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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.