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Saturday, October 1, 2022

The "Wisdom of Five Fingers"

Natives of the island of Vanuatu Islands in the Pacific Ocean base their concepts of teaching their traditions to the children on the idea of "Wisdom of Five Fingers". In this concept, the little finger represents infants who are innocent and do not know anything. The ring finger represents children who are asking questions and are learning to do things. The middle finger represents independent adults who are doing things on their own. The index finger represents adults teaching their children. The thumb represents the elders of the society. They are just there, solid as a stone. Younger ones come to learn their traditions. The younger ones use the elders like a stone - to sharpen their knives!


This reminded me of an essay I had read several decades back in one of the issues of the Bhavan's Journal. In this essay the author explains the meaning behind the Indian way of putting the palms together in prayer or in greeting elders and guests. The little finger, which is farthest from our chest represents human ego. The ring finger represents human desires. The middle finger represents spiritual ignorance (which blinds us to the fact that Atman and Brahman are one). The index finger represents the Universal Force, the Brahman, which is in everyone (as Atman). The thumb closest to our chest is that Universal Force, the Brahman which is within oneself.


This also explains the chinmudra of Dakshinamurthy with the index finger and thumb touching each other which symbolizes the oneness of Atman and Brahman.


Ref: Neil McGregor. Living with the Gods.


Friday, September 30, 2022

Addition to Wants and Fears

 When I posted the earlier blog on Wants and Fears, I was thinking of the fundamental drives behind human activity and of all forms of life - a need to get food to live, a need to avoid dangers and get eaten and in-built drive to procreate. I was also reflecting on the hand-postures called mudras of the vigrahas or images of Hindu pantheon of Gods. One hand takes abhaya mudra which indicates "Do not be afraid, I am here to protect you" and the other hand takes varada mudra, which indicates " I will take care of your needs and desires".

Needs and wants lead to a desire and will to act. Desires may be fulfilled or may not be. That leads to anxiety. Even if one gets what one desires, there is always the possibility of losing it. That is also cause for anxiety. Attachment to objects of desire accentuates this anxiety. And also leads to anger against those who are preventing us from getting what we desire or taking away what we have etc., 

All of this is common sense. What is amazing is how our ancestors wrote about them centuries back and taught us how to avoid these natural human tendencies and lead a spiritual life. This reminds me to refer to Bhagavat Gita Chapter 2; verses 62 and 63. It is a beautiful summary of how our mind gets into trouble.

"Those who keep thinking of sense-objects, attachment towards these objects grows. Desire arises from this attachment. From desire arises anger. Delusion is the result of anger. Delusion leads to confusion which results in destruction of intelligence and thus to one's ruins". 


Friday, September 23, 2022

Wants and Fears

 

It appears that the modern, consumer-oriented, commercial, competitive, and complex world, is driven by never-ending “wants” and an atmosphere of living in constant “fear”.  Both the “wants” and the “fear” are driven mostly by ads and messages in the 24-hour news cycles and in the social media. Fear is driven by the existence of violence in the minds of a few who hurt innocent people for no understandable reason and the availability of lethal weapons in their hands. This danger is so pervasive that children have to learn how to protect themselves from this danger at schools.

 We know from the writings of people of wisdom from the past and modern neurosciences that actions triggered by “desire” and “fear” are the causes of our suffering.

Will it ever be possible to create a society in which the basic needs of every person - namely a roof over the head, decent nutritious food, basic education, and basic health-care needs - are available and accessible? Will it ever be possible for children to go to school to learn without fear and parents to be able to send their children to school without fear of losing them? 

 

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Dharma for the 21st Century - Revisited (2)

 This discussion on the importance of ethics and morals have been going on in Western philosophy also since the time of Socrates as documented by Jamie Susskind in his recent book with the title The Digital Republic. Most thoughtful people agree that the internet and social media are affecting human behavior in a self-destructive way and some rules and regulations are needed to make large corporations in control of Digital technology behave in a socially responsible way. How can such rules and regulations be developed and implemented in a democratic way, to allow private enterprise to thrive, to preserve First Amendment Rights and to build in boundaries for these multinational corporations? Jamie Susskind gives a thoughtful analysis and offers several ideas to consider.

My understanding of the book is that Jamie Susskind is clearly for developing some rules and regulations. He points out that moral standards based on societal values should guide development of these rules and regulations. In his discussions, the author points out how laws should be contextual. But details of what contextual means will be contested. Therefore, he says that exceptions should be clearly defined. This is where Jamie Susskind’s ideas triggered my thoughts on Dharma and how the principles of dharma include context, exceptions and rules for what those exceptions are.

Jamie Susskind also points out that moral standards and exceptions must come out of democratic deliberation by people who are affected (users of technology) and cannot be left to the corporations or politicians. The rules should not be solely for profits, feasibility, and ease of implementation. As David Attenborough pointed out People and the Planet should also be included in the equations, in addition to Profit. (He called it P, P and P).

When I thought about Dharma after reading the book, I realized that the following questions must be answered before developing and implementing laws, if they are meant to be fair, relevant, and practical. 

Does the law reflect societal values? This means participation by the public, which in turn requires a forum to express, freedom to express and public debate conducted in civility. In other words, ethical and moral values cherished by the society should be the guide in a democratic society. 

Is the law contextual? This requires revisiting it periodically, as context changes. As the semanticists will say “You cannot drive in a new territory with old maps".

 Is the law reasonably flexible and allow conditions for exceptions? Yes, not twisted like a pretzel beyond recognition but flexible to suit the specific situation. In other words, there should be agreed-on provisions for exceptions as had been suggested by Jamie Susskind in his recent book on The Digital Republic and by Prof. Gert in his book on Morality: A New Justification of the Moral Rules (Oxford University Press, 1988). The public should be involved in making the conditions under which the rules may be broken. 

What are the mechanisms to enforce the law?  

Will the law be enforced without "fear or favor"? 

 I suggest an additional layer of consultation and discourse in developing societal values as I had written in my essay on Cabinet of Collective Conscience on January 29, 2013 (http://wwwtimeforthought.net). The summary of that essay is that every head of a nation may wish to consult with members of a Cabinet of Collective Consciousness of the people of the nation. This should be a triumvirate made of a trusted person who is considered best in expressing the moral voice of the nation, a respected poet and a humorist, someone who can look at the foibles of the people and of the leaders and express them with civility and humor (harmless satire, court jester).  (Concluded)

 

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Dharma for the 21st century (revisited) - 1

     I have always felt that morality should be more important than legality and that moral standards are needed to guide legal restraints.  I wrote about developing new set of moral values and ethical standards for the 21st century and applied the well-established Sanskrit word Dharma for defining them. (http://www.timeforthought.net, June 16, 2009) Later, I made it part of my book on Our Shared Sacred Space. A book I am reading currently (The Digital Republic by Jamie Susskind) stimulated me to update this idea.

Early societies functioned basically on moral values appropriate for the conditions of the societies in which they developed. Since the groups were small, everyone knew everyone else in the group or clan. Since the safety and welfare depended on everyone doing his or her “duties” properly without cheating, and the cheaters and disturbers of peace could be identified easily and ostracized immediately, there was no need for “laws”.

