Reflections on the Bhagavad Gita

In a new series I am reflecting on the shlokas of the Bhagavad Gita from non-traditional and cross-cultural perspectives.

My intention is to articulate some of the ideas that they provoke in me. I am not approaching the Gita as a religious devotee, but as another of its billions of readers.
There have been many parallel thought currents in the world. What I find interesting is that that many thinkers beyond the Sanskrit tradition have expressed in distant lands similar, if not identical ideas.

Furthermore, many insights in the Gita – a work that was composed many centuries ago – continue to be relevant and meaningful in this day and age; and This inclines me to recognize such writings as multiple expressions of the sublime human spirit. It induces me to embrace human culture as a bouquet rather than as mutually inimical forces.
Many revered sages, religious leaders, and competent scholars have commented on this immortal masterpiece.

My reflections are as thinking human being and an inheritor of the Hindu tradition. I am exercising these privileges in my reflections.

I regard the Gita as a great philosophical, cultural, and insightful work of significance. I am well aware that this goes counter to orthodoxy, but I know that I am not alone in this. There are a great many people who shy away from the Gita precisely because many traditional commentaries do not resonate with them. These reflections are addressed primarily to those who respect the cultural and literary treasures of the tradition without subscribing to every aspect of ancient worldviews.
I invite you to go to:


On Non-logical Thinking

When the human brain was wired to logical thinking, it was also wired to the faculty of non-logical and illogical thought.
Logic serves to reason out the present and even the future.
However, given the randomness in the course of events (due to unexpected intrusions of unpredictable causes arising from complex interconnections in the causal web), it was evolutionarily helpful to develop non-logical thinking.
Non-logical thinking is at the root of many very useful and enriching elements in human life:
(a) Hope: Without non-logical thinking hopes that sustain us in difficult and apparently hopeless situations would be impossible.
(b) Creativity: A good many expressions of artistic creativity arise from non-logical thinking. Consider the works of painters like Chagall and Klee, for example; or the musical outpourings of great composers.
(c) Imagination: is at the root of poetry, epic compositions, novels, and more. They don’t arise from logical thinking alone.
(d) Capacity for seeing through inadvertent mistakes: The computer is a 100% logical devise. If one makes a single letter-error in typing an e-mail address it will not work. But if one makes a spelling mistake in the name of an addressee on the envelop of a letter the postman will still deliver the letter. There are typos in our exchanges, but we understand what the writer mean. This is because our brains can stray away from logic at the appropriate time. As in the sentence: There is great wisdon in what I am writing hear.
It is good to remember that for practically thirty percent of our lives (during our sleep state) the logic button is switched off in our brains. We witness the most fantastic and illogical episodes in our dreams without the slightest feeling of mental discomfort.

