Reflections on “Indra’s Net: Defending Hinduism’s philosophical unity” by Rajiv Malhotra


Mr. Rajiv Malhotra has done it again: Written a substantial book on a topic that should interest all those who care for the Hindu world, especially as it is (mis)understood and portrayed by Western scholars.
This work accomplishes several things. The first is to demolish the view that Hindu philosophy and religion did not have a unified framework before the arrival of the colonizing British in India. Though the word Hinduism (in English) was coined by a British scholar, Malhotra argues that it would be naive, wrong, and/or mischievous to contend that there was no unifying religious fabric in India prior to the arrival of the British. As I have often said, after all, before the term Romance languages was coined there was Latin, Spanish, French, and Italian. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, let alone Vedic chants and shlokas sustained a religio-cultural quilt  for millennia before European intrusions into India.

Not all may subscribe to the thesis that there is no difference between the archeo-Hinduism with Vedic gods and sacrifices, classical Hinduism based on the grand epics, the bhakti mode, Shankara and Ramanuja, and modern Hinduism with no caste-hierarchy and no injunction against crossing the seas.

Malhotra’s thesis is that Hinduism has been as much a culturally unifying force in India B.B.C. (Before the British Came) as A.B.C. (After the British Came).

The book gives brief accounts of the writings of some major Indologists of the second half of the twentieth century, from Agehananda Bharati and Ursula King to Brian Pennington, Anant Rambachan, and more. These are among the culprits, he elaborates, who propagated the notion of Neo-Hinduism: a notion which, in Malhotra’s view, is not only ill-conceived but also sinister.

It seems to me that all religions which evolve with time have neo-versions from age to age. The Christianity of the twentieth century may well be described as Neo-Christianity, given that many features of that religion which were once very much part of it are no longer as dominant. However, resentment to the term Neo-Hinduism is provoked by the fact that it has a negative connotation; furthermore, the West often takes credit for the new unified modern version of Hinduism. This is what Malhotra attacks cogently and incisively .
A good part of the book is dedicated to refuting the thesis that Swami Vivekananda, in his eloquent and persuasive expositions of Hinduism, misled the world by covering up some of its inner contradictions. Nit-picking scholars may, in academic debates, dissect Vivekananda’s prolific writings and point to discrepancies here and there. But the Swamiji used to exhort his coreligionists to amend many of their traditional anachronistic ways. And it is unfair to complain that the orator did not wash the dirty linen of Hinduism to the full view of the Western public. What would that have served? His task when he spoke to Western audiences was to educate them on the positive aspects of Hinduism of which they had no idea. Malhotra also points out that Vivekananda’s introduction of Hindu thought into the West has been taken advantage of by the West which has appropriated its (Hinduism’s) deep insights without due acknowledgment. He discusses the relevance of yoga and meditation, of rishis and the spiritual quest to modern psychology and cognitive sciences.
Malhotra states that the purpose of his book is “to portray the ‘big picture’ of Hinduism, a picture which is necessary to develop its leadership, defend it externally and also convince many of its own skeptical member of its integrity and coherence.” Towards the end he offers some suggestions for the protection of Hinduism from alien religions and its penetration into others through what he calls Poison Pills – a powerful metaphor which he elaborates with reference to Shiva as Neelakanta.
He makes the spirited statement: “With all our hearts, we must preserve and nurture a grand conception of Hinduism, whose various aspects and components remain forever interwoven, each one of them reflecting all the others like jewels in Indra’s Net.”

