Friday, August 30, 2013

The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, part 9

Part 8 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.


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.

The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, part 8

Part 7 here.

The fourth fold of the noble eight-fold path is the most explicit ethical commandment in Buddhism.
And what is right action? Abstaining from taking life, from stealing, and from illicit sex [or sexual misconduct]. This is called right action.  (Saccavibhanga Sutta)
Some consider the fourth fold to be the "Five Precepts" of Buddhism:
  1. Refrain from destroying living beings.
  2. Refrain from stealing.
  3. Refrain from sexual misconduct.
  4. Refrain from false speech.
  5. Refrain from intoxicants, which lead to heedlessness.
Abstaining from taking life has myriad ramifications.  Buddhists generally agree that killing a living thing that breathes is to break this precept.  The following activities are therefore prohibited:
  • Killing insects, rodents, etc.
  • Eating meat.  Though contradictions and qualifiers abound (see here for details).  Neither the historical Buddha nor the current Dalai Lama are known to be vegetarians.
  • Engaging in violence which could be fatal, even defensively.  In other words, to be a Buddhist is to be a pacifist..  One cannot shoot to kill, so becoming a policeman or a soldier is to violate this precept.
  • Abortion
  • Euthanasia
Regarding euthanasia, I found a rather deluded (as it considers the effect it has for future lives) argument by a Buddhist teacher.  Notice the word "temporarily" in the first sentence, which I found quite amusing because it so boldly assumes reincarnation.
"'Mercy killing' temporarily reduces a being's level of misery, but it might interfere with his or her spiritual evolution toward enlightenment. Such actions are not real compassion, but what I would call sentimental compassion. Even if a person asks us to help in her suicide, unless this would promote her spiritual development, it would not be appropriate for us to assist her. And who of us has the ability to see whether such an action would in fact be conducive to to a person's greatest welfare?" (Reb Anderson)
Abstaining from stealing is not very controversial and communities all over the world prohibit taking without permission what belongs to someone else.

Abstaining from illicit sex means complete celibacy for monks (as is usual in most religions), and abstaining from premarital or extra-marital sex for householders:
He does not get sexually involved with those who are protected by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters, their relatives, or their Dhamma; those with husbands, those who entail punishments, or even those crowned with flowers by another man.  (Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta)
 Abstaining from lying is already covered in the third fold ("Right Speech").

Abstaining from consuming liquors and drugs because they cause "heedlessness" is perhaps good advice.   Consuming alcohol has become an essential aspect of social life in the west, especially if one is trying to find a mate, though one can infrequently find an individual who does not drink at all.

Like all religions, Buddhism has its set of do's and don'ts.  Unlike most religions, however, Buddhist precepts are rather more suited to monastic life than to worldly life.  Buddhist states (like Tibet) have been easily annexed by invaders because of their pacifism.

Without a firm belief in reincarnation and the validity of the concept of Nirvana, it is going to be an uphill battle for an individual to follow such strict rules for living.

Many Buddhist regions allow monk-hood for a minor child, who is then indoctrinated about desires being bad etc and about celibacy being the right path.  I consider that child abuse, one which can lead to severe neurosis when that child grows up to be an adult.

I believe that the Buddhist conception of all desires as born of ignorance rather than serving useful evolutionary or social purposes is the rationale behind these precepts.  The noble eight-fold path is also sometimes called the "middle path" which avoids the extremes of extreme sensuality and extreme self-mortification.  It is an improvement upon both extremes, but it is still quite rudimentary and firm-edged.

Situational intelligence is far more important.  Modern Buddhist teachers do stress upon compassion as being the guiding force of one's acts.  However, the fact remains that the fourth fold of the noble eight-fold path lists specific prohibitions which in some cases are not compassionate at all (say, the prohibitions on euthanasia and abortion), and which are in some cases quite silly (e.g. the prohibition on killing insects).

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What is Philosophy

The etymological meaning of the term is: love of wisdom.  The dictionary definition of wisdom is "the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment".  I don't think that is what counts for philosophy in modern times, so let's dig deeper.

Some definitions from Merriam-Webster:
  1. all learning exclusive of technical precepts and practical arts
  2. a discipline comprising as its core logic, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology
  3. a search for a general understanding of values and reality by chiefly speculative rather than observational means
The first definition is quite interesting as it says that philosophy is the domain of the theoretical, or the impractical.  That is alas no longer true, since now-a-days all "practical" sciences or arts have fields of theory and research behind them.
The second definition was quite true a few centuries back, and is somewhat valid at present if we consider that logic and epistemology are still considered fields of philosophy.  Aesthetics is now part of various artistic disciplines.  Ethics has penetrated more and more into sociology, environmental studies, economics, law, and is now generally studied in relation to specific problems: animal rights, the abortion debate, environmentalism and vegetarianism, etc.  Metaphysics has disappeared from the mainstream, and wondering about space-time, the far universe, other forms of life, the origin of life, the fundamental principles behind physical laws, are all parts of specific sciences now.
The third definition is glaringly wrong since a lot of theoretical scientific research, especially in mathematics and the computational sciences, can be "chiefly" speculative (or rather, abstract) rather than observational.
In my opinion, the most trenchant modern definition of philosophy was provided by the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein:
Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. Philosophy does not result in 'philosophical propositions', but rather in the clarification of propositions. Without philosophy thoughts are, as it were, cloudy and indistinct: its task is to make them clear and to give them sharp boundaries. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus)
Philosophy therefore, if we agree with this, is perhaps better called "applied logic".  It is to turn on the floodlights of one's brain and look closely at a set of propositions and to find out whether they are saying something consistent or contradictory or whether they are, in the final analysis, meaningless.

