helps develop and hone one’s skills. This is one reason, mindfulness is taught, to help develop sustained attention to the task at hand. One can become great researcher by being good at focusing on a research question. One can get good at prayers without letting the mind wander. So can a thief who can get good at being a thief, if that is how he wants to use his mindfulness training.

That is the problem when meditation is practiced out of context and without its inherent spiritual component.

In the Method section, we find that the authors used 366 undergraduate students from one University who were part of another study on the pro-social behavior of students. Therefore, the results of the study may or may not be applicable to other age-groups. Fortunately, the sample included males and females and also a mixture of whites, Afro-Americans, Asians and those of mixed race. Therefore, the sample population is a good one. 

In describing the procedure, the authors use the word “meditation manipulation” and use this designation several times throughout the article. This suggests that the authors were biased against it even at the start of the research.

 All the participants “completed measures of personality, trust, and prosocial tendencies that were not the focus of this investigation and then were randomly assigned to a meditation condition: either mindfulness meditation or a meditation control (mind wandering)”. The test subjects were given instructions on mindful breathing. “Both the mindful breathing and meditation control instructions were presented over the course of a 15-minute meditation period”. Members of the control group were asked to “Use the time to let your mind wander and think freely without needing to focus hard on anything in particular.” 

This is the biggest weakness of this study. How can anyone learn mindful meditation in a single short session?

 The authors measured:  Self-Construal using the Relational Interdependent Self Construal scale; Compassion using the Cameron and Payne’s compassion scale and Prosocial Behavior using the number of envelopes participants stuffed. The last one is a strange way to study pro-social behavior. 

The participants were asked to stuff envelopes of donation for a worthy cause soon after they finish reading an article about that cause in a newspaper article. The number of envelopes they stuffed was considered a measure of whether the participants became “caring” and more altruistic following the meditation. In the words of the authors: “Following the meditation manipulation, participants read an article from a local newspaper, ostensibly randomly chosen to assess how meditation affects information processing”.

  How can anyone measure a behavioral change immediately after a 15-minute meditation and how valid is it even if it shows changes in measurement? It takes many years of practice, if at all, to develop an open mind or to become compassionate. 

 The authors conclude by saying that the comparison between the test group and the control group showed a difference. They also said this score correlated with the score they obtained in the scale for selfishness and selflessness. 

  How can anyone measure a behavioral change immediately after a 15-minute meditation and how valid is it even if it shows changes in measurement? It takes many years of practice, if at all, to develop an open mind or to become compassionate.

 Simple logic tells me that this study was full of flaws in methodology. Therefore, the conclusions of this study are not valid.  

I hope this exercise gives a glimpse of how I read scientific essays whether they are published in non-medical journals or in medical journals.

 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Reading Skills for Pleasure and Benefits - 4

 Another extremely important idea on reading came from Sir William Osler, legendary Professor of medicine at four universities - the Johns Hopkins University, University of Pennsylvania, McGill University and the Oxford University. His suggestion was about how to read medical literature. He said: “ whenever you want to learn about a disease, go to the most original paper on that subject and then read the latest review”.

That advice led me to read the Edwin Smith Surgical papyrus which describes medical knowledge in the ancient Egypt. There I found a  great description of tetanus, although they did not know at that time in history what it was. I also found a description of a charioteer who fell, hit his head on one side and lost use of his limbs on the opposite side. At that time in history, they did not know that the right half of the brain controls movements of the left side of the body and vice versa. There was also a description of how to reduce dislocation of the clavicle.

I have read and have a copy of the translation of Kashyapa Samhita. Kashyapa was a student of Athreya at the ancient university of Takshashila and probably practiced pediatrics in ancient India. I have read the original description of mumps by Hippocrates. During my visit to Padua, Italy a friend of mine arranged for me to see at the University library the original print of the first book ever published on Human Anatomy by Vesalius.

