Thursday, February 26, 2009

Child Education without Belief

Mainstream primary school education is considered highly unbalanced by many parents and educators. The criticisms usually include the following:
  • A burdensome curriculum with too heavy a mental load for small children.
  • Emphasis on memorizing rather than on understanding.
  • Weak or non-existent emphasis on physical and cultural development.
  • Insensitive and overburdened teachers, an unhealthy student-teacher ratio, and a profit-centered administration.
  • Encouraging competitiveness and paranoia about one's future.
These are valid concerns. Even though some elite institutions (both public and private) are trying to address these, an average school in India does suffer from almost all of the above ills. Coupled with these limitations of existing institutions is the constantly frustrated wish and drive to bring literacy to all and to universalize primary education.

Alternative education systems seek to address the above problems. Its distinguishing characteristics from ordinary education can be classified in three broad categories:
  1. Methodological Distinction (difference of means): Schools in this category do not dispute the aims of education but explore new teaching methodologies. Examples are the various elite schools with a high teacher-student ratio, the Playway schools, the Montessori movemnt, the Totto-chan experiment, etc. I think educational experiments should be very welcome and they should go hand-in-hand with latest advances in child psychology and educational psychology.

  2. Ideological Distinction (difference of ends): The vast majority of alternative schools in India and abroad fall in this category. They usually have an agenda of forming a certain kind of elevated personality or consciousness in the child. Examples in India include the KFI schools, Aurobindo Schools, Waldorf Education schools, and almost all schools backed by a religious or spiritual institution (e.g. the Isha schools, schools run by SGPC, the Arya Samaj or DAV schools, schools run by Sathya Sai Baba, schools run by Asaram Bapu, etc.). Many schools run by large religious institutions pay only lip service to value-education and are not generally distinguished from normal schools.

    There are schools which, though not aligned with a religious institution, have other values as their foundation. For example, the Sarang school focuses on environmental sustainability, Jeevan Vidya focuses on harmony and other humanistic values, and so on.

  3. Demographic Distinction: Various NGOs in India and in other developing countries are trying to bring literacy and education to underprivileged children via small organizational initiatives. Theirs is indeed a laudable activity.
I want to focus primarily on the second category, since for me it is the most controversial.

Obviously, a school can be "alternative" in more than one way. For example, the KFI schools have a very good teacher-student ratio but they also have an ideologically different basis (based on the teachings of J Krishnamurti).

Some claim that normal school education is already agenda-driven, that it seeks to create a subservient, docile, consumption-oriented and fearful human being. I agree that most students turn out like that, but I disagree that is what the schools intend. I think these effects are not aimed at by normal schools. These are unfortunate and unintended effects of the mindsets of stressed parents, disinterested and alienated teachers; and the pressure to succeed (from the peer-groups, one's family, one's own desires which are fueled by the media and the perception of cut-throat competition in today's world).

Especially in India, where there is a strong spiritual content in its culture, the stresses of modern life (including in education) are seen as a "western" influence. Sensitive parents, scared of harming their children in normal schools, perhaps unthinkingly enroll them in value-based schools without deeply evaluating the school's philosophy (which in most cases is replete with religious undertones).

Most well-run ideologically distinguished schools make it a point to counsel parents, before and during the child's education, so that parents don't end up unintentionally blocking the work of the teachers.

My concern is whether it is possible to find a third alternative to both a so-called "western" education (in which the primary aim is to equip the child to be financially successful) and what I consider a "spiritual" education (in which the primary aim is spiritual upliftment, to the detriment of mental and intellectual development). Looks like a teaching paradigm based on humanistic-scientific values (grace and courtesy, aesthetics, physical and mental health, rationality, enquiry) might not be a bad idea, but such schools seem to be very rare. Most schools have questionable belief systems behind them.

Does it have to do with a distrust of science and with an attachment to one's own culture, howsoever regressive? Or is it because it is easier to be unscientific as long as it feels good, both for the teachers and the parents?

What do you think?

Anonymous Blogging

If a particular country's laws (e.g. your country of citizenship or residence) are restrictive of your freedom of expression, and if you do not have the time or inclination to convince millions of your fellow citizens to vote out those laws, may I suggest that ... you should blog anonymously.

This is in the context of a recent Supreme Court (of India) ruling holding a criminal petition of libel against a 19-year old blogger as valid. More details can be found here, here and here.

The following links will provide you with a guide map:

Anonymous Blogging Guide, Part I
Anonymous Blogging Guide, Part II

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Debate on Moral Education

A Book: Debates in Moral Education (soon to be published by the Duke University Press).

From the blurb:
At a time when every major social institution – business, government, the church, the press, the army, the schools – is plagued by high-profile ethics scandals, a new debate is brewing about what role, if any, colleges and universities can and should have in moral education.

On the one hand, there has been a “return to ethics” in the academy. Influential voices argue that ethics is central to the mission of higher education, that colleges and universities shape our students’ characters and shape, as well as reflect, our society’s ethics in multiple ways. But other, no less influential voices dismiss the work of ethics champions. They argue that the university ought to eschew any attempt to shape students’ characters beyond trying to make them into good researchers; otherwise it is bound to fall into dangerous forms of dogmatism or partisanship.

Some relevant articles:

"Professor, Do Your Job" by Stanley Fish, the author of Save the World on your Own Time.