Regarding the analysis of  religion, metaphysics and spirituality, philosophy teaches us "How to Pass from Disguised Nonsense to Patent Nonsense" (again, Wittgenstein).  It is another matter that the beliefs of a religion should not be analysed too much by someone who needs it.  Beliefs mostly serve a purpose which is more emotional than logical.

Analyses of religion and spirituality is best left to nihilistic heathens.

Representation of People Act

First, the facts.
The Representation of People Act of India, section 7 attempts to define "disqualification":
" disqualified" means disqualified for being chosen as, and for being, a member of either House of Parliament or of the Legislative Assembly or Legislative Council of a State.
The Act, section 8, states that:
(3) A person convicted of any offence and sentenced to imprisonment for not less than two years ... shall be disqualified form the date of such conviction and shall continue to be disqualified for a further period of six years since his release.
(4) ... a disqualification ... shall not, in the case of a person who on the date of the conviction is a member of Parliament or the Legislature of a State, take effect until three months have elapsed
Further, section 62 of the Act states that:
(5) No person shall vote at any election if he is confined in a prison, whether under a sentence of imprisonment or transportation or otherwise, or is in the lawful custody of the police: 
On July 10, 2013, the Supreme Court of India, in the case of Chief Election Commissioner Etc. vs Jan Chaukidar (Peoples Watch), gave a judgment which said:
... Section 4 of the 1951 Act lays down the qualifications for membership of the House of the People and one of the qualifications laid down is that he must be an “elector” ... 
... Section 62 of the 1951 Act is titled “Right to vote” and it provides in sub- section (5) that no person shall vote at any election if he is confined in a prison, whether under a sentence of imprisonment or transportation or otherwise ... 
... a person, who is confined in prison, whether under a sentence of imprisonment or transportation or otherwise, or is in the lawful custody of the police is not entitled to vote by virtue of sub-section (5) of Section 62 of the 1951 Act and accordingly is not an “elector” and is, therefore, not qualified to contest elections to the House of People or the Legislative Assembly of a State.
This is merely a judgment of elementary logic, and is therefore not very remarkable (though I disagree with its premises, more about that later).
The second judgment, much more remarkable, in the case of Lily Thomas vs Union Of India & Ors, stated that:
... if because of a disqualification a person cannot be chosen as a member of Parliament or State Legislature, for the same disqualification, he cannot continue as a member of Parliament or the State Legislature.

Constitution and Parliament cannot make a provision ... to defer the date on which the disqualification of a sitting member will have effect...

Parliament, therefore, has exceeded its powers conferred by the Constitution in enacting sub-section (4) of Section 8 of the Act and accordingly sub-section (4) of Section 8 of the Act is ultra vires the Constitution.
So in these two judgments, the Supreme Court of India is clarifying two points:
  1. A person in custody or in prison, not being qualified to vote, cannot also therefore be elected.
  2. A convicted representative is to be treated equally with a convicted person attempting to become a representative and therefore can have no "grace period" of 3 months; his/her disqualification is immediate.  Hence, section 8(4) of the RPA is struck down.
Yesterday, the Upper House of India tried to wriggle its way out of the above two judgments by passing The Representation of the People (Amendment and Validation) Bill, 2013, which stated, rather innocently at first glance:
... in section 7, in clause (b), after the words "or Legislative Council of a State", the words "under the provisions of this Chapter, and on no other ground" shall be inserted.
Provided further that by reason of the prohibition to vote under this sub-section, a person whose name has been entered in the electoral roll shall not cease to be an elector.
By limiting the reasons for disqualification as well as the very definition of the word "elector" to include prohibited/disqualified folks, the Parliament of India is attempting to subvert the Supreme Court judgments.  With one stroke, it is trying to kill two birds.  As per the amendment, disqualified people can't vote, but since they are now included in the set of "electors", they can be elected.  And it upholds the "grace period" of 3 months by expressly stating that the disqualification shall be "on no other ground".


Now, a few comments:
  • Why should a person in jail not be allowed to vote?  He is subject to the laws of the land, and should he not have a voice?  What if the laws under which he is jailed are unjust?  Also note that the Act disqualifies undertrials and other sundry prisoners as well.