Laws came later when the groups became larger, jobs needed to keep the society functioning became diversified and complicated and particularly when people from outside the group came in as traders, warriors or seeking marital relationships. Before organized religions got established, these were unwritten laws or moral codes. These unwritten laws got codified by religious scholars and became laws sanctioned by religions. Those who broke these laws were ex-communicated or punished.

Written laws became necessary particularly to settle disputes on land, property ownerships, inheritance and bodily injuries.

All human societies have the same basic norms of moral conduct. The Golden Rule is the best example. The focus of this essay is on the Vedic Indian concept of Dharma and how ideas expressed in the book on The Digital Republic have been discussed for centuries in both the East and the West.

The strength of the Dharma concept resides in its foundational principles. Dharma acknowledges that human beings are different in their personalities. Their circumstances are different at different stages of life. Their roles and duties are different depending on their sex and positions in life. They perform different functions at different times in their lives. One rule cannot fit all. Therefore, Dharma allows for variables in setting rules of conduct.

These ideas are expressed in Maha Bharata Book 8, Chapter 69 in the form of a conversation between Lord Krishna and the warrior, Arjuna and later in Book 12 by Bhishma. Krishna points out that it is often difficult to discriminate between what should be done and what should not be in any given situation.  Between keeping one’s words and be truthful and having to kill someone because of that vow, killing is clearly worse. Krishna goes on to say that although truth is a great virtue, there are occasions when falsehood is acceptable as for example when life is in danger, or one is in danger of losing all of one’s property.

After giving some examples, Lord Krishna says: “Wish there is an easy way to know the difference between virtue and sin. Sometimes, scriptures help. But scriptures do not deal with all situations. Sometimes, you can reason it out. Whatever is inoffensive and whatever protects and preserves people is dharma”.

One other feature of the Dharma concept is that it is not rigid, the same for all times. It allows for exceptions to the rule and explains conditions under which assigned rules may be broken. The system also suggests methods to rectify for the lapses.

 Most importantly, the system prioritizes the importance of acceptable virtues. For example, not harming life is more important than telling a lie, if the lie was meant to protect a life. For example, if a helpless girl is running away from someone who is trying to kill her would you not want to help her by protecting her in your house? When the person chasing her comes to your house and asks for her, what is more important – saving a life or lying? Dharma concept says “saving life” takes primacy, by listing ahimsa (non-injury, protecting life) ahead of satyam (truth). 

(to be continued)

Saturday, September 3, 2022

Known, Unknown and beyond both

 Human mind categorizes everything, and categorization is always for a purpose. In general, it is to help understand a thing or a concept or a situation. This results in binary classification most of the time, such as “Black” or “white” and “good” or “bad”. Gradations in between are passed over or “pigeon-holed” into the nearest category. No wonder 0 or 1 algorithm originated with digital technologies created for a purpose.

But the real world is full of “may be” and “shades of gray”. It is more like the quantum world and indefiniteness of atomic particles and probabilities. Eastern traditions are better equipped to deal with uncertainties.

Now I can see that in meditation we are taught to think differently – rather observe things as they really are and not the way our mind categorizes. This kind of thinking will help our mind open to other possibilities such as

 “Life, no life, beyond both life and no life”

“Known, unknown and beyond the known and the unknown”.

“Measurable, unmeasurable, and beyond measurable”. 

“Beyond beginning and end”

“Universal self” in addition to individual life (jivan) and individual self (atman)

Friday, August 26, 2022

Beliefs and Practices through the Ages - 5 (Concluded)

In the Central Province of India (now Madhya Pradesh), there was a custom during a cholera epidemic for a priest to go from house to house collecting straw from the thatched roof of every house and burning them ceremoniously. Then a chicken was driven towards the direction of the fire carrying all the diseases away. A similar ceremony is described from another part of India in which a female black buffalo or goat was the “scapegoat”. The buffalo was driven out of the village never to return.

Then there is a section on the custom of bonfires in many European societies until as late as the 1700’s. These are eye-witness accounts. These were probably associated with human sacrifice initially, and then just beating or chasing away the victim chosen for this occasion, every year. (In my hometown, I have witnessed “sokkappanai”, which was probably meant to drive away evil spirits)

In his description of the bonfires, one can see practices like those described in the Vedas such as starting a new fire each year by churning or rubbing one wood with another and then maintaining it till next year in each house. He also refers to Agni as “born of wood and embryo of plants”.

There are several pages of examples from many societies on the isolation of girls at their first menstruation with emphasis on not having them see the sun (keep them in a closed room without windows or hut) and not have them “pollute” the earth.

In the section on souls, Sir Frazier thinks that ancient man probably thought that the soul can be stored away from the body temporarily. According to the Aristotelian idea of “contagion”, two items “once connected are always connected”. Therefore, the soul or spirit survives even after death of the body and can then be stored away in a secret place. Until the soul is found and destroyed the person cannot die even if he is killed!

(Samkhya philosophy says that even after the stula sarira or gross body dies, the sukshma sarira or the subtle body lives on and clings on to another body such as a leech does)

The soul can be deposited in a plant or an animal. Therefore, clans for whom an eagle is the repository of the soul, eagle is the totem and people from that clan will not kill an eagle – and consider it sacred. And this applies to different animals, birds and things in different tribes and cultures.

Interestingly, some tribes believed in several souls for each person.

Frazier recounts mythological stories from cultures in all continents, which recount the story of a giant or a king who cannot be killed until his soul kept secret in a deep ocean or huge forest guarded by demons, or inside a bird or an egg is destroyed. The hero goes through the ordeal, find the secret hiding place of the soul of the giant or the king, gets hold of the bird or the egg and destroys it. Many myths and legends are based on such beliefs.

There are several passages to explain the importance of the Oak tree to the ancient Celtics, who considered this tree to be very sacred. (In Indian culture, pipal tree holds this sacred position)

Because oak tree was considered sacred, the celts also thought that mistletoe which grows as a parasite on the oak tree was sacred. Indeed, many European cultures, even the non-celtics thought that the mistletoe has magical and mystical properties and was capable of driving away evil spirits. 

In the West, kissing under mistletoe is still practiced during Christmas season. The current practice is related to a Norse mythology;  but in ancient times  men were allowed to steal a kiss from any woman caught standing under the mistletoe.  More significant, refusing was considered to bring bad luck.

Sir Frazier concludes by saying that mistletoe is what is referred to as the Golden Bough in the ancient Book of Nemi. That is the reason why he chose The Golden Bough as the title for his book.

Scholars do not agree with many of the explanations given by Sir Frazier. But no one denies that this book is a remarkable collection of religious practices in various ancient and modern cultures and that this book generated several serious studies in cultural anthropology.


Sunday, August 21, 2022

Addendum to a post on March 21, 2021: Adi Sankara and C S Lewis - comparison of their concept

In an earlier post comparing the thoughts and writings of Adi Sankara and C. S. Lewis, I referred to laws of physical nature and laws of human nature. C S Lewis points out that we all know that we cannot choose to disobey laws of physical nature. If we do, the results will be definite and disastrous. But we can choose to disobey laws of human nature, which deals with human behavior in relation to others, other lives. These laws relate to whether we behave decently towards others.

Later I was amazed, but not surprised to learn that Vishnu Sahasranamam, a famous Hindu prayer, has mentioned the same two laws of Nature, one of Physical Nature and one of Human Nature, in Slokas (stanzas) 151 and 153. It goes on to say that both Laws are held together by Lord Vishnu. It is interesting to learn that the name Achyuta is used to refer to Vishnu, who controls both. The word Achyuta in Sanskrit means “steady”.

