Friday, November 28, 2008

A picture and a quotation

Bombay, Nov 26, 2008 (click photo to enlarge): (photo courtesy Financial Times,

"I have found the missing link between the higher ape and civilized man: It is we." (Konrad Lorenz)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Movies on your computer

Want distilled information on how to find and play video on your computer?

I had written an earlier guide and typeset it in TeX without output in PDF format, which was very inconvenient. I have now written it on Google Docs, and added some new information on Direct Downloads and on DVD region protection.

A Guide to using your computer as a Video Player.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

To walk the talk

From the book "I am, therefore I think":
Do philosophers have a better track record of making successful personal decisions than the average individual?

... Socrates assumed that once we knew what we should do we would automatically act as we should. His student Plato disagreed - as have most philosophers since him. We have other sources of motivation besides knowledge of what is best. As Plato put it, we have certain appetites - whether natural or acquired - that are insensitive to considerations of what is best, and we have emotional responses that aren't perfectly calibrated to our view about what is best. For this reason, even if I believed that it would be a bad idea to give in to some temptation, I might still have appetites or emotions that overpower my better judgment...
And what do about those very appetites and emotions? Not calibrate them, but minimize, and finally annihilate them.

The Imp of the Perverse

In my admittedly limited survey of literature, I haven't come across this theme except in the stories and essays of Edgar Allan Poe. His writings are freely available online, and they are extremely enjoyable, if you can acquire a taste for his old-style English.

In a short essay called The Imp of the Perverse, he describes something unspeakable in all of us: the desire to do what we know as wrong, for the fun of it. To imagine horrible things because of their grotesqueness, to loathe someone because of some virtue he has, ...

He writes:
... to admit, as an innate and primitive principle of human action, a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness, for want of a more characteristic term. In the sense I intend, it is, in fact, a mobile without motive, a motive not motivirt. Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say, that through its promptings we act, for the reason that we should not. In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable, but, in fact, there is none more strong. With certain minds, under certain conditions, it becomes absolutely irresistible. I am not more certain that I breathe, than that the assurance of the wrong or error of any action is often the one unconquerable force which impels us, and alone impels us to its prosecution. Nor will this overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong's sake, admit of analysis, or resolution into ulterior elements.


There lives no man who at some period has not been tormented, for example, by an earnest desire to tantalize a listener by circumlocution.


We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss -- we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain. By slow degrees our sickness and dizziness and horror become merged in a cloud of unnamable feeling. By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape, as did the vapor from the bottle out of which arose the genius in the Arabian Nights. But out of this our cloud upon the precipice's edge, there grows into palpability, a shape, far more terrible than any genius or any demon of a tale, and yet it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height. And this fall -- this rushing annihilation -- for the very reason that it involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of all the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination -- for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it.

A paragraph on widowhood

Gita Press in Gorakhpur, India, is in the business of publishing inexpensive prints of Hindu scriptures, mythological texts and inspirational texts. They have a franchise system which is very widespread in North India. It is very easy to find exclusive Gita Press booths on railway stations and on bus stands.

Recently, at the Hazrat Nizamuddin station (in New Delhi) Platform 3, while perusing books at their booth, I came across a thick anthology named "Nari Ank" (Special compendium on Women). Opening a page at random, I came across an essay on widowhood. The first paragraph was such a jaw-dropper that I took a picture of it with my mobile phone camera.

The title of the essay is: How to keep the life of a widow pure. (Vidhvaa-jeevan ko pavitra kaise banayen)

Here is the first paragraph, translated in English:
The grief of a widow is indescribable. Nobody else can fathom it. But this is also proven that by arousing the sexual desire of a widow, and by engaging her in sexuality, by making her a slave of the senses, by arranging remarriage for her, one cannot take away her sorrow. The reason for sorrow is: our own karma. If we want happiness in the future, then we should be restrained and perform good acts which result in happiness. To facilitate the enjoyment of objects will not result in joy. Why does a woman become a widow? Because of evil acts in her past lives. If in this life also ...
(my camera could not capture more)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Religion and Spirituality

It has become fashionable to assert that one is not religious, but spiritual. To call oneself spiritual is to assert something positive about oneself. To say that one is religious is to invite charges of fanaticism, divisiveness, fundamentalism, of being regressive and old-fashioned.

To say that one is religious popularly means that one believes in a specific God, in a specific religious establishment and that one belongs to a specific community with a certain heritage and set of rituals.

To say that one is spiritual means, in the popular idiom, that one is a loving, compassionate and accepting person. That one is moral, and that one holds "oneness" and realizing "one's true nature" (i.e. one's divinity) as the goal of one's life.

