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

ON PHILOSOPHY


To suck the sweets of sweet philosophy.      – Shakespeare: Taming of the Shrew I.1

Philosophy is as ancient in human culture as thinking and wondering. The etymology of the word in most European languages is from Greek,  meaning  love of wisdom or knowledge. Knowledge is what we know; wisdom is the capacity to use knowledge for individual and collective  good.

Hebrew and Russian use the same word for it as English.  Arab thinkers coined the word  falsifa for philosophy. In Sanskrit the word for philosophy is darshana which  means a view or vision of something significant. In my language Tamil one calls it tattuvam which means essence. Combining these  we may regard philosophy as love for views on the essence of things.

The world, to all appearances, consists of gross matter, subtle energy, and throbbing life-forms. Life is a series of fleeting experiences. For humans these include joy and sorrow, hope and despondency. Beyond sensory titillations we have a mind that is capable of extraordinary feats. One of these is reflection on what is experienced. Philosophy is serious reflection on any aspect of  human life. In simple terms, then, the moment we go beyond just reacting to sensory inputs and begin to comment on any experience we are philosophizing. One is philosophizing even when one  makes fun of philosophy with answers like: What is matter? No matter. What is mind? Never mind. Pascal put it this way: Se moquer de la philosophie, c’est vraiment philosopher: Ridiculing philosophy is really philosophizing.

No thinking person can avoid philosophizing now and then. This makes every person a philosopher of sorts.  I say of sorts because some do it at a loftier level than others. Many have seen the Niagara Falls, the Himalayas, and other natural wonders. Most people exclaim, “How beautiful!” or “How magnificent!” But some write a poem on the experience. Many people witness quarrels and rivalries, broken love and exploitation. But  a few turn them into  novels or epics.

So it is with philosophy. Reflection on any aspect of human thought and experience is sublimated to serious philosophy when it ascends to higher regions of thought. A sandwich at a burger-joint is food as much as a gourmet banquet, but there is a difference. You may tell a despondent friend, “Come on, don’t say life worthless!” But the poet says, “Tell me not in mournful numbers life is but an empty dream!” So it is between the simple exclamation, “We can’t be sure of anything!” and a treatise on Agnosticism. There is a difference between a limpid airless balloon and a full blown colorful one soaring in the air.

If you’d like to receive these essays on Philosophy on a regular besis feel free to send me a note at:

vvrsps@rit.edu

POLYSOPHY


Over the centuries  thinkers in all cultures have reflected on various aspects of human thought and condition. Their serious reflections constitute what we call philosophies. This multiplicity is what I call polysophy.

The truth content of scientific propositions are governed by criteria of consistency, coherence, and verifiability/falsifiability. They are not the opinions of individuals. The strength of philosophical positions rests on reasoned arguments, cultural context, and emotional appeal: they often originate from individuals, but may spread to form schools of thought.

Scientific results have had significant impacts on human civilization. Philosophical reflections have influenced human culture subtly and palpably. Both science and philosophy affect our worldviews in meaningful and substantial ways.

In this new bi-weekly series I plan to write brief essays on various elements of polysophy and their originators.

Many of you have already expressed your interest in renewing your inclusion in my distribution  list (DL). You are welcome to forward this to your DL and/or send me the e-mails of friends who you think may be interested in receiving these. 

Be well!

vvrsps@rit.edu

LA DIVINA COMMEDIA


He who sees a need and waits to be asked for help is as unkind as if he had refused it. – Dante Alighieri (Born: May 9, 1265?)

All literary traditions have their shining stars, some brighter than others. Italian has Dante’s  La Divina Commedia, unsurpassed in rhyme and rhythm,  unique in style and symbolism.  It is one of the greatest  masterpieces of world literature.  Known in English as The Divine Comedy, it has a hundred three-lined Cantos,  evenly divided in three Canticas of thirty-three cantos, plus an introductory one. The numbers have significance: Three stands for the Trinity, thirty-three for Christ’s age at crucifixion, and hundred signifies perfection. The work is regarded as an allegory for the slow march of the human soul towards the Divine. Comedy, in is name, is not play with a jolly ending, but a harmonious world which, with all its chaos and confusion, is heading towards a lofty heavenly goal.

The poem is in the format of a tour of the  post-mortem realms of Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and  Paradiso (Paradise) that poet has taken.

The epic begins by saying that when the poet was in the middle of his life’s journey he strayed away from the straight path. He encountered a leopard, a lion, and a wolf, symbolizing the sins of fraud, pride, and greed. In that frightened state there appeared (at the urging of Beatrice – his love of youthful years) the ancient Latin poet Virgil. Virgil escorted Dante  to the first two of the ethereal realms with their several circles and layers.

In the first circle of the Inferno they saw Greek and Latin writers and thinkers  who had lived before they could be saved by Christ on earth, such as Homer and  Heraclitus, Horace and Ovid, and many more.  Just as one unfamiliar with Indic sacred history, cannot understand the references in the Bhagavad Gita, one unacquainted with Western cultural history will be utterly confused by Dante’s allusions.

