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Friday, December 31, 2021

"Lived forward, understood backward"

“Life is lived forward but understood backward”, says T S Eliot.

Living forward, we carry with us everything we have learned over the years from our parents, our family, school, friends, books we have read, lectures we have listened to and our lived experiences at home and at work. All of these were observed, experienced, interpreted, stored in memory, and recalled as we “live forward”. We live forward with a cluttered mind – with everything we have learnt, helpful and unhelpful perceptions, interpretations, and conclusions. Yet, we cannot live forward without that cluttered mind with its useful and essential information and also all its unhelpful/wrong ideas, biases, prejudices, and expectations.

In addition, we develop our own values; at least we should, if we devote any time to this task. We tend to cling to those values, even if shown to be unhelpful or harmful.

We think we act rationally, always. Do we? Is it possible to be so, always?

We think we are wise. Are we? Are we just being clever?

To understand our lives backward, we obviously will and must use what we have learnt and remember about ourselves and about the world around us. Can we truly understand the world around us and ourselves as they truly are, and not what we perceive them to be?

To understand the world, we have to observe it both from the inside – from being in “it” and also observing from outside. By this criterion, we just cannot know the world for sure and fully, because it is impossible to be outside of the world to observe it. The images of the world taken from satellites are just images and that too from inside the cosmos. We cannot have a complete understanding of this world because of this absolute reality.

We have some sense of the world from being inside of it, our lived experience, of being a human. There are as many experiences as there are living organisms with a nervous system and a sense of awareness. Those experiences are colored by the nature of the species and their way of life, and their niche in the web. As pointed out by Prof. Nagel, how can we know what it feels like to be a bat – living upside down in dark caves, unless we can get inside of them?

Our perceptions are colored by many factors such as nation of origin and its geography, language, customs, religion, economics, and status in society. These perceptions are further colored by individual experiences in life. They are colored by reason and emotion. They change throughout life as they should. We cannot, therefore, have a complete understanding of ourselves either.

It appears to me that to understand life and this world as they are, we must reflect from a child’s point of view. In other words, let me imagine myself as a 3- or 4-year-old. How would I have looked at the world and myself without a cluttered mind? This is what the Buddhist scholars call the “innocent mind”.

I am looking at the people, the plants, the animals, the sun and the moon and the stars for the first time. No one told me what they are, and if they did, it did not register. (This is the attitude of great poets. To me, Rishi Dirghatamas of Rg Veda is the best example)

With Innocence, I will wonder: “I have never seen this before. Have no prior experience. What is this? How did this come about?” In other words, my reaction is one of awe and mystery. My reaction is that of a newcomer, unbiased, full of curiosity, and of fear, without prior expectations or notions.

With Curiosity: “What is it? How can I find out? Will it hurt me if I go near? On the other hand, it may be useful to me, help me?” I approach cautiously because that is how I am made – to explore. If it harms me, I have learnt something. (At this stage I would not even know that I can get killed, because I do not know what death is)  I will remember and will not do it again. May be, I can eat it? May be, this person may become my friend? Unless I explore, how else can I find food or a friend?

With Trust, Faith and Hope: “At this stage I do not know what those words mean. But, if I get into trouble when I explore something, will there be someone (like my parents) to bail me out? Can I go to them to help, to give a hug and to protect me?” When I reach out to a thing I have seen before, will it behave the same way as it did before? Will my mother be there always, whenever I need help?

Thinking further on this issue, I get the feeling that I can trust Mother Nature to give us food and water and shelter, if I know my limitations; She will give me a hug and comfort me when I need. But Father Law (s) of Nature is strict. I can trust him also to strictly enforce the law. I will find out quickly if I disobey.

There lies the problem. When I am alone, I am good. When I become part of a “mob”, I tend to break this trust and get into trouble.

With a wide-eyed sense of awe: “Vow; what mysteries? these colors; these mountains; these rivers; the rainbow and the thunder; and the volcanoes and earthquakes. How did they come about? Did I behave badly? Will they go away and come back?”

