Tuesday, December 31, 2013

On Politeness

Politeness is not merely "Thank you", "Excuse me" and "Please".  These too.  Such phrases convey the sentiment: "I realize that I might have put you to some inconvenience."

That is however just elementary politeness, which we can teach little children.

What is adult politeness?

Simply put, adult politeness is to behave in a way that does not discomfort other people or make them feel awkward.  It is to care enough about others' feelings that one is willing to put some thought into how one interacts with them.

A few examples will illustrate, ones which most normal people already understand and follow:

Let us say one is at a dinner party and the main dish (prepared by the hostess) is too salty.  The hostess is asking you for seconds.  The impolite response would be to tell the truth.  The polite response would be to invent an excuse that does not make the hostess feel bad.

As another example, a friend calls you for his birthday party.  You just want to idle away your evening but don't want to hurt his feelings.  The impolite response would be to tell the truth that you don't feel like coming over.  The polite response would again be to invent an excuse for busyness.

In earlier times, polite behavior used to be called "manners".  Family and school were places where one learnt this.  "Polite society" was exactly that section of the population in which one could expect good manners.

It is not hard to see that, now-a-days, being "true to oneself" is becoming a higher value than being sensitive to others' feelings.  To express oneself is considered more desirable than to be restrained.

Is that a good thing?  Does it lead to more sanity and harmony, or otherwise?  Do we like polite people or do we enjoy the company of rude ones?  There are certainly circumstances in which telling the truth without sugar-coating is important, but most situations are immensely helped by a desire to not hurt.

To balance one's own needs with an emotional sensitivity for the other is the hallmark of a polite person.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Notes on Looking Good, part 2

Part 1.

Before we proceed to the other aspects of beauty (grace, expressions, adornments), let us take a detour into the psychological effects of looking good.

What happens in one's mind if one knows that one is looking good?  Is the statement "I look good for myself, not for other people," a fair statement?  What is the psychological significance of beauty?

Humans are creatures with the capacity to imagine others' states of mind.  When we read and enjoy a novel, or watch a movie, or even when we talk to others, our reactions form because we are continuously evaluating how the other person (or the character) must be feeling.  Without this capacity for surmising others' states of mind, we will be severely crippled.  A person who cannot easily determine how his or her behavior makes other people feel will end up either in jail or in a mental institution.

Our appearance is a passive act.  It is a communication to others without an overt activity.  Fashion theorists never get tired of saying that fashion is a "statement of who you are".  That to dress in a certain way is to "express oneself".  That how one dresses determines how one will be treated.

It is all true.  We do get influenced by others' looks, and the others know that we get influenced and that is why they try to look good.

Looking good is a form of power.  In settings where appearance matters (and it does so in almost all social settings), a more attractive person finds it easier to have his/her way.  It is for this reason that after an age, people form cliques and groups of similarly attractive companions.  People in one group should possess similar levels of look-good-power otherwise there is the possibility of a tense hierarchy.  A group of clubbing women who are all fat but who have one member who is thin and in shape will soon find it expedient to expel the thin member.  Similarly a group of men who don't know how to dress well will not find a dapper dandy dying to gain friendship with them.

It is true that it "feels good" when one is "looking good".  But why?  Because one sees a beautiful person in the mirror and that thing of beauty is a joy?  Is that joy of a similar kind when one sees a beautiful person on the street?  Of course not.  The joy of appreciation, or the pang of jealousy, is very different than the good feeling one gets when one looks in the mirror and finds oneself looking at a beautiful person.

So, in case it needs to be said, it is not just the vision of beauty that is the provider of joy, but the fact that the vision of beauty is "me"!

In what manner is "me" being beautiful joyous?

Assume one is a Muslim woman living in Abu Dhabi and one is to leave one's home always dressed in a burqa, fully covered from head to toe.  Will one get as much joy to wear a great dress and put on lipstick and then cover it all before leaving home, than to wear a dress and have it appreciated by others?  No.  The joy will be much more if one's beauty is not just for oneself.  There might still be the joy in the realization that one is very beautiful and that when the occasion arrives (in days or years), one will surely wow everybody.  The joy of a an anticipated appreciation is not a small one.

The joy of being beautiful is therefore, to an extent at least, a joy about being appreciated.

To be fair, one might still admire one's own body, because beauty and fitness, inasmuch as they go together, are also indicators of health and longevity.  So at some level, there might be satisfaction about one's health.  Fit people are fond of looking at themselves in the mirror.  Gyms have full-length mirrors, and not just for watching one's form while one is squatting.

The joy of being beautiful is therefore also a joy of seeing oneself being healthy.

It might be said that fit people who continue to spend efforts at their fitness don't care about others' appreciation (since they already have that), but that they are doing it for themselves.  But that is not true.  Not only are their efforts intended to maintain their fitness, it sometimes does become a self-serving agenda to be extremely fit as an end-in-itself.  A person who wants to lower his BMI to 8 from 12 can be considered in this category, and so can someone who can already squat 300lb and wants to squat 310lb.  There is nothing wrong in having fitness as a hobby, but clearly beyond a point it is no longer about looking good (to oneself or to another) but is merely a hobby which gives one pleasure and pride.

To look good is to feel good because at a subconscious level, one is happy and confident about the favorable impression one will make on other people.  This confidence is energy-boosting and leads to a "seize the day" kind of attitude.  A married woman may not be looking for a husband or a boyfriend when she is all dolled-up and goes to a party, but she knows she is getting the admiration and desirous glances, and that sense of power and choice (and the jealousy or, less probably, the appreciation it might provoke in other women) makes her feel more alive and fulfilled.

The joy of being beautiful is primarily the joy of feeling powerful.

There may be other means of asserting one's dominance, say, one's knowledge about why General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics cannot both be correct.  But such assertive possibilities, even though they go deeper and are appreciated for far longer, are generally for restricted demographics.  Much more versatile is to just look hot.

(to be continued)

Notes on Looking Good, part 1

Broadly speaking, looking good depends on what kind of body one has, what kind of health and grace one possesses, and the way one adorns the body.

Let us, at the outset, dispense with the notion that beauty is completely subjective.  It is a popular, but a rather misunderstood notion that "Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder."  This sentence is generally pronounced upon the vision of a somewhat unattractive person paired with a beauteous one, and when wonder asks "What did he see in her?"

There are certainly variances in people's judgment of others' beauty, but the variance is statistically bounded.  Assuming the scale of beauty to be from 1 to 10, it is unlikely that a person rated 4 (on average) by one hundred random people is rated beyond 9 (on average) by another random hundred people.  In the same vein, a last-round-entrant-model may not be considered the deserving prize-winner of a beauty pageant, but it would be extremely unlikely to find a person who regards that model as "ugly".

Beauty is not an exact science, but neither is it "whatever goes".  There have been many studies on the kind of proportions in a face (and the waste-hip ratio etc.) that lead to visual appeal, and these studies all indisputably point to the conclusion that beauty is not all that subjective.

Of course, someone having an emotional investment in the other person (a mother in a child being the most obvious example) will not be easily repulsed by its appearance.  And to be fair, the vast majority of human beings lie in the category of "neither too ugly, nor too pretty", so the perception of members of this vast majority as beautiful or ugly depends on factors other than how their naked bodies look.  They may have a pleasing (or "sweet") demeanor, they may know how to dress well, they may know how to make up their faces, they may smell good, they may have a great smile, and so on.

It might be true that different races have somewhat different standards of beauty, but that still does not mean that beauty is totally subjective.  It just means that standards of beauty have evolved differently in different populations.  There is obviously no beauty in raw nature.  A cloud is a cloud after all.  Beauty is a human response, but this response is based on more than just one's individual predilections.  It builds upon certain innate preferences as well as cultural influences.  On top of them, individual preferences may hold some small sway.

...

Let us, at first, consider the unadorned body.

The body is born with certain genes and that may lead to an in-born attractiveness which probably lasts for a large part of one's life.  Added to that is the care and nutrition the body receives, and how fit it remains as it grows older.

Care, nutrition and fitness are more easily achieved if one is affluent.  Moreover, affluent people stand a better chance at giving birth to beautiful babies.  Affluence leads to better medical care of the mother and the unborn child, less stress, better rest and nutrition for the mother, etc.  More pertinently however, affluent people can attract more beautiful partners which positively affects the future beauty of their children.

Fitness, in the age of lack of physical labor, depends a lot on whether one can choose what to eat, and whether one can choose or afford to indulge in certain physical sports and conditioning activities.  Poor people have little choice in both, and it is rather evident in the developed world.  As poor people in a country like USA grow in years, the circumstances of their lives lead them to become increasingly unhealthy, obese and haggard.  Baldness, for example, has been correlated to stress.  (While a rich stockbroker can go bald from stress, he can also easily afford artificial hair).

On that note, bodily interventions (fake breasts, fake eyelashes, cosmetic surgery, steroid supplements, personal training, dental veneers, waxed bodies, anti-wrinkle treatments) are not cheap.  The more affluent one is, the easier it is to afford these and get rid of any physical shortcoming or an effect of aging.

In the developed world (where religion as a moral force has lost its sway), people find it easier to admit to the importance of physical beauty.  It is not considered shallow or materialistic.  In the US (as is now becoming more mainstream in a country like India) boob job or a tooth-whitening-treatment is seen as an investment which will probably give a return many times over.