I also read passages from Morgagni’s original descriptions of organ pathology. Morgagni showed that clinical symptoms during life correlate with diseases of specific organs. For example, there is one description of a young boy with acute glomerulonephritis in this book. The clinical description of the boy during his illness includes swelling of the face and feet. The pathology findings in the kidney of this boy were those of acute glomerulonephritis. That book was the beginning of clinical medicine as we practice today, because Morgagni established that specific signs and symptoms exhibited by patients correlate with disease of specific organs.

By reading the original description we will understand what was it that the original observer saw which was different from what was known at that time. This also makes us humble, for we “stand on the shoulders of giants”.

By reading the latest review, we will learn how that original observation led to other observations and developments resulting in the current knowledge about that topic and also what questions have not been answered. To get the full benefit from reading the latest review, we have to read some of the crucial references cited in the review article or book. We need to make sure the studies were well-conducted, proper statistical methods were used and the conclusions are valid, given the methods used in the study.

Most of the original classics are in ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Latin, or Aramaic. This can be used as an opportunity to learn that language. This is a bonus with rich dividends and reading pleasure. It also gives an idea of how languages have evolved over the years. I am finding this pleasure of reading classic books in my own mother tongue. Those books use Tamizh language as used more than 1,000 years back. Using dictionaries and other sources one can understand the meaning of these words.

Fortunately, most of the classic texts are available in English translation. I found it helpful to start with one of those translations even for books in Tamizh and Sanskrit because of ease of searching with the Index list. Searching with the Index list in English is easier still in the electronic versions of very long texts and passages. Once I locate the passage or verse I am interested in, I go to the text in its original language and read it for myself, if it is in English, Sanskrit or Tamizh. 

In this process, you need to find a translation which is true to the meaning of the words as used originally, not interpretive translations. A case in point is English translation of Maha Bharata. By reading reviews of several translations, I found that Prof.Ganguli’s was the most authentic for verse-by-verse translation.

As mentioned earlier, I like to read a translation which gives exact references. For example, if I want to find passages in Rg Veda, I use The Artful Universe by William Mahoney. To read passages from Satapata Brahmana I read Roberto Calasso’s Ardor. To know more about Indian History, I read A L Bhasham’s The Wonder That was India. By using references in these books, I was able to get back to the exact passages in many Sanskrit  and Tamizh originals. That is how I found out about Rishi Dirghatamas  and Asya Vamasya Sukta.

In a book with the intriguing title “Nothing”, physicist Frank Close starts his discussion on “Early ideas on no-thing” with the following passage from Rg Veda: “There was neither non-existence nor existence then….”  Tracking it back to the source, I learnt about the Nasadiya Sukta of Rg veda. 

Friday, November 12, 2021

Reading skills for Pleasure and Benefits - 3

This leads me to share one of my habits (learnt from others, of course) when I read anything, even novels and poetry. This is to keep a dictionary by my side. I have one English,  two Tamizh and one Sanskrit dictionary by my side when I am reading. With modern technology, you do not even need a print edition. There are several online dictionaries - in all languages. It is by using the dictionary I learnt what an adobe is (mud house), a tepee is (a movable tent with a triangular shape) and wigwam is (a lodge), while reading Hillerman’s novels. I also learnt several Tamizh and Sanskrit words with their several meanings.

Another great recent experience was reading Thirukkural in Tamizh and looking up the meaning of the words Thiruvalluvar used. It is obvious that Tamizh in those days was different from the Tamizh we use today. The meaning of words has changed in some. Some words had several meanings. Some of the words are not used anymore. For example, the word for a tooth in those days was எயிறு. But now we use this word for the gum. The word கொடிறு meant what we call கன்னம் (cheek) today.