  • In India, it is supremely easy to arrest anyone and to make sure they remain in custody without conviction.  If you manage to file a complaint against anyone in India, you can get that person arrested and sent to police custody and, later, to jail.  Bail is not a matter of right but can be declined on frivolous grounds.  I have written about this extensively.  Add to that the glacially slow judicial system in India and the widely recognized fact that filing a complaint with the Indian police is a privilege not available to everybody.  So, it stands to reason that the privileged can prevent anyone from getting elected by filing false complaints against him and making sure he remains in jail.

  • I will go even further and ask as to why even a convict should  be disqualified from voting or from contesting elections?  As is the law, all candidates have to declare their past convictions.  Shouldn't that be enough?  Are the authors of the Indian constitution saying that the Indian voters can't see right from wrong and need to be expressly prevented from voting for a criminal/prisoner?  That they will otherwise want to, preferring a criminal over a non-criminal?  What does that say about our democracy?

  • It is true that Indian politics is infested with crime, corruption and cronyism.  But the fact is that it is the Indian voter who is voting these "vile" politicians to power again and again.  Both the Indian voters and the Indian politicians are looking at short-term gains for themselves and do not care if there is immense collateral damage.  I think this is a serious problem and has no easy solution in a democracy.  We are perhaps condemned to be in a vicious cycle of poverty, subsidies, corruption, vote-purchasing, voting for one's community, ...

  • As an aside, I am amazed at the gall of Mr Kapil Sibal who is trying to hoodwink the people of this country by redefining the terms used in the constitution.  Supreme Court of India must again act and suo motu strike down this new amendment as ultra vires of the constitution.  Of course, the parliament can then amend the constitution itself, as it has done 98 times before.

  • A Footnote. I pride myself on my searching skills, but even I had to spend half an hour to find out the text of the amendment. The text of the amendment surprisingly does not even refer to the Lily Thomas judgment. Also, there seems to be no way in India to find out which of our representatives voted for or against a bill. I think such a facility is the need of the hour for there to be representation of the people that is not just a facade.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, part 7

Part 6 here.
The third "fold" in the noble eight-fold path as described in the Fourth Noble Truth is "Right Speech".

The ethical injunctions in the third, fourth and fifth "folds" are meant to guide people more specifically.  The second fold ("Right Intention") is presumably not enough to guide people in living life ethically, and more thorough instructions are given in these three folds.

Let us look more closely at the notion of "Right Speech" according to Buddhism:
And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.
It is interesting to note that in the above description of "Right Speech", there is no positive description of what kind of speech is right, but there are four kinds of speech which are not to be indulged in.  It is a description by negation.

However, later sutras describe "right speech" in more detail:
Abandoning false speech... He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world...
Abandoning divisive speech... What he has heard here he does not tell there to break those people apart from these people here...Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord... 
Abandoning abusive speech... He speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing and pleasing to people at large...
Abandoning idle chatter... He speaks in season, speaks what is factual, what is in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, and the Vinaya. He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal...
To speak the truth is an interesting commandment.  Generally it is good advice and is helpful in keeping one's conscience clear.  One can of course devise situations where to tell a lie, by omission or by commission, is beneficial for all concerned.  And one can also think of situations where truth and falsehood are ambiguous and matters of opinion.  Moreover, there are situations where speaking the truth is considered bad manners ("Is the dinner you lovingly prepared tasty?  No it's not.  It tasted rather horrible actually.")

There is a school of extreme opinion which advocates telling the truth in all situations.  It calls itself "Radical Honesty" and the results are interesting, to say the least.

Usually people try to determine whether and how much to speak the truth in any given situation, based on the consequences that that speech might have, and adopting a general principle of "abstaining from lying" might do more harm than good.

Abandoning divisive speech is also generally good advice.  There are many human beings, perhaps a majority of us, who like to see other people fight or bicker.  The Buddhist term for being happy when others are happy, and vice versa, is called Mudita, or having a good heart.

"Abandoning abusive speech", or to be polite and gentle, is excellent advice and one which applies rather universally.  However, I have also found that some people do not take polite advice very kindly and need to be dealt with in a rather unkind voice.

In April of 2011, a curious incident happened to me.  I was living in Hyderabad at that time and on that particular day I was home.  I went up a flight of stairs to hand over the monthly rent to my landlord.  It so happened that that day they had forgotten to chain their rather ferocious dog.  Without much of warning, the dog pounced on me and bit me badly on my belly.  I limped back in quite a bit of pain, and after taking care of the wound, complained gently but firmly to the landlord and his servant (whose duty it was to keep the dog chained).  The landlord didn't even attempt to get any kind of medical help for me.

Unfortunately, my gentle complaint didn't make much of an impression.  The same dog bit me again in the evening as I was venturing out, more deeply this time and tore off a bit of my thigh.  This time I let out a volley of expletives and shrieks, which were anything but pleasing to anyone's ear (especially the landlord's).  My speech could definitely be categorized as "abusive" at that instant.

After I came back from the doctor's, heavily bandaged and just having had an anti-rabies injection, I had the landlord waiting for me.  He was genuinely apologetic, readily agreed to compensate me for the medical bills, and meekly advised me to offer the dog a biscuit or two sometime to make it like me.  I was not amused.