Some excerpts:
Wesleyan University starts well by pledging to “cultivate a campus environment where students think critically, participate in constructive dialogue and engage in meaningful contemplation ” (although I’m not sure what meaningful contemplation is); but then we read of the intention to “foster awareness, respect, and appreciation for a diversity of experiences, interests, beliefs and identities. ” Awareness is okay; it’s important to know what’s out there. But why should students be taught to “respect” a diversity of interests, beliefs, and identities in advance of assessing them and taking their measure? The missing word here is “evaluate.” That’s what intellectual work is all about, the evaluation, not the celebration, of interests, beliefs, and identities; after all, interests can be base, beliefs can be wrong, and identities are often irrelevant to an inquiry.


It might be objected that while it may be easy to remain within academic bounds when the debate is about the right interpretation of Paradise Lost, the line between the academic and the political has been blurred before the discussion begins when the subject is ethics and students are arguing, for example, about whether stem cell research is a good or bad idea. But students shouldn't be arguing about whether stem cell research is a good or bad idea. They should be studying the arguments various parties have made about stem cell research. Even in a class focused on ethical questions, the distinction I would enforce holds. Analyzing ethical issues is one thing; deciding them is another, and only the first is an appropriate academic activity. Again, I do not mean to exclude political topics from the classroom, but to insist that when political topics are introduced, they not be taught politically, that is, with a view to either affirming or rejecting a particular political position.


The really dull classroom would be the one in which a bunch of 19- or 20-year-olds debate assisted suicide, physician-prescribed marijuana, or the war in Iraq in response to the question “What do you think?” Sure, lots of students would say things, but what they would say would be completely predictable — a mini-version of what you hear on the Sunday talk shows — in short, a rehearsing of opinions. Meanwhile the genuine excitement of an academic discussion where you have a chance of learning something, as opposed to just blurting out uninformed opinions, will have been lost. What teacher and student are jointly after is knowledge, and the question should never be “What do you think?” (unless you’re a social scientist conducting a survey designed to capture public opinion). The question should be “What is the truth?” and the answer must stand up against challenges involving (among other things) the quality and quantity of evidence, the cogency of arguments, the soundness of conclusions, and so forth.


The question of what you are responsible for is also the question of what you should aim for, and what you should aim for is what you can aim for — that is, what you can reasonably set out to do as opposed to what is simply not within your power to do. You can reasonably set out to put your students in possession of a set of materials and equip them with a set of skills (interpretive, computational, laboratory, archival), and even perhaps (although this one is really iffy) instill in them the same love of the subject that inspires your pedagogical efforts. You won ’t always succeed in accomplishing these things — even with the best of intentions and lesson plans there will always be inattentive or distracted students, frequently absent students, unprepared students, and on-another-planet students — but at least you will have a fighting chance given the fact that you’ve got them locked in a room with you for a few hours every week for four months.

You have little chance (and that entirely a matter of serendipity), however, of determining what they will make of what you have offered them once the room is unlocked for the last time and they escape first into the space of someone else ’s obsession and then into the space of the wide, wide world.

And you have no chance at all (short of a discipleship that is itself suspect and dangerous) of determining what their behavior and values will be in those aspects of their lives that are not, in the strict sense of the word, academic. You might just make them into good researchers. You can’t make them into good people, and you shouldn’t try.

The Aims of Education Address by John J. Mearsheimer. Some excerpts:
In short, I am saying that there is a powerful norm at this institution to not tell you what to think about important issues, but instead to let you reach your own conclusions. Our forte is teaching you how to think, not what to think.


The importance of religion at elite educational institutions like Chicago diminished greatly in the first decades of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, educational leaders were convinced that you could still study and teach morality without religion. They believed that the scientific method could be used to discover the correct moral precepts. Social scientists, in other words, could employ their tools to study ethics, and in the end, you would have a scientific morality. Social scientists would take the place of the clergy. In essence, proponents of this perspective believed that there was no conflict between critical thinking and the pursuit of knowledge on one hand, and the study of morality on the other hand.

Over the course of the twentieth century, the effort to develop a scientific morality failed almost completely. Today, elite universities operate on the belief that there is a clear separation between intellectual and moral purpose, and they pursue the former while largely ignoring the latter. There is no question that the University of Chicago makes hardly any effort to provide you with moral guidance.

An article in the NY Times
reports on both of the above articles.

I think the issue is simple (though contentious) in the education of adults. It becomes more complex when we turn to children.

Children obviously have to be taught (even if a little authoritatively) certain aspects of courtesy, social graces, considerateness and contextually acceptable behavior (for example: defecation). And it is difficult (for teachers) to investigate and to explain (to children) the reasoning and history behind general behavioral patterns. Should children be taught only through reasoning? Since a child has a developing brain with limited exposure, would it be stressful (both for the teacher and for the child) to analyze the complex causal chains which underlie some very implicit behavior patterns (clothing and defecation, for example)?

Is it acceptable to answer a child: "you will understand this when you grow up"? I think it certainly is, in many situations. What about situations in which a child is told to behave in a certain way but the reasoning is held back and instead the path of reward/punishment is used? Though it is a severe demand for parents to explain everything to their children, I think it is worthwhile to explain bothersome issues. If a child naturally accepts a certain behavior (due to emulation of adults, peer-group training, etc.), fine. If the child is having difficulty, I think explanations are called for.

