ON CNN’S AFFRONT TO THE HINDU WORLD


CNN’s broadcast (Sunday March 5, 2017) on Hinduism by a so-called religious scholar did disservice to the cause of peace and understanding. With obviously no knowledge of Sanskrit or Tamil, he had the gall to report on Hinduism to a public already naive about Non-Christian religions, and can hardly distinguish a Sikh from a Muslim, at a time when anti-immigrant passions are running high,  prompted largely by the extremists of the religion to which this supposed scholar is affiliated. His crass and callous snap shots of an enormously complex and multifaceted religion could be charitably interpreted as arising from superficial book knowledge, and in more sinister terms they can be interpreted as a wanton effort to ignite anti-Hindu  sentiments in the country.

The program was a downright affront to a great religious tradition which, unlike the tradition to which this interpreter of religion may be more familiar, preaches respect and reverence for all spiritual paths. India, with its overwhelming Hindu majority is home to millions of others from different faiths, and has been so for centuries.

The United Nations has thought it fit to include in its motto a quote from  a Hindu poet on humanism.   The scriptures of Hinduism are reckoned among the most poetic and philosophical in the world: from Schopenhauer to Emerson, and countless others, informed thinkers have paid homage to the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.  The deep insights of Hindu thinkers  into the ultimate nature of reality have found resonance in sophisticated modern physics: The CERN in Geneva has acknowledged this.

The CNN “expert” on Hinduism is obviously ignorant of all this. His expertise seems to be in projecting pictures that titillate the superficial, ill-informed, and perhaps malicious tourist. This show was regarded  as the height of public affront to a billion people. Whether President Trump’s characterization of CNN as a purveyor of fake-news was appropriate or not in the context in which it was made, it was certainly so in this case.

It is important to emphasize that humanity’s cultural legacy is vast. Every nation and group has created art and music, plays and poetry, science and philosophy, dance and delicacy. Thanks to the marvels of technology transfer of information has become much easier. Through our powerful modes of communication it is not impossible to educate the masses on whatever is grand and glorious in every culture and civilization, in every race and religion of  the human family. We have the resources to educate and  enlighten humanity as a whole. We can make people  better understand and appreciate  the cultural richness in all groups.

Contrary to the hopes and wishful dreams of humanists that is not what is happening. Instead, we seem to be heading towards a world of mutual hate and suspicion, devoid of scant respect for the traditions of others,  displaying  religious intolerance of the most abject kind. One reason is programs like this. It is most unfortunate that a respectable medium like CNN did not recognize the motives of this “scholar”.

We are at the threshold of an age of narrow nationalism and sectarian bigotry.   There are at least two reasons for this throw-back to religious intolerance. One is the inability or unwillingness of religious leaders to preach basic tolerance to their followers; the other is the disservice done by the media by focusing on what is wrong and grotesque in various faith systems. No religion is spotless but all religions have their nobler and uplifting aspects too. Responsible groups should know which to emphasize to  whom and when.

I raise my voice of protest not only as a member of the Hindu tradition, but equally as a member of the human family who is alarmed by the divisive trends that are poisoning the world today; and by the fact that a news-providing institution like CNN would air a program of this misleading kind. I can only hope that they will not ask an ignorant Hindu to interpret Islam to the American public.

8 March 2017

Homage to Yashodhara


My eyes are full, my garments wet, tears fall,

As my husband nectar-like, do I recall.

He went leaving our son, I now remember

Dows this world together such as I?

From a folk poem on Yashodhara (translated by Ranjini Obeysekara)

Most religious traditions tell us that Gods and angels reveal themselves more often to men than to women. Nevertheless, in some religions – certainly in all pre-Abrahamic religions there are goddesses as well as gods: Isis and Athena, Minerva and Sarasvati, Brigantia and Frigg, for example.

Very little of historical authenticity is known about these reverence-worthy women who command great respect in humanity’s cultural history. But their stories have become part of sacred history. Days on the calendar are sometimes consecrated to celebrate their presence in the faith-systems of the world. In this way religions have memorialized Esther in the Judaic tradition,  Radha in the Hindu, Mary in the Christian, Aisha in the Islamic, and Yashodhara in the Buddhist.

May 2 is the Day for Yashodhara for many Buddhists. So I will reflect on her today.

King Shuddhodana – Buddha’s father – had a sister named Pamitá. She was married to King Suppabuddha. Yashodhara  was the name of this couple’s daughter. The name means One who bears Glory.  Other names for her are Bimbadevi and Bhaddakacchana.

As per tradition, Siddhartha (who was to become the Buddha) was born on exactly the same day as Yashodhara. The two grew up in luxury in their respective families. When they reached the age of sixteen, they were married. The couple lived happily. Many years later, when both were 29, Yashodhara gave birth to a son. The child was named Ráhula.

