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Saturday, January 30, 2021

Fundamentals of teaching in the Vedic period

 When I think about education in general and teaching methods in particular,  I am most impressed with how the rishis and gurus of the Vedic age transmitted knowledge at a time when there was no written language. They used different methods to make sure that the reproduction of the sound was accurate and the transmission of the meaning effective and efficient.

They used different methods. First and foremost was the language itself. The alphabets made sure that when they are combined to form a word, there is only way to pronounce them. When written alphabets came into being, this phonetic structure got grounded.

When several words were combined to make a sentence, the rishis went for sutras or aphorisms which, by definition, had to be made of very few words, unambiguous in meaning and faultless. It is easier to remember such terse short sentences than long essays.

When short sentences were combined into stanzas or slokas,  a rhythmic structure was introduced with chandas or meter so that it is easy to memorize. All of us know how much easier it is to remember a song than a paragraph. In addition, the recitation included inflections, prolongation and shortening at specific points, as part of chanting.

Going one step further, the gurus used a method of memorization called ghanapata in which consecutive words were used in combinations of 2 and 3 words and memorized forwards and backwards. Long before written words came (and even now), Vedic students memorize entire texts using this method. It may take several years to fully memorize all 10 mandalas of Rg Veda. But once memorized, it is easy to recite the entire Veda without any mistake in sequence or in pronunciation. Once mastered, these scholars can recite Vedas at whatever point you want them to!

The teachers also defined all the wrong methods of reciting Vedic chants. Speedy chanting, mumbling, shaking the body while chanting and chanting without knowing the meaning were prohibited.

One other remarkable feature about the Vedas, particularly the Upanishads, is the idea of explaining concepts in the form of questions and answers. In fact, the name of one of the Upanishads is Prasna Upanishad, which means Upanishad of Questions. Another Upanishad is called Kena Upanishad, because the first word in that Upanishad is “kena?” which means “how come?”

In another Upanishad (Chandogya), Narada asks Sanat Kumara to teach him. Sanat Kumara says: “Please tell me what you know; I will start from there”.

In addition to explaining several philosophical concepts with examples and logic, at a level the students can understand, the teachers always said: “Think about what I said. Then, do what is right”. They never ordered students to follow blindly. The following two best examples are from Bhagavat Gita and Yoga Vasishta.

In Bhagavat Gita (18:63), at the end of all his teachings, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna: “ Thus I have declared to you secrets if the secrets. Reflect on it fully and act as you like”.  In Yoga Vasishta, at the end of the story on Bhusunda ( 21: 64), Vasishta says: “I have thus narrated the story of Bhusunda. Having heard and examined it within yourself, do what is proper”.

 In addition, when I read rishis such as Dirghatamas, who ask profound questions about the nature of this universe with humility, I feel great respect for them and to the tradition of teaching in Vedic India.





Saturday, January 23, 2021

Magic Number Seven

 Number Seven has significance in many traditions. I thought this has something to do with lunar cycles. In Vedic literature and Hinduism, there are several lists with seven items.

Seven rishis (sapta rishi mandala constellation is called Ursa Major in the west)

Seven rivers (Five rivers or Punjab and Saraswathi and Sindhu which is now called Indus)

Seven days of the week

Seven flames of Agni

Seven colors

Seven lokas (worlds) corresponding to Seven levels of existence (objects of senses, senses, mind, intelligence, ego, Purusa and a state beyond)

Seven chakras (muladhara, svdhishtana, manipura, anahata, vishuddi, aagna and sahsrara)

What I did not know was that there are seven Pranas. I thought they were only five. Apte’s dictionary define these five as  (prana, apana, samana, udana and vyana)  ह्रुदि प्राणौ गुदे अपानः समानो नाभिस्तिथे उदानः कण़ठेशस़थो व़यानो सर्वशरीरः Where are the other two pranas? They seem to be at the cosmic level. One is the unmanifest energy behind all creations. It is Pure Awareness. Some call it Purusha. The other is the manifest Prana from which the other five in the individual (Jiva) derive their energy.

In the west, we hear about the seven great sages of Greece in the 6th century BCE. They are Thales, Pittacus, Bias, Solon, Cleobulus, Periander and Chilon.