And of course, leading by example is one of the most important aspects in teaching a behavior pattern. It will be very hard for a child to keep away from junk food, television and crude talk if it sees adults all around (and especially those whom it respects and who have authority and guardianship over it) to indulge in them.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Jeevan Vidya, links

Collection of links about Jeevan Vidya, including some containing translated works of its founder-proponent, Mr A Nagraj Sharma:

Most of the translated writings are here, and a lot of original works are available on this blog.

The blog contains a series of articles on incorporating Jeevan Vidya in education:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10

(especially relevant and "striking" is Part 7; Mr Nagraj and his journey is charted in Part 8)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Films Seen Recently

Body of Lies (Ridley Scott, 2008): A technically proficient film (but somewhat overly so, observe the sudden shifts to sepia, and the extravagance of helicopter mounted cameras) but carrying a less-than-average narrative, with no insights. Makes a fetish of its violence and the surveillance machinery (not unlike The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, 2007)), which is its undoing for mature audiences. And needless to say, the story and contrivances are implausible to a fault.

Changing Lanes (Roger Michell, 2002): Now this is a film which got 4 stars from Roger Ebert. A good exercise is to see why (which is easy), and then argue against it (which is easier). Why are films about multiculturalism so inane in general? Rife with unbelievable coincidences and contrived stroylines, films like Crash, Babel and this film can make one more understanding of human diversity only at the expense of one's common sense. If you want to watch some good films on how people from different cultures come together (or drift apart), may I recommend Lone Star (John Sayles, 1996), and Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, 2000).

Dev.D (Anurag Kashyap, 2009): This is my second AK film (the first, No Smoking, I have to watch again to say something definitive). With a superlative score, this film is one of the very few to try ultra-realism in the sentimental genre. Sentiments work with simple archetypes, and this film seeks to destroy them by depicting its characters with a bravura dose of complexity. The editing is a little too impatient for my tastes at times (e.g. the needlessly sharply intercut scenes of Delhi streets), but the film more than makes up for it in the (at times masterfully) surreal breakdown of the protagonist. The scene that got a Wow! from me was the breaking of the second vodka glass on the wall, and the immediately following descent into hell. Breathtaking. The ending is a cop-out. Has whetted my appetite for the original Devdas. I am not sure if Abhay Deo's dialogue delivery is intentionally monotonic (in keeping with his impotent persona) or if it is just bad. To read a good review, go here. It is a joy to see experimental Indian cinema coming to the multiplexes.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Jeevan Vidya, forced indoctrination

Many institutes of higher education in India are injudiciously forcing (or considering) a semester-long course based on Jeevan Vidya on their students. There was a proposal to have such a compulsory course on value-education at IIT Delhi in the late 90s. Thankfully, the authorities didn't carry through with it.

When I was a student at IIT Delhi, one of our professors was strongly enamored of this philosophy. During an elective course on sustainable technology taught by him, we were bombarded with questionable concepts from this paradigm and one of the questions in our major exams (and a homework assignment) was what we thought of this philosophy. Many of us wanted to complain about this forced indoctrination to the institute authorities, but some of us were cynical about a hearing. I declined to participate in the assignment and despite the pleas of the teachers to write at least something, turned in a blank sheet.

IIIT Hyderabad
is one institute which seems to have gained notoriety by stipulating a compulsory course on Jeevan Vidya. A survey was conducted amongst the students there to ascertain whether they liked this practice. The answer was a resounding no. The survey's findings are documented here. Many other institutes are evaluating this course to become a part of their regular curriculum. IIT Delhi has established a National Resource Center for Value Education in Engineering, with inputs from fringe spiritualists, Gandhians and Jeevan Vidya practitioners from various IITs. It even has a prayer/meditation room!

I think it should be illegal to impart any so-called value education (which is usually cultural and spiritual conditioning and opinions masquerading as factual information) at taxpayer-funded institutes. At most, spiritual retreats and holistic workshops can be made available as optional activities, and ones strictly unaided by the taxpayers' money.

(As an aside, did you know that the government of India, despite having a secular charter, routinely disburses grants of billions of rupees to religious bodies and religion-based educational institutions, provides them land at subsidized rates, shields them from taxes and audits due to their charitable status, etc.?)

The goal of education (insofar it is related to the development of a thinking mind) is not to tell people what to think, it is to enable them to think for themselves.

There are multiple blog posts on this questionable practice:

On Jeevan Vidya, post script

Dividing one's needs based on a hierarchy of values and aspirations is nothing new. Human beings obviously have both physical and psychological needs, and thinkers from all ages have recognized this.

Psychological needs need investigation, they need not be accepted as immutable nature. But JV doesn't do that. What JV (and almost every humane or humanistic value system) does is to condemn the "bad" parts of our nature (our propensity for violence, aggression, possessiveness, etc.) and encourage the "good" parts of our nature (our nurturing instincts, our desire for love and affection, etc.).

There exist many other humanistic paradigms. Maslow's hierarchy of needs is one old example. Some hugely popular self-help books, e.g. Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning and Scott M Peck's The Road Less Traveled provide similar (and limited) recipes for happy living.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

On Jeevan Vidya

In December 2007, I had provided a brief reference to a new paradigm, of achieving peace and happiness, doing the rounds in India. This paradigm, with the name of Jeevan Vidya, has attracted many intelligent people who consider its propositions valid and worthy of consideration.

