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Saturday, September 11, 2021

Life's Lessons - Who taught me What? (12)

 Friends, again I am writing two posts this week. The first one is the continuation of the series on Life's lessons. I was "moved" to write the second one during my meditative moments. 

Books that influenced me most

“Bhagavat Gita” is clearly the first on the list. I have read the original in Sanskrit. I have read three major interpretations, one by Bal Gangadar Tilak, one by Vinoba Bhave and one by Kanchi Periyaval. The translation by Kannadasan in Tamizh, is a gem for its language and unaltered meaning of the original.

The two most important lessons I have always carried in my thoughts are: 1. Sloka 43 from Section 2. Our concern should be to carry out our duty (dharma) without looking for the rewards. I can also say I have tried to apply it in real life as much as possible. I did not do so once; that was when I saw clearly why this lesson is very important. 2. Sloka 63 in the final chapter where Lord Krishna tells Arjuna “I have shared with you the deepest of knowledge (about this Cosmos). Think about what I have said and act as you think is best”. He did not say “Do as I command”. What a way to teach?

The second most important lesson came from Sir William Osler, considered the Hippocrates of modern medicine. He says: “When you want to learn about a subject, go to the most original writing on that subject. Then, read the most recent review on that subject”. He was talking only about medical subjects. But I have used this idea for several decades not only in reading medical literature but when learning about any new topic, to immense pleasure and profit.

For example, this habit led me to read one of the earliest descriptions of tetanus in an Egyptian Papyrus manuscript (Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus. I read it when I was at the University of Chicago). I can say with reasonable confidence that I have read the original descriptions of most of the diseases such as Mumps (Hippocrates), Chorea (Sydenham). Mongolism (now known as Down Syndrome) and the so-called Salaam Epilepsy. I have read the original descriptions of all the rheumatic diseases, particularly the one which established that connective tissue and blood vessels are part of all the organs and therefore connective tissue diseases are multi-system diseases.

This habit of reading the originals solidifies description of diseases in our memory. We learn why the original author thought this was important and what did he/she see unique which made him (her) describe it. Every time you read about the condition in modern literature, you just add new facts to that old memory unit like a “coat-hangar” and, also can visualize gaps in knowledge.

As I mentioned, I have used William Osler's advice in subjects other than medicine. For example,  searching for the source of the metaphor of two birds on a tree in the Mundaka Upanishad led me to a treasure house of wisdom in Asya Vamasya Sukta in Rg Veda. That led me to read the entire Sukta in Rg Veda 1: 164. That led me also to the source of the famous quote:  “The truth is one; learned men call it by different names”. This is also in the Asya Vamasya Sukta.

It is impossible for me to describe the value of this one lesson from Sir William Osler and how much this practice has enriched my intellectual life.

On Becoming a Person is a book by Carl Rogers. This pioneer in psychology taught me about how to listen and what the fundamentals of helping professions are. I have written about this topic in my Handbook of Clinical Skills.  I have tried to apply those principles in my role as a physician, as many times as possible.

Soon after I came to USA in 1958, when I was trying to adjust to the cultural shock, the book that helped me was “A Mirror for Man by Clyde Kluckhohn. This is a book on cultural anthropology which made me understand how to appreciate cultural differences. The primary lesson was that one should observe other cultures to learn and NOT to judge. One should not label cultural behaviors as “good” and “bad”. But one should understand what it is for, how and when it originated and what the advantages and disadvantages of those practices are. That way, we can adopt them if they are beneficial and reject them if they are no more valid under current circumstances (place and time) or not suitable for our needs.

This book has a chapter on how americans think and act. This was very helpful for me to adopt and behave appropriately in the new settings. It also influenced my tolerance for other ways of doing things. This book was written almost 50 years back. Obviously, the book is outdated and behavior of people has changed.  But  many of those observations made by Kluckhohn  are still true.  

This book influenced my sensitivity to cultural factors in my medical practice. This made me understand my own culture also better. 

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