Here I am reminded of Wagner’s Opera Die Meistersinger. In this musically magnificent work, Hans Sachs sings an aria in the end in which he extols German art and music and culture. In particular he says:
Verachtet mir die Meister nicht, und ehrt mir ihre Kunst!
Scorn not the Masters, I bid you, and honor their art! …
Das uns’re Meister sie gepflegt grad’ recht nach ihrer Art, nach ihrem Sinne treu gehegt, das hat sie echt bewahrt:
That our Masters have cared for it rightly in their own way, cherished it truly as they thought best, that has kept it genuine:
Blieb sie nicht adlig, wie zur Zeit, da Höf’ und Fürsten sie geweiht, im Drang der schlimmen Jahr’ blieb sie doch deutsch und wahr; ….
If it did not remain aristocratic as of old, when courts and princes blessed it, in the stress of evil years, it remained German and true.
Habt Acht! Uns dräuen üble Streich’: zerfällt erst deutsches Volk und Reich, in falscher wälscher Majestät
Beware! Evil tricks threaten us: if the German people and kingdom should one day decay, under a false, foreign rule ……
Wälschen Dunst mit wälschem Tand sie pflanzen uns in deutsches Land; was deutsch und echt, wüsst’ keiner mehr, lebt’s nicht in deutscher Meister Ehr’. Drum sag’ ich euch: ehrt eure deutschen Meister! Dann bannt ihr gute Geister; und gebt ihr ihrem Wirken Gunst, uns bliebe gleich die heil’ge deutsche Kunst!
Foreign mists with foreign vanities, they would plant in our German land; what is German and true none would know, if it did not live in the honor of German Masters. Therefore I say to you: Honor your German Masters, then you will conjure up good spirits! And if you favor their endeavors, for us there would yet remain holy German Art!
In this memorable aria if we replace German by Hindu, and the word art by tradition and culture, these lines would express in a nutshell the deepest feelings of many modern Hindus. This book gives those feelings powerful, eloquent, and ample expression.

Malhotra does for Hinduism what G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy and C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity did for their religion: presenting robust, positive, and enlightened visions of the religion.

There is no question but that this book will have considerable positive impact on intelligent and youthful Hindu readers.
What is not pointed out in the book, but deserves mention, is that in spite of more than a century of adverse propaganda, a great many educated people in the West have, by and large, positive images of India and Hinduism.
It is true the there are unsavory connotations to the term Neo-Hinduism. But one may give the term  totally different meanings:

People from the Judeo-Christian-Buddhist traditions who convert to Hinduism may be regarded as Neo-Hindus. Such Neo-Hindus are beyond the categorization of varnashrama: They are not part of  any of the four traditional castes.

Then again, there are millions of bona fide Hindus who question the historicity of the epics, and doubt the tenets of karma and reincarnation. No authority can ostracize them from the Hindu fold. They too may be regarded as Neo-Hindus in another sense.

Finally, Neo-Hinduism (or Anglo-Hinduism) may be regarded as the presentation of the framework, foundations, and insights of the Hindu world in a Non-Indian language (English for the most part), using the word Hinduism rather than Sanatana Dharma, addressed especially to English-speaking Hindus and Westerners who may be interested in Hinduism, and above all, not only to educate Westerners about the glories of Hinduism but also to disabuse them of their many misconceptions, whether mischievous or ignorant. Some Neo-Hindus also migrate beyond the sacred soil of India and make their homes elsewhere. As per this definition, Mr. Rajiv Malhotra’s writings may well be described as Neo-Hinduism par excellence.

Not every thoughtful Hindu and Indologist with respect and reverence for Hinduism may fully agree with all that Malhotra says in this significant book, or resonate with how he paints his dissatisfaction with Western scholars of India.

But no one can deny that this book explores the roots of, and offers highly original perspectives on, the image of Hinduism that has been implanted in the minds of many Westerners who have been drawn to Hinduism in one way or another. This book is worth reading because it comes from a thoughtful and well-informed scholar who loves Hindu culture and philosophy from the depths of his heart, and is among those who are acutely aware of the existential threats that the culture is facing.

March 29, 2014

Attitudes to Other Religions: A personal View


Many decades ago, my father initiated me into the recital of Sanskrit shlokas.  But he also wanted me to learn about other religions.  So he sent me to a Jesuit school for two years.  Here I studied Latin and took a course in Moral Science (Bible study).  My father taught me that to be a good Hindu I should be respectful of other religions.

A few years later, in a biography of Sri Ramakrishna I read that when the saint was in his mid-thirties, a Hindu sufi introduced him to Islam.  Ramakrishna repeated the name of Allah many times, wearing a white Arab garb.  The Hindu icons vanished from his psyche.  He is said to have experienced the Prophet Muhammad within himself.  Some years later, he meditated on Madonna and Child, which resulted in his feeling of merger with Christ.