There isn't much literature about JV available online, but the following few links give a brief outline:

The following excerpt is noteworthy:
The core of vidya is to understand the basic human design which comprises two distinct entities, the body and the Self. The needs of the body, that is, food, clothing, shelter and that of the Self to know, be satisfied, respect, love, and help others are entirely different. Both needs are required to be fulfilled but in a mutually exclusive manner. For instance, the body, through its sensory organs, passes on the information to the Self that then perceives and evaluates these senses likes them, dislikes them, reacts to them or whatever. The needs of the Self are intangible. The needs of the body, on the other hand, are tangible.

All the needs of the body are limited. But the need of the Self is unlimited. Due to our conditioning we fail to recognise the distinction between Self and body, that their fulfillments have separate requirements. Because of this basic confusion, our entire effort is directed towards satisfying bodily requirements alone. Satisfying bodily needs does not satisfy the Self. The non-material yearnings of the Self continue to persist and lead to dissatisfaction. The dissatisfaction pushes one to strive for more and more tangible items, in the false hope that possession in greater quantity will quench the thirst of Self.

Broadly, lack of knowledge of Self is the cause of non-fulfilment. Vidya addresses the Self in the human being, draws attention to what is within us innate and intact. It brings about a dialogue between what we are and what we seek.
The basic doctrine seems to be that satisfaction of one's needs through tangibles (considered as "materialism" by JV) is not enough, it is also important to satisfy the "self" by relating, getting respect, fulfilling "human values" such as love and affection, etc.

JV claims its philosophy is neither materialistic (by which it really means to say it does not condone looking for happiness in material possessions) nor spiritual (by which it really means to say that it does not condone mysticism and irrationality). By reading the online articles, however, it doesn't seem to be much more than a tightly constructed and abstrusely-worded system in which well-known parameters of psychological well-being such as harmonious co-existence, self-esteem, mutual respect, meaningful relationships, love and affection are given a great deal of importance without a deep investigation into what (or who) is the basis of these needs.

The basis of these needs is axiomatically ruled to be something called "Jeevan" (Life), an atomic concept whose nature is considered unalterable.

These psychological needs exist in human beings. But instead of pursuing the far more challenging path of annihilating the psychic structure of these needs, and their causation - the sense of a psychical self (which Actualism does), JV seeks the mediocre path of fulfilling these needs and expectations by living according to a set of (humanistic) values.

No doubt, a life lived according to a set of values (whichever they may be) is less confused and may feel very meaningful. And humanistic value-systems are better than greed-oriented or mystically-inclined ones. However, humanistic value-systems are still geared towards fulfilling the insatiable "I". As long as the self remains, one will inevitably feel oneself to be a separated and lonely entity trying to feel good and safe. And trying to feel good and safe, on and on, is what causes all the mayhem in the human realm.

Genuine Spirituality recognizes this problem of an insatiable and separated "I" and tries to solve it by pursuing a state of (felt) psychical union with all living things, generally called enlightenment. The core insight of Actualism is that spiritual enlightenment solves the problem of separation via an illusion, and fails to solve the problem of sorrow and malice. Spiritual teachers have been known, without exception, to have bouts of insecurity, sorrow, lust, irritation and anger.

Spiritual enlightenment is an altered, and fantastically delusional, state of consciousness in which nothing is solved, but the problem ceases to be a problem. The enlightened beings regard any and each mental state of theirs as a divinely dispensed one and one which needs no tampering.

Enlightenment is a state of dissociation.

Jeevan Vidya has only pithy insights about what is wrong with spirituality, and most of its critique seems to be related to the secrecy and mysticism common in spiritual circles. There is far, far more wrong with the book of spirituality than its mere binding and its cryptic language. Its content is not nonexistent or nonsensical - spiritual enlightenment is a remarkable state, a state of ego-less-ness - however, ego-less-ness is not the complete solution. It may in fact exacerbate the problem. The solution (that Actualism proposes) is to be free from both one's animal passions (which form into one's Being or Self), and one's social identity (one's Ego or self).

Jeevan Vidya is shallow about the causation of human misery. And hence it understandably misses the mark, by far, when it tries to end it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dissecting a Joke, weekly feature

The Joke:

Before they settle in bed and call it a day, wife asks hubby: "Will you still love me when I am old and ugly?"

Hubby: "I am doing it, am I not?"


The Analysis:

A good joke is a microcosmic view of the human condition. The above joke, in three sentences, encompasses insecurity, aging, the institution of marriage, empathy (or the lack of it), love and its demands, being adjusting but feeling trapped and resentful, etc.

Women like to appear beautiful and young because that makes them feel safe, powerful and in control. They can attract providers, and they can manage to stay in the "market" and be less worried about desertion by their current partners. Getting old is also a reminder of one's mortality, which is distressing.

Huge expenditures are willingly made to appear younger and to hide one's age. The desire to appear beautiful and to look young drives the multi-billion dollar industries of cosmetics, plastic surgery, fashion apparel, etc.

The contract of marriage is (among other things) a way to try to minimize the stress and fear of desertion in a female and the socially harmful unbounded lust in a male. And by keeping the two fleeing people together by force of law and communal pressure, the society also tries to ensure a somewhat reasonable upbringing (and the sharing of the responsibility) of their joint progeny.