Just as there are physical laws of nature, there are laws of human Nature. The word Dharma can be applied to both. The Primordial Force behind both, bringing them together in harmony, is the same for all of humanity. But the names happen to be different.

 

 

 

Friday, August 19, 2022

Beliefs and Practices through the Ages - 4

       Sir Frazier suggests that the myths of Isis and Osiris in Egypt, of Aphrodite and Adonis in Syria, of Cybele and Attis in Phrygia (part of present-day Turkey) and that of Demeter and Persephone of Greece are counterparts of the same myth in different cultures. He also describes the Eleusinian mysteries as documented in Homer’s Hymn to Demeter in support of his suggestion. It is a story of a daughter and mother symbolizing seed and the corn according to Frazier. Demeter is suggested to be the Goddess of corn. Persephone living underground with Pluto for 6 months and on earth for 6 months is suggested to represent the growth of plants starting in the spring and going underground in winter. Spring festival is celebration of rebirth (arrival) of plants and animals and therefore the joy of the mother, Demeter on the arrival of her daughter, Persephone. He suggested that the celebration of Easter was probably borrowed from these ancient myths and celebrations.

Speaking of substitution of symbols and objects in primitive rituals, Fraizer points out the association of trees with spring and revival festivals and corn or barley with the harvest festivals. Symbolically corn may be called “the old woman” in the rituals. (In southern India, rice plays the main part in harvest festival)

He compares the spirits of the primitive rituals with the gods of later magical worships. Spirits are confined to one sphere of nature over which these gods have influence. Their specific names include wind-god, rain – god, tree-god, corn-god etc., The head of these “gods” (devas) also has a specific name such as Indra, Zeus, Jupiter, Demeter etc., and have more general influence over many things.

Primitive rituals such as harvest festivals do not have any priests (unlike religious festivals for the God), can be celebrated anywhere such as on the field (and not in the temples, which are late arrivals), and are celebrations and not propitiation to any God for favors. (This is true of Pongal of southern India, which is also a way of thanking the powers behind a good harvest, the cows and the bulls and the Sun “God”)

Sir Frazier describes rituals associated with harvesting of new crops such as corn, rice, and millet in various parts of the world and in ancient cultures. The first yield was considered sacred containing the spirits of nature and therefore special prayers were offered before eating the first yields. In this section, he refers to the Curumbars and Badagas of southern India, the custom of Pongal in the south and Navan in the northern India.

 He refers also to a Green Corn dance by the Seminoles of Florida. In similar rituals among the Thompson Indians of British Columbia, Canada, a prayer is offered just before eating freshly harvested first yields of Sunflower Roots. This prayer sounds like the prayer we in India offer, namely Brahmarpanam, Brahma Havih etc., It says: “Oh food, I am going to eat you so you can help me achieve great heights in my life etc.,”

There is a very good explanation for the practice of offering food, particularly the first harvest, to the Gods. In the sacred mode of thinking, food is infused with Divine Spirits and that food and harvest are gifts from the Gods. Therefore, man is obliged, bound by duty, to express his gratitude to the Divine benefactor by acknowledging that gift. This is about the best definition of Naivedyam in the Hindu puja.

In another section Frazier explains the meaning behind the offering of rice balls in the Vedic ceremonies. Rice balls represent ancestors. These rice balls are called Pinda and each Pinda represents an ancestor. Offering pinda is part of the funeral ceremony (anthyeshti) and annual ceremonies for ancestors. In the customs of southern India, there are seven balls of rice, representing seven generations.  During the ceremony, the Pindas are mixed suggesting merging of the latest one with the previous one.

According to Frazier, the rice itself is the hair; water sprinkled to make the pinda is the skin; mixing them gives the pinda a body and flesh; when it is baked it gets hardened and gets bone and finally when butter or ghee is sprinkled the body acquires marrow. I think the author is quoting this explanation from an ancient Sanskrit text because he gives them under parenthesis.

Frazier gives several examples of people transferring their physical or mental pain and suffering to a plant or an object or an animal and even to another person. He gives examples from ancient times and also from recent centuries. Although he talks about the “barbarous and the aboriginal” people with some sense of superiority of the European nations, he gives examples of “barbarous and the aboriginal” practices from England, Italy, Germany, Austria etc.,

In this section, he gives example of Rajah of Manipur and Raja of Travancore transferring their sins to someone in their kingdom. In one example, the subject who accepts all the sins of the king is sent out of the kingdom, not to return.

“Scapegoat”, we are told is a shortened version of “escape goat”, which refers to an object, plant, animal, or human who takes the blame (Or forced to take the blame) for someone else. The original scapegoat, we are told, goes back to Biblical times when the sins of the society were hoisted on a “goat” as part of Yom Kippur festival. However, we are also told that the goat was a wrong interpretation of the Hebrew word ez ozel, or Azazel, which meant an “evil spirit”.

There is a whole section on the sacrifice of a “scapegoat” in all societies, ancient and modern. This ritual was practiced when some one person is ill or a whole village is afflicted by cholera, plague, or smallpox. This was also practiced for removing the sins of individuals or of the society. Some were occasional events and some annual rituals. In many of these rituals, at the end of the ceremony when the “scapegoat” was sent away, people often said “Fly away, you devil. Never come back again” etc., There is mention of practices as late as the 16th and 17th centuries with humans as “scapegoats”, who were ceremoniously “sacrificed” (sent away).

When I was reading these passages, I skipped some of them, because I could not bear reading about the cruelty to animals and even to humans designated as “scapegoats”! What human beings will do in the name of faith and belief is beyond “my” belief.

Some examples from India includes the practice of sacrifice of langar monkey, as a scapegoat to get rid of evil from a village, in one part of Assam. It was an annual event called Asongdat. In one part of Mysore state (of those days), when there was smallpox or cholera, the evil was hoisted on an image. This image was carried from village to village at midnight and dumped into the nearest river.

From Nicobar Island comes an eye-witness account of a yearly ceremony in which boats with sails were constructed, which was laden with a special kind of leaf, representing evil and sin, and was taken to the sea or a river to float away.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Beliefs and Practices through the ages - 3

 On Taboos:  Taboos can be of things or of words. In Sir Frazier’s words, they are like insulations “to preserve the spiritual force with which these persons are charged” or “inflicting harm to the outer world.”

In describing how taboos start, he says that taboo of any item made of iron started soon after iron-age began, obviously because of fear of a metal they had not seen before. We still encounter this kind of fear about new items civilization had not encountered before such as new vaccines and GMO.

The taboo against blood began probably because people believed that the spirit of the animal or the person was in the blood. And any place blood touched was also a taboo.

Touching the head of a person was a taboo for fear of harming the soul. There are several pages on what is done to hair removed from the head in different societies. Indeed, there is a whole book on this subject (William c. Innes Jr. Religious Hair Display and its Meanings. Springer. 2021)

There are pages and pages of examples of prohibition of saying out the names of people loud, particularly the names of Kings and of course of God. In an example from ancient Egypt, Isis (the daughter of the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut and also wife of Osiris, God of the underworld) wants to be the Goddess but could not do so until Ra told her His real name. In the Old Testament, we read about the Creator God not giving his real name to Moses but just says “YAHWEH”. I have read (but do not remember the source) that in Vedic times, the name of Indra could not be uttered loud during yagnas lest “asuras” find out his abode.  