Predicting the Future

Predicting the future, not just of individuals, but of cultures, nations, and humanity is an ancient game. Once, this was done through speculation, astrology, interpretation of scriptures, etc. In the 19th and 20th centuries fiction writers began to express their ideas of the future through reasonable extrapolations of current science and technology.
A number of writers have been doing this for centuries: not just the science-fiction that comes from science-informed imaginative writers – the classic examples of which would be Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (17th century) which is about a country where a science-centered institution (Solomon’s House) directed the goings-on in that Utopia. Those were the early days of science, like freshmen in college, scientists were dreaming of all the knowledge to be acquired in the years to come, to be turned to epistemic power and intellectual prestige.
In mid-seventeenth century there was a fiction on a future century. (I forget the name of the author). Of course we have all read Gulliver’s Travels which speaks of super-weapons. Voltaire wrote a story about aliens landing on earth. We call Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth. In the twentieth century H. G. Wells’ wrote about the War of the Worlds and the Invisible Man. There are, of course hundreds of works of the genre we call science fiction.
Divining the future of science by scientists is of at least three kinds:
(a) Projection of what will happen to the world in the future: Current cosmology seems to suggest that in the distant future the galaxies would have receded so far away that they would no longer be detectable/visible from our galaxy (earth). Astronomers (should they exist) at that time, will have no idea of extra-Milky-Way galaxies, and their recession, and would be unable to come up with a Big Bang theory. Likewise in the very long future, practically all the stars would have died, and there would be utter darkness in the heavens, but there would be no humans on earth anyway.
(b) Eventual Fate of humanity: Some demographers say that after the human population peaks by the end of the century, it will begin to decline uncontrollably (as is already happening in Japan, Germany, and Ukraine), and will be eventually reduced to zero. On the other hand, Bryan Sykes argues in his “Adam’s Curse” that because of the declining sperm count and the gradual atrophy of the Y chromosome, a thousand centuries from not there will not be any human males on the planet.
(c) Possible impacts of science-based technology in the centuries to come: The negative side-effects of genetic engineering, the internet (invasion of privacy), cyber-wars, robots taking over, etc. Also, while our longevity might increase, our knowledge of what will happen to our individual bodies (which diseases when and how intense) may have negative effects on our psychological well-being. Knowing that one will have cancer or a stroke two and a half years from now may diminish one’s enthusiasm for going to the movies and attending a party. A war between nuclear-armed nations should also be listed among the dire possibilities.
There are optimistic transhumanist-futurists like Ray Kurtzweil, but as of now – imminent diminution in water and energy sources, the melting of the polar ice-caps leading to catastrophic rise in sea-levels, and the (possible) irreversibility of climate change sound more threatening than honor killings in Pakistan and the stoning of a woman for apostasy in the Sudan. Perhaps these latter evils are the kinds of plagues need to be eradicated, but we don’t know how to do that because they have nothing to do with science and much to do with ignorance and distorted religious views. While we can do little about sudden movements of tectonic plates and draughts and tornadoes, we can do a lot more to alleviate hunger, enhance basic health for millions, eliminate illiteracy, and decimate religious bigotry, superstitions, cultural prejudices, and such other factors that still poison human culture. Perhaps practical science and theoretical scientific knowledge can assist humanity in this regard.
Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future presents visions of what is to come in fields ranging from computers and medicines to space travel and wealth. The book is based on serious study and interviews with pioneers in science and technology. It tells us about driverless cars, photographing dreams, resurrecting extinct life-forms, hot fusion, robots becoming conscious, reversing aging, and much more. It talks about a planetary civilization. At the end there is a fictional chapter on a day in a human life in 2100 and concludes with an insightful quote from Mahatma Gandhi which traces the roots of violence to
Wealth without work,
Pleasure without conscience,
Knowledge without character,
Commerce without morality,
Science without humanity,
Worship without sacrifice,
Politics without principles.

Four Levels of Physics

1. Ancient physics (Pre-16th century): Based largely on geometry, four/five element theory of matter, metaphysics, and ancient world views; careful reasoning; interesting and impressive. Some representatives: Ptolemy, Aristotle, Aryabhata, and Al Kindi.

2. Classical physics: end of 16th – end of 19th century. Based on ingenious instruments, calculus and differential equations, probability theory, hypothetic-deductive method, and empirical philosophy. Abundant results: enormous and significant breakthroughs in human knowledge on the directly experienced and astronomical worlds; predictability of phenomena with mathematical/statistical precision; recognition of gravitation and electromagnetism as the two fundamental forces in the physical world, recognition of many laws of nature.

3. Modern physics: Beginning of 20th century – now. Revelation of the substratum of matter and energy; insights into an altogether different level of (not directly experienced) Reality – the microcosm, fundamental particles -; discovery of galaxies and expanding universe: formulation of science-based cosmology (big bang, inflation, etc.); insights into the nature of space-time; sophistical mathematics, and high-precision instruments.

4. PoMo Physics (Post-modern physics): Early 20th to present) is a branching of modern physics. Based on bold speculative excursions into the philosophical, metaphysical, and religious implications of modern physics; toying with the state of the universe trillions of years hence; scant empirical evidence; sometimes inspired by popularizations (non-mathematical treatments) of physics; imaginative science-based constructs (e.g. parallel universes); a free-for-all realm of theorizing with little or no mathematical aspect; fascinating now and again to curious inquirers into science, but rather annoying to some technical physicists; producing hardly any result of empirical significance or practical value, tortuous tying of physics with consciousness, freewill, etc.; in some respects like medieval scholasticism, though based here and there on abstract mathematics.
June 1, 2014

On the Election Results in India

It should a matter of great rejoicing for people whose hearts are with India – whether they are currently Indian citizens or once were – that elections with the largest population were held there in an orderly manner, leading to a decisive winner for its next premiership. Irrespective of whether one voted for Mr. Nerendra Modi or not, and irrespective of one’s fondness or aversion for him, everyone who has any love for India and respect for the democratic process, should congratulate the people of India and wish its new leader every success in the discharge of his duty as head of that great nation: to move the country forward economically, socially, and culturally as a single united nation in which people of all faiths and political persuasions will continue to live as loyal and proud citizens.
It is a matter of global significance that the transfer of political power occurred in a democratic manner in a country of India’s size and stature.