But of course, the contract does not mean that the fear of the male's desertion in the female and the male's lust is thereby extinguished. The result is a continued insecurity and resentment. To get reassurance, the female may seek comments about her continued attractiveness. Or in this case, when she is quite sure that she is not going to be attractive anymore, she can just directly ask for reassurance.

Now the interesting part is, why does the male usually lie? There are umpteen stories and lighthearted advice columns floating on the internet which advise a husband to be sensitive to his wife's self-image when he answers her questions about whether she is looking good or fat etc.

The husband is tied down with the legal contract, so he can't easily escape from an unpleasant home. If he wants the (admittedly shallow) peace and happiness that comes with him and his wife "getting along", he better not say something which upsets her. I can guarantee that in a normal couple, if one spouse disregards the emotional well-being of the other (e.g. by always speaking the truth, regardless of consequences), the relationship will break down.

So, most relationships survive on everyday, mundane deceptions and feel-good lies.

The joke is funny because the husband, shockingly, tells his wife bluntly that she is already old and ugly (when she was asking for a reassurance) but that he nevertheless "loves" her. Obviously he doesn't "love" her, otherwise how could he have said something so "insensitive", eh? The joke is funny because his banal expression of love is anything but to his wife, who doesn't really want his unilateral love (which is his prerogative and therefore can end at any time) but an assurance of her lovableness (which will ensure his love, at least intermittently, whether he wants to or not). When she is no longer lovable, she loses the power over the husband, who here is resignedly acknowledging both her unattractiveness and his cuckold-like inability to desert her.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Dissecting a Joke, weekly feature

The Joke:
Mother says to daughter: If a boy is getting too frisky, just stop and ask "What will we call the baby?"

"That's a good idea," the girl thinks, so she tries it out.

One day she is making out with a boy and things start to get a little overheated. She stops and says "What are we gonna call the baby?" and the boy bails.

Great she thinks, this works well.

She keeps using this line for a few years till she gets to the point where she is wanting things to go 'too far' herself.

She is making out with her boyfriend on the banks of a fast moving river. Things are getting really racy, he puts on a condom and makes love to her.

When he is done, he takes it off, ties a knot in the end and throws it in the river.

Blissfully dazed and confused, she says 'What will we call the baby?'

He just laughs and says "Babe, if he can get out of that one we'll call him 'Houdini'!"
The Analysis:

- Mothers usually act as mentors to the daughters in courtship. Mothers are more practical because they know love doesn't last, and passion doesn't "put food on the table". Daughters (and sons) may think that their parents are killjoys when it comes to love and sex. The son usually gets guided by his father, and the daughter by the mother. As it is, it is hard to provide sexual advice to one's progeny because it is an aspect of one's personality that one has hidden from them. Secondly, it exposes the father as a sexual being to the daughter, and the mother to the son. That is discomforting.

It is almost impossible for a father to provide sex education to the daughter (and likewise it is very difficult for the mother to provide it to her son). The protection afforded by sexual taboos related to incest kicks in later (in the neural pathways), the arousal and temptation kicks in first. It is dangerous for a father to be close to, and talk about sex, with his adolescent daughter, and for a mother to do so with her son. (The film Spanking the Monkey is an interesting take on this danger).

- To protect one's virginity used to be important due to cultural reasons. But even in modern times, to keep certain aspects of one's sexuality unexplored is a way to preserve curiosity, prolong the tension, test a man's ability to delay his gratification (a sign of maturity and commitment) and to continue the relationship.

- It is hard for conscious thinking to occur in the midst of an affective storm. Mindfulness would be considered perverse (by non-Tantra-ites, admittedly) if it persists in the sexual act. In the novel Disclosure by Michael Crichton, the male protagonist is strongly repulsed when, during foreplay, his partner remains mindful enough to cough. It was not the cough which bothered him, but that the woman was aware enough to do it. An affective storm can be effectively countered by another strong affect. In the joke above, the countering affect to the existing storm of sexual arousal is induced by provoking the fear of commitment.

- A woman (more so than a male, due to biological differences) can be very choosy at a certain age but can get more and more desperate as she gets older. Sexual pleasure is important in itself, and not just as a secondary benefit, for the human female and using it as a "carrot" can be self-defeating after a certain age when the "carrot" is no longer that red and fresh, so to speak.

- The fear (or abhorrence) of commitment is a well-known phenomenon in the human male, and it has obvious biological underpinnings. A child in the relationship makes desertion much harder for the male (mostly due to cultural reasons). Birth control is beneficial for the male in that it keeps away the danger of involuntary commitment (as exemplified in the courtship monologue by the woman in Catherine Breillat's film Brief Crossing), and it is beneficial for the female in that it makes commitment less of a pragmatic need (it still remains an emotional need, however).

- I cannot comment definitely about the differences in post-coital experiencing of the human male and female (more study is needed) but it seems the male experiences lethargy coupled with a relatively higher (compared to the female at that point) awareness level, whereas the female's rational faculties are subdued even as she is relatively more energized. Post-coital affection is a severe demand for a male and it is another way in which a female judges a male's commitment ("Does he like me still, now that he has had his release?")

- The joke derives its humor from the ill-timed pattern kick-in and the post-coital irrationality of the female, coupled with the extreme presence of mind of the male (he manages to be witty, even).