The book is full of examples of festivals and rituals, most often related to fertility and prayers for rain and good harvest. These festivals and rituals included sacrifice of an animal or a plant. Earlier versions included human sacrifice. Later effigies replaced human victims. In these festivals, effigies and images were taken in procession accompanied by frenzied dances and self-mutilations. Worship of images was common in almost all early civilizations. 

Civilizations that came later considered these practices as barbaric and condemned idol/image worship. In the Old Testament, one of the Ten Commandments Moses gave to the people of Israel was: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image” (Exodus 20: 4,5).

The author discusses and compares Christianity and Buddhism in one section. As the author points out, these traditions started with the noble ideas of their Founders who emphasized poverty and celibacy. One system pointed towards bliss in another world and one emphasized relief of suffering in this world. Both emphasized individual efforts which was different from the old religious practices with emphasis on the community. According to the author, Christianity and Buddhism were breakaways from primitive religious practices which emphasized rituals and sacrifice for the sake of the survival of the group by praying to a God. 

(This is true of Hinduism also. Early rituals were performed around fire-altar and worship of several Gods with oblations. These “gods” were different from the creator-God, each one as the energizing spirit behind parts of Nature, such as Varuna (god of water and rain), Agni (god of fire) and Aditya (the sun-god). The emphasis was on "group and universal welfare" and not individual salvation. The arrival of the age of the Upanishads changed the focus to individual efforts and salvation. Worship with images of Gods and temples came later. Even with temple worship, the purpose was one of "thanksgiving" to the Gods for the bounties He/She bestows on the devotees.) 

The author points out that “civilization is only possible through the active cooperation of the citizens and the willingness to subordinate their private interests to the common good”.  This attitude was changed with the arrival of the Greek culture which emphasized rationality. Before that, cultures were celebrating festivals often connected with the cycles of season, arrival of rain, draughts, revival of life in the spring and their death or disappearance in winter. Dances, rituals, and sacrifices were part of these celebrations.

“The ecstatic frenzies which were mistaken for divine inspiration, the mangling of the body, the idea of new birth and the remission of sin through shedding of blood” which had their origins in ancient beliefs were called “savagery” by the Greek culture which took a more rational approach to events in Nature. When these rationalistic ideas spread to the Roman empire and then to the eastern regions, the new arrivals and the elite were forced to accommodate these earlier practices into the beliefs and customs of the original inhabitants because the masses were not ready to let go of them.

This happened to Buddhism when they had to adopt many of the gods of the Hindus since the common people were not ready to let go of their established practices. This is what happened to Christianity when it had to adopt the Winter Solstice celebration of Mithraites as the day of Nativity and the March Equinox ceremonies of Adonis and Attis as the Easter and Resurrection.

To learn the legends and myths of ancient Egypt, one should read sections on the celebration of Osiris in this book. This is an easy-to-understand summary of the complicated and incestual relationships among the ancient gods of Egypt. The author compares celebrations associated with Osiris to those of Adonis and Attis, all of them gods associated with agriculture, specifically corn.  The author quotes several passages from Plutarch’s book.

The way I understand, Ra is the Sun God. and His wife is Nut (sky goddess). Nut has extra-marital relationships. One of them is with Seb, the Earth god and Osiris is born of this relationship. Nut also has children by other connections: Horus, Set, Isis and Nephthys. Osiris marries Isis. Set marries Nephthys.

Ra gets angry because of Nut’s infidelity and curses Osiris. Osiris becomes the god of the netherworld (akin to Yama and Chitragupta of Indian mythology). He is also the god of corn. In this legend we learn that Osiris dies, was cut up into 14 parts and scattered throughout Egypt. The spots where the parts fell became sacred places.

Does this not sound like the legend of Sati (Parvathy) whose body was carried around by Shiva? In this legend, Sati’s dead body was carried around in a dance of destruction by Shiva and Lord Vishnu cut the body Sati’s body into 51 parts using His Sudarsana Chakra. These parts fall on earth (all within India, of course) and those sites became sacred pilgrimage sites for worshippers of Shakti.

Osiris is also brought back to life. According to the author, this may be the link to the legends of resurrection in Christianity since it corresponds in the timing of celebration to spring and arousal of life in the form of plants and animals.

Reading this part, I also noticed that most of the celebrations in all cultures are related to cyclic events of nature. Thus, those related to full moon are related to the Moon God; those that occur around the solstice are related to the Sun God. Those related to the god of Earth relate to sowing (spring, arrival of rain) and harvesting (just before winter). 

There is a description of a festival in ancient Egypt (documented by Plutarch and two other writers) around the time of winter solstice in which houses are illuminated with lamps one night a year. The festival itself is like Deepavali (Diwali) in India.

In the Egyptian legend, lighting of the lamps is said to be for helping Isis look for the body of Osiris. Osiris is considered to be the god of corn and the rituals enact effigy of Osiris made of corn being buried. The growing of corn from the body of Osiris is like the story of gods (devas) arising from the body of Prajapati in Indian mythology.

 

 

Friday, August 5, 2022

Beliefs and Practices through the Ages - 2

 Today happens to be National Bloggers Day, according to Tech Times. The word “blog” is an acronym and stands for the original “Web log”, which became “weblog” and then just “blog”. 

Sir Frazier summarizes two kinds of magical thinking in primitive cultures. One is called Sympathetic, also called Homeopathic magic based on similarities between objects or events and the old idea of “like produces like”. The second is called Contagious magic based on the belief that things which were in contact will continue to be in contact even if separated by distance or time. In other words, the belief system says: “Once connected always connected”.

These ideas were the basis of medical treatment in primitive societies and continue to be so even in modern societies.  Galen, a physician from the 2nd century, whose ideas dominated medical practice until 1800’s recommended treatments and taboos based on these ideas. For example, pain in the ear was treated with a plant whose flower looked like an ear.

Sir Frazier gives scores of examples. This includes several from India – why the crematorium- keepers were tabooed from the villages (contagion of death) and practices associated with menstruation and childbirth. There is an example of strict rules for continence among the weavers of Mirzapur district during silk-worm breeding season. The weavers did not want to offend the animal spirit and the consequent superstition that if men have sex during this season, silkworms will not be able to reproduce.

There are examples of purification ceremonies for returning soldiers after killing in war, so the spirit of the dead does not linger and cause harm (contaminate) or to appease the spirit of the dead.  The author gives an example of propitiation for killing a cobra in Madras (obviously Tamizh nadu).

Sir Frazier gives examples of practices in India which required a King to be deposed every 12 years. Twelve years corresponds to the time taken by Jupiter to make one revolution around the Sun. Jupiter seems to be the ruling planet for the kings. One of the legends around this 12-year cycle suggests that the king was be-headed in a special ceremony at the end of his reign. Frazier calls this “thalavettiparothiam”, and those of us who know Tamizh and Malayalam know that thalai is head and vetti means to cut. I did not believe it first; but found a book on Kerala written in 1900 by one Mr. Panicker who refers to this practice in the past.

 Even more fascinating is the suggestion that the “maha maham” of Kumbakonam has the same name as the Kerala celebration called Makamakam.  Since these festivals come once every 12 years, I wonder whether this has anything to do with the rotation of Jupiter. And the fact that in ancient Greece, the King ruled for only 8 years. This seems to be related to the fact that full moon falls on the longest day of the year once in 8 years, signifying the alignment of the Sun and the Moon.  