As an aside, religion, to quite an extent, offers solace to those who cannot afford materialism.  The meek have never inherited the earth, and never will, but they can at least feel happy that though they might be unattractive and unhealthy, they are not "sinful" like their greedy brethren.  The greedy brethren, on the other hand, are happy with their own brand of guilt-free spirituality, their chiseled bodies and their glowing skins.

(to be continued)

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Indian English

India was a British colony for many centuries.  The British spoke English, and India inherited British English.  From being the sign of an elite education and a higher pedigree, it has now become the de-facto language of higher education in India.

In the past, learning English was a tall order for the vast majority of Indians.  Knowing a second language (especially in the written form) requires education and training.  For a long time, and some would argue even now, the Indian education system has been hopelessly inadequate in teaching even the local language and basic arithmetic, never mind a second language.  Many leftist educationists advocate development of the local language, arguing that it is well-nigh impossible to teach people science and arithmetic in an alien language.  They point to the fact that many developing countries (the prime examples being Japan and China) have been successful at human development only by encouraging education in the native language.

Moreover, many regions in India look at the teaching of their local language as a matter of pride and the teaching of any other language as an attack on the local culture.  Also, India has dozens of languages and hundreds, if not thousands, of dialects.  Making available good quality teaching materials in local languages is not easy.  It is also not hard to see the lack of geographic mobility of a person who knows only the local language.  Many great educational institutes in India are managed by the central government, and they teach in English.  A person educated in his/her native language is usually incapable of succeeding at these institutes.

...

But what about Indians who do manage to learn English and speak it?  Many books have been written about the way Indians use the English language.  This is an enjoyable read, albeit one which is mostly critical of Indian English.

I think there are at least three distinct ways in which Indian English can be distinguished: the way we use phrases and idioms, our pronunciation, and our accent.

We use unique phrases and idioms ("pass out of college", "reverting back with more information", "prepone").  Not all of these are wrong.  Some are just archaic or unique.

Our pronunciation is either heavily British ("faast instead of faest", "shedule instead of skedule"), or sometimes just incorrect.  That is because we do not know how to pronounce some uncommon words, and English being a second language, we use common sense which in many cases does not apply to this complex language.

For example, most Indians that I know of pronounce the word "photography" by extending from how they pronounce the word "photograph".  Similarly, I always thought the word "hyperbole" was pronounced as "hyper-bolay" (and not "hy-perbolee" as specified by the dictionary).  I never heard anyone speak hyperbole correctly in India, otherwise I would have at least checked.  Similarly the words: gravel (pronounced correctly as gra (as in grand) vel (as in mull)), vinyl (pronounced correctly as vynal and not veenile), awry (a-wry and not aw-ry) are pronounced differently than what would naturally occur to an Indian.

And as is well-known, we have difficulty knowing the difference between pronouncing the v as in "verbose" and the w as in "woman".

Coming to our accent, it is identifiable enough to be parodied by stand-up-comedians and in humorous TV shows.

English being a world language does not have a single authoritative variant.  The words, accents, and sometimes even the pronunciation of common words differ across English-speaking regions.  Americans say "God" as gawd or even sometimes as "guy-ed", "you got it" as "you gaat it".  Australians pronounce "basin" as "bison" ("wash-bison").  And so on.

However, the people in English-speaking regions speak English as their first language and even though they may have a unique way of speaking it, they regard it as a valid way.  People who speak English as their second language continuously second-guess and have to keep learning how to speak it naturally and effortlessly.

Language has a bearing on trust, respect and relationships.  In business and public-relations, if you speak the local language in an alien manner, you have a more difficult task of winning over your listener.  There is an implicit distrust of anything strange-sounding.  And sometimes a foreign accent is just hard to understand.  An Indian or Chinese who wishes to be a leader in an English speaking country cannot afford to speak in their native accent.  If the role involves talking to people at all levels and when the role involves building trust and consensus, this is just bad strategy.

Also, I cannot help but mention that countries who speak English as their first language are ruled by White people.  Therefore, an Australian accent is going to be more acceptable (at a race kinship level) than a Chinese or an Indian accent.

People associate races and regions and accents with stereotypes.  To a foreign listener, an Indian accent quickly triggers notions of poverty, lack of hygiene, visa-fraud, corruption, IT grunt-work, call centers, mysticism, curries, ill-fitting clothes, introvert nerd geniuses, etc.  An Indian who wishes to overcome this stereotype has little choice but to not sound like an FOB ("fresh-off-the-boat").

There is nothing strange about wanting to "fit in".  Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born faux-PM of India, tries to speak Hindi as an Indian in order to sway people.  If she spoke Hindi as the venerable Tom Alter, I am not sure she would win any fans.

But I do think it is possible for Indian English to gain a wider recognition.  As Indians are achieving more and more success in the global arena, and as we are making strides in our education and human development, the way we speak English must, and will, slowly find greater recognition.  The stereotype of the poor Indian will probably take many centuries to go away, because that has complex causes.  And coupled with a greater recognition of Indian English, Indians must also try harder at learning to speak English not in an archaic or in an obviously wrong way.

This middle ground, where we recognize our failings in pronunciation and phraseology, and where there is more global acceptance of the Indian accent and intonation, would certainly be a happy place to be.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

To be Right, or to be Happy?

Or is that a wrong question?

There are arguments about facts, and there are arguments about opinions.

I consider that in an argument about a fact, to be right is important.  If a friend or a family member gets upset at discovering that he or she was wrong about a fact, then they need to grow up.  You don't need to be placate them by saying that they are right, but calling them an ignorant fool might also not be a great idea.  A little subtlety or diplomacy or offering some face-saving shows that while you care about the fact, you also care about how they feel.  Nobody likes to be proven wrong, and this simple realization can help those who are better informed become better informers.

However, if it is a matter of opinion, then the situation is far more complex.

The best course in my opinion, if you care about the other person, is to find out the reasons for their opinion.  Once the factors leading to that opinion are exposed, it is easier to admit that the opinion was a force majeure.  That is to say, that the person had no other choice but to hold that opinion.  Of course the involuntari-ness of the opinion was true in any case.  After all, the other person is, indisputably, holding an opinion because of some factors.   But because one holds a particular opinion, it is hard to even admit the validity or existence of a conflicting one.

Unless the other person is a habitual devil's advocate, their opinions are involuntary.  They don't really have a choice about it.

And once a conflicting opinion is understood to be involuntary, what's the point in raging against it?

In some cases, an almost universally acclaimed phenomenon (say, sunrise, or a super-hit film) can be disliked by someone who does not understand it, or who is impervious to its appeal, or whose level of aesthetic evolution is much above or below the average.  In such cases as well, trying to convince the other about the appeal of the phenomenon will not work.  Opinions, for the vast majority of humankind, are based on feelings.  And as most of us know, feelings cannot be easily transformed by argument.

No opinion is unfounded or comes out of a vacuum.  It is usually shaped by someone's experience, tastes, preferences or their mood at the time.  To disagree with the opinion might therefore be taken as an affront.  While a mature person will be able to take a difference of opinion in one's stride, an insecure one will consider any dissent as an insult.  A mature person will understand that levels of appreciation can differ, while an immature person will want to force others to conform to his/her own aesthetic opinions.

In many new-age communication paradigms, such as General Semantics or Nonviolent Communication, it is advised that one convey one's opinions to be subjective.

For example:

Instead of saying "What a lovely film", say, "I find it such a lovely film."
Instead of saying "This policy will never work,", say "I am afraid this policy will never work."
Instead of saying "She is horrible", say "I find it horrible to interact with her."
Instead of claiming "He is a good friend", say "I find him to be a good friend."

The point of these alternative ways of  voicing an opinion is that then one is not proclaiming that one's opinion is the only opinion possible.  One is not stating an opinion disguised as an objective fact.  By using subjective phrases, one makes it clear that this is how it seems to oneself and it is alright if the others' experiences differ.  It is to give the other space in a conversation.  By saying something objectively ("What a horrible person."), we invite a harsh argument if the other person's experience differs from us.  However, by saying "The way she has interacted with me has left a bad taste in my mouth" we are not proclaiming a universal truth about how "she" is with everybody else.

The paradigms go much further and advise one to be subjective even about facts such as color or shape of things (for example, instead of saying "That is a red box", "That box appears red to me, at present, from this angle, in this lighting.  And it appears to be a box to me, by the way."), but I consider that taking things too far.

Though to be fair, I have seen ladies in a department store argue over whether a dress is pink or red.  They liked the dress, they just disagreed which color it was.  So maybe one ought to put in subjective disclaimers in every sentence and only then everybody will be right.

No!

But a good starting point is to claim subjectivity about one's aesthetic opinions.  Not only does it sound less threatening to a Scorsese-fan to hear "I didn't really like Taxi Driver, maybe I need to see it again to understand what the hype is all about," it might even be true.  One might discover on a re-view that there were things that one didn't appreciate at first.  Sometimes, reading about a work of art can help in its appreciation.  Especially in modern art, context is everything.  Without knowing the context of a toilet bowl placed in the middle of a museum room, it will just seem like a stunt.  (Again to be fair, sometimes modern art exhibits are stunts.)  Moreover, some things, like black coffee or milk tea, might just be acquired tastes.