Religiosity is usually an effect of one's culture or society or upbringing, whereas spirituality is generally an individual quest where one has sought and found (or chosen) a way to evolve spiritually.

To be religious is to believe in a specific God with myths and stories, to be spiritual is to believe in a personal God without those cultural attributes.

To be religious means one is divisive (because one subscribes to an exclusive belief system), whereas to be spiritual (popularly) means that one is trying to realize oneness and act selflessly.

However, let's look at whether these are fundamentally different approaches to life.

Both believe in the supernatural and the mystical.

Both believe in God. The difference is that spirituality calls it the "Truth" or the "One" or the "Universal Consciousness" or my "Being" etc.

Both have an otherworldly goal and consider goals in this world as means to realize that goal.

Both consider matter to be secondary, and spirit or consciousness or soul to be primary.

Both have a concept of good and evil. In spirituality the "evil" is usually termed "Maya", "bad karma", "bad energy", "negative vibes", "ignorance", "darkness", "lower centers", etc.

Both consider people not subscribing to their world-view as living a materialistic, and therefore superficial, life.

Due to their morality and conceptions of good and evil, both have varying degrees of self-righteousness.

Both have one or more distinguished teachers who are considered divine or enlightened. In religions, the teachers are usually long gone. In spirituality, the teachers are either living or existed in the last 200 years.

Spirituality is the "new age" of religion. It is eastern religions described in English prose.

On the other hand, today's Religion is the Spirituality of yore.

As someone said (reference needed), all religions are the same after 200 years of their existence. In their first 50 years, those very corrupt-as-of-this-day religions were the new age, the new dawn of divinity promising salvation to those stuck in the mire of ritual and "blind" belief (as if there is something called enlightened belief).

So much of atrocity has been committed in the name of religion that any well-educated person wishing to feel good about himself or to aggrandize himself (or herself) dares not call himself religious. Instead, even though essentially believing in the same otherworldly entities, he calls himself spiritual. Jsut as Mr Chandar Mohan Jain started calling himself Osho after his chosen holy name "Rajneesh" got mixed up in controversies.

Spirituality is religion without a historical baggage.

Religion is institutionalized spirituality.

The absence of baggage is not something trivial. It is a sign of cultural progress. It is not, however, a sign of philosophical progress.

The philosophical foundation of both world-views is the same. As an analogy, one can be considered a primitive, bare-bones hut; and the other a large government institution with rules, a history of violence and injustice, and a labyrinthine passage to the top. It is the length of their history, and the institutional cementing time inevitably causes that distinguish them from each other, and not the "corruption" of their fundamental thesis.

So the next time you hear a modern Guru proclaim himself to be spiritual and non-religious, it might not be a bad idea to ask him to define "spirituality", and then to ask him in what essential sense is his spirituality different from the spirituality of Jesus, Krishna or the Buddha.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

God's Will

Most newspapers in India carry a daily column on spirituality. Today's column in The Hindustan Times is an interesting one. Before commenting any further, let me provide the text in its entirety:

IF WE accept that God has generated this world then we also have to accept that it was a deliberate choice by God to generate life through the sense of ‘kama’ or erotic engagement with each other. Now this unlooked-for sense of humour on God’s part is truly beyond our mere mortal comprehension. God forgive me (if there is a God) but personally, I can’t help thinking that this process of birth, that is, through sex, is the lowest form of ‘love’.

As a child grows up and comes to know how he or she came into this world, he is mentally unable to accept that this process of birth is what his parents engaged in. He is often traumatized by the attendant realization that the whole universe has been doing this: all according to the wish of the Almighty. Sasthi Brata, a name in Indian journalism three decades ago, author of a book considered prurient for its time, My God Died Young, wrote in that autobiographical outpouring, “I saw my brother and his wife in that position and for me it was shocking, a hallucination.” Trying to make sense of the low physicality of the exalted thing called ‘life’, I feel, or is it jut my mistaken idea, that the process of generation should have been cosmic too, if all things indeed flow from the Feet of the Lord. The preliminaries for birth should have been made the purest form of love.

We are taught that kama, krodha, lobha, moha (sensuality, anger, greed and earthly attachment) cause all sorrow. I feel that kama is the root cause of other vices. The earth is full of vice. If there had been some other divine way to generate the world, our world would have been free of rape, crime and terrorism.

No polluted minds, just pure and good souls on this earth. This planet would have been full of cosmic power, energy and divine light. But unfortunately, God (if there be God) had that sense of humour and we must deal with its consequences. (K K Wadhwani)

This is a shining example of a cultural conditioning masquerading as wisdom.