In an example from Bilaspur, India we are told that when the king dies, a Brahmin eats khir (milk and rice sweet) from the hand of the dead king and becomes a king for one year. At the end of the year, the Brahmin is banished. This is given as an example of a custom in many societies where the King’s power to produce good harvest, bring rain and prosperity is passed on to a substitute for a short period and the custom of killing the king at the end of 8 years or 12 years was given up. (Later still, instead of the king getting sacrificed, the custom of sacrifice of the first son of the king came. This was replaced later by the custom of sacrificing an animal) 

We learn from this book that a festival called Rali ki Mela was celebrated as a Spring Festival in Kanagra District which is now in Himachal Pradesh. (This is given as an example of festivals in several cultures to welcome spring) 

There is a description of an ancient custom in several parts of West Asia which the author calls “sacred prostitution”.  Specifically, he mentions a custom in ancient Cyprus in which women had to cohabit with strange men at the temple of Aphrodite before they can get married. A similar practice was also prevalent in some ancient followers of the pre-Jewish religions.  This reminded me of the custom of Devadasi in India and also the custom described by Perumal Murugan in his book on Madhorubagan or Ardhanareeswara.

Sir James Frazier describes a Festival of Adonis in ancient Syria, Greece, and other places. He thinks that by enacting this festival people mimic the growth of crops hoping to ensure a good harvest. One can question his interpretation. But the ritual and its details are interesting.

In this festival which occurs usually in early spring people plant seeds of wheat, barley, lettuce, fennel, and some flowers and grow them for eight days. At the end of that period, they ceremoniously immerse these plants in water. The author says that this is to pray for better rain and that the Easter ceremonies of Christian era got associated with this ancient custom.

For me the interest was the similarity of this festival to our custom of growing sprouts in mud pots and then immersing them in water. (paaligai,பாலிகை ). Indeed, Sir James Frazier describes this also as part of similar examples. He also describes another similar festival among the Mundas of Bengal. But he does not mention Varuna Japam and the ritual of immersing Nandi in water whenever there was drought.

As I have written in my book on Our Shared Sacred Space, comparative studies of cultures in a systematic scientific manner have made us realize how commonly similar beliefs are held in several different cultures, how several festivals correspond to rhythmic cycles of the seasons and harvest, and how each culture finds its own rituals and practices to relate to events in life such as birth and death. This is the importance of studying comparative anthropology, comparative mythology, comparative religion etc.,

Emile Durkeim’s book (Elementary forms of religious Life), Sir John Frazier’s The Golden Bough, The Believing World by Lewis Brown and Joseph Campbell’s several books are great starts.

 

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Beliefs and Practices through the Ages - 1

 Dear friends, in the next several posts, I plan to summarize interesting examples of beliefs and practices from several cultures documented in a classic written by Sir James George Frazer in the earlier part of the 20th century. Many of the conclusions of this author have been challenged over the years. But the scholarly mature of the book and new research spawned by this book are important to take note of.

      I just completed reading a book with the title The Golden Bough in Two Volumes published by Macmillan, London 1920 written by Sir James George Frazer. It is a classic but controversial. Many of the theories and explanations given by the author have been challenged since he wrote the book in the early 1900’s. This fact suggests that the book must have generated interest in the study of ancient religions and practices among scholars.

It is unlikely that many people will be interested in reading this book with patience. I found it a tedious reading experience. That is why I am summarizing areas which I found interesting for those who might not want to read the entire book.

Many modern scholars do not accept the author’s theories and conclusions. I do not either. The author reflects the attitudes of scholars of that era with a “colonial” mindset which considered cultures other than European as of inferior status. That is evident by the words the author uses to refer to other cultures, words such as "pagan", "heathen", and "savages". But he admits that those "pagan" practices which he scorns were practiced in the European cultures also even in the 19th century.

Sir Frazier shows his own prejudices and thinking of his era when he suggests: “….people in other parts of the world, who because they have lagged behind the European race in mental development” … have kept their superstitious customs and rituals! He did not realize that Will and Ariel Durant were more honest when they wrote in a separate section on Superstitions in their Ten Volume book on The History of Civilization. They pointed out that every culture tends to make fun of superstitions of other cultures when each one of them practices its own set of superstitions.  

But this criticism is no reason for not reading the book since it contains descriptions of rituals and religious practices in different societies, ancient and modern. They are well-documented and valuable.

The author gives multiple examples from a variety of primitive cultures to indicate how the ideas of sacredness and religion evolved out of the curiosity of folks belonging to these ancient cultures. In trying to explain natural phenomena, they resorted to magical thinking, which became the basis for their assigning sacredness to specific sites and to the concept of “spirits” animating man, animals and birds and “spirits” explaining natural disasters.

There are certain critical summaries at the end of some chapters in which the author gives his views on how the ideas and practices evolved. His views are questionable. But his examples are not. They are based on observations of primitive societies in the 1800’s by anthropologists and missionaries and classics such as those by Herodotus, Plutarch etc. Some examples are based on current practices which are remnants of ancient customs and rituals.

Now to the book.

This book is a “ collection of evidence of superstitions and beliefs” from several societies, spanning all the continents including Africa and Australia from ancient times. 

Let us start with the author’s definition of what religion is.

“By religion, then, I understand a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed powers to direct and control the course of nature and of human life. Thus defined, religion consists of two elements, a theoretical and a practical, namely, a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate or please them. Of the two, belief clearly comes first, since we must believe in the existence of a divine being before we can attempt to please him. But unless the belief leads to a corresponding practice, it is not a religion but merely a theology; .......... Hence belief and practice or, in theological language, faith and works are equally essential to religion, which cannot exist without both of them". (Page 222-223.)

The author's thesis is that human civilization moved from magical explanation of natural phenomenon to religious explanations and has now moved to scientific explanations. Initially, man believed that he can magically control nature such as producing rain or get rid of plagues and pestilence. When he realized that he cannot do this through shamans, he moved to attributing nature’s phenomena to unseen forces and used priests to intercede with the Gods. Later still, he learnt to study phenomenon using scientific methods and discover universal laws of nature.

Before I delve into the chapters, let me give a few samples from this book on practices in India. 1. Among one clan of Todas of Nilgiri mountains, the milkman is akin to a king. He is considered to have the ability to influence nature and therefore, special. But that puts special restrictions on his life. 2. The reason why some people snap their fingers in front of the mouth while yawning is to prevent the “soul” from leaving the body.  3. He recounts a story (most likely from Nepal) that when Adi Sankara went to Nepal to meet with the Dalai lama and defeated him in arguments, the Dalai Lama stuck a knife on the shadow of Sankara and Sankara broke his neck soon thereafter. This example (by historical accounts this never happened) is given as an example of the belief that the shadow of a person carries the soul and it is possible to control the individuals fate by manipulating the shadow.

