When we recall names and events in history, the associated dates and years are not always very precise, especially when dealing with the ancient world. Aside from the multiplicity of eras and calendars and changes in these, not all ancients kept log books and precise notes. Even if they did, few  of those have survived. In such contexts, we rely n the vague memories of those who spoke or wrote generations later, and on tradition. Sometimes we calculate for convenience.

No one knows when or where precisely Zarathustra lived. There is some scholarly consensus  that he lived well before 600 BCE.  In ancient times it used to be thought, with more imagination than evidence, that Zarathustra lived as far back as 5000 BCE, or even earlier.

His name is mentioned by ancient Greek and Latin writers, including Plato, Pliny and Plutarch, who transformed his Persian appellation into something like Zoroaster. Tradition says that the sage laughed when he was born, and this frightened away the naughty spirits in the neighborhood. Though some modern interpreters speak of Zoroaster as only a philosopher, according to another tradition, Zoroaster announced that he had been asked by God to purify religion, by which was meant the worship modes and symbols of the people among whom he was born. So he rebelled against the religion of his time and place. This was Mithraism which   included worship of  the bull, and the drinking of its blood. Zoroaster had a different vision of God. His vision of the creator of earth and heaven was as Ahura Mazda or Lord of Light.

He perpetuated, if not originated, the notion of good and evil spirits, of man being torn by the two, of life being a struggle between the two opposing forces. Depending on which side we take, we are in the army of God or of the Devil.

This notion is etched in the cultural psyche of many peoples to this day. It probably has its roots dating back to even more ancient times. Zoroaster also spelled out our most basic duties: to convert an enemy into a friend, to transform the wicked into the righteous, and to bring knowledge to the ignorant. These are the fuels of any proselytizing religion.

Zoroaster was a thinker who believed in causal connections between events in the real world. He was among the earliest  to apply the physical principle of cause and effect to the moral realm: good actions result in good results for the individual and bad actions in bad results, a notion that is implicit in the Hindu law of Karma and in the doomsday idea of later Middle-Eastern religions.

Whether Zoroaster intended to do so or not, he did found a religion: or rather, a religion grew around his name. Like Confucius and Gautama Buddha, he may have been only a wise and awakened thinker, and as happened with the other two, in the long run a religion emerged with an -ism appended to his name.

Zarathustra’s  wisdom and sayings were compiled into what came called the Avesta, which is the Zoroastrian scripture. It has hymns and stories and inspirational thoughts. Passages in the compendium have remarkable similarities with the Hindu Rig Veda, but it also has world views not unlike the Babylonian. After all, the regions (the Indian subcontinent and Iraq) are geographically contiguous to Iran.

Zoroaster’s  followers survive to this day as Zoroastrians. Driven away from their Persian homeland by Islam, they sought and found refuge in India where they came to be known as Parsees. Many of them have now migrated to other countries as well, practicing their ancient religion peacefully with non-intrusive success.

October 24, 2013




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.




To The Reader

Dear Readers

I see you come from close and distant lands ,

From continents across the seas,

From places speaking different tongues

And viewing the world differently.

I trust you like some of these posts,

Others perhaps you care not for,

Some you may very much like,

And others may strike you as really bad.

This must be so ’cause though as human

We have much in common,

Each one of us is different,

Like fruits in an orchard or trees in the woods.

But whatever the case, I’ like so much

To hear from you a word or two,

Saying what you think of what you read,

Who you are and how you came to this,

And if you’d like me to write on a specific theme.

With best regards to Whoever and Wherever you are,

V. V. Raman

July 14, 2016

ALBERT HOFMANN (1906 – 2008)

Suddenly, the familiar view of our surroundings is transformed in a strange, delightful, and alarming way: it appears to us in a new light, takes on a special meaning. Such experiences can be as light and fleeting as breath of air, or it can imprint itself deeply upon our minds.                                             – Albert Hofmann

Many things happen in the laboratories, observatories, and research centers of the world each and every day.  Some of them affect  human history in direct and indirect ways. Let us consider one example of this. Albert Hofmann  was initially planning to study Latin at the university, but later switched to chemistry, with particular interest in plant chemistry. With his degree from the  University of Zürich he got a job at the Sandoz Labs in Basel. Here he came to study the fungus called ergot for pharmaceutical purposes. In this work he discovered the structure of the nuclei of of medicinal plants. On 16 November 1938 he synthesized what later came to be known as lysergic acid. 