In addition, whenever Ramaa and me went to any country, we asked the locals about the most celebrated author(s) of that country. We also asked them for suggestions. That is how we found the writings of Jorge Amado (The War of the Saints and many more) and Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist, Zahir and many more) in Brazil and of Ifgan Orga in Turkey. Fortunately, most of the classic books from any language have been translated into English. However, it is not the same as reading the original. But the next best.

When we were in Istanbul, we walked into one of the University Book stores. One young man working there, probably student, was eager to try his English language skills with us. We asked our usual questions and that is how we found this author and his wonderful book on Portrait of a Turkish Family . This is a real-life story based on life in Turkey soon after the fall of the Turkish empire.

This leads me to point out that one way to learn about history, culture, philosophy and religion of any country is to read fiction based on history by authors who do good research. We from Tamil Nadu know how much we learnt about the Pallava and Chola kingdoms by reading Sivakamiyin Sabatham. There are several other examples. “The Source” by James Michener is a remarkable documentation of the history of the Jewish people. I read it just before I went to Israel and was able to relate to everything I saw and heard. (It is a very long book, though). The other book is a classic fiction, Sophie’s World,  in which you can learn about various schools of western philosophies. This was written by Jostein Gaarder, a schoolteacher for use in his class, became a classic and got translated into several languages.

When you read a lot, certain things happen spontaneously. You learn to read faster and faster. That is because you learn to scan the lines instead of reading every word. Actually,  I began to scan without even knowing, until I learnt that this is the method taught in courses on speed-reading.

There is no inherent benefit to speed reading. Obviously, you cannot do that if you are reading course materials. When you are reading for pleasure, enjoying the language and style of the author, you want to read slowly and savor. Speed reading is meant for executives who have to read lengthy reports. We do not want to hurry and skip. The point is that when you read a lot, you tend to read faster because of practice. You do not miss the main points. In fact, I have found that after this many years, my eye seems to catch critical words and phrases in any page. I have learnt without knowing how to scan a passage and a page.

This leads to another point or two. As years advance, you are reading faster and faster and that means you read more books and journals. You also get time to go back and read some books you want to dive into. When you do that second time (or third time as I have done with some books like Sivakamiyin Sabatham and Death of Ivan Ilyich), you catch a few ideas, phrases and references you missed during the first read.  

While reading new authors, I am also looking for newer angles to old ideas and for newer ideas, as it happened recently to me while reading The Four Quartets by T S Eliot for the second time. I also try to relate the style and content of the current author (T S Eliot) I am reading to those by other scholars and poets I have read in the past. During my second reading I found that what Eliot says about time and the present moment to the ideas Buddha presented two thousand years back. This ability to correlate and compare writings by several authors becomes easy when you read some of the classics a second time. This is another advantage of consistent reading habits. This kind of correlation between what you are currently reading and correlating with ideas you have read in other books also improves your memory.

You become a life-long reader and therefore a life-long learner.


Friday, November 5, 2021

Reading Skills for Pleasure and Benefits - 2

 

Just like any other skill, reading skill can be developed. First step in the process is setting up a routine and sticking with it. For example, I spend the first hour of the day in reading (after meditation and coffee). The other day I added up the number of hours I would have read in the past 40 years. It is about 14,600 hours! Can you imagine how much more one can read if we include other opportunities to read such as during holidays, during travel or when waiting for an appointment?

The main point is making a habit and making time for it. I prefer mornings since it is usually quiet, and the mind is fresh. Fortunately, my wife was also a voracious reader, and we will sit and read separately in our own favorite corners in the mornings – me at the dining table and she on any seat close to a window.

You may be a bed-time reader or may have some other favorite time and place. That is OK. But it must become a habit, and not something for which you have “to find” time. Reading in bed is not my favorite. I do not want to make reading as an aid to sleeping. Many folks indeed fall asleep reading. If that is what you like to do, that should be fine. Sitting up seems to be better for being alert and awake. Curling up in a couch with a book is even better.