In the Akkadian and Babylonian systems, there are the seven demi-gods or Apkallus who were created by the god Enki and emerged from the waters. They are Uanna, Uannedugga, Enmedugga, Enmegalamma, Enmebulugga, An-Enlilda and Utuabzu.

The seven pillars of Islam (Shia) are Shahadah, Salah, Zakah, Taharah, Sawm, Haaj and Jihad.

Number Seven seems to hold the imagination of people of all traditions, faiths, and cultures.

PS: I forgot the seven notes of the music scale, as pointed out by one of the followers in the Comment section. 



Saturday, January 16, 2021

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence - Series 16

 Loving-Kindness Meditation (metta meditation, compassion meditation)

All of us know what compassion is. All traditions teach us that we should practice compassion. Some of us are, by nature, compassionate. Some of us have to learn to be compassionate. How do we learn? What are some of the basics we should learn, or be aware of, before learning Loving-kindness or Metta or Compassion meditation? (I plan to use the words loving-kindness, compassion, and metta meditation interchangeably) Buddhist meditation methods give us several tools.

I learnt loving-kindness meditation during one of the week-long retreats I attended with Rev. Thich Naht Hahn. It was an eye-opener. I realized very soon that one has prepare oneself to practice loving-kindness meditation. That preparation includes learning about and practicing Forgiveness,  Gratitude, Connecting to the five universal elements and Self-compassion.

To be compassionate to someone else, we must first be compassionate to ourselves. To be compassionate to oneself and not be too self-critical, one must look deeply and reflect on one’s own feelings, thoughts, and behavior. One must be able to accept the weaknesses and forgive oneself. This must be followed by efforts to remedy them to the extent possible. One should replace those “bad seeds” with many “good seeds” available within oneself. This is positive psychology.

It will be easier to practice compassion towards others if we understand how all of us are inter-connected and inter-dependent. Five element meditation will help recognize the fact that each one of us – indeed every life form – is made of the same basic elements, namely earth, water, fire, air and space. We are all made up of the same elements from star dust and energized by the same source. The source from which all of us came is a part of everyone. Therefore, part of you is in me and part of me is in you. If we can see this fact deeply and intuitively and feel it “in our bones”, there is no way we will do anything that is harmful to others. We cannot but feel the pain of others when they suffer.

One other step before practicing loving-kindness meditation is the ability to forgive others. Without forgiving others for their “perceived” weakness and real ones, we cannot truly be compassionate and send a message of good will and say with sincerity: “may you be well; may you be safe; may you be free from suffering”.

There are several sources to learn each one of these steps. The following is a list of a few.

Forgiveness meditation  by Jack Kornfeld (First 12 minutes for Forgiveness)

Self-ForgivenessMeditation, by Jack Kornfield - YouTube

Magical mantra (on gratitude and Thank you)   A magicalmantra for nurturing a blissful life | JayaShri Maathaa - YouTube

 Gratitude| Louie Schwartzberg | TEDxSF - Bing video

 FiveElements Meditation 360 Video - YouTube

Positive Psychology Exercises: Self Compassion Letter & Your Daily Holiday - Bing video

CompassionMeditation | Practice | Greater Good in Action (

TaraBrach Leads a Guided Meditation: The RAIN of Self Compassion - Bing video

Meditationon the Elements that Comprise the Body - Wake Up International (   

This  last  site has guided meditations for Breath awareness, Body relaxation and Compassion also. This is the final essay on Mindfulness, Compassion and Nonviolence. Hope they were helpful.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence - Series 15

 One of the strengths of mindfulness meditation is that it can be practiced with any daily activity. It helps you focus on whatever you are doing at present with full attention. As Rev Thich Naht Hahn used to say, you can be mindful when you are washing dishes or driving a car or answering a phone call. Instead of grumbling about having to wash dishes, you focus on the activity, enjoying the water falling on your hand, the softness of the soap, the clean dishes at the end and the fact that you are being helpful.

In what he calls “red light meditation”, Rev. Thich Naht Hanh suggests that when you come across a red light while driving, you stop, take a deep breath, relax the tense muscles, enjoy the present moment instead of complaining about the delay.

If you are doing research, you calm yourself down, take  two or three deep breaths and bring your focus to the here and now. The project will go that much smoother. The same can be said about prayers, using mindfulness meditation to bring to focus your mantra or visual image.

