Trampling on faith


Turf Clubs are exclusive public places. There is no space there for activists who would question the right of a human to goad a horse to trot at a pace faster than it would like or to force the animal to negotiate hurdles wilfully placed on its path.

Temples, too, are exclusive public places. They are meant for believers to congregate, worship and offer prayers with devotion.  They are not spaces for activists to try their hand at modernising practices they consider archaic or to mock the unquestioning acceptance of traditions by the faithful.

In much the same way as activists, non-believers who run-down one or another deity cannot appreciate the sentiments of the faithful. Be they #Durga worshippers or #Mahishasura worshippers, Vamana-Trivikrama or #Mahabali worshippers, they are all together under the band of the devout. They find qualities that are noble in the object of their worship. This belief is not mere fodder for political adversaries to settle scores.


Minority Matters

In recent days I have been listening to two flawed arguments involving ‘minorities’ in India.  One pertains to a social minority – the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Trangender ( #LGBT ) community and another concerns the religious minorities – particularly Christian and Muslim communities.  I just want to present two simple counter-arguments to the popular opinions that have been occupying media space.

On the LGBT community, those who are not in favour of homosexuality argue that same sex cohabitation or marriage is ‘against Nature’ and ‘against religion’.  A simple counter to this would be: Aren’t notions of sexual morality, marriage, and religion themselves social constructions, albeit systems that have been with us since millennia and may even be considered to have stood the test of time?  In any case, Nature, in its physical manifestation, delights in overturning established theories and scientists are hardly agreed even on the fundamentals of Nature as it has to do with the mind.  So, whether you want to consider homosexuality as a physical aberration or a mental deviance – either way you aren’t on a strong wicket.

Coming to the second concern: The argument of the religious minorities is that there is a sense of insecurity among the Christians and Muslims in India due to acts of aggression against their communities ever since the BJP government was elected to the Centre.  My counter to this is: Rather than allow themselves to feel persecuted, which subsequently clouds reason and provokes biased judgements, religious minority groups may want to weigh their disquiet against a few systematic intrusions into the Hindu’s religious space over the years:

The recent opening of the Padmanabhaswamy temple’s vaults and proactive political intervention to get the treasures ‘protected’ albeit due to judicial intervention [The court observed, ‘“Since the deity is a perpetual minor in the eyes of the law, the court has jurisdiction to protect it.”] has upset several Hindus, whose visit to seek peace in communion with their God has been perpetually marred by the subsequent draconian security. Hindu personal laws have also been repeatedly adjudicated upon and amended [“The Hindu community has been tolerant to these statutory interventions. But there appears a lack of secular commitment as it has not happened for other religions,” observed the Supreme Court in 2011].  However,  neither these nor co-equal interventions of a political nature in other temples and aspects of their life been seen by the Hindu community as an act of aggression by the parties in power.  They have not been projected as the face of authoritarianism by adherents of the Hindu religion regardless of the religious, social or political affiliations of those at the helm.

Censorship and Debate: a lesson from ancient India

Censorship may not be all bad.  Problem is, it doesn’t work.  True, all minds are not cultivated to the same degree, trained sufficiently or mature enough to approach with suspicion, question before absorbing the import of what is being said, or to suspect intrigue.    But you cannot even censor your own kids: they will find ways to use the words, read the literature, and do the acts you prohibit.  So, where does that leave larger entities that try to clamp down on free speech, thought and expression?

Western systems, since millennia, appear to have considered it prudent to censor thought: Plato, in Republic, goes into some detail about what young minds should be exposed to, and Rousseau’s Emile is premised on this.  But in India, what has come to be called ‘Hindu’ philosophy preferred healthy debate to censorship, which is one of the reasons it  keeps giving rise to breakaway cults and heterodoxies that become strong, individual congregations in their own right.

Nyaya, a precursor of Western Logic, for instance, is among the earliest systematised schools of thought rooted in the ‘Hindu’ philosophy.  It predates the Christian era and was the fountainhead of several treatises on Tarka, which may be loosely translated as reflective analysis or argument.  Tarka, an important scholarly enterprise of ancient India, which was honed as both a science and an art, was instrumental in establishing the claims of one philosopher or philosophy over another, often in an assembly of scholars, laypersons and aristocrats.  The written word was also used to powerful effect at transformational change by following the norms of scientific debate.

Contemporary Indian polity – by which term I mean the nation and its various organs from government to media to the public at large – would do well to reclaim this ancient Indian tradition of logical reasoning and healthy debate to counter what are perceived as deviant opinions rather than try to cow down discomfiting strains of thought with censorship.  Rather than ban a book, film or play, write a book, produce a film or stage a play with an alternative viewpoint.   Don’t take the easy way out and just try to wish away what you don’t like or want with a blanket ban.  The atheist streams have had their space in Indian society: from Carvaka-s of ancient India to Dravidian movements of contemporary times.  No one banned them.  They did not gather steam or drifted away from their moorings because the larger sections of Indian society found greater meaning in non-atheist thought.   If you want your view to prevail, you will take the trouble to give it the contours of reason and substance.

Karma: A definition and a deconstruction

“An object which is sought to be reached by an agent through a kriya is what is meant by karma.”

– V. T. Tirunarayana Iyengar.

Examining the individual components of the scholarly interpretation, we can see that karma involves:

an object or goal,

an agent or actor who is seeking to reach the goal,

a process that is undertaken to try and reach the goal, and

kriya or performance of acts intended to facilitate the process of reaching the goal.

Attainment of the object or goal is the purpose that motivates the kriya or act.  Every act, therefore, is expected to be done with an aim to further the process of attaining the goal.  An unstated, underlying clause appears to be: Moments lost in acts that detract from this purposeful journey impact the extent of success in the quest.