The author also gives several examples from other cultures to explain why some primitive people did not want their photos (their shadows captured) taken. They feared that the person who took the photo or someone else can cause harm to the real person by damaging the “shadow”. (I remember my grandmother objecting to any photograph taken of her) This same applies to reflection in the water. (In Tamizh culture, this belief was still prevalent in my childhood days and it was called "soonyam", or "laying a curse" on someone)

 

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Thoughts on Purple Martin

 Purple martin is a beautiful little bird. Our residents have built a special kind of cage for them in the open field right in the middle of our village complex. Some of our residents had arranged for an event yesterday when a Naturalist tagged several chicks from Purple Martins living in this nest. There were nine newly hatched chicks. First, I was impressed with the gentleness with which the naturalist and his assistant handled the newly hatched birds. It reminded me of my days in the newborn nurseries when I examined newborn babies.

It is a good thing that an interest in learning and scientific curiosity have led to a love of nature and caring for these birds. When I watched the bird held extremely gently by the naturalist, I was full of respect for her. At the same time, I could not help thinking how scared those birds would be. The naturalist knew she was not going to hurt the bird. But how would the bird know?

I also could not help admiring the beauty of the bird, its color, and the feathers. I could also imagine that they were made of the same kind of matter I am made of. It has its own brain suited to its lifestyle. That brain has its own GPS so the bird can find its nest and its own kind of motor control so it can alight perfectly on the branch etc. Even more astonishing that the female of the species knows which one are her babies. She also knows intuitively her responsibility to find food for them. How does she know? For her, it is not accumulated knowledge. It is built into her brain. But how?

Does that purple martin know her own “I”? I think she does.

Wonder. Mystery. Beautiful. Humbling.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

What is Truth?

 

“To tell you the truth” and “As a matter of fact” are common sentences all of us use to make our point. But what is “fact” and what is “truth”? Ray Jeannotte Langley of British Columbia points out in a letter to the Editor of Scientific American (July, 2022, page 6) that “The word ‘truth’ is elemental, and its misuse (unintentional or intentional) promotes division”.

We know that the words “facts” and “truth” do not mean the same thing. Facts are objective, impersonal and can be verified. Truth is personal and a subjective assertion.

In religious and spiritual texts, we read about truth with a small t and Truth with a big T. When someone says, “The truth is…..”, the listeners need to be extra careful.

What does that word “truth” mean when it is preceded by “the” or when the word begins with a capital T? Whether the word is used by saints or by ordinary folks, I get the feeling that the user knows what it means. It has a personal meaning for that individual. But the way the word is used, with a big T, or with preceding “the”, one gets the feeling the writer really knows what that word should mean. If you and I did not get it, it is our problem.

The point is that truth is a word which categorizes a set of thoughts. But the way it is used, it sounds as if there is a “higher” truth and a “lower” truth and if you do not get what the writer is defining, you are thinking about the “lower” truth. We are caught in words and categories which often ends in arguments and differing “camps”.

I hope what “wisdom-people” and Saints use the word Truth with the capital T to stimulate us to look at nature deeply and think on our own. I hope they did not intend it to call our thinking as lower, or as a dogma to follow or to proselytize.

Besides, the truth of any statement should align with verifiable facts and its usefulness and not with “absolute certainty”. Our mind functions in this world with incomplete information and best available evidence. Facts provide that information and someone’s professed truth.

In this era of “alternative truth” and “truthiness” (of Stephen Colbert), Ray Jeannotte Langley’s advice is timely: “Communicating facts instead of truth is a good place to start”.

Saturday, July 9, 2022

Time, Space and Naadabrahmam

 

Time and Space are two fundamental units of nature. They are deeply interconnected. They existed long before human beings appeared on this earth and will last forever. We came on the scene and separated them in our minds for better understanding of nature. Albert Einstein brought them together in recent times. But Vedic rishis knew that by intuition and wrote about them.

The Vedic philosophers called time Kaala. That which is not bound by time (kaala) was called nithyam and limited time was anithyam.

Space was called aakaasam. That which is restricted by space has a form which was called a roopa and that which was not restricted by space was called poornam.

Anything created has a roopa and if something has a roopa, we gave it a name or naama. Anything with a form and a name is by nature impermanent or anithyam.

That which is beyond both kaala and aakasa was called vibhu (eternal, existing everywhere).

Now comes an interesting insight in the Samkhya philosophy.

The never-ending, never ceasing poornam and nithyam take the form of naada (sound, not any sound, which is called sabda produced by some action but the background inherent waves whose disturbance causes the sound). In other words, naada is the form for unrestricted eternal time or kaala and also becomes the representation of poornam, unrestricted space.

I can now see how the sound OM, became the symbol of Vibhu, the one beyond both space and time. I can also see how the sounds of mantra became sacred in the Vedas. I can also understand why master musicians worship naadabrahman.

It is very interesting also to learn that sound is significant in the Western Abrahamic traditions also. But their emphasis is on the words, “the word of God” and not on the basic sound itself.

(My understanding came out of trying to understand the meaning of the words used by Saint Thyagaraja in his composition “Naada tanum anisham shankaram”  which means नाद (basic note) तनुं (body) अनिशं (never ending).  Saint Thyagaraja says, “I bow in my mind and with my body to Lord Shankara, the embodiment of the eternal (nithya)  and all-encompassing (poorna) in the form of basic musical note”. Please correct me if I have not understood any of these concepts correctly. Thank you.)

Friday, July 1, 2022

Reflexive, Reflective and Wisdom Thinking

 

Recent reflections have brought me to the following conclusions. Of course, they may change and should, if I continue to observe and fine-tune my ideas.

The stimulus for the reflections includes my own observations of personal life, life of people around me, and world events. It also includes reading both philosophers and sensitive writers who understood life intuitively and had the gift of writing such as Tolstoy, Toni Morrison, V. S. Kandekar, “Jayakanthan”, Kannadasan, Pudumaipithan, and Thi.Ja.Ra.

We are a mixture of angels and devils in our thoughts and actions. That is how nature has made us. But it also gave us a mind which is capable of knowing what we know and knowing that there are areas we do not know about. We also are capable of knowing that there are likely to be spheres that are not knowable at all given our mental equipment.

We are primarily made to act first in response to our needs and survival. Therefore, the primary drivers are desire and fear. Our “higher brain” has to do the thinking, so we do not hurt ourselves in the process of seeking and avoiding.

We are independent creatures and survival implies selfishness first. We are also social creatures, for safety and food, if not for anything else.

The higher, analytical thinking takes time, of course, even if it is in milli-seconds. It creates categorization, classification, “you and me”, “we and us”, and many other dualities. The analytical process is helpful mostly. But it also creates a need for making “choices” and therefore, confusion and anxiety and fear.

How do we get over these natural laws of human nature?

We use two different methods: one to deal with basic fears and desires and one for the so-called “higher functions”. They feed on each other, and we need them both. (In recent times, these are called Type I thinking and Type 2 thinking based on the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman)

When we are seeing or hearing or using any one of the senses to experience what is going on around us and within us, we are invariably influenced without our knowing, by our memory of past experiences, by all we have learnt, our biases, fears, hopes, needs and expectations. Most of our daily life is based on automatic, unconscious processes in the brain. We tend to act reflexively or out of habit.

That is why spiritualists tell us that we must be an observer, non-judgmental observer, a witness. This is what Hindu and Buddhist schools of meditation teach us to do. This is also called “seeing things with a child’s mind”, “seeing things as they truly are” and seeing the Universal in the individual. They assure us that this is the way to becoming fearless and free. They also assure us that because of the way our mind is constructed for self-preservation, it will do the right things on its own to keep us out of trouble. I am not so sure.

