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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 (

“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 ( 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.