In my adult life, I began to approach religions from cultural-historical perspectives, and read with care not only the scriptures of the major religions, but also the lives of saintly personages in various traditions.  It became clear to me that the well-intentioned thesis that all religions say the same thing is really not true.  Not even all the sects within  a religion say the same thing.  Then, were personages like Ramakrishna, Guru Nanak, and Ramana Maharishi fooled into thinking that all religions are the same? \

In an effort to find an answer to this question, I launched a project for myself many years ago.  Every week I visited a place of worship of a different denomination, often accompanied by my wife.  Fortunate circumstances in my life have taken me to various churches, synagogues, mosques, and also to Buddhist, Bahai, and Hindu temples: mosques in Cairo and Algiers, synagogues in Curaçao and Penfield, Churches in Vienna and Seoul, Bahai temples in Wilmette and Delhi, Buddhist temples in Bangkok and Los Angeles, Gurudwaras in Calcutta and Rochester, Hindu temples in Kanya Kumari and Kalighat, and to many other places of worship.  I even spent an hour at a worship center in Lapland. 

Everywhere, I participated in the collective spiritual mode, not as an observer, but as one who wanted to feel a little of the spirit that moves people to piety.  These were enormously rewarding experiences.  I know very well that not all religions say the same thing: a well-intentioned, but naïve generalization that has rightly come under attack.  Unfortunately such attacks come, not always from people who have the most generous heart towards, or respect for others, but more often than not from religious chauvinists who fear that any such identification would bring their own religion from the pedestal which they feel is its due.  Every frog within every religious well is always croaking that not all the wells contain the pure and clear water that its own well does.

My own conclusion is that Ramakrishna wasn’t at all deluded, as some of his critics suggest.  I interpret his truth to mean that all religions have the potential to give an aspirant genuine spiritual fulfillment.  Everywhere I went during a worship service, I saw an outpouring of reverence and devotion for the Unfathomable Mystery visualized and invoked in different languages and modes, through different symbols and gestures.  Even with all the atrocities and abominations perpetrated in the name religions by brutal bigots and deluded devotees, something sublime and spiritual is infused in the hearts and minds of people who are prayerful in a place of worship.  Of this I became certain.

After my experiment, I was more convinced than ever of the wisdom in the lines:

      akâsât patitam toyam yatha gacchadi sâgaram

      sarvadeva namaskârah shrî kesavam pradigachadi.

As waters falling from the skies go back to the self-same sea

Prostrations to all the gods return to the same Divinity.

March 11, 2014

 

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On the Debate of February 4, 2014


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6kgvhG3AkI

The nationally streamed debate in Kentucky between a spokesman for Science (Bill Nye) and an adherent to the Biblical version of biogenesis (Ken Ham) was a national embarrassment (not to say disgrace). That one has to argue for the scientific worldview in the twenty-first century in a nation which has a prestigious history of scientific discoveries, inventions, and international prizes revealed a known and much-regretted fact: That a good deal still needs to be done to spread the spirit and knowledge of science to the general educated public at large, let alone in schools. It is of little consolation that billions of people belonging to other mainstream religions will side with Mr. Ham’s insistence on the validity of scriptural authority on matters relating to the physical world, though allegiances will be to different ancient texts in other cases. The debate was painful to watch for those who have been touched by the knowledge harvested in the past few centuries, and the whole event was no laughing matter, notwithstanding some awkward claims made with a straight face.

In fact, the debate was not between evolution and creationism, nor simply between science and religion, but between reason and unreason, between perspectives that value experiments and coherence in our understandings of the world, and those that honor the legacy of one’s distant cultural ancestors. It was between different ways of acquiring knowledge about the wonders of the world: the rational and the non-rational, the questioning and the respect-for-authority mode.

Dr. Nye was persuasive with all the meticulously accumulated data from geology, paleontology, and biology that he clearly presented. Mr. Ham was persistent in his reverence for the Holy Book and in the literal reading of seven-day creation, Noah’s Ark and the like. One could admire his deep devotion to Christ and after-life, and empathize with his concerns about what strikes him (and many others) as an alarming deterioration in traditional values which have resulted in sexual promiscuity, unwanted pregnancies, increasing drug  addiction and the like. It is not clear that these social changes are the result of accepting Darwinian evolution or the big-bang theory. It is not impossible to teach healthier values in a science-respecting framework.

