“The spiritual heritage of India”

I wrote a few comments at Prof. Scott Aaronson’s blog, in response to his post of the title: “30 of my favorite books”, here [^].

Let me give you the links to my comments: [^], [^], [^] and [^].

Let me reproduce the last one of my four comments, with just so slight bit of editing. [You know I couldn’t have resisted the opportunity, right?]:

Since I mentioned the “upnishad”s above (i.e. here [ ^]), and as far as this topic is concerned, since the ‘net is so full of the reading material on this topic which isn’t so suitable for this audience, let me leave you with a right kind of a reco.

If it has to be just one short book, then the one which I would pick up is this:

Swami Prabhavananda (with assistance of Frederick Manchester), “The Spiritual Heritage of India,” Doubleday, New York, 1963.

A few notes:

1. The usual qualifications apply. For instance, I of course don’t agree with everything that has been said in the book. And, more. I may not even agree that a summary of something provided here is, in fact, a good summary thereof.

2. I read it very late in life, when I was already past my 50. Wish I had laid my hands on it, say, in my late 20s, early 30s, or so. I simply didn’t happen to know about it, or run into a copy, back then.

3. Just one more thing: a tip on how to read the above book:

First, read the Preface. Go through it real fast. (Reading it faster than you read the newspapers would be perfectly OK—by me).

Then, if you are an American who has at least a smattering of a knowledge about Buddhism, then jump directly on to the chapter on Jainism. (Don’t worry, they both advocate not eating meat!) And, vice-versa!!

If you are not an American, or,  if you have never come across any deeper treatment on any Indian tradition before, then: still jump on to the chapter on Jainism. (It really is a very good summary of this tradition, IMHO.)

Then, browse through some more material.

Then, take a moment and think: if you have appreciated what you’ve just read, think of continuing with the rest of the text.

Else, simple: just call it a book! (It’s very inexpensive.)


No need to add anything, but looking at the tone of the comments (referring to the string “Ayn Rand”) that got generated on this above-mentioned thread, I find myself thinking that, may be, given my visitor-ship pattern (there are more Americans hits today to my blog than either Indian or British), I should explain a bit of a word-play which I attempted in that comment (and evidently, very poorly—i.e. non-noticeably). It comes near the end of my above-quoted reply.

“Let’s call it a day” is a very neat British expression. In case you don’t know its meaning, please look it up on the ‘net. Here’s my take on it (without looking it up):

Softly folding away a day, with a shade of an anticipation that a day even better might be about to arrive tomorrow, and so, softly reminding yourself that you better leave the party or the function for now, so as to be able to get ready for yet another party, yet another function, some other day, later…

A sense of something like that, is implied by that expression.

I just attempted a word-play, and so, substituted “book” for the “day”.

Anyway, good night. Do read my last post, the document attached to it, and the links therefrom.

Bye for now.

Oh, yes! There is a song that’s been playing off-and-on at the back of my mind for some time. Let me share it with you.

A Song I Like:

(Hindi) “dil kaa diyaa jala ke gayaa…”
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultaanpuri
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Chitragupt

[PS: The order of the listing of the credits, once again, is completely immaterial here.]

Anyway, enjoy the song, and the book mentioned in the quotes (and hopefully, also my past few posts and their attachments)… I should come back soon, with a maths-related puzzle/teaser/question. … Until then, take care and bye!


Speaking Truth to the Ochros

Two valuable voices have been silenced at the point of the gun, in the 21st century Maharashtra.

First, it was Narendra Dabholkar. Now, it is Govindrao Pansare.

Yes, both of them pretty much had their convictions slanted towards the left. Dabholkar was far more moderate, however. In contrast, Pansare was an explicitly avowed communist. (He was a Marxist.) But you have to put it in the context: he was an Indian communist—he believed in the constitutional means to bring about socialism in India. But, yes, as a quick ball-park estimate, they both certainly were on the left-liberal side.

But how does that justify their murders?

Dabholkar courageously spoke out against the mystic irrationalities prevalent in Maharashtra. He had waged a long cultural battle against superstitions. He, however, was always very careful to differentiate between superstition and religious belief. He had repeatedly made it clear that he had nothing against, say, the common “waarkari,” or against people going to temples/mosques/churches/etc.; he was rather against the deeply mystical and decidedly extremely irrational practices that, some times, wouldn’t even stop short of the human sacrifice.