- The male-centric attitude is quite visible (the joke can be considered a misogynist joke). For starters, the non-existent baby is presumed to be a male. Secondly, the sperm is the baby ("if he can get out") and the woman is just a container to nurse it till its birth. Thirdly, the male is in-charge in the love-making act (He "makes love to her").

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Deception in everyday life

Two examples:

1. The practice of holding one's glass of whiskey covered with a napkin in the "banquet parties" of North India.

Everybody knows that a covered glass contains whiskey. So why the cover-up? Is it to hide the quantity of liquor in the glass? The color (and hence the strength) of the drink?

2. The practice of blacking/tearing out the price-tag of a gift item.

Giving a gift is mostly a game-theoretic move to either oblige, or to reciprocate for a previous gift, or to create an obligation for the other person. Since in these moves, nurturing emotions are secondary and manipulative emotions (and cunning) are primary, the subterfuge of not disclosing the monetary value of a gift is a desperate attempt to gain more mileage from the gifting than the gift justifiably provides.

It is not that this phenomenon happens only between neighbors or distant relatives. I have seen this phenomenon happen between the closest family members. Monetary value of a gift is a strong indicator of one's value for the gifting party and it is a stark sight to see that resentment and manipulation is existent in all human relationships.

If, as is ideally believed, the gifted party values the gesture and not the gift, then why black out the price-tag? Is it that since the temptation to ascertain the monetary value of a gift is assumed to exist (in an admittedly cynical view of humanity), this practice is to preempt the monetary circuits from kicking in?

In traditional Indian ceremonies, gifts of easily-ascertainable value (gold, hard cash, silk) are more acceptable than a new-ageist gift of incense or a painting, which are more common in "evolved" circles where gifting cash is considered crude. If it is considered rude and crass for one to value a gift according to its price, why is it considered polite for the other to assume this proclivity for crassness in oneself and for him to preempt it, eh?

Most gifts are transactions. The stress of buying gifts in the holiday season (Thanksgiving, Christmas) in Western societies is quite well-documented for me to go over it. The "well-adjusted" consider these transactions normal human discourse and participate in it without much thought. Those who can ill-afford so many gifts (but can also ill-afford any resultant resentments if they do not gift) consider it a woeful blight.

And those who have too much time on their hands, and a blogger account, split hairs.

Thursday, February 05, 2009


Today's edition of the Hindustan Times carries the following extremely sad story:
Abandoned in Life and Death
Parents leave baby boy undergoing treatment at PGI

In a blatant display of extreme callousness, parents of a seriously injured baby abandoned the child midway through treatment in the PGI Intensive Care Unit.

Faced with absence of support in a critical condition, the infant breathed his last on January 7 and no one has even come forward to claim the body, which is kept in the mortuary of the hospital.


Although he started stabilising in the ICU, his parents suddenly vanished. After unsuccessful attempts at locating the parents, doctors informed the police.


Ruby passed away on January 7.
1. It is simplistic to call the parents callous. Who knows what their compulsions must have been? Maybe the treatment was too expensive, maybe they were depressed.

2. This once again confirms my impression that even in the best Indian hospitals, a relative or guardian is as much part of the nursing staff as the doctors and nurses. When I was taking care of my ailing grandfather in a posh nursing home, his IV drip drained out a litre of his blood (which collected under his arm) before the nurses came and chided me, the attendant, for not noticing that the IV solution had long since finished and that I should have called them. Fortunately there were no major complications then.

The key phrase in the news item above is "in the absence of support in a critical condition". The parents deserted, yes, but how was their presence essential to the infant's support who was uner treatment in an ICU? Was it because the doctors and nurses refused to treat an infant who couldn't pay (sic)? This was a government hospital after all, was there no way the infant could have been provided for? Was there no NGO, no one who had some extra money?

3. Is it reasonable for a doctor to let a patient die if his blood relatives (seemingly) have no interest in saving him? If it is an infant? If it is an adult? If it is a terminally ill old person?

It is not that doctors in India are extraordinarily burdened with work and they cannot be expected to be "good" as well. During internship in the United States, and in the shifts of public hospitals in the West, doctors go through as much of a grueling schedule as anywhere else.

4. The religiously-inclined might say that the child must have come to this world with his karma and that divine justice is infallible. And thus we avert our eyes from what must have compelled the parents of this poor child to desert him, and what must be improved in the hospitals, and in the mind-sets of doctors of this country for these events never to happen again. God forbid.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Dissecting a Joke, weekly feature

The Joke:
Mulla Nasrudin had been fishing all afternoon. A man, who had just walked up, asked him, "How many have you caught today, Mulla?" "Well," said Nasrudin, "IF I CATCH THIS ONE THAT'S NIBBLING, AND THEN TWO MORE, I WILL HAVE THREE."

Nasrudin's answer is entirely correct, so why is the joke funny?

It is because of his misplaced pride, because we know he is no good at fishing while he persists in deluding himself. He is counting future successes while replying to a question about the past.

Don't we all do that? We all have been foolish and inept at some points in our life, but do we ever consider ourselves any less than the the best person around?

What makes a human delude oneself so well that facts don't matter? Justification is always from an intentional standpoint. There is a belief working at the back of every passionate argument. And the fundamental belief is: I am a good person. Even the worst crook, and the most corrupt politician has a self-justifying belief system.