This is also hard to do. It is but natural to be reflexive to survive and sustain life. But it is often necessary to engage the thinking aspect of our brain and reflect. Reflection, analysis and clear thinking do not always lead to correct conclusions. We can fool ourselves with clever use of words and crooked thinking.  It may also lead us to conflicts and confusion.

Actions are oriented to the outside world. Reflection is directed inwards. Even after engaging all our mental faculties, we are not sure we can always arrive at “wise” conclusions based on universal love, compassion, non-violent conducive to universal welfare and self-survival.

May be, we need a third layer, to balance reflexive and reflective thinking and to lead us to wisdom. Call it our “moral compass”, “internal policeman”, conscience, Inner Sense, Common Sense, Inner light, or Atman. Whatever the name we call it, we need that third layer to give us our moral and ethical values.

 We obviously are endowed with that third layer ability to evaluates decisions made by the “executive centers” and the “survival centers”.   As pointed out by C S Lewis and Adi Sankara (see my  blog Sunday, March 21, 2021 Adi Sankara and C S Lewis - comparison of their concepts) all of us have such a force inside of us. That is why most of us act morally and ethically. That is why those who do not follow that inner light ask to be excused or give excuses for their actions which they knew intuitively to be immoral.

 

Friday, June 24, 2022

Following rituals blindly

 Those of you who have been following my blogs know that I do not like to follow rituals blindly or chant mantras without looking at the original source, the context in which they were written and understanding the “substance” behind them. I found a humorous anecdote on how rituals might have started, written by the famous Tamizh writer Pi. Sri. (பி.ஸ்ரீ.) in his book on Tamizh Festivals.

A Swamiji raises a cat to take care of mice in his hut. The cat insists on sitting on Swamiji’s lap whenever he sits to meditate. This becomes a nuisance and therefore the Swamiji ties the cat down every time he sits down to meditate. His disciples note this routine and start a routine of tying down a cat – any cat – before they sit down to meditate.  This becomes a ritual among his followers!

Friday, June 17, 2022

Thoughts arise (எண்ணங்கள் உதிக்கின்றன)


Friends, my apologies to those who cannot read Tamizh. This was a sudden inspiration and I had to do it only in Tamizh. 

எண்ணங்கள் உதிக்கின்றன. 

எண்ணங்கள் உள்ளே உதிக்கின்றன. அவை மொழியாக தோன்றுகின்றன. சில பொழுது தமிழில் தோன்றும். சில பொழுது ஆங்கிலத்தில் தோன்றும். இன்று தமிழில் தோன்றியது.

காலை நேரம். மெதுவான வெய்யில். குளிறான காற்று. இயற்கை அன்னையின் உள்ளே நிற்கிறேன். இயற்கையை அனுபவிக்கிறேன்.

இயற்கை எனக்கு வெளியிலா, தனிப்பட்டதா?

ஆனால் நான் அதை அனுபவிக்கிறேனே.  அப்படியானால் அது எனக்கு உள்ளேயா?

இரண்டும்தான். நானும் இயற்கையும் ஒன்று.

இயற்கை என்பது எது? அது எனக்கு உள்ளே தோன்றும் காட்சியா? அப்படி இருக்க முடியாது. அந்த காட்சியில் நான் என்ற தனிப்பகுதி சேர்ந்து விட்டது. இயற்கையின் உள்தன்மையை எப்படி காண்பது?

நானும் இயற்கையும் ஒன்று.

நீயும் இயற்கையும் ஒன்று.

நான் யார்?  அதுதான் ரமணரின் கேள்வி.

நான் என்பது இயற்கையின் ஒரு சிறு பகுதி.

அதற்கு உடல் உண்டு, உயிர் உண்டு,

உணர்வு உண்டு, உள்ளம் உண்டு,

உடலை காண, உயிரை காண,

உணர்வை காண, உள்ளத்தை காண,

உள்ளுணர்வு என்று ஒன்றும் உண்டு.

அது எனக்கும் உண்டு.

அது உனக்கும் உண்டு.

ஊமைக்கும் உண்டு.

மீனுக்கு உண்டு, மயிலுக்கு உண்டு, முயலுக்கு உண்டு.

அந்த உள்ளுணர்வுக்கு மூலம் எது?

மூச்சு அடைக்கிறது!

 

Friday, June 10, 2022

Consciousness and meditation - old concepts and modern views

 

Ancient texts from Vedas, Vedangas and Buddhist texts have elaborate descriptions of several levels of consciousness. They include consciousness during waking period, during dream state, during deep sleep state and the base on which these three levels of consciousness are experienced as one’s own. This is called atman. This is then connected to Universal Consciousness, the root of all kinds of consciousness, the base of all the atmans of this universe, called Brahman or Mahat or Buddhi.

In the Buddhist texts, there two levels of consciousness – Mind Consciousness (mano vignana) and Store Consciousness (alaya vignana). There is a state beyond both these levels which can only be experienced.

These are great visionary insights by the ancient rishis and particularly Buddha. Now modern neurosciences have started exploring the mind and its functions including consciousness. Many old observations have been confirmed. Weaknesses of these old concepts have also been exposed. Let me try and correlate some of the old ideas with current knowledge.

The idea taught in Indian texts about our awareness during waking hours, dream state and deep sleep is easy to reconcile. It is also easy to accept that there must be one common state of awareness which makes it possible for any individual to be aware of all three states of awareness and his/her ownership of these states. Further, all these four states of awareness are objects of our thoughts and part of our awareness. That is probably the meta-awareness of modern psychology.

Is there one Universal class – somewhat similar to the idea of Plato – of a prototype of all kinds of consciousness on the basis of which everything is known. Upanishads say that there is and asks: “How can you know That by which you know?”  “That Knower is Brahman” say the Upanishads.

Adepts in meditation tell us that in the final stages of meditation the observer and the observed are one. In this state the observed is as it is. The awareness of the observer is still, with no chains of thought generated by the object observed and does not include his/her own awareness. It is the blissful state they reach.

In Buddhist school, the mind consciousness is like the branches of a tree exposed to responding to all the elements such as sunlight, water and air. It receives input from all the senses. It needs to focus on one thing at a time and learn. It is slow to learn and cannot act in a reasonable way on its own. For that it depends on the store consciousness.

Store consciousness has all the natural tendencies, mental formations such as emotions and memory of experiences. It is the source of desire, fear, anxiety, anger, and ignorance. Since it is the base for survival it is active even when we are asleep. It can act on its own but may respond quickly, based on habits and tendencies.

As I understand, the training in meditation is for the mind consciousness to focus on our sensory inputs, feelings and emotions, reflect on them and transform the tendencies at the base, namely store consciousness.

When we think of our current understanding of how the mind works, the mind receives inputs from our sensory organs and also from our own body. They go through thalamus and are processed first at the base or lower part of the brain where survival reflexes are generated. This assumes that the inputs can be registered in the first place. That depends on the reticular formation where there are centers to maintain our awareness are located. (They are turned off when we are asleep, under anesthesia and when they are damaged by some disease leading to coma).

 

These basic input signals are then relayed to the inner portion (medial side of the halves of the brain) where the registered messages are recognized as one’s own (ownership area). This area communicates not only with centers which register signals, and which generate basic emotions, and survival responses but also with the so-called higher centers. These areas are considered to perform our Executive Functions. There is direct two-way communication between the ownership areas and the executive areas, but not between executive areas and the survival areas.