Walking can be a great time for mindfulness at several levels, particularly for people who just cannot sit still.  Here are two links to walking meditation. Walking meditation   AGuided Walking Meditation from Jon Kabat-Zinn by | Mindful Org |Free Listening on SoundCloud

OnWalking Meditation | Thich Nhat Hanh - YouTube

In addition to taking each step mindfully, you can also use this time to focus on the sunlight, the natural scenery and sounds around you. You can reflect on the fallen leaves and how they remind us of our own lives. As Rev. Hanh used to say: the leaves of this year become the manure for the next year. If you look deeply at those leaves, you should be able to see the sunlight, the rain and the earth elements in them. I have often reflected on the interrelationship between our lives and the lives of the trees – they give us the oxygen we breath; we give out carbon dioxide which plants to use to make their energy. 


Saturday, January 2, 2021

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence - Series 14

 There are Buddhist meditation techniques with focus on each one of the steps listed earlier. Samatha meditation is for calming the mind. Vipassana meditation is to help look deeply at the way our mind works. There is the Karuna meditation (compassion) and Tongleng meditation (for taking up the suffering of others) etc., They are not one dimensional. Each system has focus on one area but all of them have some common underlying Buddhist teachings at the core, including mindful breathing and being in the present moment. (The three seals of Buddhism, namely anatman or non-self, anitya or impermanence and nirvana are basic teachings in all branches of Buddhism)

Although these Buddhist meditation techniques (and also Hindu methods) are used commonly as part of wellness programs for stress-relief or insight into destructive mental habits, it should be possible to use these as steppingstones to higher levels of spiritual training. That does not mean one should become a recluse or an ascetic to practice meditation. But one can use meditation to grow in spiritual direction and develop helpful, healthy mental attitudes to life. 

I do not plan to venture into all the above areas. However, I plan to write my ideas on how to practice compassion and loving-kindness meditation since I believe strongly that we need as many people as possible in this world to learn and practice compassion meditation so that future generations can live in a peaceful world. It goes without saying that it is not enough to meditate on compassion - it should lead to practice. 

Once you have learnt to meditate with focus on the breath, you can learn to focus on various parts of the body and experience whatever sensations you feel in those parts. You learn to just observe and accept them without judgment or without any need to change what is real. This practice helps in several ways.

First, if there is itching in some part of the body, just observing it, and acknowledging it without a need to scratch, allows you to change your attitude to that sensation. If it is pain, by taking the time to experience it, you may be able to realize that you have been catastrophizing the pain and making it worse. You may realize that you have been imagining many bad outcomes in the future or disappointed about activities you may have to forego. This should make it clear that living in the present moment with focus on breath and the current pain, removes the sting of the anxieties about the future. Buddha calls the secondary pain associated with fear and anxieties as the “second arrow”.

This method is used currently as an adjunct to the treatment of many chronic conditions associated with pain. Studies have shown that learning to practice mindful meditation  gives a sense of control to the sufferer, reduces the need for pain medicines and improves the quality of life.

Second, by learning to focus on body parts and recognize various kinds of sensations (pain, tightness, warmth, tension etc.,) will be helpful when learning to understand our own emotions. For example, we know how our face gets flushed, voice trembles and hands shake when we get angry. Or we may feel a sense of sinking in the abdomen, when we are scared. By being aware of these sensations, next time any one of these sensations are felt and recognized we will be able to realize that we are about to get angry or get anxious or depressed and use that insight to modify our behavior instead of reflexive outburst or retreat.

This can also be used to practice gratitude meditation. We take our eyes and the ears and the legs for granted. They keep working constantly. How wonderful it will be to stop, meditate and relate to parts of our own body, experience the miracle of life and be thankful that every cell in our body is working to keep us afloat!

During one of the meditation-retreats I attended with Rev. Thich Naht Hanh, I learnt to go one level deeper. With focus on each organ, I learnt to say “thank you”, appreciate the miracle of each organ and also take a personal pledge to do things which will strengthen that organ. That gave me a chance to promise to avoid habits which are damaging to that organ. For example, when I am focusing on liver, I can promise not to drink alcohol and  to  eat healthy balanced food ; while focusing on the lung, promise to exercise regularly and not to smoke etc.,

Now, here is a link to a guided relaxation video from Ms. Tara Brach, a popular meditation teacher.      TaraBrach Leads a Guided Meditation for Sleep and Relaxation - YouTube