I do not know whether I make sense even to myself. But am going wherever my mind and my heart take and putting them in words, a poor substitute.

If I cannot reach that state of the child’s mind - the innocent mind – I can practice daily meditation with a sense of Innocence, Curiosity, Faith and Hope of a child’s mind and with Humility, Open Mind, Loving Kindness and Compassion which I learnt later in life.

Let me close this year with the following message: May you be well; may you be safe; may you be free from suffering; may you lead a life of sharing knowledge and wealth, and may you lead a life of Harmony with the external world and Peace with the internal light.  

Friday, December 24, 2021

Civilization advances

Viewed from a historical perspective, humanity seems to have passed through periods in which a dominant mode of thinking and force(s) behind it have determined people’s way of life – beliefs, customs, laws, and living conditions.

It probably started with fear of nature’s mysteries such as cycles of sun and the moon, season, rain, and drought, and natural disasters and death itself. Magical thinking dominated. Shamans were the leaders.

Then came the early philosophers who went beyond magical thinking, started using observation and reason to study nature and its laws. Warriors and local rulers were the leaders. Thinkers provided ideas.

Some went beyond such observation of external phenomena and looked deeply into man himself, his thinking, and his relationship to nature. They were the seers and wise ones and the spiritualists. But they did not have many followers.

Religions started appearing in many parts of the world with rigid dogmas, belief systems and rules of conduct, and organizational structure. Religious heads were the leaders, often in conjunction with powerful warrior-kings. Individual thinking was not favored and was even punished.

After many centuries, a few bold thinkers, and reformers, questioned the authority of religious institutions and local monarchs and defied them. Thus came a period of observation, empiricism, and reasoning as drivers of knowledge in understanding nature. Scientific mode of thinking combined with the release of individual initiative, academic freedom and reward for success dominated civilization for a few centuries. Democracies started and flourished. Innovations of science and technology enriched the lives of many people and reduced poverty and eliminated many diseases.

It is too bad I had to put science in the past tense. The reality is that we seem to be living in an era when both science and religion are questioned, if not denied. Everything seems to be driven by politics and politicians – even science and religion. Individual variations are not tolerated. Academic freedom is disappearing even in US. Authoritarianism in some form or other is emerging all over the world. Civil discourse is disappearing. False and mis-information demand equal attention and same respect as truth. Legal documents seem to be more important than moral and ethical values.

This does not bode well for humanity.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Satyam, Asatyam and Mithya

 I have written about my understanding of satya and mithya – which I translate in English into Truth and Relative Truth – in several posts in the past. In the present post, I wish to go a little deeper. The stimulus for this attempt is my recent reading for the nth time of Kanchi Periyaval’s lectures.

The word mithya was introduced by Adi Sankara. He acknowledged Truth as Absolute Truth (satyam) and its opposite asatyam, non-existent truth, which is obviously untruth, a lie. He compares asatyam to a horse’s horn, which, of course, does not exist.

Adi Sankara divides Truth into three varieties. One is the absolute truth, eternal, ever-present  satyam. Then comes relative truth or phenomenal truth, true from one point of view and not true from another point of view. This is vyavaharika satyam. The root word vyavahara captures the essence since this point of view is necessary for day-to-day transactions (vyavahara) in this world.

The third variety is called pratibhasika satyam by Adi Sankara. In English, let me call it Reflected Truth or a Mirage. The example given by Sankara is the way a piece of metal may look like a coin when light reflects off it at a particular angle. When approached closer the coin disappears but the metal which was the base for the misunderstanding remains. The other example is a piece of rope mistaken for a snake in darkness. Once a light is brought in, the snake “disappears”and the root cause of that false impression is left behind.

Satyam is True always. Vyavaharika satyam and pratibhasika satyam appear to be true and disappear when the basis of their relative truth is realized. These two categories are referred to as mithya by Adi Sankara. Asatyam is not true ever. 