Unprovoked abusive speech is perhaps always to be avoided, and nobody would disagree that avoiding it would lead  to an increase in peace and harmony.  Some would argue that nothing in life is unprovoked, but then again, not getting provoked unnecessarily is perhaps wise.  Whether the necessity is there or not can be up for debate!  It is said that a saint close to enlightenment wouldn't even get provoked if someone tore away his limbs, whereas a short-tempered mofo would take offense even at a "Howdy?".  When to take offense, and how to then express one's outrage so that it makes a point, are interesting questions.

The last bit of "Right Speech", to avoid idle chatter, is something that I disagree with completely.  Life is not merely to be lived functionally, it also needs leisure and distraction.  An individual would be a terrible bore if he did not participate in lighthearted conversations, did not make jokes or enjoy them, did not seem interested in anything except Dhamma, and always wanted to say "treasuring" or "reasonable" words.  This injunction seems more apt for a convent or a military school than for living life freely.

Life is not a judge's chamber where speech always has to be measured and one must only give as much information as is being asked for.  Telling anecdotes and stories (fictional or not), singing songs, gossiping about people and their situations, talking of theories and ideas and history and politics, reminiscing, talking about one's worries, aches and regrets, all this can be seen to serve no "useful" purpose by an uptight individual.  But I consider these speech acts, if not profit-bearing in the usual sense of the word, to be life-sustaining and life-affirming.

(to be continued)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, part 6

Part 5 here.

The second rung of the noble eight-fold path ("Right Intention") is one of the least controversial at its surface, for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.

In its purest form it would simply state that ethics starts with good intentions, and good speech and good acts are merely the results of a wholesome mind.

The Buddhist text Dhammapada states poetically in its first two couplets:
Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.
Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.
On the surface these two couplets seem to say something rather wise, and these couplets are sometimes considered the crowning statements of the Dhammapada, but an astute reader will realize a few major problems in these.  The first one is more obvious than the second, with the third being a matter of begging the question, and the fourth being a quibble about terminology.
  1. The couplets assume that suffering will come to those who act with ill intention, and vice versa.  The evidence is divided on this.  Unless of course the couplets are referring to mystical Karmic retribution, for which no evidence is required.

    In the human realm, while it is true that bad intentions can sometimes lead to acts which then result in regret and guilt and fear, it is also widely understood that outbursts of violence and anger can be cathartic.  A successful act of revenge and retribution can lead to a satiation of what psychologists know to be the "justice" instinct.

    Imagine the state of mind of a sports team, considered underdogs, which has just beaten a rival team in a closely fought match.  Imagine the state of mind of a nation's oppressed populace when their corrupt leader is hanged.  There are many recorded instances where murderers in custody show little remorse and much happiness at having killed someone that they believed "deserved" to die.

    In each of the above examples, a hurtful intention acted out has resulted in exultation, happiness, catharsis and relief.

  2. The couplets, perhaps unintentionally so, are narcissistic in nature.  They are not asserting that one should act with good intentions for oneself as well as for others' sake.  They are asserting that bad intentions will lead to a suffering for oneself.  As if that is the most important, or only, consideration.  Modern society prohibits criminal behavior not because of the suffering the crimes will cause to the criminal, but for slightly broader reasons.

    Now, if the couplets broadened their concern to what was happening to others while one was acting out with bad intentions, then the first criticism also actually gets diluted, because while a bad act can be cathartic or relieving to oneself, that is no longer the only criterion for its evaluation.  Only if we take the state of affairs at the end of an act to include all the participants, can we properly evaluate whether an act has been a beneficial one or not.

  3. The third problem is about what is to be considered pure and impure, and will be discussed once we look at Buddha's explanation of this tenet,

  4. The fourth problem is the statement that "Mind precedes all mental states."  I am not too sure about the meaning, unless it is to state that feelings precede thoughts (a fact brought out by modern neuro-scientific research.  See, for example, Joseph LeDoux).  It could of course be a peculiar translation from Pali to English that is at fault.
In some texts, the phrase "Right Resolve" is used instead of "Right Intention".  Both mean that the thought behind one's acts or speech must be right.  And what is right thought/resolve/intention?
The resolve for renunciation, for freedom from ill will, for harmlessness: This is called right resolve. (Saccavibhanga Sutta)
The latter two, "freedom from ill-will" and "for harmlessness" are easy to understand, even if they beg the question of what is to be considered harm or ill-will.  Is it ill-will to want to see someone punished for a bad deed?  Is it harmful to want a child disciplined?  Is it harmful for a spouse to want to leave his/her spouse and go after someone more compatible?  Is it ill-will for a money-lender to be suspicious of his applicants by default?  Was it harmful for humans to want to start farming (Daniel Quinn would perhaps say yes)?

