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Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Reading the Classics

 My generation growing up in India during the first half of the 20th century learnt about India’s own culture mostly through the writings of western scholars. Even when we came across interesting sections in Tamizh classics such as Silappadikaram and Manimekalai, the emphasis was on the language, poetry and morals. I do not remember any teacher telling me that Silappadikaram had plenty to teach about music and drama, about musical instruments and how they were made etc. I did not hear about the fact that Manimekalai had passages about foundations of knowledge such as perception, inference, and logic. The fact that these Tamizh classics were written around 500 CE means that scholars in India were already aware of and teaching these foundations of knowledge.

When you see our artisans make bronze figures in Swamimalai, you realize that long before western scientists developed metallurgy as a special branch of science, our ancestors knew how to melt a metal, how to make wax caste and even how to recycle molten, unused metal. (Please view this video from the University of California at San Diego: Masters of Fire: Hereditary Bronze Casters of South India - YouTube)

It is high time children in India are taught not only science such as metallurgy but also how metal objects were made in India long before metallurgy developed into a science.  It is high time we teach classics in Tamizh and other languages to children not just to memorize but also to learn historical facts. For example, when the teacher talks about the description of foreign traders in Kaveripoompattinam in Silappadikaram,  why not talk also about trade with the Roman empire and about sea travels in those days based on Arikamedu excavations and other sources?

Here is a section from the Tamizh classic, Manimekalai from the 6th century, which prompted these thoughts. There is an entire section in which Manimekalai goes about asking teachers from various schools of thought about their views on the origins of this cosmos. This section is a review of  systems of philosophy well-established in India by the 6th century. They include the Vedic ideas, Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Ajivaka, Nigantha, Jain and Saiva Siddhanta.

Various philosophical and metaphysical views are listed also in other classics in other languages such as Mandukya Karika (Gaudapada), Sarva Darshana Sangraha (Madhvacharya, brother of Sayanacharya) and Neelakesi. I have read the first two, not the third one (Neelakesi) in Tamizh.

As I have written in the past, when we read classics in literature and in spirituality, we can learn so much about other areas such as the language itself, how the language has evolved over the years so that the same word means a different thing now, the culture and customs of the people amongst whom the classic originated, geography, history and more.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

What is Wisdom?


Is wisdom defined by the characteristics of people who have been widely recognized as wise, such as Buddha, Jesus, Adi Sankara and Mahatma Gandhi? Or is wisdom defined by the components of mental functions such as intelligence, expert knowledge, and judgement? In the era of science, everything gets measured. Can wisdom me measured?

Neuroscience had ventured into studying all fields of mental functions. That includes happiness, self, and also, Wisdom.  For example, Meeks and Jeste have proposed a neurobiological model for defining wisdom based on available studies.  (Neurobiology of Wisdom: A Literature Overview Thomas W. Meeks, MD; Dilip V. Jeste, MD   Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009;66(4):355-365) Since components of wisdom such as cognition, emotional control, judgement, and empathy are involved in the definition of wisdom,  they suggest that wisdom requires an optimal balance between functions of phylogenetically more primitive brain regions (limbic system, in the lower part of the brain) dealing with emotions and newer ones (prefrontal cortex, in the upper part of the brain) dealing with the so-called executive functions.

In an article on Wisdom as Expert Knowledge System: A Critical Review of a Contemporary Operationalization of an Ancient Concept (Human Development 2004;47:257–285), Monika Ardelt defined wisdom as a three-dimensional personality characteristic. The three components include cognitive, reflective, and affective domains and wisdom is an integration of personality characteristics in these three dimensions.

She further points out with research and with examples that the presence of characteristics from these three dimensions is not only necessary but sufficient to consider a person as wise. She also points out that the absence of any one of these components may show the person as one with expert knowledge or thoughtful and self-aware or compassionate, but not necessarily wise.