Leaving aside the technical error of saying that Hubble had discovered the recession of stars – actually it was the recession of galaxies –  and showing a diagram in this context on how Bessel had determined the distance of a star, Nye pleaded the cause of science with passion and frustration, posing fruitlessly some questions several times to his opponent in the debate. Though most scientifically inclined people like myself were sympathetic to him, there were a few things he said on science’s behalf which have little to do with the merits of science’s case.

Nye kept saying  that the scientific question gives him great joy. True, but this eureka-ecstasy cannot be experienced by those who have not done science, and they are the vast majority. Then again Hams gets similar joy from reading the Bible and signing the Psalms. That does not make his position  stronger either. Then Nye kept warning Kentuckians  that if they did not adopt the scientific worldview, the United States would fall behind in its scientific leadership. Well, for quite some time now the U. S. has been among the leading nations in science, in spite of anti-evolutionists. The fact is, as long as there is a body of serious scientists in any nation, there will always be creative scientists. This is not an argument against science education but a recognition that scientific breakthroughs, like good art and great music, are always done by only a select few everywhere. Then again, Nye’s threat that if we do not embrace science we will fall behind economically is not valid either. Dubai and Saudi Arabia are doing economically quite well, thank you, without subscribing to Darwin and while upholding their own holy book.

The greatest argument for science is that it expands our mind and our enhances our values too. The tug today, in the United States as elsewhere too in the world, is between those (cultures and individuals within cultures) who choose to linger in the past, fettered by worldviews and values that are anachronistic and sometimes unconscionable, and those who are informed by the immense body of knowledge that the sciences have brought to humankind and have been awakened by the transnational, transreligious, and transcultural worldview that the scientific quest has sculptured. That worldview is ennobling, magnificent and mind-expanding in its own right, far more so than any that humanity has constructed over the millennia.

The intelligent recognition of the scientific worldview need not deter us from respecting the views of distant generations as fruits of  past endeavors of the human spirit, or from valuing their insights in so far as they are uplifting and foster love and compassion,  or from enjoying the great art and music and poetry that religious visions have prompted in all cultures. But honoring the great visionaries of the past  should not arrest the exciting quest for  new knowledge and understanding accruing from exploration and new insights, nor repudiate the fruits of that quest.

February 5, 2014

On the Friendliness of the Universe


Much of the universe, as we understand it, is not at all friendly to humans or to any life form. That is to say, life cannot exist in 99.999…% of the Universe which consists mainly of super-hot stars.

But there are pockets here and there, such as our own planet Earth, where life has evolved, because the physical-chemical conditions and planetary size have been conducive to the emergence and sustenance for a long period of time (but only for a fraction of the age of the universe).

We may, if we wish, express our gratitude to the Laws of Nature and the chance-generated configurations of matter and energy that have made Life (on Earth) a possibility.

From what little we know the universe itself is pretty indifferent to such expressions of gratitude.

But our cultural evolution instills in us some deep satisfaction when we say “Thank You” for goodies we receive. We also treat with disdain people who don’t say “Thank You” for the nice things   they get from others. That is why, since we gobble up all these great experiences for a few decades, in our reflective moments, we say we are grateful for the gift of life and the associated pleasantness – not just our own. Such feelings don’t arise when we or other people suffer under severe conditions generated by Nature (the Universe).

I once told my eight year old  daughter when she asked me if God exists: “I don’t have the faintest idea, Indira, but I wish there was Something or Somebody to whom I can say ‘Thank you!’ for all the blessings (= unasked-for positive experiences) I have received. That Something is what some people call Mother Nature and the some others call God. If there were no such entity, we may have to invent one for this purpose alone.

Quite a few people manage to live peacefully without expressing any such gratitude for Life and happiness, love and joy, mainly because they don’t know to whom they should send this. If they can do this, that’s fine for them. Problems start when these people tell others they should not say “Thank you!” to anybody, real or imagined, and others force the apparently ungrateful ones to adopt their version of the gratitude-target.”