Ethics is a complex field, and what is harmful or what comprises ill-will can be extremely complicated questions.  If we go by the dictum that one should follow one's conscience, that not only leads to a charge of following one's heart but it also presumes that everybody's conscience is consistent with what is the "absolute good" (otherwise one's good acts will nevertheless harm others who believe otherwise) and that one's conscience is in good working order.  If we go by the principle that agitated states of mind are bad states, there are many "cold-blooded" criminals and many a surgeon must have felt fear and nervousness before a major surgery.

A genuinely great advance in ethics was made by the statement of the so-called Golden Rule.  Even though it has its corner cases, in general it is a good rule to follow when in doubt.

The first resolve, however, ("Resolve for renunciation") has Buddhist theology written all over it.  Buddhism advocates monkhood as a requirement for Nirvana.  Buddhist teachers for lay people have stepped short of advising this, and have instead advised increasing detachment from relationships, possessions and projects.

Unfortunately, while detachment might cause a lessening in stress and suffering for oneself (albeit at the cost of lessening in possibilities of joy and fulfillment as well), it usually causes a great deal of suffering in those who depend on oneself.  The Buddha has been roundly criticized for abandoning his family without so much as a parting word, and his example sadly continues to inspire many people to this day.

Furthermore, detachment usually will lead to a lack of motivation to do anything.  Unless one simply agrees to do "one's duty", or what is "required" or "expedient".

I once asked a friend of mine, who practices a form of detachment, as to what motivates him to do this or that.  His answer was that he does "what is required as part of his roles in life."  He is a civil servant, as well as a husband and a father.  I found his reply to be evasive.  In effect, he is delegating motivation, attachment and desire to others. Whatever they require of him, he executes.  If everybody related to him was also similarly detached, what would he do?  Nothing?

The Bhagwad Gita advises detachment in this famous sloka:
You have the right to perform your actions, but you are not entitled to the fruits of the actions.
Do not let the fruit be the purpose of your actions, and therefore you won’t be attached to not doing your duty. (Chapter 2, verse 47)
A few elementary questions for a person who considers the above advice to be life-changing:
  • Who is entitled to the fruits/rewards of my actions, if not me?  If there are rewards, who will apportion them?  Why and by what right?

  • If the reward is not to be the purpose of my actions, then what is the purpose?  If it is "Duty" (as Gita says), who determines my duties?  By what right?
I find it curious that such a remarkably straightforward statement of control of the gullible masses by the kings and the priestly classes has received such unquestioning acceptance and respect.  Perhaps it is because it is assumed to be the word of God.  Truly astounding.
The second rung of the noble-eightfold path advises noble thoughts, but then runs into complications as soon as we scratch the surface.
I am reminded of the motto of the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh where I went to learn Yoga in 2001.  "Be Good.  Do Good."  I still think that the proper philosophical response to that is: "I agree fully, but can you elaborate?"

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Self, part 2

Part 1 here.
Let us, as materialists, dispense with the notion that there is a supreme store of consciousness from which drops of individual consciousnesses have become separated and embodied as living beings.
Materialism, as a philosophical position, states that "the only thing that exists is matter or energy; that all things are composed of material and all phenomena (including consciousness) are the result of material interactions. In other words, matter is the only substance, and reality is identical with the actually occurring states of energy and matter." (ref Wikipedia)
A materialist, as opposed to a spiritualist, considers matter to be primary and consciousness to be a consequence of certain arrangements of matter.  A spiritualist on the other hand considers consciousness to be a phenomenon independent of matter.  However, the evidence for a materialist interpretation of consciousness is far stronger than that of the spiritualist interpretation, for which there is no evidence.
There is a very clear progression in consciousness from simple organisms to mammals and then to human beings which shows that higher and higher forms of consciousness depend on more and more complex physical/neuronal structures.  

Consciousness is neurally dependent.  The brain interacts with the world via the senses and the body.  Psychic powers are illusions.  There are no psychic phenomena which have been subject to scientific scrutiny and found genuine.  The James Randi Educational Foundation continues to hold its One Million Dollar challenge for any paranormal phenomenon:
At JREF, we offer a one-million-dollar prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. The JREF does not involve itself in the testing procedure, other than helping to design the protocol and approving the conditions under which a test will take place. All tests are designed with the participation and approval of the applicant. In most cases, the applicant will be asked to perform a relatively simple preliminary test of the claim, which if successful, will be followed by the formal test. Preliminary tests are usually conducted by associates of the JREF at the site where the applicant lives. Upon success in the preliminary testing process, the "applicant" becomes a "claimant."
To date, no one has passed the preliminary tests.
Consciousness is a materially determined phenomenon, and an evolved one.  Therefore, all states of consciousness are also complexes derived from our material brain state.  In addition, a state of consciousness must have an evolutionary explanation, and a survival advantage for its holder, for it to have evolved and survived for millions of years. For example, the state of anger, or of jealousy, or of territorial insecurity, or the affection between a parent and a child, and so on.