Dilip V. Jeste and Ipsit V. Vahia studied conceptualization of wisdom in Bhagavat Gita (Psychiatry 71 (3): 197 – 209, 2008) and noted the following components: “Knowledge of life, Emotional Regulation, Control over Desires, Decisiveness, Love of God, Duty and Work, Self–Contentedness, Compassion/Sacrifice, Insight/Humility, and Yoga (Integration of Personality)”. This is similar to the major components of wisdom in the personalities of those considered to be wise, namely a great understanding of life and its vicissitudes, insight and ability to make good judgment under difficult conditions, control over emotions and compassion. A difference that stands out in the eastern philosophy is emphasis on control of desires for worldly things and renunciation of material pleasures.

 Here are some interesting quotes about Wisdom:

Knowledge is proud it knows so much; wisdom is humble that it knows no more”  (William Cowper)

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?  (TS Eliot  The Rocks)

Lord, give me the courage to change things I can change,

Give me serenity to accept things I cannot change  AND,

Give me the Wisdom to know the difference   (Reinhold Neibhur)

“Some day we will all die, Snoopy” says Charlie Brown. “True, but on all the other days we will not” says Snoopy, the wise philosopher, in one of Charles Schultz cartoons.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Mantra and the Zoroastrian tradition


The word mantra has several meanings. Most commonly it is understood to be a sound, or a phrase uttered within oneself as part of almost all religious traditions. The root word is man which in Sanskrit means “to think”. One definition says that mantra is one which protects an individual when uttered as part of a spiritual or religious observance. (manannat trayate iti,mantrah), which means that which protects when meditated on.

Use of mantra in religious services goes back millennia. In the Zoroastrian tradition, chanting mantra is referred to as part of Yasna. Yasna is akin to pujas and rituals in Hinduism. In Yasna 31:6  this is mentioned. The word used is different though. In the version I read, it is spelled mathra.

Going further into yasna, I read that it is meant to “maintain cosmic integrity” and was originally associated with preparation of a sacred drink called “haoma”. Knowing that the “ha” sound of Zoroastrian is akin to “sa” sound of Sanskrit, this sounds very much like the preparation of soma in the Vedic sacrifices.

In an article on this subject in, I read that Ahur Mazda, the supreme benevolent master, conceived the universe in his mind (vohu mana, in Vedas it is manas), fashioned it in His consciousness (daena, in the Vedas this is dhyana or dhi) and manifested it through His creativity (spenta mainyo, this is similar to the maya of vedic texts). He then set it in motion in accordance with his eternal law.

This eternal law in Zoroastrian is called asha, which is variously translated as truth, righteousness, God’s will and Laws of nature. In this, the corresponding words in the Vedas will be rta and dharma.

There are many more examples like this for some scholars to suggest that Hinduism has its roots in Zoroastrian tradition.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Ethics and Morals Vs Law

 I have always thought (and therefore wrote) that in our current stage in human civilization, legality has become more important than morality and ethics.  That is what Alexander  Solzhenitzyn meant when he said: “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”. This must change for civilization to flourish and create a compassionate society for all.

Let me explain. If individuals and organizations can act in immoral and unethical ways, and get away without any consequence, by winning court battles on legal points, the civilization cannot consider itself advanced.

A gambling organization cannot escape its moral obligation to the society just by inserting a disclaimer which says: “if you have gambling problems, call this number”!

Look at two other examples: the battle about the Affordable Care Act and the controversies about gun violence.

Reality is that insurance companies never covered preventive measures such as vaccinations or cancer screening. This despite clear evidence that these preventive strategies add “suffering-free” life for everyone (irrespective of their political views) and saves money for these insurance companies in the long term. Morality, ethics, and common sense tell us that it is wise to make these expenses paid for by insurance companies or by the government for everyone including, and particularly the poor.

Instead, what do we do? We go off the subject entirely, and quibble about “legality” of the “right to choose” or “freedom of conscience” and even more cruel idea of “if you need, you pay for it”! Then, there are those who refuse immunizations on the legal principle of “autonomy” and forget their ethical responsibility to their community.

Take the gun control issue. The legality argument on the  “right” to own firearms is held sacrosanct despite all accumulated evidence over centuries to the damage guns have done to individuals, society and to entire civilizations. How can this “right” be equivalent to the “right” for everyone else, specifically the innocent ones to live?

 We need law and order for certain. But if an act is clearly immoral or unethical, there should be some consequence to those who committed that act even if they are not held legally responsible. We cannot let legality take precedence over morals and ethics.