It is therefore somewhat disappointing that media in the great democracy of the U. S. did not give the news its due prominence. Instead, many reports showed an obvious bias in referring to Mr. Modi pejoratively as a nationalist. A leader who articulates his respect for the cultural heritage to his own country does not a nationalist become; any more than that  a leader who talks about the exceptionalism of his country can be described as such.
In any event, that Mr. Modi’s victorious party received more the required majority to govern the country should add to the joy of those who support Mr. Modi as also of those who wish to see progress and development under the new dynamic leadership without too many hurdles in parliament that thwart effective action.
Forces inimical to Mr. Modi did their best to slur his name at home and abroad, especially in the U.S., where they managed to exert enough pressure to deny him an entry visa, succeeded in rescinding an invitation to speak at a prestigious university, and concocted a Congressional Committee to probe intrusively into his integrity. In spite of such efforts, the people of India have voted for Mr. Modi with an overwhelming majority. This is the only allowed road to political stewardship in civilized countries today. So it would be appropriate for his former enemies to recognize him as the legitimate leader of a free country.
I have little doubt that Mr. Modi will be a fair, able, and dynamic prime minister, and I join the millions in wishing India a very bright future under his leadership.

May 18, 2014

A Practicing Hindu (A very personal view)

A Practicing Hindu is a person with at least one Hindu parent, or, being born in another religion, has accepted Hinduism. Furthermore it is a person who:
1. Is familiar with the names of: (a) Rama; (b) Krishna; (c) Brahma; (d) Shiva; (c) Vishnu; (d) Sarasvati; (e) Uma; (f) Lakshmi; (g) Ganesha.
2. Enjoys and/or participates in one or more of the following Hindu festivals:
(a) Divali; (b) Shiv Ratri; (c) Janmashtami; (d) Ganesh Chaturti; (e) …
3. Can recite at least one Sanskrit or Tamil Shloka.
4. Knows about the caste system and recognizes his/her ancestral caste with which he/she may or may not identify.
5. Can name at least one language spoken in India.
6. Has heard of (a) The Ramayana; (b) The Mahabharata; and (c) the Bhagavad Gita, and knows its context.
7. Understands that there are many religions in the world which should all, in principle, be respected.
8. Accepts the idea that one can attain spiritual experience (or whatever kind) by following any path that seems to be fulfilling. (Tenet of polyodosism or bahumarga).
9. Has visited at least one Hindu Temple in his life.
10. Knows the meaning of prasad, and has had it at least once.
A practicing Hindu can openly criticize any aspect of the traditional religion, or even renounce his affiliation to Hinduism any time without fear of being maimed, mutilated, or murdered by any religious authority of the tradition.

May 20, 2014

The Irony of Multicuturalism

We live in a multicultural world: a world where a thousand cultures bloom, where sublime music, dazzling dances, great literature, beautiful poetry, magnificent art, fascinating cosmic visions, and a thousand cultural expressions of the human spirit find expression in so many different languages.
With our sophisticated technologies, no matter where we live, we have ample opportunities for experiencing these and enriching our lives as brothers and sisters in one large human family.
But instead, our world is wrought with conflicts, confrontations and controversies, claims of superiority of one culture over another, convictions that the religion of one’s own group is the only true path to the Divine, the arrogance that one’s own nation is better than any another, and such other narrowness that might have been understandable in the immature infancy of humanity, but which today are downright ugly and preposterous, even dangerous. Sadly, it is often in this framework that people reflect on language, culture and heritage in the grand internet arena. So many keep proclaiming how proud they are to belong to this religion or that, to this country or that, speaking this language or that. The planet is infested with so many proverbial frogs in the well of Aesop’s imagination.
When people from one cultural heritage settle down in alien shores, usually for making a better living, problems become even more complex. Instead of learning and absorbing the new culture in whose midst they have chosen to arrive, and contributing to the country by sharing their own cultural richness with their new fellow-citizens, many withdraw into their linguistic and cultural  cocoons, become psychologically insecure, and crave for special recognition and identity. Some even try to impose their own ethnic baggage and religion on the nation they have adopted, some begin affirm their uniqueness and yet others engage in attacks on their hosts who are viewed as villains out to destroy their culture. Books are written, lectures given, and passions aroused with this mindset. We live in an age when tastes and distastes, respect and rancor, love and hate are effectively formed through websites, list-serves, and e-books. It is often the negatives that many choose to dwell.

As a result, multiculturalism is not a state of cultural diversity that is to be celebrated and rejoiced in, but a threat to the security and integrity of many groups.
What a sad irony!
April 28, 2014