What about the "ego", or the feeling of being "me"?  Is this state a continuous one, or one which occurs sporadically?  Is there a time when one is not aware of being "oneself" but is absorbed in some activity or thought?  What are the effects, both psychological and behavioral, of feeling as a self? What purpose does it serve? Is it more useful than harmful?

(to be continued)

Some Observations about Sikhism

  • The code of conduct for Sikhs, the Sikh Rehat Maryada, has an obscure history and is not the work of any Sikh Guru or any saint whose works are included in the holy book of the Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib.  Since the code of conduct is what contains do's and don'ts for Sikhs and describes the various taboos, rituals and ceremonies, it is arguably the most important document that a Sikh should read.  However, it is the work of various committees and relatively unknown individuals.

  • The code of conduct contains many interesting tidbits: Sikhs are not supposed to drink alcohol, trim or dye hair on any part of their bodies, may not date before marriage, marry anyone other than a Sikh, a Sikh may not divorce, and so on.  It is open to research what percentage of Sikhs follow all these precepts.

  • The Sikh way of life is usually summarized as: Naam japo (Recite the name of God), Kirt karo (Earn your livelihood), and Wand Chhako (Be charitable).  The most important spiritual practice for the Sikhs is to recite the name of God.  To remain distinct from Hinduism and Islam, Sikhs do not like to recite Ram, Krishna, Siva or Allah, but instead generally recite "Waheguru".  The word "Waheguru", however, does not figure in the compositions of the ten Sikh Gurus.  In the Guru Granth Sahib, the term does occur, both as Vahiguru and Vahguru, in the hymns of Bhatt Gayand, the bard contemporary with Guru Arjan (1553-1606), and also in the Varan of Bhai Gurdas.

  • The Sikh way of life supposedly prohibits rituals and pilgrimages.  However, in practice, the Sikh code of conduct prohibits rituals and pilgrimages that are practiced in other religions while having plenty of their own.  There is a plethora of Sikh rituals, symbols and pilgrimages which are not frowned upon by the Sikh clergy or the Sikhs themselves.  The most famous Sikh temple, the Golden Temple at Amritsar, attracts millions of Sikhs, not just because it is picturesque, but also because it is regarded as especially holy.  Sikhs are supposed to regard ritual bathing in a river as meaningless, but they regard the ritual dip in a Gurudwara Sarovar to be a holy act.

  • The Sikh Gurudwara at Sri Hemkunt Sahib in Uttarakhand has no historical significance at all.  No Sikh guru or saint has ever been recorded to have visited there.  Yet it attracts thousands of visitors each summer who travel hundreds of kilometers and trek many more to be able to pray there.  Dasam Granth, a mythological text written by the tenth Sikh Guru, mentions that one Pandu Raja practiced Yoga at Hem Kund.  It is not even clear that the Dasam Granth was referring to the the geographical region where the current Sri Hemkunt Sahib is.

  • The Sikh Holy Book, Sri Guru Granth, is accorded the status of a living person.  However, no Sikh guru has ever written any statement to regard the book as a living person.  The famous sentence, "Sab Sikhan ko hukum hae Guru maneyo Granth" (All Sikhs are commanded to regard the Holy Book as the Guru) is  found in a document by one Narbud Singh and, later, in various Rehatnamas.  (reference Wikipedia).  This belief is frequently the cause of major violence in Punjab between Sikhs, who do not want to follow any living person, and other religious groups who like to follow a living person but also like to read the Sikh holy book.

  • The Sikh holy book, available in full electronically via the World Wide Web, nevertheless has to be licensed to be bought for its paper version.  As far as I know, two organizations, SGPC and DGMC are in charge of issuing these licenses and of publication of the Sikh holy book.  Due to reasons of sanctity, one cannot buy an English translation of the holy book in one volume but one has to purchase four or five volumes each containing a part of the text.

  • As per the famous Sikh historian W H McLeod, in one version of Adi Granth (called the Banno version of the Kartarpur Bir), there is a hymn that presumably refers to the "mundan" ceremony of Guru Hargobind.  Sikhs deny that this hymn was written by Guru Arjun Dev, but the hymn nevertheless is part of that version of the Adi Granth.  Throughout his life, W H McLeod, had to face the opposition of Sikh fundamentalists for his research.  Mr McLeod died in 2009 but, despite having numerous books to his credit and an obituary in The Guardian, as yet does not have a Wikipedia page.

The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, part 5

Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

The fourth noble truth of the Buddha is about the path that leads to the cessation, or at least a lessening, of suffering.  I find it interesting that the (third) truth about the cessation of suffering comes before, and not after, the description of the path.

Even if one accepts that the four noble truths need to be studied one after the other and that only if one accepts and understands the earlier truths that the later ones will make sense, the fourth noble truth contains elements of ethics which are the easiest to understand for most people, and the third noble truth describes a state which is generally incomprehensible and a matter of faith.

Anyway, on to the fourth noble truth and the path leading to the cessation of suffering.