It is true that there is so much to read. But we have a whole lifetime ahead. An interesting episode recounted by Bill Moyers in his Introduction to the book on The Power of Myth (Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, Doubleday NY 1988, page xv) in which a student at Sarah Lawrence College was overwhelmed by the weight of reading assignments Joseph Campbell gave each week. She asked him how he expects the students to complete all the assignment in a week when they have so many assignments from other courses they were taking. Joseph Campbell’s answer was: “I am astonished you tried. You have the rest of life to do the reading”.

Reading school assignments is a different thing. I wish to focus on reading for our own pleasure and benefit. Do you like to read to just pass or "kill time"? Do you wish to read for the sheer joy of reading? Are you interested in the substance or the topic of the book or the language or the style of writing of the author? Do you like history? Biography? History? Philosophy? For knowledge? Looking for different points of view? Do you keep to one genre or are you open to several? Do you read books in different languages?

In the beginning, I read several topics since I did not know what my interests were. But I found myself interested in all topics – science and spirituality, history and language, cultures and anthropology, of course medicine. Earlier in life I read in my mother tongue(Tamizh) only. When I started reading English, I zoned in on detectives (Sherlock Holmes) and silly humor (P G Wodehouse) like many folks in my age group. Eventually I started reading on several topics.

When I came to this country in 1958 and lived here for five years with practically no contact with Indian culture and languages, I was afraid I will forget Tamizh and Sanskrit. Therefore, I was always reading one non-medical book each in English, Tamizh and Sanskrit, at any one time. Of course, I was also reading books and journals in medicine. Since I was single, lived in a hospital dorm and had no household responsibilities, I had plenty of time.

Over the years, after having read many novels, by current authors and those who lived in earlier era, I found that there are very few novels with substance. Most novels, particularly the modern ones have no or very little message. Those with a message start preaching. I have become very choosy. I would rather read the classics of famous authors from bygone era than reading books on the best seller lists. Ramaa used to call me a “snob” and I agree!

I have rough time with poetry, particularly English poetry, although I do read them with external help such as a critical review by a scholar. For example, T S Eliot’s The Four Quartets is a classic and Rev. J.C. Wood’s commentary was very helpful in understanding it. One will definitely need help to read old Tamizh classic poetry such as Manimekalai. Some of the modern English poems are easier to understand such as those by William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost.

It is certainly understandable if you find yourself attracted to certain genre of writing or certain authors. Interest changes over time. There is also more time after retirement. So why not expand the horizon? For example, recently I was introduced to writing by  Tony Hillerman, whose detective novels are all located in the Native American territory around New Mexico and Colorado. The plots are excellent. The writing is excellent. In the process of reading these novels I learnt a whole lot about Native American Culture.

I read often for useful information which will open my mind to newer topics or to new angles in old topics. Of course, the definition of the word “useful” can be challenged. But I also read for pleasure, like anyone else. I enjoy reading books for elegant use of language (Kalki and Kannadasan), beautiful ideas (Pudumaipitthan, Paulo Coelho), silly humor (P G Wodehouse, Henry Cecil, Tom Sharpe). Norton Juster’s book “The Phantom Tollbooth” written for children is a modern classic on the use of English language and my children introduced me to it. I like to read about new way of seeing things (Cosmocomics by Italo Calvino and Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), history wrapped in fiction (Kalki’s books, James Michener’s The Source, Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World) and books with some great message (Death of Ivan Ilyich).

I do not like to read single issue books commonly found in the best seller lists. My reasons are: They take one issue and make one point, which can be expressed easily in an essay. But the authors seem to elaborate this one idea with several examples to fill a specified number of pages. They often do not  mention the disadvantages of their point of view and other points of view on that topic. In short, they are one-sided.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Reading Skills for Pleasure and Benefits - 1

This is the first of a series on reading skills.  