As they say, Mulla Nasrudin came home drunk one night and as usual, his wife started screaming at him for spending all his money on drink.  He took out the half-empty bottle from his coat pocket and offered a sip to his wife.  She strongly resisted but he asked her to just taste it.  "It tastes horrible", she said.  Nasrudin exclaimed in glee: "See now? And you think I have fun getting drunk."

Jokes aside, it is possible to point out a factual wrong, to have different opinions, and still to have happiness and harmony in one's relationships.  A little sensitivity goes a long way, and while there may be bigger joys, the joy of being understood and affirmed is no small one.  We are all vulnerable, to varying degrees, about our opinions and knowledge.  When we are assured that the other person cares about our vulnerability as well as the matter under discussion, the relationships will become stronger, maturer and ... better-informed.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Philosopher's Life

There will always be people who can run faster than is necessary to survive, who can lift weights heavier than what daily life requires, who are prodigies, who are geniuses, who possess a skill or a feature far beyond what existence demands.

Dexterity or skill in a particular domain does not, in general, lead to harmful consequences.  However, I claim that a vastly superior intellectual capacity poses risks of existential crises which a normal intellect does not.

As Peter Zapffe wrote in his iconic essay "The Last Messiah"
But as he stands before imminent death, he grasps its nature also, and the cosmic import of the step to come. His creative imagination constructs new, fearful prospects behind the curtain of death, and he sees that even there is no sanctuary found. And now he can discern the outline of his biologicocosmic terms: He is the universe’s helpless captive, kept to fall into nameless possibilities.
From this moment on, he is in a state of relentless panic.
Such a ‘feeling of cosmic panic’ is pivotal to every human mind. Indeed, the race appears destined to perish in so far as any effective preservation and continuation of life is ruled out when all of the individual’s attention and energy goes to endure, or relay, the catastrophic high tension within.
The tragedy of a species becoming unfit for life by overevolving one ability is not confined to humankind. Thus it is thought, for instance, that certain deer in paleontological times succumbed as they acquired overly-heavy horns. The mutations must be considered blind, they work, are thrown forth, without any contact of interest with their environment.
In depressive states, the mind may be seen in the image of such an antler, in all its fantastic splendour pinning its bearer to the ground.
As soon as the human mind develops the capacity to think beyond a few years - and that capacity has been there in humanity for many thousands of years now, if not more - the mind needs a narrative to endure the daily ennui, tedium and tension. This narrative must win over the mind for it to be effective. It shouldn't just be a belief, or even a passion. It has to go much deeper, and become a part of one's being. It must be the very air one breathes, the very marrow of one's bone, the very core of one's gut.

Narratives of family, of honor, of tribe, of religion, of tradition, of serving, of patriotism, were enough at a time when exposure to counter-narratives was limited. The narratives were easy to imbibe because there was little in the environment to thwart or question them.  And there was little leisure to indulge in idle intellection anyway.

Not any more.

Today, any individual with an above-average intellect will not find it overly hard to laugh at these narratives. It is easy, fashionable, and quite correct, to see religion or nationalism or chivalry as of appeal only to conservative, limited, ignorant minds. The world has moved on, we say, and we ridicule those who persist in living in the past.

But if the ignorant and their faith are ridiculed, the laughter of the wise is not devoid of its own kind of punishment. Cynicism and self-absorption, which increasingly are the default positions of a modern intellectual, may offer sarcastic and witty entertainment at a gathering, but offers no nourishment to one's being.

The modern intellectual is an individual starved from the inside. He has the ability to impress, but his inner hollowness scares him more than he would care to admit.

Because the intellectual can think farther than a mere brute or a village idiot, he therefore needs a stronger narrative to sustain his being. But where are those narratives? If he is to create his own narrative, that only lasts so long. He will inevitably deconstruct and shred his own beliefs and senses of meaning. He cannot help but analyze. And given enough leisure and access to counter viewpoints, nothing survives the glare.

The intellectual understands that ignorance is bliss, but he lives a false life if he remains content with ignorance. His being yearns for intellection, cannot live without it, and can thereby be called ... suicidal.

A true philosopher, like Sisyphus, must grapple with life and suicide every day.

Philosophers must of necessity be depressed. Otherwise, they are still believers.

It is not impossible to live a depressed life till one dies of natural causes, but the sooner a philosopher understands the implications of his chosen vocation, the easier it is to endure. 

A philosopher's life offers many pleasures: one can laugh at miseries which others would find soul-shattering, one can understand the vagaries of love and longing, one can unveil mysteries of human nature that confuse lesser minds, one can refuse to be swayed and exploited by appeals to instinct or emotion, ...

But what it does not offer is immersion in a narrative. And that is something worth reflecting on.

Friday, October 04, 2013

The "Image"

Advertising creates dissatisfaction.  If one can afford what is being advertised, then one will want to spend some money and experience the joy that the advertisement is promising.  If not, there will be resentment that there is a kind of joy in the world which one is unable to experience.

Similarly, watching mass-market entertainment is a kind of brainwashing which makes us want to imitate what is being shown on the screen.  We see how certain characters are liked and loved, what they do, how they dress, how they talk.  Since we want to be liked and loved too, we want to imitate them.

Media is a way for us to be bombarded with fake images and crafted stories.  The stories are crafted skilfully, that we trust the narrative completely.  It is not easy for a normal person to enjoy a TV show or a movie and at the same time, know that it is all fiction and to defend oneself against the various subtle cues and influences.

Mass-market entertainment and advertising is to show us an alternate reality in which we are happy and loved and are powerful.  Since for most people, the reality is that they are always feeling somewhat less than happy, somewhat unloved, and somewhat helpless, the TV and movies show them that it is indeed possible to change the situation, only if they:

a) Have a good car, or a great gadget
b) Have a relationship with an attractive person
c) Dress fashionably
d) Talk in a constantly witty and sarcastic way
e) Have an athletic body which looks good “on the beach”
f) Have a chic house
g) Travel to nice resorts
h) Eat or drink something specific
i) ...

You get the idea.

All of these changes are about spending money, consumption, or impressing others.

Looking at ads and movies as a way of cultural education is dangerous.  It hardens the idea that “image” is all important.  That one must “brand” oneself, and that validation from others for superficial features (the car, the jacket, the hair color) is what brings real joy.

I am not denying that external validation is pleasurable.  I am arguing against an environment in which validation depends on “image” rather than on substance.

Manipulating how others perceive oneself is what life then becomes.  It is no wonder that such a life feels empty.

If one wins someone's love based on a calculated and cultivated image of oneself, then I claim that this love will feel fake.  A manipulated emotion can never replace a sincere one.  Moreover, there will be a tension between keeping the love alive through the image-projection, and wanting the "real" love which is directed at the real "me".  The lover will be hated for being vulnerable to manipulation even though it was oneself who subjected the lover to this manipulation.

We want love.  We trust the mass media to tell us how to become lovable.  We follow the instructions.  But neither do we achieve the love that our being needs, nor do we know why.  We try to follow the instructions more precisely, ever frantic to catch the nuance of what the TV show is telling us about relationships.

Never once suspecting that we've been played.  So badly played, in fact, that it is perhaps not possible to recover in a lifetime.

The Individual and the Society, part 1

One way of defining adolescence is the age when one does not understand the social contract.

The social sphere grades people with “reputation”.  In adolescence, one cares little for reputation.  Perhaps because one’s journey in life thus far, having been under the shelter of one’s parents, has been mostly independent of social judgment.  One hasn’t had to take up a job, one hasn’t had to take a large loan, one hasn’t had to negotiate a business agreement or a partnership, one hasn’t had to look for a spouse, and so on.

Life during adolescence, for most of the demographic which is reading this blog article, is happy-go-lucky.

It would be a grave error, and a grotesque prolonging of one’s adolescence, if one continues to regard with disdain the concept of “reputation” when one is expected to act as an adult.  One will not detect the consequences before it is too late.  Reputation is not something that can be rebuilt easily.

A man or a woman who behaves as if social morality and taboos are hogwash will be treated as hogs by the society.

Social morality sometimes is out of date, and cultural evolution certainly claims its martyrs.  My point is not that social morality must be upheld at all costs, but that to disregard it as of no concern will usually lead to consequences.  An adult rebel will consider the prevailing morality, and choose his actions carefully, evaluating the consequences.  An adult rebel will be cognizant of, and reconciled with, the fact that he/she may lose his reputation.

An adolescent, on the other hand, is merely oblivious to society.  An adolescent exists in a narcissistic bubble in which the adults and the society are either seen as villains who repress one’s freedom and autonomy, or as beings of no concern.

In a traditional society, reputation matters much more than in a modern one.  In a modern setting, morality is generally assumed to be a private matter, except when the society decides that it isn’t (ref the concept of a “sex offender registry” in many first world countries).  It is inconceivable that a woman in New York city would be refused a rental apartment because she has been married four times.

In a modern setting, people might think that reputation matters little because the society, in day to day life, does not exist anymore.  There is anonymity between apartment neighbors.  Nobody cares about you as long as you mind your own business.