That path, called the "noble eight-fold path", comprises of:
  1. Right View
  2. Right Intention
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration
The eight aspects are generally classified into three categories.  The first two comprising Prajna (wisdom), the third, fourth and fifth comprising Sila (ethics), and the last three comprising Samadhi (Concentration, or Meditation).
Let's focus on each of these eight "folds" one by one.
"Right View", as per Buddhist literature is: the belief and understanding in Buddhism itself.  From the Pali and Chinese Buddhist texts (ref Wikipedia):
And what is right view? Knowledge with reference to suffering, knowledge with reference to the origination of suffering, knowledge with reference to the cessation of suffering, knowledge with reference to the way of practice leading to the cessation of suffering: This is called right view.
In more detail, "Right View" usually entails understanding and accepting the following (again, from Wikipedia):
  1. Moral law of karma: Every action (by way of body, speech, and mind) will have karmic results (a.k.a. reaction). Wholesome and unwholesome actions will produce results and effects that correspond with the nature of that action. It is the right view about the moral process of the world.

  2. The three characteristics: Phenomena are impermanent, source of suffering and not-self.

  3. Suffering: Birth, aging, sickness, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, distress, and despair are suffering. Not being able to obtain what one wants is also suffering. The arising of craving is the proximate cause of the arising of suffering and the cessation of craving is the proximate cause of the cessation of the suffering. The quality of ignorance is the root cause of the arising of suffering, and the elimination of this quality is the root cause of the cessation of suffering. The way leading to the cessation of suffering is the noble eightfold path. This type of right view is explained in terms of Four Noble Truths.
Let's leave aside the circular reference of "right view" to the four noble truths themselves, as we are already discussing that in detail.  Let's briefly consider the other stuff:
  1. The doctrine of Karma not only presupposes a kind of "divine justice", its spiritual forms usually presume reincarnation as well.  If there was no justice in this life, then it will be done in another life.  Many have commented that this doctrine can and does lead to an apathetic view of others' suffering in the world ("They must have done something in their past lives to deserve this.").  As for divine justice, many religions believe in the existence of a divine judge.  Buddhism doesn't, at least explicitly.  Buddhist karmic record-keeping is more in the form of accumulation of impressions (sankharas) within the being/soul which then come out eventually (in some lifetime) and lead to consequences for the holder.

    Buddhists also claim that there is no-self.  That seems contradictory to the doctrine of Karma, as far as I can see.  The question to which I haven't received a satisfactory response from Buddhists is that if there is no-self, then who does the karmic record refer to, and what is the nature of the accumulated sankharas if not bound to an individual "soul"?  Why don't the sankharas dissipate and agglomerate randomly into new beings?  More dramatically, "who" is not born again after achieving Nirvana?

    Karma, or a similar belief, is very important for religious people of any kind.  All religions promise a reward for leading a moral life.  Without a reward for morality, in this world or especially in the next, morality becomes less attractive as a way of life.  The rewards of immorality are more obvious, so a firm assertion that immorality will finally have its punishment and morality will have its reward is needed to keep people from feeling too unhappy and resentful.

    Is this belief rooted in fact?  Absolutely not.  The doctrine of Karma can be shredded by any reasonably skilled philosopher.  There is no divine justice at all, because there is nothing "divine" to begin with.  Justice is a human construct, and is based on social and historical taboos and conventions and the prevailing morality.  And needless to say, human justice systems are imperfect at best, and perverse at worst (rewarding the criminals and punishing the law-abiding).

    To be even more succinct: A belief in Karma is the outcome of a wish for justice in this world.  It is because we perceive and recognize injustice that we need to believe that eventually justice will be done.

    Note: If the punishment is to be considered psychic instead of socio-legal, it can be of two kinds: neurosis (guilt, shame, regret, a bad conscience), and bad karma.  In response to the first category I will only say that Psychopathy is precisely the name of the condition where one suffers little psychical remorse of adverse emotional blowback after indulging in harmful or anti-social behavior.

  2. The three characteristics of phenomena, i.e. impermanence, suffering and non-self, are central tenets of Buddhist philosophy.  Some brief comments about all three:

    1. "Nothing lasts forever" is a fine statement.  Buddhists infer from this that therefore one shouldn't desire or get attached to anything.  Because, as per Buddhists, when that object of desire or attachment goes away, there will be suffering.  I have already commented upon the logical consequence of not having any desires (to wit: death).  To accept impermanence as a fact of life requires more fortitude and maturity than to simply turn away from impermance in horror and not desire anything at all.  It is cowardly, for example, to not even begin to love a person because he/she might leave you.  Yes there will be suffering, but the alternative is to simply wither away and die.

    2. "Suffering" is inherent in all phenomena is another of those noble-sounding assertions in Buddhism.  I have already talked about this in part 1 of my commentary.  I maintain that Buddhism is a religion of pessimists and life-renouncers who can only see the cloud in ever silver lining, and a shower in every rainbow, and a dusk in every dawn.