The false impression due to Vyavaharika satyam is cleared when the permanence behind the ever-changing is recognized. The false impression due to pratibhasika satyam is cleared when one obtains true knowledge or attains gnana. In both these situations, the absolute truth is the basis (aadhara) for whatever appears to be true to our perception due to our projecting or hoisting (aarobhyam) something else on it.

The mechanism behind this mistaken belief due to mithya is called maya by Adi Sankara. Maya is, of course, is an activity of Brahman if you believe in Nirguna Brahman with no form.  If your belief system suggests Saguna Brahman with a form and a name called Iswara, the word lila is used instead of maya.

(If anyone finds errors in my understanding, please feel free to suggest corrections)


Saturday, December 11, 2021

Reading Skills for Pleasure and Benefits - 7

(This is the final section of this series on Reading Skills) 

When I read about ancient Indian literature in Sanskrit and Tamizh, I try and read the original and use a standard classic dictionary, a dictionary of synonyms and other aids. My habit is to look up in the dictionary for even words I know, because the context in which we use the word currently might not have been the same in the past. In other words, the meaning might have been different. For example, the word veguli in Tamizh means an innocent, ignorant person, the way I have heard it used in conversations. But the word was used in the past to indicate “anger”. The word kolgai is used to mean one’s firm belief or doctrine. But it was used to mean “proper conduct” in Thirukkural (1019).


In addition, I like to read interpretation of these classics by both Indian scholars and scholars from other cultures. The best example is the interpretations of Rg Veda by Sri Aurobindo which is so different from those by foreign scholars. That should be no surprise. Outsiders see things locals do not see and vice versa. Differences in perspectives will be obvious.


I also like to read interpretations of Sanskrit literature in the English language and in Tamizh. Whenever such books are available, I encourage you to read them. The best example for me is the translation of Bhagavat Gita by Kavignar Kannadasan in Tamizh and in Marathi by Bal Gangadhar Tilak (translated into English by Balchandhra S.Sukthankar).


One more important point I learnt by reading several world classics in various languages translated into English is that some translators go for the meaning of sentences whereas others try to translate word for word. Both have value. It depends on what we want to do with the information. As already mentioned, the best example for me was when I was trying to compile all the conversations in Maha Bharatha. By reading critiques of various translations, I learnt that the translation by Prof. Ganguli is considered the best for word-by-word and stanza-by-stanza meanings.


When I was reviewing to make sure I put down in writing all the methods I have used in the past, I remembered one other item. I give a good glance at any book review I notice anywhere, if the title looks interesting. This is one filter I use to decide on which books I wish to buy and read and which ones I wish to get from a library.


When I am reading a book or essay, if I find reference to another article which is the source for the current author or appears to be interesting, I will find a source on the internet to look at it briefly. That has led me to several important books and articles.


One of the best recent examples is a reference to a Thanksgiving Prayer from the Iroquois Nations. This reference was in a book by  Ms.Robin Kimmerer with the title “Braiding Sweetgrass”. When I found that prayer, I found how profound that Prayer is and how similar it is to some of the Vedic prayers to the sun, the wind and the fire. In addition, I learnt that the charter which the Iroquois Nations developed to bind the warring tribes was a model for the federation of the original 13 colonies of the United States. Even more interesting was when I traced it back to Hiawatha who had a part to play in the 1500’s in bringing these original five (later 6) factions together.


One other recent example is a reference to a Sanskrit prayer called Shiva Mahimna Stotra by Pushpadanta. When I read that original in Sanskrit I found that this Stotra is the source for the well-known statement about the Vedic religion: “ Just as the sea is the final resting place for all streams of water, You are the final place to be reached for all people whatever path they choose and however straight or zigzag that path may be” (Sloka 7)


I have an annoying habit of scribbling along the margin or underline or highlight the text. (I must add that I do this only in books I bought. I also tend to buy books in which I may be tempted to make notes) It may be annoying to the next reader of the book. But I find it helpful when I decide to re-read the book or look for specific ideas and quotes from that book. It may also be helpful to someone who does not want to read the entire book but is looking for a glimpse of ideas. He or she can just read the underlined areas. True, it will be my personal bias. Therefore, it is better to read the entire book for oneself or get an unmarked book to read.