Some five years later, on 19 April 1943 Hofmann swallowed  0.5 cc of a solution of diethylamide tartrate. He began to feel dizzy and anxious, and he experienced visual distortions. He had symptoms  of paralysis along with an uncontrollable  desire to laugh.  From 6 to 8 p.m. that evening he had “a very severe crisis.” He recorded all this meticulously thus: “Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms….. The lady next door, whom I scarcely recognized, brought me milk… She was no longer Mrs. R., but rather a malevolent, insidious witch with a colored mask. Even worse than these demonic transformations of the outer world, were the alterations that I perceived in myself, in my inner being…. A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul. I jumped up and screamed, trying to free myself from him, but then sank down again and lay helpless on the sofa… I was seized by the dreadful fear of going insane. I was taken to another world, another place, another time.” A few days later He took 250 micrograms of the ominous substance known as Lysergic acid diethylamide.

In various combinations carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen, give rise to hundreds of thousands of compounds that  add much splendor and wonder in the terrestrial world. One of them is C20H25N3O, more popularly known as LSD. Hofmann’s tinkering with LSD has had  unexpected impacts on our attitudes to religion. It suggested a chemical basis for  mystical and spiritual experiences reported over the ages by countless individuals in all traditions and cultures. In doing this, it unwittingly trivialized what has generally been regarded as genuine and lofty incursions into dimensions of transcendental reality, and  reduced mysticism to hallucinations induced by alterations in brain chemistry. One began to view religious visions of the great saints and prophets of the ages  as   having been induced by the ingestion of unusual plants or herbs. It gave a different picture of what is common  in some traditions:  periodic sniffing of certain substances  for getting a religious high. The burning of incense in worship modes is probably a vestige of this practice.

The airplane made alchemical and yogic reports of teleportation within reach of all and sundry, and telephone and television did the same for clairaudience and clairvoyance. Likewise, Hofmann’s experience showed that by ingesting a drug, even sinners and students can get some of the effects like seeing God that used to be achieved only after years of spiritual discipline.

This led to more experiments with other chemicals, and to the rediscovery of plants and leaves  that give people easy access to psychedelic space. Thinkers like Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley instigated millions to a drug-based culture with the related cacophony in large gatherings. I once attended a lecture by Timothy Leary at a university where he was preaching to students his philosophy of “turn on, tune in, and drop out.”  Electric lights were turned off and only candle light flickered. I asked Leary at the end of the lecture if there a difference between the light from the two sources. He simply said, “The atmosphere,” which I thought was hot air, and threw no light on my question. The students who were turned on by his talk tuned in to music of high decibel and dropped out of school.

The brilliant thinker and writer Aldous Huxley wrote his classic Doors of Perception in which he argued that hallucinogens reveal to the human mind new dimensions of reality and instigate creativity. In the book Heaven and Hell he popularized the idea that drugs lead to spiritual insights and revelations. He died from euthanasia when his wife injected a dose of LSD into his body afflicted with cancer.

His books replaced the Bible for college-educated drug users. Thus it was that the drug gurus unleashed a pop-religion that transported  many to   realms beyond humdrum world  of work and service, fun and friendship. But drugs culture has also  has wasted away  the lives of countless people, young and old, in numb and mindless states. Drug-based culture turned against lay authority, and has had harmless effects on standard attire and haircut.  

 What the promoters of  consciousness-altering chemicals don’t seem to realize is that traditional spirituality is generally a positive unitive experience, creating feelings of oneness with the Cosmic Whole and flashes of ecstasy. Seekers of chemical spirituality often look pathetic to those confined to normal Reality, They become lethal when they get behind the steering wheel of a car, and often need help   in clinics and hospitals from normal people. Furthermore, drug culture has also gaiven rise to street gangs  and violent crimes.  Hallucinogenic botany has taken away precious land from  nutritive vegetation.  Albert Hofmann did not foresee any of this.

In this context it may be recalled that Transcendental Meditation techniques popularized by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (notwithstanding the ill-repute spread by his disenchanted Beatle-disciples) saved thousands of people from drug addiction and transformed their lives along more fulfilling channel.

July 6, 2016



… When Euclid stated the fifth postulate, he stood at the parting of the ways. There is nothing comparable to it in the whole history of science.     – George Sarton                            

Science is an effort to comprehend the world in rational terms. Rationality refers to the structured process in the brain which accepts or rejects conclusions on the basis of certain rules that seem to resonate in the normal conscious brain. The purest form of this process is reflected in mathematics, of which geometrical reasoning is a supreme example.