Sure, the remedy which Dabholkar fought for, was in itself certainly questionable. Speaking of myself, I have not yet been able to convince myself fully that the anti-superstition law for which he worked so hard was either objectively necessary or convincingly effective. In the legal jungle of the kind that we have in India, one is always wary of introduction of yet another piece of legislation—one is apprehensive if it would not simply add more power to the State machinery to harass the innocent citizen.

But does that mean that some one could therefore go and fire bullets at Dabholkar?

Could any one could claim morality on his side if he were to justify Dabholkar’s killing?

It is not all that hard to imagine how, in today’s India, in today’s Maharashtra, at least some must have looked at Dabholkar’s killing approvingly. Yes, the situation is that bad. Though, it emphatically is not all bad. The cultural atmosphere still isn’t gone so down that they would publicly air their opinions, their moral stances.

As to Pansare, I now gather that he had spoken against the recent attempts at glorification of Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s murderer.

That action on Pansare’s part was perhaps what cost him his life.

What have we come to, in India, and, in particular, in Maharashtra?

Have we the Marathis gone so down in our culture that today we not only think nothing of taking the law of the land in our hands and coolly proceed to burn or damage public property, but we now have become also bold enough to make mockery of the very idea of the rule of the law, by killing people whose views we don’t agree with?

OK. Keep the law part of it aside. Think about the morality/ethics part of it.

Is it morally OK to take someone’s life simply because he holds or spreads disagreeable ideas?

Bring it in an even sharper focus:

Is it morally OK to take someone’s life because he holds or spreads wrong ideas?

What kind of morality do the killers illustrate? Their sympathizers?

And, what kind of morality do the people—the ordinary people—who choose to look the other way, display?

First, they came for the Socialists…

* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

I know what you are going to say. You are going to object to the colour.

Why associate the ochre with the killer’s morality, you are going to say.

Answer: Precisely because Nathuram Godse’s was a shade of the ochre—that’s why. Nathuram Godse would stand absolutely no chance of being glorified (either today or for the past half-century+ time) if his colour weren’t to be the right shade of the ochre. [Just imagine any other colour for Godse, and see if he would then be glorified in today’s India the way he is.]

That’s why.

* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

While writing something on these recent happenings in Maharashtra and all, I must also note this: R. R. “Aabaa” is no longer among us. May his soul remain in peace … I don’t have to say anything more about him here because most all the obituaries were eloquent enough. … But surely, he will be very much missed in the Maharashtra politics (and yes, even on the social work side).

* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

OK. Let’s have a bit of a breather from all that bad or sad stuff… Too much of it can get depressing, you know…

So, let me note down something on the science side.

I have been browsing through a recent blogging debate about the MWI (i.e. the Many Worlds Interpretation) of quantum mechanics. Sean Carroll once again decided to write something in the defence of the MWI [^], even though what he writes isn’t convincing. The post has generated a lot of comments; do go through them. On the other hand, Roger Schlafly has not only noted his criticism, but also introduced issues like ID (Intelligent Design), here [^]. No, I don’t agree with Schlafly’s criticism either. In the recent past, I have criticized MWI on the philosophical grounds. My position remains the same. Yet, there is something additional about MWI that I had thought I could add, but didn’t. Carroll’s and Schlafly’s posts now provide a welcome opportunity for me to do so. However, I think that I should wait for a couple of days more or so, and let the controversy develop to a fuller extent, so that some further additional angles get thrown up. Also, I would also like to see if someone else, too, thinks of this same point which I have about MWI (the point which I did not mention earlier). … So, there. Give me a couple of days or so, and I will note down my take on the current state of this issue.



My loud thinking concerning the recent questions about Narendra Modi

Recently, I felt like writing a response to the following questions [^] as soon as I read them:

“What is Narendra Modi? A visionary and a statesman? Or a demagogue and master orator who can tailor a speech to his audience?

And there is another question too. One that I believe is even more important. What do Modi’s supporters really want? Development or Hindutva?”

The answer I wrote on the fly [and as usual, at a great length] appears below, but, first, an important note: I am just copy-pasting my answer. It certainly needs to be edited, but in the meanwhile, there was a kind of medical emergency at home and so, I will do the editing/expansion later. [My mother had to be hospitalized soon later, on Feb 11th; she still is in hospital—and, BTW, this is a reference which I am going to remove in the subsequent editing.]

As far as editing goes, in particular: the form of the answer needs to be changed from a personal reply to an independent blog-post in general; certain points need to be put in a slightly better context; and, as usual, some words need some qualifications or need to be changed; etc. Also check out on the “Applying philosophy…” blog my subsequent elaborations: [^] and [^].