24 Jan 2014

Thoughts in the New Year


A week ago the Gregorian calendar ushered in yet another New Year, numbered 2014 by (more or less) international convention. For while the vast majority of nations which have been brought under the West-instigated global framework follow this chronology, a few other traditional systems reckon their New Years by other conventions, all anchored to some religion or local convention or other, and none having any point of reference that is culture-invariant.

The sun, fixed in the solar system relative to the planets, moves from our slanted terrestrial perspective between the tropics as our planet zooms in the void of solar space along its elliptical orbit, coming ever so slightly closer to the central star during what denizens of the Northern Hemisphere experience as winter, utterly indifferent to the celebrations of earthlings now and again.  Countries and capitals sometimes compete with fireworks in the jubilation of this astronomical non-event

People open bottles of champagne and other beverages to mark this occasion which is devoid of any cosmic significance, make resolutions in hopes of changing their behavior and list to-be-achieved  goals before the last date of 2014 is dumped into the black hole of irretrievable history. We wish one another health and happiness:  vestige of the ancient magical belief by which words and gestures would modify events in the human-centered world.

I too like to engage in such wishful thinking. Wouldn’t be great, I tell myself,  if, at long last, this would  be the year when peace dawns in the middle east; terrorists give up their modus operandi; dictators are dethroned; the wealthy resolve to give a significant percentage of their resources for the benefit of the less fortunate members of our species;  arch-enemies extend hands of mutual friendship; nations stop snooping; religions  recognize that none of them is better or worse than a sister religion in their attempts to visualize God and cease persuading or forcing others as to the truth-content of one’s own faith-system; poachers stop killing helpless animals in the wilderness; superstitions are recognized for what they are and relegated to the laughable relics of human beliefs;  bigots, fanatics, and extremists, whether religious or secular, calm down or are exterminated in as humane a fashion as possible; the corrupt are cleansed and condemned for good; chocolates are available everywhere free-of-cost;  and such other improbabilities as all wish and none can bring about come to pass!

I know too well that none of this will come to pass this year or in the next, or even in the next five decades to come. But it is soothing to engage in their possibility at least in the first week of a new year, and that’s why I indulge in such thoughts.

January 6, 2014

Dennett, Daniel C. Breaking the spell: religion as a natural phenomenon. Viking, 2006.


Daniel Dennett is a brilliant philosopher, and also a general in the army that is out to rid humanity of traditional religions. He takes up his mission with the zeal of a preacher, saying at the very outset of this penetrating appraisal of religion: “I say unto you, O religious folks who fear to break the taboo: Let go! Let go! You’ll hardly notice the drop!” Such language is appropriate, given that (as he sees it) religion is an unfortunate spell to which we are bound, and he is out to break it.

In 2006 Dennett published a provocative essay in which he described people who had rid themselves of all traditional religious beliefs as brights, without using any epithet for those who haven’t. The present book, which offers some generous, if sarcastic-sounding suggestions as not how the non-brights might call themselves,  is an expansion, elucidation, and defense of the brights-position. The book says little that is entirely new to reasonable skeptics,  informed atheists and unreligious scientists, but it says it all with great wit, intelligence and persuasiveness.

In a “I-come-to-bury-Caesar-not-to-praise-him” style, Dennett is not out to decry, degrade, or destroy religion, but only to analyze it from scientific perspectives. All he wants to explain is that religion is just another human invention to serve human needs, and is no revealer of truths, much less a vehicle that gives us a post mortem ride unto a grander or more terrible world beyond space and time. His analysis of religion and its emergence is sharp and insightful, and as informative as that of a master anthropologist about an exotic culture. In an age in which mindless religious fanaticism does havoc the world over, and sometimes tries to distort or usurp science, a book like this is welcome.

However, what escapes Dennett’s analysis is that we are all under the spell of something or other. It could be fanatical religion or unadulterated rationality. Redemption for the brights consists in breaking the spell of religion, and in coming under the spell of pure rationality in the appraisal and experience of everything human. As to whether this book will transform millions into brights, it is difficult to say. It may be generations before that goal is achieved. Some, after recalling Stalin and Mao, may wonder if it is even a safe goal to strive for. But who knows!

December 27, 2013

Welcome December!