But as soon as you expect others to trust you as a person, reputation in various forms enters the picture.  In the first world, one’s entire financial/credit history is immediately available.  A prospective employer looks at one’s job history and asks for references.  A prospective spouse would be curious about one’s past relationships and how they began and ended.  A bank would look at one’s finances before extending a loan.  And there is of course Google.

It is true that one can no longer count on neighborhood gossip to find out more about a person.  But since the need to have a basis of trust remains, other ways and institutions have now replaced the “word-of-mouth” narratives that exist in traditional societies.

There are many reasons why someone will proffer the advice of “F*&^ society, do your own thing”.  Almost always, the reasons will be found to be rooted in some psychopathology which blames the society for something wrong in one’s life and very rarely for doing something creative and constructive.  A disdain towards society is usually symptomatic of being bitter.

Think of someone who is popular (as opposed to being merely famous or a celebrity) and liked by other people, versus someone who is generally held as a bad example.  It will be usually found that the popular person did do many things right (and not just in a conformist way), and that the unpopular person did hurt other people (and not just as a constructive rebel).

There do exist examples of social boycotts, and worse, targeting people who expressed a heretical idea or chose to live in a way which challenged a despotic authority.  I think the reasons for a rebellion are important to consider if one is to stand in opposition to a society.  And that a rebellion must first comprehend the reasons for the prevailing norm.

Social approval opens doors to opportunities and lasting change, while a bad reputation and living-as-an-island makes other people apprehensive of one’s association.  To disregard this simple fact represents, to me, a defect in one’s journey to adulthood.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Some notes on "Unconditional Love"

"Unconditional Love" is a phrase which probably entered the English language during late twentieth century.  This was the time when community structures were breaking down due to increases in state-sponsored welfare, policing and social security, chaos in family institutions, and evolving telecommunications technology.  The process must have started with the industrial revolution which led to the transition from a joint family to a nuclear family.

It was getting harder to have multiple people in one's daily life who loved one as a family member, so the demands of love started to get centered around only one person (usually one's spouse).  And it is a tall order for one person to love another all the time with the same intensity.  So when that love/validation was diminished, the love-hungry person felt a vacuum, a feeling of emptiness.  The lover's love felt non-fulfilling or somehow less than the ideal of love.

Love/validation is like a IV drip.  When it stops, there is a pang.  The pang demands that the supply be re-started.  That there must not be any reason to stop the supply.  That otherwise, the supply is conditional, not true, not altruistic enough, and so on.

Therefore the demand for unconditional, continuous, love.

It can be justifiably considered a power tactic.  The politics involved in "love me no matter how I treat you" is not too involved.  One is expecting a certain emotion in the other to continue while oneself is vulnerable to vagaries of mood and attitude.  If oneself is irritable and unloving at times, it is to be expected that the other, being a human being, will also have these phases.

"Love" is a not just an abstraction.  It must show itself in one's interactions.  If the interactions are unloving, claims of "love" and demands of "unconditional love" from the other will feel half-baked.

Gurus are fond of saying that they love the disciple's/seeker's "soul" (his/her real self), while actively denigrating/bullying the reality of the seeker's body/mind.  The seeker takes all kind of abuse because he is taken in by the guru's subterfuge.  The guru undermines the seeker's trust/faith in himself and asks him to believe in a higher form of love, which is not targeted at the body/mind.  The guru calls the loves of the body/mind as "dirty" loves, while the love of the seeker's soul by the guru is considered "divine".  If the seeker doesn't understand this love, the guru can always claim that the seeker is not yet at that plane of understanding.  After all, the guru is the guru and the seeker is the seeker.

In normal relationships, this spiritual term has entered to the peril of individuals.  Love is always conditional otherwise it will not be specific.  If a man loves a woman, then ab initio his love is conditional on the gender of the other person.  The woman must have been found lovable by him.  In a way it should be found very insulting by the woman if the man claims that he loves her unconditionally.  That means that he loves nothing specifically in or about her, but is generally a loving person who has happened to come across her in life and who is now flexing his spiritual muscle by loving her "unconditionally".

All human love is conditional.  Either through kinship, or through reciprocity, or through expectation, or through validation, or through lust, or through pity, or through fear, ...

If a love is not conditional, then it is more akin to "compassion".  Which is a bit condescending, if you really look into it.  Compassion immediately sets up a hierarchy where one person has the ability to "give" more (to be more emotionally generous) than the other, who is a fallible human being and a sink for emotional energy.

Parents disown disrespectful children.  Spouses divorce.  Lovers separate.  Siblings fight.  Friends deceive and are then no longer friends.  Each of these loves starts when the conditions are good, and disintegrates when the conditions are no longer satisfactory.

"Accepting" the other "fully" while in a relationship is a different thing.  It means that in day to day life, one understands the humanity of the other person, and that one doesn't expect the other to be perfect all the time.   Also, that one understands the idiosyncrasies and preferences of the other and doesn't try to change them.  If the flaws in the other, or the cracks in a relationship, increase beyond a threshold, then obviously acceptance and love will go for a toss.  But while in the relationship, it is generally good advice to accept the other person as he/she is.  If that is unfeasible and one finds it possible to only live with another who completely echoes one's habits and preferences, then let there be no relationship to begin with.  A relationship that starts with the hope that the other will change to be more like oneself does not have much of a chance.

To love another human being "unconditionally" can only happen if one no longer desires anything from that person, even love.  But then, is it really love?

Or is it more like a God blessing his little creations?

If you ask another for unconditional love, understand that they may then love you in a very non-specific, godly way.  Understand also that you are not then willing to give, but only to receive.

If you seek human love, expect conditions.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

"Hate the sin, love the sinner"

This quote is usually attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.

This is a distant echo of St. Augustine. His Letter 211 (c. 424) contains the phrase Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum, which translates roughly to "With love for mankind and hatred of sins." (from http://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/who-said-love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin)

What would a Buddhist say to this, since Buddhism considers "I" to be an illusion?  In Buddhist teachings, one frequently comes across the phrasing: "There is no actor, only the acts.", or "There is no dancer, only the dance."

...

I consider both formulations to be misguided.  That is because, in my opinion, the so-called "actor" is nothing but his body, mind, personality, traits, acts, interactions, knowledge, memories, skills, relationships, etc.

Whether we like it or not, these objects and processes are congealed into a single identifiable and persisting body/brain which is usually recognizable and labeled.

When such a body commits a bad act (say a rape, or a theft), we recognize (sensibly) that there must be something in that body/brain which must have led to that act.  Perhaps a wild or untamed instinct, perhaps a strain of immorality, perhaps a defect in conscience or a fault in the upbringing, ...

If the act is worthy of condemnation, then so is the origin of the act.  Both circumstances and one's tendencies should be considered as originating factors in a crime.  If the circumstances are such that a normal person could choose not to commit that crime, then we regard the crime as a matter of choice.  Therefore we target the choice-making mechanism in the criminal body/brain as worthy of condemnation, and therefore of punishment.

Condemnation as a cognitive response is merely disapproval.  Emotional condemnation is hate.

If condemnation, emotional or cognitive, of an act is justified, then so is condemnation of the origin of that act.  And as long as we are unable to identify and address the precise malfunction in someone's brain which caused him/her to commit the crime, we punish/condemn the whole individual.

Let us consider what would happen if we follow M Gandhi's advice.  The discourse would be as follows:

"He is a fine, sensitive, individual, but sometimes commits murders and rapes."

"He is woefully untrustworthy and has embezzled from hundreds of individuals, but is otherwise an honest man."

"She is a kind and lovable individual, though prone to rather frequent fits of anger and rage."

We may not be our acts (we are other things too), but we sure cannot back away from being responsible for them.

One can still, in some sense, love the sinner (in terms of being compassionate, wish for him/her to be reformed, etc.), but that's about the extent of one's relationship with him.

It is good to wish Angulimala well.  From a distance of course.  Beware of inviting him to your village kindergarten.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Shuddh Desi Romance by Maneesh Sharma

The tagline of the film is: "A story about the hair-raising minefield between love, attraction and commitment."

I got tricked into going to this film after reading the Danny Bowes' review on rogerebert.com which started with: "Unless something very good comes out between now and December, "Shuddh Desi Romance" will be the best romantic comedy made anywhere in the world for 2013."

Ahem.

I think the film starts well, is nicely photographed with authentic shots of small-town India.  And then runs out of steam after about thirty minutes.  Yes, it is a bold film (for India) which shows live-in relationships and sex under the stars.  Awkward kissing, too.  In Jaipur, of all places.  Old codgers could be forgiven for thinking that these kinds of films are made to corrupt the minds of traditional folks in small towns, with places like Delhi and Mumbai having already gone to the dogs, culturally speaking.

There are some young men and women in this film who are somehow living as islands.  Where is their family?  Where is the community?  Where are the repercussions?  A stunt film warns its viewers not to even attempt to imitate what is shown on the screen.  Similarly, this film should warn its viewers that promiscuity and breaking off of engagements in small-town India can have, literally, deadly consequences.  Especially for a single woman who is living on her own.

I get it, it's a comedy.  But then, it tries to preach as well, by breaking the fourth wall.  A film can either be a social commentary, or a comedy.  If you are being ambitious and trying to do both, then get it right.  This film doesn't.