I have written and taught about listening skills, thinking skills and communication skills throughout my career as an academic pediatrician. They became part of my Handbook of Clinical Skills (World Scientific Publishers, 2011) and Thinking Skills for the Digital generation (Springer, 2017). But I have not shared my thoughts on reading and reading skills. I have learnt much about reading skills from reading, listening to great listeners and, also through the process of reading itself.  I wish to share them with the future generation.

Reading skills, like other skills, can be developed and honed. Neuroplasticity makes it possible.

There have been books on How to Read by masters such as Mortimer Adler and many books on reading for children. There are books on speed reading. They are too formal and academic. They are based on scholarly studies.  Mine is a practical one based completely on my practices and documenting what I gained from those practices. They may or may not help others. Yet, I wish to share what I gained by specific practices.

I am sure there are many people who have read plenty and have developed their own skills but who have not written about them. Here I am, either too bold or just plain foolish.

Reading is one of the most pleasurable and useful habits one can develop. It is like a whole new world being opened before you – and that is literally true. I remember vividly how ecstatic our son was when he went to the library soon after he learned to read and came home with a bunch of books.  As pointed out by Carl Sagan   “One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time.”

Other famous quotes on reading I found to be true by personal experience are:

“The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.” – Rene Descartes

“That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.” – Jhumpa Lahiri

“Spend the first act with the dead (authors); the second with the living and the third act entirely belongs to you” – Gracian Balthazar

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few are to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” - Francis Bacon.

And the one close to my own feelings is a quote from:  A Prayer for Old Age (lorenwebster.net)

“I suspect, though, that this is an ambivalence that haunts many of us who enjoy studying ideas and reading literature. Too often literature seems a form of escape rather than a solution to life’s problems. It is easier to read a romantic novel than it is to build real love in your life.

Still, I would argue that the major goal of reading and thinking should be to empower your life, not avoid it. Reading and thinking should enrich your life, make you happier, and give you the understanding you need to cope with an increasingly complex world. They should unite you with your world, not alienate you from it.

Most of all, though, they should create a passion for life that, no matter how foolish it may appear to others, provides meaning to your life”.  

While writing this essay I found a sentence in the Introduction to The Four Quartets of T S Eliot by Rev J C Woods. He says: “Life must be lived forward and understood backwards”. This is most appropriate to this essay. I used the methods outlined in this essay, often unknowingly, when I was in the “soaking up” phase of reading. Only now, I am looking back to see what I did. Since what I did was helpful to me, I am now sharing them with the younger generation. Nothing like finding things on your own. But getting a little help in the beginning is not all that bad either.

Those of us who grew up in the land of the Tamizh speaking people in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s are very fortunate. Earlier part of the 20th century was a period of intense national fervor. It was also a period of intense literary activity. We grew up soon after or during the age of Bharatiyar and “Tamizh Thatha” (V.O.Swaminatha Iyer). This was the age of Na.Pichamurthy, Kalki, Pudumaipithan, Akilan, Devan, Jayakanthan, “Lakshmi”, “Sujata”, Annadurai, Thi.Ja.Ra, K V Jagannathan and many more Tamizh writers. Tamizh journals such as Anandavikatan, Kalki, Kalaimagal and Amudasurabhi were full of informative essays and serials on many topics and, also great fiction. We used to wait eagerly for the weekly issues and friendly rivalry among members of the family to be the first one to read the current issue was common. I remember how younger members of the family used to read the serial novels to the elders who could not read, often after lunch. That is how we learnt in our times, even those who could not read.

Why am I writing about this? For the simple reason that these same journals now publish titbits and anecdotes, most of them rumors and gossips about the so-called celebrities and politicians. Rarely does one find a solid classic in Tamizh in the pages. In this age of Text message and Twitter, the attention span has narrowed. Reading habits have changed. The journals have adapted to these habits and provide capsule items. There are even one-page stories. This, in turn, feeds into the shortened attention span and the cycle continues. How can this kind of reading broaden one’s knowledge or outlook on life? How can you learn difficult things by reading one page essays?

