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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Papam and Punyam (Sin and Virtue)

 Papam and punyam are two commonly used words in the Indian culture. The words mean the same in Sanskrit and Tamizh. They are the driving forces behind samkskaras (rites of passages) and dharma teachings.  

Papam means sin, evil, wicked, destructive action with bad consequences. Punyam means virtuous, meritorious and right conduct with good consequences.

Kanchi Periyaval  (vol 2: Daivatin kural page 818) says that we  accrue papam through our mind, speech and body. Bad thoughts, bad speech and bad actions result in papam. We have to suffer the consequences of those thoughts and actions. “The 40 samskaras are designed to decrease that accrued papam”, says KP.

The idea goes back to the Vedas. Chandogya Upanishad states explicitly the consequences of evil acts and virtuous acts and uses the words papam and punyam in Book 5  Section 10.

Puranas and Dharma shastras codified these acts of papam and punyam for use by common folks in daily living. These books list noble/ wholesome and cruel/unwholesome activities  through various characters in the mythological stories. Asuras are those with unwholesome and cruel qualities. Divine incarnations are described with wholesome qualities such as compassion.

The Puranas and Dharma shastras also say that if you perform good acts (punyam) you get rewarded at death and go to deva loka (heaven) for enjoyment or  to go to asura loka or hell (narakam) for punishment of bad acts (papam). But the stay at heaven or hell is temporary. Once you use up the credit either in heaven or in hell you will be sent back to earth. Earth is the only place for you to work out your karma. In other words, humans do get a chance to redeem themselves through good actions in this world. This world is the only place where humans can work out their fate!

The ultimate teaching though is release from this birth-rebirth cycle through meditation and full merger with Brahman.

It is important to note that we designate some acts as punyam or papam and so they become punyam or papam. Papam and punyam are sins and virtues with religious connotations because the consequences are rewards in heaven or hell. They are judgmental.  

I prefer defining actions on the basis of their effects on ALL LIVES, as Buddha suggested. Ask whether an action is harmful or beneficial?  Not, whether they  are papam or punyam? Not whether you will go to heaven or hell by performing specific acts.

Look how many people do horrible things (papam) and then go to the temple to propitiate or go on a pilgrimage or make donations to temples to obtain punyam! That is bartering with God.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Concentration, Meditation and Connection


                I read somewhere that if I am constantly fighting distraction during meditation, I am at the stage of concentration and not in total absorption. Reading the Upanishads, particularly Chandogya Upanishad, I see connections being made between the physical and mental levels during meditation, which is internal tapas and during performance of the Yagna (fire sacrifice), which is external tapas.

During yagna and meditation, connections are made at different planes and at various stages. At the level of the body, connections are made between physical body, vital force, thought (mind), intellect and source of bliss (Taitriya Upanishad). At the consciousness level, between the waking, dreaming and deep sleep states (Mandukya Upanishad). In the material plane, connections are made between the gross and the subtle, between part and the whole and between the small (atoms) and the big (cosmos). At the spiritual level, connections are made between the individual devatas (personal gods) and the cosmic counterparts and the Brahman.

Whatever path one takes and whatever connections one makes, finally it should end in “I am That”. Because “whatever you identify with deeply and intensely during meditation (or puja/worship) you become that”.

We learn about Unity in Diversity by reading and learning Vedic texts. We experience, or at least try to experience, that Unity in diversity in meditation. Swami Vivekananda says that such realization of the Divinity in us should lead to manifestation of that Divinity in activities of our daily living.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's comments 40 years back

 While clearing out old papers from my files, I came across excerpts of remarks made by Nobel Laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn at his address to the Harvard University Graduating Class of 1978. These were published on page 8 A of The Philadelphia Inquirer, on Wednesday, June 14, 1978. Here are a few of them:

“A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days”.

“I have spent all my life under a communist regime, and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either”.

“We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we are being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life”.

“Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic disease of the 20th century and  more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press”.

What will he say now about 24 – hour news cycles, spreading of dangerous misinformation in the social media and our response to the pandemic?

Friday, February 5, 2021

“Dialog of the Deaf” (T G Ash)

When we think, we are talking to ourselves. When we speak or write, obviously we are communicating with others. We use language for both. I have always felt intuitively, long before I started reading in several languages that language can facilitate or hinder inner conversation (thought) and external communication. Language can be liberating or constricting. Language can help expand our imagination or make us think in circles and make us into verbal pretzels!

When people from different cultures and languages speak (discuss), I often wonder whether they agree fully on what they are talking about. It is relatively easy to find words for concrete things such as the name of a tree or a flower or an animal in different languages. Even in naming concrete objects, there may be difficulties in languages which use pictograph for words, such as Chinese. My guess is that it will be even more difficult to find corresponding words in Chinese (and other languages) for concepts such as freedom. In such a situation, a discussion may be nothing more than a “dialog of the deaf” as pointed out by T G Ash in his book on Free Speech:  Ten Principles for a Connected World (Yale University Press, New Haven 2017).

T G Ash points out that Chinese authors had difficulty finding suitable Chinese words for concepts such as liberty and freedom. When asked to find translation for the title of the book On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, the best the Chinese scholars could come up was “The boundary between self and group”! The closest Chinese expression of the English word “opinion” was “true or false”!!