This is the month of Christmas and Hanukkah for people of the Judeo-Christian traditions when lamps will be lit, gifts will be exchanged, trees will be decorated,  stores will be invaded, and moneys will be collected for charity by the Salvation army.

But when poets write about drear-nighted December, and complain that

      The sun that brief December day

      Rose cheerless over the gray,

      And, darkly circled, gave at noon

      A sadder light than waning moon

they are, unwittingly, prisoners in their latitudes. For, down below, to the south of the equator this is the month of mid-summer, with no snow or chill, except perhaps on mountain peaks.

“It’s the December Date for Winter!

Season of white and snow.”

“But in November too, there was this stuff,

As I’m sure you know.”

“It’s the month of joys when Santa comes

And toys, they are on sale!”

“Now, my friend, we all do know:

That Santa’s but a tale.”

“We’ll have Christmas soon, trees will be  lit

And carols we will sing.

“But to Yusuf, Ben, and Gopal too

Christmas doesn’t mean a thing.”

“Oh, Winter is here, days are cold,

We need coats to go to town.”

“Not if you live in  Peru or Perth

In Jakarta or Cape Town.”

“What do you want me to say, my friend

If all I say is wrong?

There’s no Christmas, there’s no snow,

There is no joy or song?”

“You aren’t wrong, no not at all,

But your truths are but for some.

All truths that touch one’s heart and soul,

Absolute ne’er become.

“So December sure is all you say:

For carols and snow, I bet.

But others have other seasons like this:

This we shouldn’t forget.

“The seeming path of sun in sky

Changes this day, we find.

This truth touches no heart or soul,

It’s of the scientific kind.”

“I care not for truths scientific,

In Christmas, they’ve no place.

Come, sing with me of Christ and Love

Of  Joy and Peace and Grace.”

December 1, 2013

Michele Marie Desmarais, Changing Minds: Mind, consciousness, and identity in Patañjali’s Yoga-Sûtra and cognitive neuroscience, New Delhi: Motilal Benarsidass Publishers, 2008.


The Yoga-Sûtra of Patañjali is a classic work in humanity’s heritage.  It is the time-honored treatise that expounds the conceptual and spiritual basis of yoga which is one of the major contributions of India to world knowledge and culture. Over the ages, the theory and practice of yoga have undergone changes, often instigated by enlightened practitioners. In today’s world it has spread far and wide beyond the shores of India, enriched and distorted in a variety of ways.

The Yoga-Sûtra has been translated into several languages, and in English there are several renderings and commentaries. The theoretical framework of the complex system of yoga involves many technical terms, such as purusha, prakriti, vritti,  and pramana. This book presents remarkably clear expositions of such terms in a systematic manner. It elaborates on the philological aspects of the words, elucidating their multiplicity of meanings, especially in translations; sometimes it critiques the inadequacy of certain translations. Thus citta, manas, and buddhi may all refer to mind, intellect or ideation (p. 43). The book explores the philosophical significance of the concepts as well: after all, the yoga is one of the six canonical schools of classical Hindu darshanas (philosophical systems). Thus, for example, the notions of samskâras and vâsanâs, and karmâshya are discussed in detail (pp. 66 et seq.)  All through, the appropriate passages from the text are quoted. The  psychological dimensions of the Yoga-Sûtra are also analyzed. But the yoga system is more than philosophy: it is a system of psychology that analyzes the nature and properties of the human mind and consciousness. Thus the book refers to cognition, perception, memory, and sleep from the yoga perspective.

What makes this study particularly interesting is that it puts all of this in the context of modern cognitive neuroscience. Thus discussions on various parts of the brain (neuroanatomy) is introduced in a section that talks of the mind as emergent from the brain (p. 84). The book explains how in the yoga system mind is studied in terms of matter.

But the most important aspect of yoga is practice. Its components are discussed. They include restraints (yamas), observances (niyamas),  postures (asanas),  breath control (pranayama) pratyâdhâra (withdrawal of the senses), dhârana (concentration), dhyâna (meditation), and samâdhi which the author chooses not to translate even as the ultimate state of union (pp. 158-176). The concluding chapters dealing with an analysis of yoga practice and the extraordinary results of yoga are informative and inspiring. 