Feelings of being inferior and being worthless are common in depression, but one still has justifications for them, and they are mostly circumstantial (one blames the parents, one's God, the people around) . The feeling of being a victim is strangely pleasurable and self-justifying.

We may think that a criminal would not be able to sleep at night, but that is valid only for an accidental criminal. A seasoned criminal has a perfect story for himself.

One of the best examples in normal life of self-justification is the excuses given by an alcoholic for having a drink:
  • I am having a bad day
  • I am having a great day
  • I am feeling low
  • I am feeling glorious
  • Everybody loves me!
  • Nobody loves me!
  • I am tired and need a break.
  • I am on top of the world and need to celebrate.
  • ...

Hunger by Steve McQueen

Merging the use of form and content, montage and composition, art and realism, distancing the viewer and presenting an unflinchingly close look, sublimity and revulsion, slow takes and furious editing, maddening confusion and unshakable clarity, the viewpoints of Man, God, Society and State, this film is the prize winner of defiance, Aye. This is required viewing for any admirer of The Stranger by Albert Camus. Camus' famous question to humanity was: "Why do you not commit suicide?"

The director relents and loosens his grip only once in the whole film, to help us take a breath, and then only to plunge us headlong into intimacy with a convulsing and seething body.

Divided in three parts - Prologue, Dialogue and Epilogue - the film finally settles down on Robert Sands, an IRA leader who started the hunger strike for political recognition in the Maze prison in 1981.

With more than two dozen bravura sequences, which can be watched again and again for their sheer artistry, this film deservedly won the Camera d'Or (The Golden Camera), the highest prize for a debut film at Cannes 2008.

This is the first film I have been privileged to see in 2009.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Identity and Being

Consider the following excerpt from the discourse of a major spiritual teacher:
Your problem has come because of your identification with your limited body. Anyone with a little sense can know, this body is something that you picked up from this planet and it is just a recycle. Whatever you think is mine is just coming in and going out all the time. You cannot hold on to it. Not just at the final moment when you die; every day, you cannot hold on to this body. If you knew this, not in a sense of intellectually knowing it, if you were aware of this, then naturally you would not be identified with it. Once you are not identified with your body, then the next thing that is left is your thought process. It is very easy to see that it is always on recycle.

If you can identify with these recycles, why can't you identify with the planet itself? Why can't you identify with the whole cosmos because everything is recycle? Life is on recycle all the time. It is an ongoing process. If it becomes experiential for you that this is all just a recycle - the life energy that you think is 'me', the body that you think is 'me', the mind that you think is 'me', are all on a recycle process, so what will you identify with?

Either you simply sit here without any identity, or you get identified with everything. Either you become a zero or you become infinite. Everything in between is a big lie. This is the maya of duality. ...
I exist at various levels, but fundamentally I am what I think myself to be (the "ego"), and what I feel myself to be (the "being" or the "soul"). And then, there is the indubitable fact of I existing as the flesh and blood body.

My "being" is my feelings and emotions and is typically felt to be around the heart region. Because of this, the heart-region has traditionally been considered the seat of the soul. Modulation of the heart function, and the amount of blood pumped and the consequent heighened states have been an important factor in our survival in an violent world. Chemicals and hormones viscerally affect us before they affect us cognitively. Many of these chemicals and hormones (e.g. adrenaline) exist in mammals and human infants.

On the other hand, The "ego" starts forming around the second year after birth, assisted no doubt by the growth in brain size and formation of memory and neural connections.

In an adult the "ego" is comprised of a sense of oneself as an individual, and a sense of oneself as having principles, affiliations and goals beyond oneself (the super-ego, in Freudian terms).

For example, for an "average" Indian male, the identity exists with me as a man, as a member of my family (a son, a nephew, a husband, a father), as a friend or a lover, as a member of a particular caste and sect, as a member of a particular religion, as a resident of a particular region, as a person with a certain socioeconomic status, as a person with a specific skill-set and a specific educational background, as an Indian, as a resident of a developing and poor country, as one belonging to South Asia or Asia, and so on.

All these are facts (after all the body is that of a male, and is holding an Indian passport, and is born in a family which follows a particular set of religious rituals, etc.) but the formation of identity invests oneself in these facts, and in the conditioning of that particular facet (e.g. "a man should not do dishes", "an Indian has a great heritage of spirituality") and forms passionate attachments to being the way the identity has been shaped, and to defend the identity from denigration, insult and break-up. Coupled with this, one wants to be a "good man", a "good Indian", a "loyal family member", a "dependable friend", a "god-fearing, devoted, moral member of one's religion", etc.

It is obvious that these identifications lead to sorrow, separatism and violence. As a man evolves, he gives up the facile identifications (after ascertaining their silliness). But more often than not, he picks up other identifications, since the urge to identify/belong remains.

Spirituality addresses this problem by considering the ego formed after birth as an illusion to be destroyed. Separation due to identification is what causes "me" to suffer and to make others suffer, and that is a very large component of distress in the human condition. But spirituality has no real solution for obliterating the instinctual patterns of human behavior. It classifies instincts as good and bad (Love versus hate, Compassion versus intolerance, Gratitude versus corruption) and pursues the good instincts and tries to sublimate the bad ones. However, since the "id" (the pleasure center, the limbic system, the affective "being", our emotions and feelings, our soul) is not sought to be demolished, what results through spiritual pursuits is a feeling of oneness and bliss, and not a whittling away of our core passions. The affective being remains intact, and there are more than a few instances of the most hallowed spiritual teachers suffering overwhelming pangs of love and compassion and gratitude as well as those of sorrow, anger, intolerance.