Display of affection and sexual intimacy is a mostly private activity in human beings. The psychological reasons for this need for privacy are complex, including an increased degree of self-consciousness in humans, an evolutionary-stable-strategy to protect the male who is vulnerable to attack from other competitive males while immersed in the act, a corollary of the part emotions play in human sexuality (and which therefore create the need to protect one's innermost feelings, which can be hurt and trampled upon, from the public gaze), and finally, the religious-cultural conditioning in many parts of the world which considers sex as sinful.

A child is naturally curious about its body parts and has no sense of shame till it comes to realize that adults hide their nakedness, do not show affection to each other the way they show towards children, and that some body parts are "embarrassing" and untouchable, especially after a certain age.

The shock that Sasthi Brata experienced (as described in the article above) is not due to any inherent shocking-ness in the sexual act, but because it was an unpleasant surprise for him to see adults blatantly indulging in something that he had been taught was "bad".

The author is however right in that sexual desire is probably the strongest desire in human beings, and one of the fundamental causes of suffering. But instead of investigating it, he quickly turns to God's will. And like all spiritualists, he confuses the misery of sex with the sexual act itself. Humans have evolved so much that for most humans today sex is as much a recreational pastime as it is the effect of an instinctual drive to procreate. The day may come when the sexual act is considered as inane a pleasure as a game of chess or a stroll in a garden. That day is probably very far. As of today, the sexual act is miserably replete with desires, emotions, stresses, memories, fantasies and hurts.

The article also betrays a deep sense of considering the physical existence as unending pain and suffering, a plane "full of vice". The problem of reconciling the existence of evil with a belief in a just and all-powerful God is age-old, and the writer only exposes his eastern spiritual conditioning when he considers lust as a joke by the cosmic creator, in other words, a Leela of sorts.

It would be a cruel God who plays such jokes on his creations.

In spirituality, carnal love is considered sinful (as the writer says: "the lowest form of love") whereas divine love is considered the most exalted feeling a human being can experience. It would be interesting to ask the author why carnality is to be considered "low". I surmise that his answer will be: "Carnality is lowly because it tries to fulfill one's incompleteness, which can only be fulfilled through union with God, through a temporary, physical act. Carnality is lowly because one is then no better than a dog or a pig in trying to use another human being for one's pleasure. Carnality is lowly because it seeks to satisfy a desire (only to have the desire spring again), whereas divine love seeks union, the ending of all desires."

In my spiritual years, I also held similar viewpoints. If anything, I was even more firmly convinced about the base nature of sex. My views-of-yore are summarized here.

There is a possibility that sex can be a mutually pleasurable activity without its pitfalls and its emotional stresses. But realizing that possibility requires such a great deal of understanding and awareness that it is easier to just condemn it. Psychological celibacy is very difficult (after all, lust is an in-born instinctual drive), and for a person who desires to evolve as per the prevailing spiritual and moral yardsticks, a strong conditioning that sex is bad is very helpful in firming one's resolve. This conditioning then creates "good" (chastity and love) and "evil" (sex and pleasure) in one's mind. Then one embarks on a lifelong inner struggle against an instinct that one condemns without understanding its causation.

A mystical "explanation" of human vices, an example of which the author expresses in the above article, can never lead to actual freedom from them, as the freedom also then lies in a mystical realm.

An actual freedom from the human condition is possible only when we recognize that our instincts are bestowed by blind nature after a long period of evolution. Only then we can understand without condemning, and only then we start working to be free without delusions.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

On Belief

Belief is the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true.

We all hold beliefs. Whenever we board a train or a car, e.g., we believe that it will take us to our destination. Such beliefs can be termed as cognitive beliefs. However, passionately held beliefs (or affective beliefs) are usually speculative or imaginative, having little or no evidence and having an emotional payoff in that they make us "feel good" or vindicated.

A good way to evaluate whether a belief is cognitive or affective is to see the emotional effect it has on the believer, and the offense its criticism causes. A cognitive belief, in contrast, makes one function effectively in the world, or think sensibly, and is amenable to being discarded or being changed if evidence is presented.

Religious and spiritual beliefs in particular are dearly held, and criticizing them is considered bad manners.

Cognitive beliefs can also be similar to implied facts or deduced facts. Affective beliefs can also be aphorisms or adages.

Some examples of cognitive beliefs are:
  • My parents were born in the past.
  • The sun will set today.
  • I, like other human beings, have a liver.
  • There are people alive in New York right now.
  • If I board this car, it will take me to my destination.
  • I believe it when you say that your girlfriend was cheating on you.
Some examples of affective beliefs are:
  • Nobody loves me but God.
  • What goes around, comes around.
  • Honesty is the best policy.
  • Today's generation is irresponsible.
  • I am a good person.
  • My soul will never die.

Friday, November 07, 2008 registrations now open!

I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudo-science and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us - then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir. (Carl Sagan in Science and Hope)

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