Also, to keep the perspective/context (which often is lost days, weeks, months or, more understandably, years later, and which often is deliberately dropped as a part of the “follow up”), make sure to also check out the recent flurry of media articles/opinion pieces (some of which appeared just days after the above-referred discussion in the blogosphere), e.g.: Chetan Bhagat and Swapan Dasgupta’s pieces in the last Sunday’s Times of India, Tavleen Singh’s piece in the last Sunday’s Indian Express, and most recently, the blog-post by Pritish Nandy at Times of India.

[Links to all to be added.]

Anyway, here is the answer I had written on the fly:

* * *

He is not a statesman, that’s for sure.

We have had mixed economy for such a long time that it would be next to impossible for any one of his or younger generation to rise to that level. The cultural trends have been mostly taking a downturn for such a long time that, these days, all politicians are all driven by the compulsions of democracy—the actual, *systemic*, compulsions imposed by the rule of the mob, within a constitutional framework that contains too many contradictions and so succeeds in giving only a semblance of cohesion or integration to the polity. For instance, the constitution prohibits changing parties, thereby inducing the herd effect to a greater extent. Gone are the days of being true to “conscience.” In fact, conscience is a word which one would run into at least once a week some three decades ago, but doesn’t find mentioned anywhere for months together, these days.

Still, about the cultural downturns, I said “mostly.” That’s observation-based, not an expression of a general pessimism.

The only noticeable cultural *up*swings have been those in the wake of the *political* liberalization in the early 90s (which itself was driven by the *economic* compulsions and the better, liberalizing, terms set by the somewhat better, i.e. the Western, elements in the World Bank, when we had gone bankrupt due to our socialistic political pursuits). Though liberalization was a political process, in reducing shackles and exposing India to the (whatever remaining) better elements in the West, it also allowed betterment in *culture*.

However, these accompanying *cultural* upswings have been countered by the other cultural *down*swings, in particular, those of the religious kind.

BTW, I don’t think we have had a *cultural* downswing of the communist/socialist kind since the 1970s. All the recent downswings in India have been of the religious kind. Sonia Gandhi’s NAC-inspired socialistic programs, or, to a lesser extent, Vajpayee’s populist programs, have been downswings on the economic side, not cultural. For that matter, even when the left was a part of the power at the Center in UPA1, they were completely ineffective in promoting the leftist trend in the *culture*. Bollywood continued with the pelvic thrusts, and even artsy “socially conscious” cinema chose themes like Peepli Live, Shwaas and Deool, rather than a glorification of egalitarianism, of redistributing poverty.

So, the main thing to worry in today’s India, as far as *cultural* degradation is concerned, is: religion, not socialism. Notice the lack of any enthusiastic coverage in the urban, well-educated, middle classes about the movie: Deool. Its theme contains too many undercurrents uncomfortable to the religious mystics of the modern Indian variety.

Incidentally, despite India being a mystic country for such a long time, the execution model they (the religionists) have tried to follow in recent times is not indigeneous in origin; it’s a recent import from America. The recent Indian model is based on the upswing of religion in America, which itself is a rather recent phenomenon (gaining ground after 1970s, and consolidating during the Reagen years).

Thus, Jansangh, for instance, would never have put up a rippling-muscles, six-pack abs kind of a portrayal of Shri Ram on those wide-view flex boards in the cities; it would take the BJP to do that. The traditional Indian portrayal, in fine arts, sculputre and literature, of this God, even if he was a “kshatriya”-born, is that of a middle-aged deity with a somewhat roundish body and carrying a vague, almost nurturing kind of a smile, with the deity situated in a rich, opulent, but peaceful settings, together with family—not that of an angry, young warrior, taking aim with a tautly stretched bow-and-arrow, with his clothes flying in the strong winds as he stands alone on a treeless strech of brownish land, with anger uncontrollably shooting out of eyes. (With all that evident anger, it would be difficult to hold aim to the target, one wonders.) The traditional Indian portrayal of this deity—qua deity—has been different, the history of there actually having been a major war notwithstanding.

The elder Indian even today sometimes does an involuntary double-take at the spectacle of “teertha” (holy water) being sprayed onto those wildly dancing, hysteric masses from a high platform as in the rock concerts, using water-pumps and hose-pipes to spray the “teertha”. To the earlier generation of the religious Indian, “teertha” is always taken in a small quantity using the right hand. A small bamboo “pichkaari” is acceptable at the time of Holi, but it’s not a religious event. Using a *hose-pipe* and a *pump*, for *spraying* “teerth” is too much.