Euclid  (born: 27 June? 295 BCE) taught in the famed city of Alexandria in Egypt which had been founded by the young imperialist Alexander of Macedonia. Just as the Vedic rishis of ancient India made hymnal invocation to the forces of nature a canonical form of poetry, Euclid presented a formal geometrical reasoning mode that became a canonical format in geometry: consisting of definitions, postulates, and formal proofs for known geometrical results, and concluding with a triumphant QED (Quad erat demonstrandum: What was to be demonstrated has been demonstrated).

For many centuries his name came to mean in the Western world a branch of mathematics known for rigorous proofs and standard theorems. What Aristotle had done for reasoned thinking in the laws of logic, Euclid did for the theorems of geometry.

Geometry, in Euclid’s work, is not what the word literally means: measurement of the earth. Rather, it is a systematized realm in which  properties of lines, triangles, circles, and figures emerge like buildings from the foundations in the ground of postulates and  self-evident truths. The self-evident truths came to be called the axioms of Euclidean geometry.

That every geometrical form which can be drawn with  ruler and compass has some interesting properties should be clear to anyone who plays with such figures. But to recognize what these are by carefully climbing step by step on the logical ladder is more than a game in careful thinking: It is a spectacular harnessing of the powers of the human mind to walk on the tightrope of reasoning without faltering and falling. Engaging in geometrical reasoning is as fulfilling for the alert spirit, and perhaps as useless for our daily bread, as listening to glorious music. The following anecdote is appropriate. One day, when Euclid was expounding to his disciples the proof of an interesting theorem, a student is said to have raised his hand and asked how this result would come to any practical use. Whereupon Euclid threw a coin at the student, and asked him to leave the class, saying the money would fetch the wretch something useful. Those who are interested only in useful things have no business opening a book of pure mathematics or astronomy, Euclid implied.

Euclid’s classic work was The Elements. Euclid did not discover the results he published,  he established the the known results of geometry on a firm logical footing.  Other Greek writers, like Hippocrates and Leo, had published books with that title also, but they never acquired the reputation that Euclid did. The significance of Euclid’s work lies in its methodology: clear   definitions, assumptions, goals, illustrations, proofs, and conclusions. These provide a systematic framework in mathematics.

The Elements consists of thirteen Books.   Book I defines a point as “that which has no parts.” It contains the famous five postulates (aitimata: aithmata)  on which Euclidean geometry is based. The fifth of these is equivalent to saying that through a point external to a straight line only one parallel can be draw to that straight line. This came to be called an axiom or self-evident truth. Over the centuries, many tried to prove this statement, until it was discovered in the eighteen century that this is not a truth, but an assumption, as valid as the statement that the earth is flat. But assuming the earth to be flat we can draw a map of the world. This recognition led to the formulation of hyperbolic and elliptic (also called non-Euclidean) geometries in the nineteenth century.

In other words, accepting the axioms of Euclid not self-evident truths, but only assumptions one can deduce many interesting things about lines, angles, triangles, circles and such. So, in modern mathematics a postulate is a proposition we take (assume)  to be true in a give context, and from it we deduce all possible consequences by means of reasoning. What this means is that within a rational system the validity of the conclusions depends on the postulates. The conclusions need not necessarily corresponds to reality, unless the postulates do.

What is not universally recognized is that this great insight is relevant in fields beyond mathematics. Consider physics. Every theory in physics rests on one or more hypotheses. These correspond to postulates in mathematics. In mathematic, a postulate is accepted on the basis of the interesting consequences that flow from it. In physics, a hypothesis is accepted in the basis of the observable consequences that result from it.

We may extend the idea further. The notion of the postulate is also there in religion, though it is seldom recognized as such. Every religion is based on a set of fundamental assumptions which, as in Euclidean geometry, are taken to be axioms: truths, even if not self-evident.   These are the dogmas of religions, and correspond to postulates in mathematics. Just as there are different types of geometries based on different postulates, there are different religions, based on different dogmas.

But there is one important difference: Mathematicians revel in different kinds of geometry. Practitioners of religion, not realizing the postulational nature  of dogmas, regard their own system to be the only valid religious system. This is the equivalent of mathematicians claiming that only Euclidean geometry is valid. Only when this awareness  arises can there be religious harmony in the world. Who would have thought that a proper understanding of Euclidean geometry would provide some insight into the reason for religious differences?

June 24, 2011