Yes, commitment scares the best of us.  And who doesn't like relationships with "no strings attached".  Except, of course, when shit hits the fan and we need the other and feel "abandoned".  Freedom is so nice, the film tries to say.  Only that no one in the film is forcing anybody to give up that freedom, or to commit.  It is all self-made decisions and then going back on those decisions.

One could be forgiven for running away from a commitment which is forced upon oneself, and there are civil ways to break off an engagement.  But no, confrontation is for losers.  Running away is the winning way!

Smoking, drinking and fornicating is not the essence of a free life, despite what this film tries to show.

The film is one joke told three (or more, I lost count) times.

I am reminded of this para from the manifesto written by Theodore John Kaczynski:
75. In primitive societies life is a succession of stages. The needs and purposes of one stage having been fulfilled, there is no particular reluctance about passing on to the next stage. A young man goes through the power process by becoming a hunter, hunting not for sport or for fulfillment but to get meat that is necessary for food. (In young women the process is more complex, with greater emphasis on social power; we won't discuss that here.) This phase having been successfully passed through, the young man has no reluctance about settling down to the responsibilities of raising a family. (In contrast, some modern people indefinitely postpone having children because they are too busy seeking some kind of "fulfillment." We suggest that the fulfillment they need is adequate experience of the power process -- with real goals instead of the artificial goals of surrogate activities.) Again, having successfully raised his children, going through the power process by providing them with the physical necessities, the primitive man feels that his work is done and he is prepared to accept old age (if he survives that long) and death. Many modern people, on the other hand, are disturbed by the prospect of death, as is shown by the amount of effort they expend trying to maintain their physical condition, appearance and health. We argue that this is due to unfulfillment resulting from the fact that they have never put their physical powers to any use, have never gone through the power process using their bodies in a serious way. It is not the primitive man, who has used his body daily for practical purposes, who fears the deterioration of age, but the modern man, who has never had a practical use for his body beyond walking from his car to his house. It is the man whose need for the power process has been satisfied during his life who is best prepared to accept the end of that life.

Raanjhanaa by Aanand Rai

By turns cliched and confusing, this is a well-made film.  It could be a companion piece to Suraj ka Satwan Ghoda (Shyam Benegal, 1993), which also explores the question of class in romance.

Ostensibly a drama/romance, the film offers some genuine pleasures and is never predictable.

There is no question that it is a brave move for Mr Dhanush to star in a Hindi film with looks that will easily invite derision and ridicule, especially from most of North Indian population which is hung-up on looking Aryan.  He is neither fair, nor muscular, nor does he have a commanding presence, and his mannerisms and personality are clearly that of an underdog and of a thoroughly "beta" male.

It is admittedly hard to admire an actor but to loath his character.  The Indian audience, I daresay, is not yet evolved enough to tolerate unlikable traits in their "heroes".  The hero (and the heroine) has to be all perfect.  Perhaps because we go to movies for wish-fulfillment rather than edification.

This is the first mainstream Indian film that I have seen in which the romantic hero is, quite consciously, shown as unattractive and having little appeal.  Except of course for his passion for the woman, which, rather surprisingly, is not reciprocated.

There are scenes in the film in which the hero is brutally humiliated.  Sometimes by himself, and sometimes by his love interest.  There is a not-so-subtle strain of masochism and of wanting to sacrifice all for love.  Mr Dhanush plays a character so thirsty for love and validation that it does not matter to him how his groveling appears to whom whose love he needs so badly.


He perhaps knows that he stands no chance in this romance.  On the other hand we have a blue-blooded boy who seems to win this love (from the same woman) without so much as lifting a finger.

What about the woman, though?  What qualities does she possess, other than a somewhat chiseled face, that these two men want to endanger their lives for her?  We are not really supposed to know.

Except a minor quibble about Mr Dhanush's accent and about certain amateurish plot devices (discrediting a doctor suitor is a good instance of sloppy writing), I think the film generally works.  The film does offer some unrelated minor pleasures.There is a somewhat hilarious parody of leftist student politics, and the music by A R Rahman is pleasing to the ears.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Good and the Pleasant

One of the central teachings of the Katha Upanishad is the distinction between Preya (the pleasant) and Shreya (the good).

Plato's Phaedrus contains similar thoughts:
In every one of us there are two ruling and directing principles, whose guidance we follow wherever they may lead; the one being an innate device of pleasure, the other an acquired judgment which aspires after excellence. Now these two principles at one time maintain harmony, while at another they are at feud within us, and now one and now the other obtains mastery.
There are at least two questions involved.  Firstly, is there something meaningful that's being said?  And secondly, as a philosopher, if there is indeed a difference between the two: How can one distinguish between these two, and how can one ascertain if one is following the path of pleasure or of "excellence"?

I believe there is indeed something valuable being said.  Acting on impulse, or react in a knee-jerk manner, or to satisfy an appetite as soon as it arises might be pleasant but we do not admire a person who has these proclivities.  We admire a person who does the opposite: one who has self-restraint, one who is mindful and thinks before acting, and one who does not live merely to fulfill his appetites.  By appetites, I mean the urges for sensual or "shallow" egoistic pleasures: insulting someone, getting others to agree to oneself out of fear or respect, etc.

Darshan Chande, who writes at darshanchande.blogspot.com, has written a few posts on "contentment-happiness" versus "excitement-happiness".  He would, I think, classify "pleasant" acts to lead to excitement-happiness and "good" acts to lead to contentment-happiness.

It has been said, perhaps in some arcane text that I no longer recall, that pleasant acts lead to feeling good in the short term but regret later, while good acts lead to a non-pleasant feeling in the short-term but provide much happiness later, and for a longer term.

As we grow in age, experience and wisdom, we learn to identify which acts have consequences which we will later regret.  And if we are sane and psychologically healthy, we avoid those acts or behavior patterns.

That's one of the keys to distinguish the "good" from the "pleasant".  But there is more.  Sometimes there are choices from which our conscience chooses one way while the pragmatic mind chooses the other.  An accident victim on an Indian highway needing our help.  An official demanding a bribe to address our issue faster.  In these scenarios, there is a faint guilt if we choose to follow our pragmatic side over our conscience.
That guilt is the conscience feeling let down.

If the conscience is let down too many times, it can withdraw into a shell of self-defense.  Just like an infant which is chided once too many and the infant then grows fearful to even utter a word.  Then the capacity to distinguish the "good" from the "pleasant" can no longer be found inside oneself.  It is all either "pleasant" or "unpleasant".

I am not going to talk much about the origins of conscience, but it has a genetic as well as a social component.  A healthy individual in a healthy environment would feel at peace with his/her conscience: neither suffocated by it, nor suffocating it.

Some religions eschew the pleasant altogether in favor of the good.  They consider any pleasure as a symptom of bondage to the "corporeal".  I believe, however, that such religions can be a toxic influence and lead to all kind of neuroses.  Religions which value life on earth and the pleasures it can provide, albeit secondary to a life of goodness, are healthier than those who consider renunciation as the human ideal.

Pure goodness with no pleasure is as inhuman, and pathological, as a life of pure pleasure with no consideration of goodness.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Some Quotes by Byron Katie

"If we hurt someone, we suffer."

This quote, and its corollary - that we shouldn't therefore hurt others - seem profound and a deep spiritual truth.  But if we probe it a little, it becomes obvious that the worldview of this quote is all about myself, and others are merely the supporting cast in the movie that I call "my life".

To hurt others is wrong because it hurts others, not because it would make "me" suffer.

To avoid hurting others because it would make "me" suffer is to regard one's own experiencing as the real criterion of one's behavior.

What about others?  "Oh, that's their problem."

Why not just express the tautology: "If we hurt someone, they suffer"?  Why isn't this enough to impede someone from hurting others?  Probably because the culprit doesn't think of others as much as he should.  The advice should be simply that he should become more empathetic and considerate.  The Byron Katie quote is to manipulate his inherent selfishness to make him behave better.

Ms Katie goes further with her wisdom in the following quote:

"If I think you’re my problem, I’m insane."
    Again, seemingly profound and wildly liberating to anyone who finds expectations and relationships too much to handle. But adapting this can only lead to the self abiding in itself with no meaningful relationship to anyone else.

    Relationships are built upon expectations and on synergy. At times, this synergy will be found lacking. In those times, to not focus on the relationship (which is to focus both on oneself and the other) but to retreat into oneself ("I will not deal with anyone else's problems, not my job.") is a recipe for spiritual upliftment but a total failure in one's relationship.

    Of course, if always it is one person who is trying to build synergy which is undermined by the other, then perhaps the relationship is somewhat doomed.

    "When I walk into a room, I know that everyone in it loves me. I just don’t expect them to realize it yet."
    Therapeutic nonsense is so beautiful at times. And so silly.

    Tuesday, September 10, 2013

    The Soccer Match

    Anybody could come and play the game, they said.

    The soccer games in Brat were known to attract and produce players who were good for nothing.  They only thought of self-promotion, advertising and women.  Playing soccer was the thing farthest from their minds.

    Some concerned citizens of Brat were understandably upset over this state of affairs.  They wanted their soccer team to be a good team.  They wanted their top players to command respect in the global soccer arena.  They wanted the corrupt and money-minded players out.