Before these trends spread elsewhere in India, they had begun in those massive religious gatherings in Gujarat, during the times of Modi’s rise to, and assumption of, the political power.

One reason the elderly Indian winces at such sights is: an Indian, true to his color, would in principle be averse to any grand-scale show on the material side. Especially so, when it comes to the matters related to religion. The Indian tendency, particular in the spiritual matters, is to turn the gaze inwards, not outwards. The Indian is not averse to the bodily power; but in his view, either the bodily power is to be subjugated to the spiritual wisdom, which is all outwordly, or the entire matter is superfluous to him simply because it pertains to this world. There is a reason why the “gopur”s of our temples may be grand on both artistic and spatial scales, but the “garbha-griha” is spatially so small as to hardly admit only a few people at a time. When it comes to temples, the idea of a vast space or a large auditorium accomodating a large gathering, with a high pulpit for the priest, is specific to the Abrahamic religions, not to the Indian ones. Clearly, “event management” of *this* kind is a recent import. (We have always had massive religious gatherings, e.g. Kumbh Mela or Wari, but these have been more noticeable for their messyness, randomness, than for masses being coralled together and aroused to a common passion by an organized priesthood. The Indian religious philosophy is far too outworldly to ever care for any organization or purpose in this world, especially that on a large scale. Our temples may have large spaces surrounding the main building (“aawaar”), but these spaces noticeably lack the pulpits to address the assemby—in fact, there never is an assembly, only a random and overcrowded collection of people.)

We have only recently imported the more effective, large-scale, techniques of management of mobs on the basis of religion as a uniting force.

Modi’s management style seems to reflect his times; it seems to be a mix of an upbringing in the traditional organization mold of the old RSS (itself based on an awkward mixture of the European fascists of the early 20th century for the most part and some Scouts-like activities thrown in for good measure), *and* these modern techniques of religion-based political management imported from America.

In short, there have been cultural betterment in certain areas. For example, today, we can openly advocate capitalism in India, without any fear of ridicule, which was not possible as late as when I was in my 20s, i.e. in 1980s.

However, overall, the net cultural change has been to go on to the down side.

Since, as you observed, culture (in the broad sense of the term) does drive politics, the culture of politics also has been going down. (I never thought it stinks to the extent you and many others do.) It’s in the recent atmosphere that it’s difficult to produce statesmen. Try to think of a successor to Jamshedji Tata, in today’s world. Or even to JRD, for that matter. Politics is hardly different. You don’t expect a Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan or even a Shankar Dayal Sharma, in today’s world; the alternative to Pratibha Patil was Bhairo Singh Shekhawat. Even if IMO politics does not stink to the extent you seem to think it does, it is very obvious that we can no longer expect statesmen to rise in today’s India.

So, the smart spin of Modi’s internationally outsourced image consultants aside, he simply can’t be a statesman. The very suggestion is ludicrous, and a direct product of his spin-doctors. (He is not alone in employing/benefitting from spin-doctors; his anticipated 2014 opponent, Rahul Gandhi, supplies an easy example.)

Is Modi a visionary? Ok. Can you use that word to describe a fascist? To clarify this issue, let’s take a more extreme example of a fascist: Can you use that word for Mussolini? If yes, then, sure, Modi is a visionary. He has the “vision” of unleashing the Hindu religious kind of irrationality, on India (and if possible, elsewhere, too), and to preside over the accompanying political power in an executive capacity. That’s his “vision.” (He might succeed in “achieving” it—simply because Rahul Gandhi is what he is.)

Is Modi a demogogue? In view of his political success in Gujarat, he must be. But then, of course, there are so many demogogues, even within his own party. Rajnath Singh, for instance. An array of them could be witnessed during the recent FDI issue. That hardly makes him special.

Is he a master orator? I don’t think so. I haven’t seen the video you refer to, but from whatever his earlier speeches I have seen, they seem to indicate skills lesser than those of a master orator. A master orator is different. Balasaheb Thakarey? Yes. Narendra Modi? Not really. Of course, he does have that ability to deliver effective speeches, often with a lot of punches. But then all politicians routinely do that. When you say a master orator, the person has to go beyond that level. I would certainly put Lalu Prasad Yadav ahead of Narendra Modi in that department. This is not humour; I mean it. When it comes to superior oratorial skills, just the way Vajpayee is (rather was) a master orator, so is Yadav.