Therefore, emotional triggers generated at the survival areas have to be first recognized as one’s own, the ownership area has to send the signals to the executive area to process and evaluate. Of course, this area will be checking with the ownership area, areas for past memories, evaluate odds of risks vs benefits and decide what to do. This is the reflective decision-making process.

Now the executive part of the brain sends signals to the motor areas of the brain to initiate appropriate action. This is what we probably call “the will” to act. Most interestingly all these steps take place in milli-seconds.

There are even more steps involved because the brain adjusts its actions as they are taking place depending on immediate feedbacks. It also stores the process and outcome of each experience for future reference. It stores the information on the value of each action as helpful or not. If the process or outcome generates happiness, it may reinforce the “addiction circuit” so that it gets activated each time the stimulus appears. If the process or outcome generate pain and suffering, the information goes into the “aversion circuit.”

Both ancient knowledge of meditation and modern neuroscience suggest that even if our brain cells degenerate or lost, parts of the brain circuits can be retrained. That is neuroplasticity. Our reactions and behavior can be retrained using some of the ancient meditation methods. That is Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.

 

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Tower of Babel

 Thinking about the way we humans use words to confuse each other, to mislead and bully others, sell unwanted goods, make lies into truths and truths into lies, “sculpture” words (also called “word-smithing”)  and create so much confusion even when speaking in our own languages, I decided to re-read the Tower of Babel in Genesis, Chapter 11.   Here it is as written in one version of the Bible (New International Version).   

The Tower of Babel

“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.  As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.  The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language, they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel —because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth”.

The way we humans behave, it appears that the Lord did a pretty good job! Look how proficient we have become in misusing this special gift.

Scholars tell us that the word Babel means “confused” in old Hebrew language. (Is that the origin of our word “babbling”?) Babel may also be to indicate Babylon where the tower was supposedly built.

 

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Genius of Adi Sankara

 

                By Adi Sankara I refer to the original saint-philosopher-poet-genius who lived more than 1,000 years back to differentiate that founder of the Advaitic-Vedanta schools of Hindu philosophy from the religious heads of the four major centers (Dwaraka – Kedarnath-Puri and Sringeri) he established – some would add Kanchi to this list – who are also called Sankaraharyas.

Reading a book with collection of Adi Sankara’s commentaries on Brahma Sutra and the Upanishad was the turning point in my spiritual journey. Adi Sankara’s words influenced me greatly in the way I started thinking about life in general and about reading sacred texts. Those words influenced me also in how I read scientific works and how I think on my own on any issue.  But I did not know how much those words had influenced me subconsciously until this week when I started re-reading that book after almost 60 years!

Re-reading that book (Sankara’s Teachings in His Own Words, Swami Atmananda. Bhavan’s Publication, 1958) made me admire Adi Sankara even more for his astute, visionary, and bold thinking. Fortunately, Swami Atmananda had collected Adi Sankara’s commentaries on the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutra, arranged them by topic and given them with the original Sanskrit texts in Sankara’s own words and their translations in English. There are many passages on Brahman, Atman, Karma etc. But I wish to summarize Adi Sankara’s general statements on his approach to understanding the Vedas. These ideas are easily applicable to reading any text, including modern scientific studies.

After reading the following list of his ideas, I am sure you will agree that it is sad people know about Aristotle and Plato, but not about Adi Sankara.

1.       Facts cannot be challenged on the basis of improbability.

2.       Facts of perception cannot be nullified by inference.

3.       Inference is no authority against direct perception.

4.       The means of knowledge are powerful in their own respective spheres (ear for hearing, eye for vision etc.,)

5.       But one means of knowledge does not contradict another.

6.       The scope of one source of knowledge is what is not within the scope of other sources of knowledge. (He is trying to establish that in spiritual matters, one must rely on the Vedas and not on our perceptions and inference)

7.       The Vedas are independent sources of authority on knowledge in spiritual spheres and cosmic truth.

8.       The value of statements in the Vedas is based on their capacity to generate fruitful knowledge, not whether they state facts or prescribe some action. (This rule can be applied to any sacred text)

9.       Vedas delineate the nature of Reality (वस्तु प्रतिपादनं तत्परत्वम्).

10.   Scriptures only inform us of this reality. (They are informative) They are not commands. (ज्ञापकं हि शास्त्रं न तु कारकं)

11.   Since they are not considered commands, where is the question of disobeying them?

12.   The impulse for actions (performance of rituals etc.,) come from our own nature, looking for favorable results. Action is seen in all creatures.

13.   Self-realization (Brahma Vidya) does not create something new (Atman, Brahman). Nor does it alter what there is already. It just reveals.

14.   Vedas cannot become authority as against observation. “Even if hundred Vedic texts declare that fire is cold and devoid of light”, we need to realize that this sphere is not in the domain of the Vedas.

15.   Srutis (vedas) do not seek to alter the nature of things. They supply information about spheres unknown to us.

16.   Nor can a scripture impart power to a thing.

17.   Scriptures do not hinder or direct a person by force as if he were a servant.

18.   Scriptures remain neutral, like sunlight. They just illuminate.

19.   Perception of the true nature of reality is not just a product of man’s intellect (पुरुष तन्त्र). It depends on the nature of the object. (वस्तु तन्त्र)

20.   Mere recitation without understanding the meaning is considered by some to be a meritorious act. Adi Sankara disagrees. He says that Vedas do lead to a result that can be experienced in this life but only when recited with understanding of their meaning.

21.   Mere sound of the word does not constitute the object of reality. The word is different from the object it denotes.

22.   When literal meaning is inappropriate no authority enjoins that literal meaning alone should be accepted.

23.   When literal meaning does not fit, then alone the metaphorical meaning is to be adopted.

24.   It is unreasonable to give up the plain meaning of words used in Sruti and put new meaning in their place.

25.   There can be alternatives (differences) in rituals and actions – but not in Truth.

26.   Good and evil are not absolute; they depend on each one’s opinion.

27.   The stories (aakyayika, आख्यायिका) are used in the Vedas as means of easily imparting ideas with common example from life. They should not be taken as historical facts. They are made to make us understand astute points. (example referred to is that of Indra, Virochana and Prajapati explained in https://timeforthought.net on May 7, 2022)

28.   Similarly dialogues with questions and answers are used to make us understand important points.

29.   The stories in the Puranas are not given as historical facts and should not be taken at face value.

30.   “We never see a formless thing active.” This last statement is from Adi Sankara’s commentary on Briharadanyaka Upanishad 4-3-15. In an elaboration of this statement, Swami Atmananda says that Adi Sankara did not accept the position of the Meemasaka philosophy that the priests performing the yagnas have to imagine a Devata when propitiating them with ahuti.

31.   Adi Sankara’s point is that devata’s (deities) obviously have a form and a name. But Vedas say and we know that anything that has a form has a beginning and an end. In other words: “Why worship an impermanent devata for a temporary residence in heaven, when we can experience bliss during this life by experiencing the Brahman within?”

Having summarized these points, I must also say that Adi Sankara was a synthesizer. He realized that different personalities need different approaches. He encouraged actions (karma marga) and rituals and worship (bhakti marga), but as steppingstones to prepare oneself for the meditative intellectual approach (gnana marga). He did not condemn them outright but incorporated them into the mainstream.

That is the genius of Adi Sankara.