    Whenever they asked the organizers of the matches, they were told that it was an open system.  Anybody could come and play.  Those who won formed the team.  It was as transparent as anything, they were told.  There was no stopping any "real" player, or anyone interested only in playing, from playing.

    A bunch of well-intentioned young men took up the challenge.  They trained hard.  They made their bodies hard and strong.  When dribbling, the ball became an extension of their foot.  The match was a few weeks away and they wanted to leave nothing to chance.

    The day of the match came.

    At the starting whistle, the forward player of current team of the good-for-nothings handled the ball and threw it towards his partner who was up ahead.  Obviously foul play.  The captain of the current team winked at the elderly referee, a well-known mandarin of the community.  The referee smiled and looked away from the scene of play.

    A goal was scored, against the new team.

    The new team tried to equalize, but every time they tried to take the ball to the other end, they ended up injured, held by the other players, while the referee continued to ignore the fouls.

    The commentator also had been paid and he continued to sing the praises of the current team.

    The new team felt helpless and dejected.  The score at the end was 0-5.  The fans of the current team cheered and roamed drunk through the town that night.  The few fans of the new team were bullied and beaten up.  Nobody came to their rescue.

    It is said that the new team left town to play somewhere else.  This was not a town which was worthy of them.  No matter what a few people said, Brat truly wanted the team that it already had.

    Friday, September 06, 2013

    On Judging Others

    An earlier essay on "judgment" here.

    The Bible contains an interesting statement: "Do not judge, or you too will be judged." (Matthews 7:1)

    Of course people judge others all the time.  There are whole institutions built upon the activity of judging.  As long as there has been community life, some form of law, and a process for judging and punishing the violators, has been in existence.

    I don't think the Bible is talking about that kind of judging.

    We all know a certain kind of person in our circle of acquaintances who doesn't let go of any opportunity to complain, whose eyebrow is almost always raised in approbation, who sees the older generation to be a burden, the younger generation to be immoral, the folks of his own generation to be good-for-nothing, who sees any new technology or tool as something which will encourage laziness, distraction or lack of virtue, who is extremely hard to please and is easy to annoy, ...

    I think there is an old English word for such an individual: "censorious". Other synonyms include: critical, severe, carping, disapproving, scathing, disparaging, judgmental, cavilling, condemnatory, fault-finding, captious.

    It is stressful to be around such a person.

    I think the Bible is trying to put the fear of God in an individual with this unlikable trait. Anyone who asks such an individual to be more forgiving, charitable or otherwise "chilled" will find, to their surprise, that this individual does not consider himself judgmental, but rather, the provider of a useful social service by taking every opportunity to correct others, whether or not they are inclined to be corrected.

    In such a person's estimation, society needs to be saved, and he is one of the last saviors left. Without him, there would be anarchy, licentiousness, immorality, a breakdown of the social contract, a total absence of manners, war, food left on the plate, a piece of underwear worn for two days in a row, and so on.

    If we try to convince this individual that one should "pick one's battles", "let it go", "let things slide", "enjoy life", "live and let live", "not be a drill-master", or simply, "relax", this individual would not be found enjoying the conversation. He would classify us as a defender of immorality and sloth, and to let go of his judgmental-ness would be tantamount to his giving up his very reason for existence.

    To tell someone their opinion is wrong is still tolerable, but to ask someone not to have an opinion about something, or even worse, to keep quiet about it, is taken as an abridgment of free speech. "How dare you?"

    The Bible recognizes this ailment, and therefore instead of directly confronting the malcontent, indirectly scares him. After all, the incessant complainer knows within him that he is no paragon of perfection either. Just that he manages to keep his shortcomings hidden while these precocious others are so shameless as to parade their flaws as if they were almost proud of them.

    So the "censorious" one is sought to be restrained from his favorite activity by telling him that his flaws are also going to be judged, so he better lower his brow and thereby others' blood pressure.

    Beyond that, I don't know. Perhaps eventually God does judge those more who are judgmental. But given that God is the ultimate judge of 'em all, is it divine to judge, or not to judge?

    The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, last part

    Part 11 here.

    Buddha's lasting legacy is a peace-loving, inward-focused religious community in East Asia.  His commandments and teachings continue to be revered and followed by Buddhists as well as by other secular or humanist individuals and communities.

    In an era of increasingly powerful weapons and industrial degradation of the environment, the Buddhist principles of non-violence appeal to sensitive individuals.  The Buddhist conception of eventual justice (Karma) appeal to those who find, to their distress, that cruelty and untruth win the day, again and again.

    In the 20th century, many non-violent movements (especially in India and in South Africa) popularized the concept of "peaceful resistance", coupled with a religious or spiritual righteousness.

    Buddhists are generally not known to be ambitious in a worldly sense.  Their ideal is renunciation, after all.  Therefore Buddhism particularly appeals to people disenchanted with structure and authority, introverts, anarchists, counter-culture enthusiasts, and those who justly consider the modern world to be increasingly stressful and unhealthy for the mind and the body.

    Buddhism can be considered to be individualistic, but it also stresses on the Sangha (the community of monks) and on larger ramifications of one's acts (the ethical edicts in the noble eight-fold path, especially "Right Livelihood").  Though many consider Buddhism to be non-hierarchical and democratic, its monastic communities are known to be otherwise.  Though Buddhism seems to encourage inquiry, in practice it is as faith based as any other religion.  Doubt is considered a hindrance on the path to Nirvana (it is one of the "Five Hindrances").

    Religion serves many extremely useful functions in a traditional society: cohesion, faith, a foundation for ethical behavior, consolation for sorrow, rituals and prayers, a philosophical/mythological basis for temples and monasteries, and so on.  Even if on philosophical grounds, Buddhism fails to make the mark, it deserves commendation for making meditation and inward-awareness (or mindfulness) a fundamental part of religious practice.  Meditation, whatever flaws it might have, is a great way to remain calm and relatively free from stress and from agitating impulses.

    The Buddha, as is known, will continue to be regarded as a great philosopher and a compassionate teacher.  His teachings may be flawed, but his intent to lessen human suffering cannot be doubted.

    Buddha's four Noble Truths and the noble Eight-fold path are the philosophical bases of Buddhism, but as is common for religious teachings, only very serious seekers need to look at these with an investigative eye.  Most Buddhists and people interested in Buddhism do not bother with the philosophy but imbibe the attitude and practice of non-violence and mindfulness.  And they are, I surmise, better individuals thereby.

    My intent in subjecting the four noble truths to scrutiny is to exhibit that as a philosophical treatise Buddhism is ancient, archaic and ambiguous.  That it contains assumptions which are no longer scientifically tenable.  Something need not be true to provide comfort, however, and I have no intention of dissuading someone away from Buddhism or a Buddhist meditation practice if they find it useful.

    However, for anyone who wants to re-orient one's entire life towards the spiritual goal of transcendence, or someone who seriously considers renunciation of "worldly desires", or monk-hood, as a valid path to achieve peace of mind, I hope my analysis can make them reconsider both the end and the means.

    Spirituality and religion is useful to lay-people, who are not concerned with philosophy, as a complement to the stresses and sorrows of worldly life with its worldly goals.  When spirituality takes over one's life and becomes the goal, then I think one has lost one's way.  Let me elucidate with an analogy.  Exercising for an hour or two every day is great for health and enables one to achieve one's goals with more energy and health.  But if one discards other goals as secondary and just focuses on exercise and fitness as a means to "health Nirvana", then one would be considered neurotic.

    Buddhism is fine, as long as one doesn't take it too seriously.

    The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, part 11

    Part 10 here.

    The last three folds in the noble eight-fold path of the fourth noble truth are about spiritual effort and practice.

    Right Effort is, on its face, rather simple and uncontroversial: It is to avoid unwholesome thoughts and desires, and to cultivate wholesome thoughts and desires.

    However, it is not particularly clear as to what "effort" means here.  If one is angry or lustful, does "Right Effort" include suppression of this anger or lust?
    He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds and exerts his intent for the sake of the abandonment of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen.
    There is nothing particularly wrong with patiently riding off a bad feeling without acting on it.  In many mindfulness practices (such as Vipassana, or the "Choiceless Awareness" of J Krishnamurti), one is not to judge or choose one's mental state.  One is to observe a feeling or a thought dispassionately and remain unmoved as it arises, and ultimately passes away.

    That dispassion might require some effort, because the normal tendency is to act upon a feeling.  But "not acting" upon a feeling is rather different from trying to rid oneself of that feeling, which is quite opposite to the teachings of mindfulness.  Which brings us to the next fold.

    Right Mindfulness is to purely observe phenomena in the body and mind.  However, it is a limited kind of observation in Buddhism.  Instead of investigating the mental contents or the body processes, one is to "simply" observe the arising and passing.

    This kind of mindfulness will lead naturally to the realization that physiological and mental processes do not last forever and give way to other processes.  Not a very groundbreaking realization on its own, but if one interprets this to be a confirmation of Buddhist impermanence (anicca) and that there is no persisting "self" since all is fleeting, then it can become a significant basis of one's ideology.