It says in the lore that Prince Siddhartha left his wife, son, and palace on the very day of the child’s birth, in his quest for higher truths. He went out to solve the puzzle of human suffering and to discover the ultimate cause of pain and anguish in the world. In another rendition of this event,  when Siddhartha wore a monk’s attire and was about to leave on his mission, crowds came to pay respect to him. Yashodhara was conspicuously not there among the visitors. Alone in her chamber she thought of the Enlightened One, felt there was no need for her, and waited to see if he would leave her without taking leave.

Siddhartha noticed that Yashodhara’s absence, and he asked about her. His father said she was in her room. The young prince  went at once to see her. Yashodhara was overwhelmed with joy and sadness. She fell at his feet and sobbed heavily. Siddhartha’s toes were drenched by her tears. But the sage left her calmly, saying she had always been loyal to him, even in a previous birth.

First Yashodhara was thrown into tremendous sorrow by her husband’s abandonment. After she understood the purpose and significance  of Siddhartha’s spiritual quest she decided to follow the ascetic path herself. She cast away jewels and silken robes, changed to ordinary raiment, and began taking only sparse food.

Gabriel Constans wrote a historical fiction: Buddha’s Wife (2009). This re-telling of Yashodhara’s story,  while being respectful of the Buddhist tradition raises fundamental questions on spiritual life. It makes us think about some of the  injustices towards women.  In this fictional account of the scene Yashodhara says: “Shakya walked out of the door the day I delivered Rahula. Dazed after the strenuous labor, all I wanted to do was sleep. But I was woken out of my reverie by cries of ladies in waiting. Gathering my strength I walked out to witness the happening. Tears flowed effortlessly. I saw Prince Siddhartha devoid of his status, clad in mere robe moving away from the palace without a knowing gait. I quickly clad myself and ran out of the palace doors. I ran knowing I could lose everything if it happened. I ran amidst wailing crowd begging Siddhartha to change his mind. I ran to protect my child who had just opened his eyes to this world. By the time I caught up with my Prince, he had transformed to the point of no recognition. He simply looked at me and walked on. I ceased running and fell to the ground hoping that he would look at me. He kept walking. I passed out over the fading footprints of Shakya on the palace grounds.”

We read in the lore that many came to give Yashodhara moral support. It is even said that some princes came forward to marry her and look after her and the child. But she would have nothing of that. Instead, she persisted in her own ascetic life and followed five hundred other women who also became bikkhuni (nuns) of the order. Later, son Ráhula also joined the monastic order established by his father. Yashodhara he lived to be 78. She became an enlightened soul (arhat or arahant).

There are books on Buddhism that make no mention of Yashodhara, for what matters to the authors is the wisdom from the Master: not the pain and wailing of one abandoned woman. The saga of Yashodhara  is symbolic of the story of women all through history  who have endured neglect and abandonment, sometimes even abuse and  persecution, while their husbands go on the search for higher truths and ideals. While men are absorbed in hours of scientific research, artistic creation, spiritual quest, business affairs, or whatever, the devoted wives are at hard work in the kitchen and the laundry, often attending to children’s needs and the husband’s other meals.  With due respect to the many great men of wisdom and creativity who have labored for the welfare of humankind in their different ways, one shouldn’t forget that countless women have silently and selflessly sacrificed their personal comforts just to enable their male consorts to achieve their goals.

The world has changed for the better in some ways. Still, on this  Day, let the males of the species  recognize how much they owe to their, rightly called, better halves, and reflect a little more on their roles and responsibilities in daily chores.

May 2, 2016

 

On India’s Mission to Mars


     We live in a world of political tensions, economic crises, environmental degradation, and religious hate. In the midst of all this there are also billions of people who go about their routine chores and millions too who are also engaged in art and music, in sports, plays and science. Now and again their significant achievements also hit headlines all over the world.
     One such event of enormous import was the successful entry of a spacecraft into a Mars orbit on September 23, 2014. It was launched by India’s space-scientists on November 5, 2013.
This milestone in space science should be a matter of great pride for the people of India, reflecting as it does not only the sophisticated technology that is now within India’s reach, but also the advances in the worldview of the Indian people some of whom wondered publicly in 1969 if America’s man on the moon was perhaps no more than a Hollywood stunt. In less than half a century India has come a long way from regarding Mangal (Mars) as the God of War and as a planet of astrological significance endowing its beneficiaries with bravery and self-confidence to a planet out there that is to be explored through scientific means.

     A step from astrology to astronomy is a leap from ancient to modern science; and one from astronomy to rocket science is a leap from technology to space exploration.
     In the new era of human history where globalization is a buzz-word, it is not just in trade and commerce that nations interact. We do many things, good and bad together. In this matter India has been contributing significantly to the world at large: hundreds of thousands of her sons and daughters serve as doctors and engineers, scientists and advisers in every continent.

     This is matter, not for self-glorification (after all, other nations are also active this way) for Indians, but for rejoicing that their abilities and energies are channeled in constructive ways.
     What India has achieved in this Mars mission should be regarded as a matter of pride for the human spirit, as yet another step in humanity’s stride forward in our quest for understanding. Viewed thus, India deserves to be congratulated by all who stand for science and civilization.