The author has formatted her book in an ingeniously meaningful way. Taking the cue from samkhya which regards the human experience as witnessing a show on the stage, she presents the topics under theatrical epithets: Entering the Theater, Taking the Stage, All the World’s a Stage, Following the Plot, The Plot Thickens, and Lights Up.  In this manner the reader is gradually taken through the various stages of yoga theory and practice, philosophy, psychology, and the climactic  fulfillment.  This original method of presenting the Yoga-Sutra builds an awareness that is difficult to get from a mere reading of a translation. 

This book should be of special value to anyone is interested in getting an overview of the yoga system and its relevance and relationship to the modern world.

 November 22, 2013

Penrose, Roger. The road to reality: a complete guide to the laws of the universe, Knopf, 2005.


Science has two primary goals: to find explanations of myriad natural phenomena characterizing the world of experience and to unravel from these explanations the ultimate nature of reality. These goals are interlinked in that the mode of explanation will be the road by which reality will be unveiled. The scientific mode, finding spectacular expression in physics, is through mathematics. Thus, mathematics becomes the road to reality for scientists and especially for physicists. Physicist Penrose guides the reader through that complex and exciting road with profound erudition, deep insight, and great flair. He begins with a clear, succinct exposition of the interrelationships among mental, mathematical, and physical worlds. All through, there is blending of technical mathematics with keen observations and historical asides. Penrose reflects on his own views on current physics, confessing only partial trust in string theories to provide the ultimate key to unlocking the terminus. Though the book is for “the serious lay leader,” not many will fathom much beyond the first chapter. Those with graduate work in theoretical physics will be enormously enriched. More than anything else, this book will be a great resource for graduate seminars. A must for all libraries serving physics departments. Summing Up: Essential. Lower-division undergraduates through professionals.  

November 6, 2013

November 1 and All Saints Day


How quickly the sunny days of summer seem to have fled, leaving us to a period when, in the words of the poet Walter Scott (of the northern hemisphere):

      November’s sky is chill and clear,

      November’s leaf is red and sear.

Some of us may recall Thomas Wood’s unkind description of the month:

      No Park – no Ring – no afternoon gentility -

      No company – no nobility -

      No warmth – no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,

      No comfortable feel in any member -

      No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,

      No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds -

      November!

Yet, this is also the month when, (this year) Hindus celebrate their festival of light,  and Sikhs will be remembering two of their gurus. 

People remember the names and deeds of great ones on whom we have records: historical, anecdotal, or legendary. But beyond the known personages of eminence there have been, in all cultures, many individuals, modest perhaps in their recognized accomplishments, but deserving to be remembered no less for their thoughts and deeds.

One way of remembering them is by dedicating a day to all worthy people. This is one way of interpreting   All Saints Day which is observed on November 1 by the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. It  dates back to more than a thousand years: this remembrance of the countless martyrs and saints, known and unknown, who lived in the Christian world. In the tradition, one pays homage to God for those precious lives which exemplified some of the best elements in the human potential and expressed the capacity for self-sacrifice for a cause.

In an extended sense, all who toil lifelong for the common good with more pain than personal benefit may be looked upon as saints; all who show extraordinary compassion and kindness, humility and empathy for the suffering of others, and whose lives enrich and enhance the well-being of others, are saints too. So, whether Catholic or Anglican, Christian or otherwise, we can all pause for a moment in reverence for our fellow humans who have been martyrs and saints in this extended meaning of the word.

In the first decade of the seventh century, the Pantheon in Rome was consecrated to Sanctae Mariae et Martyres. In the next century, Pope Gregory III made a special chapel in St. Peter’s where the relics of all martyrs were kept, and “for all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world.” This is one of the few inclusive statements from the Catholic Church, for it does not explicitly exclude Non-Christians, reminding one of the Vedic prayer loká samastaa sukhino bhavantu: May the whole world be happy!

The word martyr is not etymologically related in any way to death. It originally meant “a witness who testifies to a fact of which he has knowledge from personal experience.” It is in this sense that the original Apostles of Christ were the first martyrs. In an extended sense again, all those who have had profound and genuine spiritual experience are martyrs, whether or not they belong to the Christian tradition. From this perspective we may regard All Saints Day as a day to remember the worthy souls from all over the world.

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