    It is not quite clear that something insightful comes out of mindfulness.  Being non-reactive for a while can lead to a feeling of deep silence and calmness but that cannot be confused with a better understanding of oneself or of the world.  Moreover, a part of mind is involved in observing the mental processes and it can be very tempting to think of oneself as being a para-normal "witness" (drishta) while the other mind and body processes are just "the body and mind".  It is a form of depersonalization and some people take it too far by referring to themselves as "this body" or by their name as if referring to a third person (J Krishnamurti frequently referred to himself not as "I", but as "K").

    Also, recognition of mental processes requires some cognition at least.  Most mindfulness teachers advise that mindfulness ends where recognition and language begins.  If there is a thought or a feeling, one is not supposed to label it as "good", "bad", "anger", "love", etc. but to simply observe.  It is not that straightforward, however, because thoughts anyway are involving language for their formation, and it is not immediately obvious that the process of thoughts labeling themselves can be avoided.

    A better explanation might be that the purpose of meditation, or "mindfulness", is for the mind to reach a state of silence and non-reaction.  By constant labeling and evaluating, the mind does not progress towards that state but remains in its normal mode of functioning.  Hence, even if first-order language propositions ("She is a good girl") are occurring, it is advised to desist from second-order propositions ("That's a loving thought").

    The question of whether one can "simply observe" second or higher order mental propositions is an interesting one, because a higher order proposition might just be the witnessing of the lower order proposition.

    The last fold, Right Concentration, is more about the four jhanas or absorption states of deep concentration than about any wisdom of insight.  It is well-known in meditation circles that by sustained practice, one can enter altered states of consciousness of deep silence and bliss.  Sometimes these altered states persist for a few days before their effects evaporate completely.

    The jhanas are something specific to Buddhism, with Hinduism talking about stages of Samadhi (say in the Yoga sutras of Patanjali) in different terms.  Many people who have experimented with these states claim that a state of deep Samadhi is an interesting state but otherwise quite useless as one has no cognitve or motor ability, and it is more akin to being in deep sleep but being aware of it.

    (to be concluded in next part)

    Friday, August 30, 2013

    The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, part 10

    Part 9 here.

    The fifth fold of the noble eight-fold path is for a Buddhist to engage in "Right Livelihood":
    Monks, a lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison. (Vanijja Sutta)
    Business in human beings, aka slave trading of forcing women into prostitution, is a criminal offense in all modern societies.  There are "sweat shops" and IT "body shops", but employment there is usually at will, even if at exploitative wages or with terrible working conditions.

    The other four prohibited businesses are generally regulated all over the world, with none of them being banned.  Since the Buddhists regard taking of any life as a bad act, insecticides, pesticides, and other kinds of poisons are not to be manufactured by a Buddhist.  Buddhists also are most certainly against the death penalty, enacted by any means.

    I believe these injunctions are well-intentioned, even though they are too concrete and wide-ranging  for specific professions ("no intoxicants!"), while it ignores the rather important fact that harm can be indirect.

    A currency manipulator can cause untold misery in a developing market.  An advertiser can make people worse about themselves.  A media professional can brainwash people into whatever suits his paymasters.  A government can make unjust laws.  A business enterprise can be environmentally reckless.

    As with any specific listing of moral and immoral acts, the very specificity is what makes it dated and irrelevant.  But without that specificity, there is the danger that people will interpret the moral injunction as is convenient to them.

    Ethics is a very complex subject.  See for example the Trolley Problem.  All religions, I think, do aim at a harmonious and peaceful society, but they fail because instead of aiming at general evolution of people's mental and ethical faculties, they become righteous and ban specific behaviors which are otherwise part of normal human life, or which are merely cultural norms of a specific era.

    Following edicts can lead to a peaceful society, but not an evolved one.  Raising the level of intellectual discourse in a society is a tall undertaking, no doubt, and the fields of education and media have the strongest role to play towards that goal.

    I also think that a country's legal apparatus must enforce punishment of patently harmful acts.  Religion can offer advice, but if there is a murder or a theft, the punishment must not be left to Karma.  In many traditionally religious societies, people meekly accept failures of justice delivery because of helplessness, but that helplessness does not find a channel because of hackneyed notions that justice will ultimately be done elsewhere.

    This belief must be eradicated from societies for better judicial effectiveness.  If that means educating people, especially children, that reincarnation, just like creationism, is bunkum, so be it.

    Thursday, August 29, 2013

    Is India Safe for Women?

    I am not a woman, and I feel unsafe in India.

    Why?

    Because there is an atmosphere of pervasive thuggery and frustration in India, be it economic or sexual.  Because if you are in a big city, you have to be constantly on your guard lest somebody takes advantage of you.

    Because if you let your guard down, somebody will:
    • Pick your pocket
    • Snatch your purse
    • Cut you off in traffic or nick/dent your vehicle
    • Hit you or get hit by you on the road
    • Overcharge you for a product or a service
    • Try to sell you a a fake, expired, underweight, stale, spoiled, adulterated, chemically altered, or otherwise mutilated product.
    • Encroach on your land, building, parking spot
    • Steal your spare tire, engine parts, battery, cleaning rag from your vehicle
    • Pick a fight with you so then you have to pay them as an apology
    • Get offended at something you said, sang or wrote
    • File a false rape case on you to grab your property
    • Hit you if you don't stand up for the national anthem
    • Bully you with blaring sirens and red/blue beacons to get off the road and let them get to the shopping mall first
    • Get ahead of you in a queue for a bus, train or cinema tickets
    • Dump garbage in front of your home
    • Blare loud music near your home
    You get the idea.

    Let's consider a theory that India is full of people who do not respect the dictates of civility or of law.  The extent of lawlessness or immorality might vary among individuals, but given the pervasiveness of this attitude, even an otherwise righteous man cannot but attempt to subvert the law.  To attempt to follow the law when everybody around you is breaking it doesn't go very far and very soon you will curse yourself and join the flow.

    (See also the Broken Windows theory)

    Note that just because you are a timid law-abiding uncle in one domain doesn't mean that you are not an evil Charles Sobhraj in others.  You might be self-righteous IT professional who just wants auto-wallahs to charge you by the meter for God's sake, while conveniently forgetting those fake medical bill and rental receipts that you procured to save some income tax.

    Much of this lawlessness is born of poverty (even if historical) and of scarcity (even if perceived).  But once the cycle of lawlessness is allowed to run for a while, it becomes a vicious one.  To attempt to introduce order into this chaos is vehemently opposed by those who justifiably see themselves as victims in some domain, and therefore they do not agree that the victim-hood should stop with them.  They want to extract their pound of flesh for their past suffering before giving the green signal to a better society in the present and in the future.

    ...

    If you are a man, you have to be careful to protect what you have or value: money, possessions, property, resources, time, mental space, parking spot, peace of mind, clean clothes, noise-free environment, whatnot.

    Going further, let's also take into account the slightly unfashionable (but true) theory that sex is a resource that women possess and a resource that men compete for.

    Put two and two together. Women have to not only protect against all that men have to, they have to protect their "honor" (read: sexuality) as well. If we consider dating and marital union to be a mutual contract, then brushing-against/stalking/molesting/suchlike is thievery of sexual favors. Obviously a woman will feel unsafe in such an environment.

    As for staring, well, even men get stared at plenty if they happen to have something noticeable about them. But such staring is not "acquisitive". If we agree with the theory and observations of Baumeister et al, and they are sane in my opinion, a man has no sexual resource that he needs to protect against stares and "accidental" touches, which may escalate to a full-blown rape (at least in theory).

    A woman, unfortunately for her, has always got something noticeable about her.  Her sexuality.  She can try to be more or less modest about it, and the more modest she is, the less likely it is that she will attract the attention of sexual thieves.  (And there is evidence that a moderately dressed woman finds it easier to gather white knights on her side, who sympathize with her in case of a sexual assault.)  But even if she dresses in a veil, it is not unlikely that some rather frustrated thieves will notice the sexual resources hidden just below the surface.

    Women commonly complain against this environment where to dress provocatively is to, surprise, provoke unwanted sexual interest and thereby to be on the defensive all the time. Some women justifiably complain that to even go out in plain looking clothes is to be ogled at. They wonder why.

    It is like a man saying that when he goes out in a Mercedes, he attracts the attention of vehicle thieves, but even when he just goes out on his scooter, they don't leave him alone. Should he even go out, he wails! I think he should consider the environment that he is living in.

    I think India should be, by default, considered a dangerous environment (as is a war-zone) and that as far as possible, one should not go out. You are safe at home, somewhat. But outside your home, there is nobody to protect you and you are on your own. One must be always expect some harassment in India, mild or severe depending on various factors.

    If it is a lawless environment, one has to act defensively. Yes, try to change the environment, but in the meanwhile, act defensively.

    The situation is indeed depressing but in such an environment women do possess one advantage that men do not (other than the somewhat easier access to the police, at least in theory). Though women in such an environment have to contend with sexual predators, they can generally count on normal people becoming their protectors as well. If people see a woman in trouble, they are more likely to help than if they see a man in trouble. People don't need to analyze who is at fault before immediately trying to help a woman who is being sexually assaulted, whereas people can assume all kinds of reasons why a man is getting beaten by others. Maybe he is a thief, maybe he teased their female relative, maybe he is on drugs, and so on. So there are more dangers for women, but also more people willing to help.