They  went through other circles, like visitors to a zoo watching creatures in cages. They saw sinners: gluttons, misers,  wasters and such. These were sunk in mud or at hard labor. Devils tried to stop them from the City of Dis, but angels helped them go in. Here they saw heretics, despots, murderers, cheats, thieves, traitors,  and other sinners, everyone in excruciating pain, caused by red-hot iron, boiling blood, and other torturous agents.

Dante could recognize among the denizens of these places individuals he had known or read about: They included some famous people,  politicians and prophets, archbishops and popes. One of them said to Dante, like Henry Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion:

I don’t know who you are or in what way

You’ve come down here; And yet you surely seem,

From what I hear – to be a Florentine. (xxx:10)

Finally, they came to the bounds of Inferno where Lucifer was chewing away Brutus and  Cassius – the Caesarian assassins – as well Judas, – the betrayer of Christ.

Then they come to Purgatory which was made up of seven terraces, one each for the seven deadly sins: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Laziness, Miserliness, Gluttony, and Lust. At its portal was an angel that etched on Dante’s forehead the letter P for peccata (sins).  The poet was commanded to cleanse his forehead of that mark. As they marched forward they heard celestial voices. There again they saw repentant sinners begging for mercy.

When they were out of Purgatory, Beatrice appeared, and Virgil left Dante. Beatrice was the one for whom the poet had taken fancy when they both were nine-year-olds. They had seen each other a decade later, but she married someone else, only to die soon thereafter. Beatrice had always been in the poet’s heart.

Now Dante and Beatrice entered Paradise which was engulfed in sheer radiance. He could hear the harmonies of the heaven of which Pythagoras had spoken, the cosmic shabda of aum, one might say. As they moved from region to region Beatrice became more and more beautiful. The heavenly realm   included the Sun and the Moon and all the known planets too. Dante learned about mystic powers and Redemption, and was blessed with Love.  He recognized eminent saints and philosophers, scholars and poets: King Solomon, Aquinas, Boethius, and  the Venerable Bede were among the luminaries blissfully residing in Paradise. The realm of the stars was the Eighth Heaven. On two occasions (Cantos 22 and 27) he spied the planets from the constellation Gemini: The earth was  so pitifully small it made him smile: a remarkable flight of imagination for his time.  

Then he had visions of Christ and Mother Mary, as also of the Apostles. There was a higher Heaven still. In that Ninth crystalline pinnacle he saw  God in all glory, but it was all blindingly effulgent. Beatrice asked him to open his eyes, but he only saw a multitude of splendors on which there was a shower of lightning. Finally,  Beatrice bade him goodbye and merged with the blessed ones. Dante listened to a prayer uttered by St. Bernard upon hearing which he was overcome by ecstasy for he realized the centrality of “Love that moves the sun and the other stars: l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.” No other writer before Dante seems to have referred to the sun as another star.  

As with other great literary classics of the world, La Divina Commedia has been read, studied, translated, and commented upon by countless people over the centuries. Its sweep of  post-mortem fantasy worlds is impressive. While its notions of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven are not exactly original,  their review as a stirring tour-guide is fascinating and unusual, besides revealing the grotesque landscapes of heaven and hell in pre-modern times: Views, with all their horror, implausibility, and Divine heartlessness, are still taken as Reality by millions even today. The broad pictures are somewhat trivialized by placing particular historical and mythological personages in various regions. Dante’s views on values and morality are medieval and traditional: chastising gluttony, lust, anger and greed: mostly victimless crimes. Its philosophical reflections are interesting but not highly insightful. Its descriptions of Hell and its torture chambers are not much different from what one  reads in the Vishnu Purana or in the Holy Qur’an. With all that, La Divina Commedia of Dante is a masterpiece because it is grand poetry. Its simple yet majestic lines chiseled in terza rima (ABA-BCB-CDC-DED rhyming pattern) make it magnificent poetry in the original, and enjoyably readable even in translations. 

 May 9, 2016

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

 

What is Life? 


Two answers

1.     Life is a magnificent expression of the Divine Principle that undergirds the Cosmos, the physical embodiment of the abstract and subtle Spirit.   Human life with thinking mind and  feeling heart, with values and meanings, love and laughter, poetry and philosophy, music and mathematics and  associated consciousness is the the ultimate pinnacle of Life. It provides  incontrovertible evidence that there is more to the world that mute matter and entropic energy. Indeed, Life is the tangible reflection of the Unfathomable Mystery that gave rise to the Cosmos with all its space and splendor.

2.     Life is the complex process resulting from the accidental emergence of self-replicating molecules that have resulted in self-sustaining open systems, interconnected in the web of biosphere.  Individual life forms  survive as separate entities for a finite period of time by maintaining a dynamic equilibrium with the environment. They propagate by reproduction and are capable of evolving into even more  complex structures with the passage of time and changes in the environment. Life becomes possible in planets with appropriate physical conditions that include water, carbon, radiation, and other factors. Thus, Life is not unique to earth, and  can arise (arises ) in myriad forms in planetary niches all over the universe as and when external conditions are conducive to its emergence and sustenance.