When push comes to shove, it is the instincts, the so-called id drives, the deep emotions, the intuitions and gut-feelings which rule the body and which lead to harrowing sorrow and horrendous malice. But because spirituality stops short of investigating them, the human condition continues unabated.

Practicing spiritualists can be very confused, impatient, irritable and malicious when questioned about their world-view and beliefs. This should provide a hint that there is something fundamentally wrong with a oneness which leaves one's basic instincts intact.

There are various ways of demolishing the ego and the sense of identity, and each spiritual teacher has his own recipe. The excerpt at the beginning is generic new-age spirituality: either one ceases to identify (and becomes the pure Being) or one identifies with the whole (and becomes identified with the whole, and again becomes the pure Being).

It is only to be expected that in the spiritual teaching above, one is being asked to give up what one "thinks" oneself to be (the Identity). What is left unsaid is that one also needs to do something about what one "feels" oneself to be (the Soul). But then it will no longer be a spiritual teaching, it will be something that no spiritual teacher has thought of trying, or saying.

That had to be tried, lived and said by a man who remains almost unheard, since he has merely put up his writings and communications on a website, and is making no efforts to propagate his findings, unlike the media-savvy Gurus all around us.
1. There are three ways of experiencing the world of people, things and events: 1. sensate (senses); 2. cerebral (thoughts); 3. affective (feelings). The feelings include both the affectionate and desirable emotions/passions (those that are loving and trusting) and hostile and invidious emotions/passions (those that are hateful and fearful).

2. All sentient beings are born with instinctual passions like fear and aggression and nurture and desire genetically bestowed by blind nature which give rise to a rudimentary animal ‘self’ – which is ‘being’ itself – that human beings with their ability to think and reflect upon their mortality have transformed into a ‘me’ as soul (a ‘feeler’ in the heart) and an ‘I’ as ego (a ‘thinker’ in the head).

3. Thus there are three I’s altogether but only one is actual (sensate) and not an identity; I am this flesh and blood body being apperceptively aware. The primary cause of all the wars and murders and rapes and tortures and domestic violence and child abuse and suicides and so on is the instinctual passions which give rise to malice and sorrow and the antidotally generated pacifiers of love and compassion which, if sublimated and transcended, give rise to Love Agapé and Divine Compassion. This ‘Tried and True’ solution to all the ills of humankind lies within the ‘Human Condition’ and, as it has had 3,000 to 5,000 years to demonstrate its efficacy, can be discarded as being the ‘Tried and Failed’.


7. When ‘I’ as ego and ‘me’ as soul psychologically and psychically self-immolate – which is the end of ‘being’ itself – then the answer to the ‘Mystery Of Life’ becomes evident as an on-going existential experiencing; I am this physical universe experiencing itself as a reflective, sensate human being; as me, the universe is intelligent (there is no anthropomorphic ‘Intelligence’ that is creating or running existence).

(The first excerpt is from the column "The Speaking Tree" in The Times of India dated February 2 2009, and is by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev).

(The second excerpt is from The Actual Freedom website, from an article titled A Précis of Actual Freedom written by Richard, last name unknown)

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! by Dibakar Banerjee

If you have the impression that Bollywood films are not realistic, entertaining, artistic, provocative, subtle or well-made, go see Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!. Easily the best Hindi film I have seen in a long time, this film is a total blast, an exuberant, no-holds-barred, crackling tale of middle class India. This is a very dense film, a film with satire dripping in almost every line of dialogue and in almost every shot (when was the last time you saw a Hindi film cracking a joke over the dead body of a young person?).

This film was not a hit in India, and that's a pity. The director and the crew have been insanely ambitious with this venture, and they have not been rewarded at the box office. Some blame the timing of the release (The Mumbai tragedy happened during this film's weekend premiere), but I blame the Indian audience. Many people (at our film club) who went and saw this film didn't like it. Perhaps the film hits too close to home, perhaps its irreverence is too much to take, perhaps it shows us the ugly India which we comprise (rather than slums which one can view from a distance), perhaps its pace is too breathless for most people! Perhaps. But there is no doubt in my mind that the film is a masterpiece. I haven't seen this kind of attention to detail (notice the Adidas cap in the picture below) in any recent Indian film.

People have unfairly called it a copy of Catch Me if you Can (it is not). If at all, it is a satirical cousin - minus the tragedy, the violence, the drugs, the emigrant-mafia - of Goodfellas (and OLLO provides a self-conscious nod to Scorsese's film in a crucial scene). In both films, the protagonist, a normal boy in a normal family, is dazzled by the lifestyle of those who have it easy (and this is the first satire: in India, the establishment is the gang) takes to crime, and after what seems like a lifetime, suffers betrayals from those closest to him, but lives to become wiser.

The director has entered the arena with his arsenal loaded, and no icon escapes his aim. It is ultimately privilege and hypocrisy which he attacks with his satirical guns blazing, and he leaves us gasping for breath.

What a film!