Let me finish with a quite from Albert Einstein: “Let every man judge according to his own standards, by what he has himself read, not by what others tell him”. He was writing about an author who was criticized for his views by those who had not read him or understood him. This statement resonates with me because it emphasizes both the need to read the original papers (or books) ourselves and to think on our own.


Thank you for letting me share my thoughts on reading. Hope you found some useful idea (s) for your personal use.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Reading Skills for Pleasure and Benefits - 6

 In addition to following “threads” (references) to the original publications, other methods I have used include tracking “interesting remarks” made by authors on an unrelated or related subject and casual remarks. For example, in the book on Braiding Sweetgrass, the author (Robin (she) Wall Kimmerer) mentions a school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania to which children from Native American families were sent after being separated forcibly. Tracking this remark, I learnt about the “Trail of Tears” of Native Americans who were robbed of their lands and were sent to reservations.


The author’s remarks on Federation of Iroquois Nations led me to articles on the Five Nation’s Peace Treaty and how it became a model for the federation of the original 13 colonies of the USA.


One more recent example is a reference to an “axle tree” in the poem by T S Eliot on The Four Quartets. When I looked it up, I found that in common language it stands for the wood used as an axle for the cart. The poet uses this as a metaphor and as a metaphor it is the same as the idea of Dharma Chakra. The axle is stationary while the periphery moves. Time is still and at the same time moves, is the idea.


The axle also means the cross of crucifixion – representing God outside of time.


More interesting is the similarity to the symbolism of the tree in all world cultures. The axle-tree is the Cosmic Tree and therefore may be the Aswatha tree of Hinduism, Bodhi tree of Buddhhism or the Ygdrasil of the Norse mythology. Now we can chase the mythology and symbolism of these trees, by more reading, if only we are blessed with good health, good eyes, good resources and more time on this sweet earth!


Yet another example is an essay on appointment of an Atheist as the Chief Chaplain at Harvard (The New Chief Chaplain at Harvard? An Atheist. - The New York Times ( In addition to the surprising fact of an atheist being the leader of Chaplains, I learnt that the original intent of the Puritan founders for establishing the Harvard College in the 1630’s was to make sure that their clergymen were literate. I also learnt that the motto for Harvard is “ Truth for Christ and the Church”.


Many years back, when I was deeply involved in medical research, we did not have the internet. To do my literature research, I had to go to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia which had the largest collection of medical journals going back to the late 1800’s. Journals from each year were bound into volumes and kept in their stacks in the basement of the building. We could not go to the stacks and pick out the volume we wanted. We had to go to the beautiful large reading room at the College and fill out a request slip with the details of the  name of the journal, volume number and the year. An attendant will go down to the stacks and bring the volume we requested.


During my years of training, the only days I could go to the College of Physicians Library were Saturdays. I usually waited till I had a list of 10 or more references to look up before I went there. One habit I developed during those visits was not to stop with looking at the reference I went for. I used to look at the title of the articles in the entire volume of the Journal because I did not know how soon I will get free time to go to the College Library.  Using this habit, I often found articles on other subjects I was interested in or some classic papers I had missed.


Talking of classic articles, another useful habit is to read a biography of the author. You will be surprised to find other articles or books the author has written which are more interesting than the one you were looking for. It is also an additional aid to memory.


One of my habits has been to answer questions from students from memory during the encounter but go home and verify. That way, I can go back and give them the correct answer if I was wrong and also give the student the source so he/she can read. This is another aid to memory.


A recent example is a reference I made to Sayanacharya, a great scholar in the Vijayanagara kingdom during the 1500’s. I was correct when I gave that information during a lecture. But when I went back to look up the reference, I found another reference with greater details about his life and learnt more about his entire illustrious family.