Saturday, October 23, 2021

India’s ancient name was Bhārata or Bhāratavarsha

 


The traditional learning is that India was called Bhārata, which was the name of the son of Dhushyanta and Shakuntala and one of the early monarchs. But Dr. Mugda Gadgil of Bhandarkar Oriental Institute says in her scholarly lecture that the name Bhārata is mentioned in the Rg Veda and was the name of a clan.

Prof. Gadgil goes on to describe a war mentioned in the Rg Veda called the Dasharajna war, or the War of Ten Kings. It was probably the earliest record of a war in the history of India. Since this is in Rg Ved, this war probably took place several decades or centuries earlier than 1,500 BCE. Prof. Gadgil says that in the ancient literature, when they say “ten”, they usually mean several and not exactly ten.

One conclusion that can be made by the passages in the Rg Veda is that there was a king by name Sudas, in the family of Paijavana. He belonged to the Bharata clan. There was a war on the banks of the river Purushni, which is now called Raavi,  involving many kings whose names are mentioned in various passages. King Sudas was the ultimate winner and established one of the earliest mini empires in an area which is now in Pakistan. Since he was from the Bharata clan, the country was named Bharatavarsha.

It is interesting to note that reference to this war and to the names of kings are mentioned in two books from the Rg Veda. One is in Book 3 and another one, more elaborate, is in Book 7. Book 3 is attributed to Vishwamitra and Book 7 to Vasishta. Interesting, isn’t it?

Prof. Gadgil presents the actual passages from the Rg Veda on the screen and gives the meaning. She also summarizes the views of many scholars on the passages. Given that the text is ancient and, we do not even know the contexts, customs and motives of people involved, our speculations are just that – speculations. But there is no doubt about the name of the King and the war.

When I read the entire Maha Bharata and also visited Kurukshetra, I got the feeling that there probably was a major conflict in that part of India several centuries back and the book is a chronicle written much later based on anecdotes and storytelling passed on from generation to generation.

Making gods out of participants of the event might have been from the imagination of our ancestors who wanted to instill bhakti in the minds of the people or because in those times kings were considered to be earthly representatives of the heavenly gods. In the process they teach us moral values, ethics and customs. They  also show that Dharma is complex and has to be applied in context.


Saturday, October 16, 2021

Collective Unconscious and Collective Conscious

 In defining “Collective Unconscious” Carl Jung is quoted as saying that ‘The form of the world into which [a person] is born is already inborn in him, as a virtual image’. There are volumes of papers and books on this topic by Carl Jung himself and other scholars. This is a theory to explain one aspect of human behavior, particularly behavior common to all humans from different cultures and lands.

Is there a “Collective Consciousness” also? This must also be inborn, an awareness of one’s own mind and of the “minds of others”. May be, “collective unconscious” is the same as “Collective Conscious” but Carl Jung used it for a different purpose and emphasized the absence of being consciously aware of our behavior.

Those were my thoughts when I was reading a pictorial essay on the “aerial acrobatics” of swarms of starlings. I have seen those swarms too (called murmurations according to the article in the National Geographic magazine). Obviously, each bird in the swarm knows the “mind and direction of movement” of its immediate neighbors and all of them interconnect so that they have a collective “mind”. Can it not be called a component of the collective consciousness of the starlings?

The same thought occurred to me when I was watching a group of birds flying alongside our boat for almost 15 or 20 minutes when we were sailing between islands in the Galapagos. They were flying in formation with two birds in the lead position. Periodically, two birds will move from the end part of the formation and take over the front lead position. How did they know?

Several years back, I watched an osprey couple raise their brood on the banks of the Choptank River. It was amazing to see the male and female taking turns watching the eggs. The female and male will take turns bringing “food” for the chick. The female will teach the chick how to fly and she will not leave the nest for good till the youngest one can take off on its own. How did the mother know it is her responsibility?