However, it is important to note that the goal is sought to be reached. The emphasis, therefore, is on the performance of the act and not on the outcome per se.  Implicit in this interpretation is the awareness that while one has the capacity to engage in action, the outcome may be impacted by external factors.  These factors could include personal limitations, limitations of the environment in which the action takes place, and other factors that are not feasible to fathom out for a variety of reasons. However, read in conjunction with the explanation of kriya, it is clear that there is a certain emphasis, expectation even, on the manner of acting.

The object is sought to be reached by an agent.

Digressing a bit here, and interpreting the definition in a way that was probably not intended, I want to ask: Is it possible that the rule called varna-ashrama dharma could have been originally intended to make it possible for actors to frame meaningful goals, which, in turn might fall under the broad classification of purushartha-s, namely dharma, artha, kama and moksha? In any case, the varna-ashrama  rule could be applied to contemporary times by understanding it to mean that at any point of time an individual should balance the demands of their vocation in accordance with their stage of life.  For, when setting the goals and doing the kriya or actions intended to achieve the goals, is it not simply common sense to want to think in terms of our natural proclivities/ acquired vocation (varna) and our stage of life (ashrama)?

Getting back to the definition, it seems that karma, in philosophy, is a concept which is concerned with the ends, and the means employed to attain these ends.  Whereas, in common parlance, karma is a theory that tries to explain results proactively and retrospectively.  For, karma in common parlance is used to convey ‘payback’ which may be understood to mean:

a) benefits and costs arising from individual acts of body and mind impact our state of being; and

b) the accumulation of benefits and costs of past acts impact the outcomes of ongoing and future acts.

How can this commonsensical understanding of karma be reconciled with the scholarly interpretation?  Reconciliation, I believe, would motivate individuals to positive action to attain their goals rather than allow them to wallow in passive acceptance of status quo.  At the same time, the emphasis would be on sincerity of purpose rather than success of an endeavour, making the agent and their actions central rather than results that are impossible to predict or control.

Mind vs manas:  Religious re-conversion and the conflict within

Inducement and/ or coercion are the natural suspects in any form of religious conversion.  In the case of re-conversion, however, there seems to be a far more potent force – a psychological driver.

In the case of re-conversion or what is called #GharVapasi, literally ‘returning home’, the crux of the conflict seems to lie in the conceptual difference between ‘mind’ and ‘manas’.  As evidence of this, let me give this simple illustration:  If you ask a person to indicate the home of the ‘mind’, the hand automatically points to the head.  However, if you ask a person to indicate the home of ‘manas’, the hand would go to the heart.  The original conversion which has been provoked by inducement or coercion is a move mediated by considerations and calculations of the ‘mind’.  However, the heart, where the ‘manas’ resides, doesn’t coalesce with the culture it is thrust into by the machinations of the ‘mind’.  From this ecosystem of discomfort, where the mind and the manas are not in cohesion, ghar vapasi appears to offer a conflict resolution of sorts.  To term this act as ‘returning to the roots’ may be more apt and provide a better explanation than to call it ‘returning home’.

What did the ancient-most Indians know?


There is an episode in the Chhandogya Upanishad. Narada tells Sanatkumara: I have knowledge of all that constitutes apara vidya. But I have heard that it is only the highest knowledge, para vidya, that can vanquish sorrow. I grieve, I feel sorrowful. Lead me, Sir, I pray, to that shore that lies beyond sorrow.

According to the Mundakopanishad, apara vidya (which Narada says he has mastered) comprises the four Veda-s, the six Vedanga-s which include grammar, metrics and astronomy), and all other subjects of study that number more than a score. These include the science of living beings (bhuta-vidya, which incidentally can also mean knowledge of as many as fifty other things into which bhuta translates, including ghosts, the five elements and all of existence, or all that is!) and itihasa and purana.

Itihasa and purana have been interpreted by modern scholars to mean myths. Earlier scholars made significant distinctions in this broad categorization. Patanjali (historically dated to ~ 4 CE) makes a distinction between historical stories (aakhyaana-s) and works of fiction (aakhyaayika-s). Around a thousand years earlier, Panini (historically dated to 4 BCE), talked of four classes of literature, which included Upajana or original works not handed down by tradition, and compositions of a general nature on a miscellany of subjects. Patanjali classifies the aakhyaayika-s under the last category.

We know so little even of what the ancient-most Indians knew – in terms not only of that knowledge per se, but knowledge about that knowledge – that we can hardly claim to take a considered position on what is myth and what is fact. It is but futile to attempt a substantive argument when the fringe is all we have exposure to. Merely denying the existence of something when you do not even know the extent of what it is that you are trying to reject is an absurd position to take.

Women ascetics show the way. Will politicians follow?

A large group of plucky women ascetics have broken away from their traditional Hindu congregation to form an all-women akhara in Allahabad, a spiritually important centre of Hindu religion in India.  They say this is the only way to challenge the male domination of spiritual practices in their sect.

Women in India have long been demanding greater representation for their gender in the parliament and state legislatures.  A law to ensure that a third of the seats in the central Lok Sabha and in state assemblies is reserved for women has been hanging fire for nearly a decade now as there is neither political will nor consensus in the male-dominated parliament.  Under the circumstances, gutsy women politicians in India [and, indeed, elsewhere] should follow the lead of the sadhvis led by Trikala Bhavanta and float an all-women’s political party. The all-women’s party could offer to provide reservation to men to compete under their banner, if they should choose to join!

March 8 would be a good day to start the party.  It would be a truly Happy Women’s Day :>)