Sept 24, 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

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

Sarasvati


We use words to talk. We enjoy music. We play with numbers.

All these are wonderful, they make us happy, they enrich our lives.

How can we say Thanks for these meaningful experiences?

In the Hindu framework, there is the Goddess who if the Source of language and wisdom, music and numbers.

That Goddess is  Sarasvati.

Today the Hindu world celebrates that name joyously and ceremoniously.

By tradition, we are not allowed to read today. Books in the house are placed on a pedestal and worshiped. But tomorrow, at crack of dawn, children are expected to rise early from bed, and read from a book, with the resolve to do that every day of the year.

Homage to Sarasvati

The Supreme Mystery that awakens the mind,

The root of ev’ry syllable and word,

The fount of joy in glorious music,

The rhythm in dance that’s full of life;

The magic in numbers, the wonder in symbols,

The spark of knowledge, the flash of insight;

The wisdom in books and the beauty in arts:

All this is Sarasvati in Indic vision.

Her I recall every morn,

Meditate upon ‘fore the day unfolds.

To her I offer my homage special

With a prayer of a distant age:

jñAnam dehi, smritam dehi,

vidhyAm vidhyAdhi devate

pratishtam kavitam dehi,

shaktim sishya prabodhikAm.

 

Give me wisdom, give me memory,

            Goddess, Source of Knowledge wide.

            Make me steadfast, give me poetry,         

            Give me the power, students to guide!


Like everyone who cares for India, after reading world-wide reports on the poor, not to say shoddy preparations for the event, I too was concerned about how the Commonwealth Games would start and unravel, and I too secretly prayed that things work out well before the appointed hour.

When I saw the opening day celebrations on TV, I felt that my prayers (as those of millions of others) were answered, indeed more than what I had expected. It  was one fantastic display of color and culture, of talent and training. It turned out to be a truly ecstatic moment for the people of India and for all who are affiliated to it. I am not sure if ever before in recent history, the hearts and souls of millions of Indians had swollen with such legitimate pride. I was tickled to tears of joy, seeing the spectacular performance with a tempestuous welcoming song and dance. It was such a delight to watch the lad on the tabla in utter joy. The show revealed the considerable cultural richness of an ancient civilization which, with all its faults and frailties, stands today with head held raised high and well poised to meet the challenges of the new century.

Coincidentally or otherwise, prior to the start of the games, there appeared a scathing piece on India in the New York Times (by Pankaj Mishra) which reported  that “public spaces across north India were flooded with policemen and paramilitaries” (for fear of the impending High-Court ruling on the Babri-masjid controversy), spoke of migrant laborers who were “the parents small and thin and dark, and (of) the children with distended bellies and rust-brown hair that speak of chronic malnutrition,” and sympathetically referred to the insurrection in Kashmir where “Defying draconian curfews, large and overwhelmingly young crowds of Kashmiri Muslims have protested human rights abuses by the nearly 700,000 Indian security forces there.” It is not clear for whose edification or instigation this article was written and for what purpose:  it might have served a cause if published in India, but why broadcast this now for readers in the United States, just on the eve of the CWG? What was accomplished by this?  Also, the day before the games officially started, the CBS 60 Minutes program chose to air Melinda Gates’ worthy charity work to prevent polio in  Delhi slums which, the reporter said, were frozen in the middle ages. Could they have not waited a couple of weeks before airing this commendable instance of American generosity towards the wretched of the world?

I grant that there are more than a few grains of truth in these contextually ill-timed news reports. Like many informed Indians I don’t entertain the naïve conviction that  India  has licked all her problems for good and that Indians are riding fast on the horseback of progress to become first in the world. Nor do I share the vanity of some Indians who are not shy of proclaiming to the world their superiority vis-à-vis other cultures, races, and nations. But let us suspend criticisms of caste and corruption just for a while, for the country has something good to celebrate now.

This is what I will say in this context:  India has enormous intellectual, moral, material , spiritual, and man-power potential which, when properly channeled and adequately exploited, will make her scintillate among the civilized nations of the world. The democratic framework, multi-ethnic variety, and religious openness are among her great strengths, and the envy of pathetically tottering neighbors. These were amply and amazingly illustrated on the opening day of the CWG. In the midst of so many frustrating problems all over the world, an event like this is most welcome. It uplifts the spirit of the people, reveals what India is capable of when her resources are not even fully  coordinated. It shows the world in positive and non-hurtful modes what the nation can accomplish. Given that the opening day celebrations were successful beyond expectations, with speedy last-minute constructions and clean-ups, and that too in the context of ill-wishers all too ready to thwart and bad-mouth the nation’s jubilance, the organizers of the event certainly deserve the commendations and  heart-felt congratulations of all people who harbor goodwill towards India.

October 5, 2010