Is it not acceptable to call all this “collective Consciousness” of the species – built in and inherent in their body, brain, mind, and psyche? We, humans, certainly have a collective consciousness if only we know how to touch it. In addition, humans also have language which makes it possible to have a meta-consciousness, an awareness of awareness (in backward loops). Awareness implies a subject and an object. Taken to its origins, it is a state which ends in a Pure Subject. This is what the Advaita philosophy calls the Brahman.

How can we touch these states when the emphasis is always on the “I” and the “me”?

(Thanks to "Kannan" for a key suggestion)

Friday, October 8, 2021

Forces and Patterns (slightly revised)

 How does variety come out of limited numbers of basic units? There are only certain number of particles. Yet, the entire cosmos and our bodies are made of these particles. There are only 20 essential amino acids. Out of them come the entire varieties of viruses, bacteria, fungi, birds, amphibians, plants, animals, and human beings.

Patterns of arrangement of limited number of particles/units and “forces” acting between these particles make this universe happen.

We are told that three forces namely Electromagnetic, Strong and Weak forces and three particles, namely electron and  two kinds of quarks account for most of the universe (gravity is not on this list). Two “up” quarks and one “down” quark with a weak force make protons and neutrons and matter in general. Protons and neutrons acting with strong force relate to heat. Electrons and protons acting in the realm of electromagnetic force account for the light. 

Patterns as forms can be seen. The forces cannot be seen but inferred.

Is there a similar pattern to life on earth? As varied as life is, its material base is DNA made of the same 20 amino acids. Patterns weaved with combinations of amino acids and the sequence of arrangements of these same 20 amino acids give the codes for varieties of life forms we see. Form appears to have been explained.

But how did life and awareness appear? After all, most of the universe is made of inanimate matter. And, why life at all?

Defining life is a difficult task. We know it depends on and is based on active exchange of energy. Awareness is a puzzling emergent property of living organisms. This property is active exchange of information, which requires energy.

Just as we cannot see, but only infer, electromagnetic, strong force, weak force and gravity, we can infer “life energy” and “awareness energy” but cannot see.  It appears that the material forms are the relationship between a potential state and an emergent or manifest state requiring information and heat. The potential state can be inferred.

Material-to-life relationship (or inanimate to animate) is based on “life energy”, which operates in an individual life form and can be inferred from the existence of several life forms. From individual lives we infer a collective energizer.

Material-to-awareness relationship also needs an energy like an illuminating light. It is the meta-awareness, an invisible, emergent property of living organisms. Just as light gives illumination and, also lights up everything else to be seen, meta-awareness as an energy makes us aware of ourselves and of our own thoughts and of the universe that we live in. This can be experienced and inferred but cannot be seen. Neuroscientists will call it  an emergent property of neural networks. It has to be. But it is a property that cannot be seen.

Gravity, EM force, Strong force, Weak force, life-force and awareness force require matter to act on. Why these forces at all? We just have to meditate on them in awe and with humility. 

Oriental philosophers will say that these invisible forces cannot be described since they do not have “forms” and, also because they belong to a category on the basis of which we describe what we see in this universe. However, they can be “known” through our intuitive powers. Hindu saints say that they have experienced these invisible powers in deep meditation when they see their individual “self” merging with the universal “self”.

Our ancestors, in their primitive times and magical thinking started using metaphors and symbols to depict these invisible patterns and forces, since it was not possible to describe these forces. One of the best examples in Vedas is light equated with Sun and, also with consciousness. It is because the Sun shines on its own and makes everything else visible. So does consciousness (awareness) which by its presence reveals itself and, also everything else.

To understand symbolism of forms and forces in the Vedic literature, one should read the Upanishads and some passages in the Rg Veda. It is not obvious in a casual reading. It is unfortunate that our scholars did not develop tools to understand these metaphors, with a few exceptions such as Adi Shankara. Most of them developed systems of thought  and points of view (darshana) requiring unquestioning faith.