Debates concerning Life arise and are inevitable when people subscribing to these two mutually opposing views insist on the correctness of their respective perspectives when all that can be said is that:

(1) Gives us a loftier vision that paints finite and fleeing existence on an infinite cosmic canvas in the larger framework of philosophy and religion.

(2)  Provides us with an observationally more tenable and epistemically more coherent framework in the study of life as a natural phenomenon.

It is fair to say (or so it seems to me) that when it comes to providing definitive answers to questions relating to ultimate origins and purposes we are today as much in the dark and in the arena of free speculation as our distant reflecting ancestors were.

April 26, 2016

THOUGHTS ON EARTH DAY


We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.

  • Native American saying

Our earth is a speck in the vast stretches of the cosmos, in­finitesimal in material substance compared to the mind-boggling mass of the universe.  Our awesome abode hurtles around the sun at enormous speeds and is carried around the galactic center by our central star at a million miles an hour.  During its few billion years existence, the earth has seen countless transformations: continents have shifted, rocks have been compressed and metamorphosed, hills and mountains have risen and fallen, streams and rivers have been forged and dried up, ice ages have come and gone. Through processes not fully clear, the miracle of life arose here below.

After our ancient ances­tors emerged and became self aware and questioning, they learned to  manipulate  matter and energy to serve their ends. Other life forms came under their sway. In a couple of mil­lion years, humans became even more creative and clever. Land and water, birds and beasts, elements and compounds, the savannah and the tundra, the heat of deserts and the cold of the poles, fruits and flowers and minerals deep down,  coal and oil and gas, even the mighty bonds that bind atoms and nuclei, all rapidly  came under human control. In an orgy of  exploitation and consumption of everything for creature comfort and monetary gain we unwittingly began to ruin the beauty of nature and the safety of our envi­ronment.

Already in the nineteenth century some perceptive thinkers like John Ruskin and Mohandas Gandhi had been warning that rampant technology might not be the promising way forward as appeared to be. For many decades the world wallowed in the gadget-gorging of technology, reveled in big cars and destroyed pests with massive doses of DDT. In the process industrial smokestacks are fuming CO2 and other toxic gases into the atmosphere,   water and air; radioactive wastes are lurking  around; rain forests are being depleted, species are made extinct; the ozone layer is cracked open, coral reefs are smashed by ships, the seas have become dumping grounds for our wastes,  acid is in­jected into rain-bearing clouds: Oh, the list goes on and on!

Then, in 1962,  came the Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring: a book that was the modern Book of Revelation. It  alerted us the multiple ways in which Homo industrialis is committing slow suicide by poisoning the very air, water, and land that are sustaining our  existence on the planet, our only home in the boundless Void. Just as the wisdom-traditions of humanity had revered the forces of nature for making life possible, a new awareness arose: environmental consciousness.

Thus, less than two centuries since the ease-giving rampage of the Industrial Revolution began, we  began to realize that we have been endangering ourselves, causing what is currently called Climate Change.

Thanks to the initiative and efforts of Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin and his co-workers, April 22 (spring-break in many American colleges) 1970 was declared Earth Day. In due course the idea led to the establishment of governmental branches and the movement spread beyond the borders of the United States. Today more than a hundred and fifty nations observe Earth day in various ways.

It is often said that we are destroying the earth. This is an arrogant appraisal of what we are doing, for we  can never destroy the earth. A billion years from now, long after we are dead and gone, the earth  will be dancing away merrily along its elliptical orbit to the tune of the Keplerian symphony. All we can do is to destroy ourselves, not the earth.

Why don’t we stop this suicidal behavior?  Our economic and international networks have evolved  such that even with much goodwill and determination it is not easy to halt the harm we are wreaking. Every effort to control pollution adversely affects jobs and profits. Moreover, the danger and doom  implicit in reckless technol­ogy will hit hard only generations yet unborn. This gives little incentive for today’s self-centered hedo­nists.

We must act in sure but quick ways to dampen the damage and reverse the trends. For this we need  more con­sciousness-raising and  global aware­ness. We must transcend national and commu­nal conditionings and think in planetary terms. For what is at stake is not the well being of this nation or that religious group, but the fate of the human family. The diseases of  racial hat­red, religious intolerance, and economic self-aggrandizement are the major threats to our harmony and existence. In our woeful inability to perceive the world as a habitat to be shared and nurtured by one and all, including other crea­tures of the planet, we pollute our minds and hearts too, and upset the ecological balance.

Enlightened industrialists and realistic ecologists must work hand in hand in a spirit of mutual respect to resolve the problems that we all face together. Through education, understanding, and enlightened values, through legis­lation and reasoning, and with the resources of science and technology, we must strive to increase our awareness of the assault on nature that  humans have been perpetrating.

One day every week is  devoted to a planet, but only once a year do we have an Earth Day. We need to treat every day as Earth Day

April 22, 2016