Rather than pieces of superior oratory, Modi’s speeches seem to be like *events* that are quietly and masterfully coordinated in the background. The actual speech seems like just the tip of the icebert. The silent coordination is palpable. Right from creating the atmosphere for an upcoming speech, including coordination in the media (not just locally, not just in the neighbourhood or with the people in the city, but specifically within media), to the necessary followup capitalization on what(ever) he said.

The only way to explain the extraordinary effectiveness of this not-so-extraordinary personality is to make reference to the quiet work done for him by those “swayamsevaks.” Take away the aura they impart him, and then, judging him for himself, Modi comes across a far more ordinary personality—not just in speeches but also in every respect. There are times when I wonder if he could be described as a pigmy. He is said to divide all people into two camps, and evoke extreme passions of either admiration or loathing in them. The description is accurate except for the starting word: you have to replace “he” the person by “he” the image—nay, the rather seamless sort of an enormous collage—built up by all those collectivist “swayamsevaks.”

As to demoguery, I think more than being just a demogogue, he is a shrewd “organization man,” capable of slowly but surely advancing over his competition, especially internally. Here, I think a definite credit is certainly due to him. Not just in a value-neutral sense. I think he has put in very honest and very hard efforts in rising through his organization. To a certain extent, esp. for politicians, personal honesty *is* compatible with a contradictory or irrational political agenda.

He is not a typical BJP leader. Nope. He is more pure-minded on their agenda, more hard-working on that agenda, than any others from his party. Compare him with your ordinary, compromising sort of a guy like, say, Ram Naik, Nitin Gadkari, or even Rajnath Singh. When it comes to the BJP agenda, Modi would be more ruthless compared to any other BJP leader. Not because he lacks emotions, or controls them better, or manages to suppress them. Not even because he wants to be ruthless with people—in fact, quite the opposite is very likely, from whatever I can gather from his coverage on TV in general (never saw him in person at a close distance). It is easily possible that he is responsive and sensitive.

Still, he will end up being more ruthless simply because he would be morally more unshakeably convinced about the moral worth of the BJP agenda.

I think that it is possible to imagine Modi’s developing inner doubts privately, when it comes to his assessments of his own abilities, his own capacity to lead and to rule. He certainly does seem to be both sensitive and intelligent enough to be able to develop such doubts, at least some times. But what he seems entirely incapable of doing is: ever challenging the moral worth (to him: the moral *superiority*, nay, *infallibility*) of the *moral* agenda of his organization, of his party. It’s this greater—moral—conviction which would make him more ruthless. And it is this emphasis on the moral agenda rather than a political agenda which permits him enough flexibility to be a chamelion on many political issues or to even strike some compromises—the reason why so many Muslims do in fact support him. They too are religious, like him, but too short range, unlike him.

It’s Modi’s moral convictions that set him apart from the others in his party. It’s not any particularly superior personal set of qualities, except for being a better organization-man among them. Honest hard work, a lot of them do. Shrewd, a lot of them are. May be, he is slightly more shrewd, that’s all—though I honestly doubt that. From all that you can gather about him, he is very shrewd, but he could even be more sincere than shrewd. So, the real difference setting him apart from his colleagues is his willingness to go all the way down along the path of their shared morality. And the real reason why he can make that contradictory morality work, is: using his superior skills as the organization-man. The burden of the contradictions is calculated to fall on those outside the organization, the enemy camp (whoever they may be), and, since a contradiction nevertheless has a way to also run in the opposite direction, i.e. internally, the burden then has to fall on to those who have lesser skills to make the organization work for them. (One reason for this last also is the lesser strength of the same morals. There does seem to be a feedback loop here.) And so, when it comes to his individual assessment, the actual reason can only be ascribed to the depth to which he carries his (wrong) moral convictions.

Finally, coming to his supporters. In wondering about what *Modi*’s supporters want, if you are at all going to set up an *alternative,* esp. an alternative between Hindutva and “development” (whatever that means)—or, for that matter, between Hindutva and anything else—then, I would say, you are politically so naive, so very naive, that I have a suggestion for you: consider abstaining from voting regardless of where you are (i.e. even in places/elections where the BJP is weak/absent), for, when it comes to politics, you obviously cannot be trusted to choose wisely. :-) [This last was just a joke, BTW.]

Too long, in fact longer than usual. Hope you tolerate. (It was just a writing on the fly.) Guess one of these days I should write a slightly better organized piece on Modi, at my own blog. I wanted to do one well before the heat of the campaign begins, and right now might as well be a good time to do that. So, unlike my comments on spirituality and all, this time round, this comment might actually move very quickly to my blog. Though, guess I will let it begin its course here.