    Women might feel outraged that they need to be protected by other "men". They would want an environment when they feel safe by default. But India is not such an environment.

    In India, it being a lawless land, both men and women feel unsafe and threatened. Women more so, because they have something more to lose.

    If women wish to feel safer in India, they must join hands with men and ensure the rule of law not only regarding gender-related crimes, but regarding all crimes. There are systemic reasons why India is an unsafe, thuggish country, and passing more and more stringent laws will do little. Laws already exist to protect both men and women. There is, however, an almost total absence of any law-enforcement apparatus which works, swiftly and effectively, for the ordinary citizen.

    Till that is fixed, India will continue to be unsafe for women, as well as for men.

    The Five K's of Sikhism

    The Sikh code of conduct, the Rehat Maryada, prescribes these five K's to be worn by anyone who wants to be baptized as a Sikh:
    1. Kesh (unshorn hair)
    2. Kirpan (a sword or a dagger, sheathed)
    3. Kachhehra (drawer-style underpants)
    4. Kangha (a comb)
    5. Kada (a steel bracelet)
    In practice, most Sikhs rarely keep all of these.  Many Sikhs keep long hair and do not trim their facial hair, and the males tie a turban over their hair.  Females generally braid their hair or tie them in a bun.
    Interestingly, the commandment to keep these five k's, just like most of the Rehat Maryada, does not find any mention in any Sikh guru's teachings.  The commandment is anecdotal, describing Guru Gobind Singh's edicts during the supposed establishment of the Khalsa on Vaisakhi day in 1699.  I am yet to find any written historical reference to that event.  I do not claim that the event did not happen, but for such a peculiar set of edicts, and ones which modify one's physical appearance so radically, Sikhs should have demanded more than just hearsay accounts.

    The least controversial of these K's, in my opinion, is the fourth one.  Keeping a comb with you all the time is excellent advice if you have long hair.  Sikh males who keep long hair and who tie a turban do not usually need the comb during the day.  They have occasional need of another simple device, though.  That device is called a Salai, and is rather useful while tying a turban, for tucking in loose hair at the back of the turban, and sometimes for tying one's beard as well.

    However, like the Kirpan, the Salai is considered a sharp metal object and is usually not allowed in one's carry-on luggage on airplanes, and is generally frowned upon when passing through security.  Sikhs therefore have to usually check in their luggage.  In many countries, checked luggage now carries an extra charge, so Sikhs are switching to plastic or even wooden salais.

    The Kirpan, however, is another story.  I believe it must have been conceived as a weapon of self-defense, always to be kept on one's person.  Needless to say, a dagger is not allowed to be carried in secure environments.  Sikhs consider this an infringement of their religious freedom but they have more-or-less reconciled to the Kirpan being taken away temporarily.  It is hard for Sikhs to argue that they should be allowed to carry a weapon into an airplane, especially for religious reasons.

    I found this news item quite amusing, not the least because of the name of the film that the Sikh couple was planning on watching.  In another news, a Sikh boy was accused of using both his Kirpan and his Salai as weapons.

    There is an urban legend (I am not sure if there is a basis for this convention, though internet search reveals some evidence that the legend is not fictional) that if the kirpan is unsheathed, it must draw blood before being sheathed again.  When I was in school, I was witness to an enactment of this injunction.  A schoolboy, just for fun, unsheathed his Sikh buddy's kirpan, and the Sikh boy insisted on at least causing a scrape on the offender's forearm before putting the kirpan back into the sheath.

    The Kada is rather uncontroversial and most Sikhs wear it.  Though there is no text detailing its religious significance.  Some people consider it a weapon, some a reminder to do ethical deeds with one's hands (though usually it is worn only on one hand), some consider it a bond to the community, some consider it a symbol of "never-ending life" (the last one being a little imaginative, I think).  In practice, however, anyone wearing a plain steel bangle or bracelet is generally considered as being sympathetic to the Sikh faith, even if not completely a Sikh.

    The edict of Kachehra is, I confess, not easy to analyze.  Some consider it to be an aid towards chastity, though the reasoning is not explained.  I believe it could be an aid, but in an indirect way.  It is, at least in modern times, not an entirely sexy or arousing style of underwear and therefore can naturally lead to chaste behavior.  

    Wikipedia states the Kachehra to be a martial aid:
    Originally, the Kachera was made part of the five Ks as a symbol of a Sikh soldier's willingness to be ready at a moment's notice for battle or for defense. It was to get around quickly in a fight. The confirmed Sikh (one who has taken the Amrit) wears a kachera every day. Some go to the extent of wearing a kachera while bathing, to be ready at a moment's notice, changing into a new one one leg at a time so as to have no moment where they are unprepared. Further, this garment allowed the Sikh soldier to operate in combat freely and without any hindrance or restriction, because it was easy to fabricate, maintain, wash and carry compared to other traditional under-garments of that era, like the dhoti.
    I am not sure of what to say to this, as this is clearly post-hoc rationalization.  People wearing a dhoti during the day usually wear a piece of underwear beneath.  And I am not convinced about the extra readiness that a pair of drawers confer upon their wearer.  I think it is far more likely that soldiers in those days used to wear a long kurta over just a kachehra, as is still the custom in Nihang singhs, and therefore it was considered part of a soldier's uniform.  As the tenth Guru insisted on martial training, it is not unlikely that he made that soldier's uniform mandatory for all who wanted to come under his command.

    On the hygiene front, I think that it makes a lot of sense to wear a loose underwear in hot weather as it keeps one cool and ventilated, and avoids infections which are caused by moisture and lack of circulation.

    The most controversial K of all, and the one which causes the hottest debates, is the edict to keep unshorn hair.  The edict prohibits not just cutting of one's scalp hair, but cutting, trimming, shaving, dying anywhere is disallowed.  Some Sikh scholars go further and claim that even tying one's beard is prohibited ("Banhi katti ikk barabar", tying is equivalent to cutting), but that would be a clear disadvantage in sports and in the army.  Especially in the army, tying one's beard is mandated, and is usually kept secure by a mesh.

    Sikh educational institutions in Punjab sometimes have a quota for "true" Sikhs (those who do not cut their hair), and a girl who so much as trims her eyebrows is considered ineligible.  This matter even reached the Punjab and Haryana High Court which ruled in the favor of the orthodox interpretation.

    Hair driers are hard to come by in rural India, and electricity supply even in urban areas is intermittent.  Hence, Sikhs generally wash their hair once a week, usually on a Sunday.

    There is a small mention of the turban in the Rehat Maryada for Sikh men, and almost universally, Sikhs (men) who keep long hair do tie a turban.  The turban is a symbol of dignity in North India, as is perhaps elsewhere.  Unseating someone's turban is considered a grave insult.  Sikhs take immense offense at airport security folks asking them to take off their turbans, as a Sikh feels "naked" without his turban.  Sikhs do not like anybody to even touch their turbans, but now-a-days Sikhs are fine with the turbans getting physically frisked with hands or with metal detectors.  Every now and then there is a controversy over airport security, with Sikhs calling upon the Sikh Prime Minister of India to intervene.

    France has already banned religious symbols in public schools, and the province of Quebec in Canada is considering banning the wearing of religious symbols like the Hijab and the turban for public officials while they are on duty.  Sikhs, and Muslims, and perhaps other religious groups, oppose such efforts tooth-and-nail because they see these as attacks on their religious or communal identity.

    There doesn't seem to be a rational justification for asking a whole community to keep unshorn hair. Perhaps it might have helped community bonding and cohesion, as people were easily identified as belonging to the Sikh religion.  Pseudo-scientific explanations about long hair promoting virility, or sagacity, abound.  Even if we assume that all the Sikh gurus never cut their hair or trimmed their beards even as children (a tall claim, since this custom ostensibly started with the tenth Guru), many saints whose teachings are included in the Sikh holy book were born in traditional Hindu or Muslim families and most likely kept short hair.

    Sikhs have only themselves to blame for feeling marginalized and being the objects of curiosity in the West as they attempt to keep their traditional, and medieval, attire.  Wearing religious symbols in a very visible way is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as being inflexible and "backward" and it naturally affects the professional and social life of Sikhs as they attempt to mingle in the modern world.  They face an uphill battle in their interactions because their unique and startling appearance is the first thing people notice about them.  Many Sikhs who would otherwise look better if they trim their beards look un-groomed, unkempt and aged.  Sikh women suffer pangs of guilt as they attempt to look more groomed by trimming their eyebrows.

    The community is already rebelling by refusing to wear the five K's.  Orthodox Sikh scholars and the Sikh clergy is fighting a losing battle against the inexorable change in cultural norms.

    Many Sikh scholars disproportionately insist on wearing of the K symbols instead of following the humanistic and spiritual precepts of Sikh teachings.  As they become more and more shrill in their denigration and in calling anybody who doesn't wear these K's a patit (apostate) Sikh, Sikhs get disenchanted not just from the orthodoxy of the symbols, but from the entirety of Sikh teachings.

    A young Sikh man or woman who is told repeatedly, by those who claim to be the torchbearers of Sikh religion, that he or she is a failure for not keeping long hair or for not wearing a Kachehra, will have little interest in the rest of Sikh scriptures and teachings.  After all, if he is anyway going to be considered a spiritual failure, so be it.