Here are some books which helped me to learn about the origins of these metaphors and symbols. Interestingly, all these books are by western scholars. The Artful Universe by William Mahoney, The The Golden Bough by Sir John Frazier, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life by Emile Durkheim.  For easy reading, there are many books on this subject by Joseph Campbell. Among the scholars from India, Sri Aurobindo's writings were helpful and more from the Indian context and with understanding of the culture, but sounded more like justification than explanation. If the readers know of Indian scholars who have dealt with this subject, please share that information in the Comment section.  Thank you. 

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Life's Lessons - Who taught me What? (15)

 Who taught me what after coming to Cokesbury?

After coming to the Cokesbury Village, two individuals influenced my thinking the most. I cannot even give the initials of these two gentlemen for privacy reasons. But I wish to write about what they taught me.

One of them is no more. He is no more because he lost the desire and the will to live. He taught me how to die gracefully. He was close to 100. His mind was sharp but, the body was worn out.  When this happens many in this age group lose their desire to live.  

I had the privilege of sitting and talking with him twice just before his death. It was a humbling experience. He spoke with calmness and assurance. There was no self-pity. He was saying “good-bye” in his own terms.

He told me that he became an atheist when he was around 23 or 24 following an accident in which he almost lost his life. Events around that accident made him realize the impermanence of life and life’s lonely fights. He had no regrets about the way he led his life. He also recommended that I read a book with the title “This Believing World” by Lewis Browne. I read it and learnt new ways of looking at religions in general.

The other gentleman is over 100 years old . He is my role model for growing old gracefully. He taught me that one way to live long with a sharp mind is to be socially involved, help as many people as possible, as many times as possible and lead an active, engaged life.

Lessons from Three Habits

Reading habit: During my five-year stay in US between 1958 and 1963, I was afraid of forgetting my mother-tongue and Sanskrit. Therefore, I made a habit of always reading one book in Tamil and one in Sanskrit throughout those five years. I am reaping the benefits now. The other reading habit was to always read one non-medical book, since so much of my time was taken up reading medical books and journals in those days. (I plan to write a series on Reading Skills soon)

Journal (diary writing) habit: This started when I was in Loyola College. I do not remember why I started it. It was not a list of what I did that day. I wrote only when something of significance ( at least what I thought at that stage in life to be significant) took place. Since my life for the first two years in Madras(college years) were stressful and unhappy, I used writing journal to express my disappointments and frustrations. I have lost most of my earlier notebooks. But I saved a few pages from the final years of medical school before coming to US. After that I have saved all my journals from the 1960’s. Some of the thoughts I have expressed in my blog site (www.timeforthought.net) are based on my daily journals (diary).

Meditation habit: I started daily meditation in early 1972 or 1973. Initially, I learnt basic ideas from my brother and later from Ramaa’s dad. I also got initiated into the TM style. But I followed my own path and inner direction. Therefore, it kept changing. But, after I attended the first week-long session with Thich Naht Hanh, it became steady.

I have meditated consistently for over 40 years now. I do both silent meditation in the Vedic style and insight meditation as in Buddhism. Meditation has been a great source of relaxation and mental stability and has helped me look deeply into myself and into events around me. Without meditation I could not have survived the year Ramaa was critically ill and the years since I  lost her.

My brother, Adi Sankara, Buddha, Ramana Maharishi, Thich Nath Hanh and Tolstoy are probably the most significant figures who influenced the direction of my meditation and spiritual journey. 

End of stories!

PS: In 2006, I shelved this project since it is self-centered.  I asked myself: “Who is going to read this anyway?” Few years back Sheela said that she wanted to interview me and make a recording.  Pranav also started interviewing and recording me. Therefore I decided to complete this and completed it on June 11, 2021. 

Thanks for your interest. Hope there were a lesson or two you found useful.