    3. "Non-self":  Buddhists talk a lot about how there is no such thing as the self.  A famous philosophical exchange from Buddhist literature is here.  There are various philosophical views about self and identity and I will address them in another series soon (part 1 of which is here).  That series will also address the above-referred philosophical exchange.  However, for the impatient, let me say that in essence I see nothing wrong in the conception of oneself (both subjectively and objectively) as comprised of and uniquely identified by: one's body, the contents and processes of one's mind, and one's interactions (all three traced over one's lifetime).

  3. The doctrine of suffering has already been talked about in part 1.
It can be confusing to see the structure of the four noble truths vis-à-vis "right view", so I will present it in a simplified way:
Four Noble Truths contain the Fourth Noble Truth which contains the Noble Eight-fold Path which contains "Right View" which refers to an understanding of both the Four Noble Truths with repeated emphasis about "suffering" (which is the first Noble Truth).
(to be continued)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Two Quotes by Daniel Dennett

"The task of the mind is to produce future, as the poet Paul Valéry once put it. A mind is fundamentally an anticipator, an expectation-generator. It mines the present for clues, which it refines with the help of the materials it has saved from the past, turning them into anticipations of the future. And then it acts, rationally, on the basis of those hard-won anticipations."

(Kinds of Minds, 1996)


One thing in particular struck me when I compared the medical world on which my life now depended with the religious institutions I have been studying so intensively in recent years. One of the gentler, more supportive themes to be found in every religion (so far as I know) is the idea that what really matters is what is in your heart: if you have good intentions, and are trying to do what (God says) is right, that is all anyone can ask. Not so in medicine! If you are wrong —especially if you should have known better — your good intentions count for almost nothing. And whereas taking a leap of faith and acting without further scrutiny of one's options is often celebrated by religions, it is considered a grave sin in medicine. A doctor whose devout faith in his personal revelations about how to treat aortic aneurysm led him to engage in untested trials with human patients would be severely reprimanded if not driven out of medicine altogether. There are exceptions, of course. A few swashbuckling, risk-taking pioneers are tolerated and (if they prove to be right) eventually honored, but they can exist only as rare exceptions to the ideal of the methodical investigator who scrupulously rules out alternative theories before putting his own into practice. Good intentions and inspiration are simply not enough.

In other words, whereas religions may serve a benign purpose by letting many people feel comfortable with the level of morality they themselves can attain, no religion holds its members to the high standards of moral responsibility that the secular world of science and medicine does! And I'm not just talking about the standards 'at the top' — among the surgeons and doctors who make life or death decisions every day. I'm talking about the standards of conscientiousness endorsed by the lab technicians and meal preparers, too. This tradition puts its faith in the unlimited application of reason and empirical inquiry, checking and re-checking, and getting in the habit of asking "What if I'm wrong?" Appeals to faith or membership are never tolerated. Imagine the reception a scientist would get if he tried to suggest that others couldn't replicate his results because they just didn't share the faith of the people in his lab! And, to return to my main point, it is the goodness of this tradition of reason and open inquiry that I thank for my being alive today.

(Thank Goodness, 2006)

To live everyday as if it were one's last?

It was perhaps Jeremy Schwartz who said: "Live every day as if it were your last, because one of these days, it will be."

Many people regard it as a profound statement, with attributions to Mr Steve Jobs, Mr Muhammad Ali and to whoever they consider a man wise enough to make such a wise statement.

I found a rather funny criticism, nonetheless valid, of this statement here.

The latter part of the original sentence is no doubt true, but Mr Schwartz perhaps had no training in that obscure field of study known as Probability Theory.

You will die one day, but if the average life span of a human being is 70 years, then the probability that today is your last day is approximately 1 in 25,000.  In fact the probability is much less than that if you consider that the days of death for humanity are not evenly distributed throughout the seventy years but are concentrated towards the very end.  So, if you are below 40, it is not unreasonable to assume the probability of today being your last day to be 1 in 50,000.

Living today as if it it were your last day is therefore horribly bad advice.  It is like betting all your money on a play of the roulette wheel, with the difference that the roulette wheel in this case has 50,000 slots.

I think the advice can be more useful if it is worded differently, but then it won't be that spectacular:
Live each day adhering to your highest principles.  It may be your last day, so there may not be an opportunity to correct the wrongs, to apologize, to regret, to make amends, to counteract a harsh word with a loving one, and to kiss a cheek that you may have caused a tear on.
Live without deceit and with a clean conscience.  Live so that your heart and mind does not accumulate baggage of hurts and regrets and of waiting for the right opportunity to do something good.  It is never too early to do the right thing, whether it be to more giving and forgiving, to apologize and to make up, to start living a healthy life, to be charitable and generous, to be kind and loving, to keep in touch with people that you care about, ...
Make the best of every day.  This day will never happen again.  And therefore today is worth it.  Today is the day you start to redeem yourself.  Today is the day you execute on your promises to yourself.  Today is the day you are alive, and therefore do not squander this day.
Make it count, towards what is meaningful to you.

The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, part 4

Parts 1, 2 and 3.

The third noble truth of the Buddha is, on its face, just a statement about a destination.  It is not a definition, it is more of an assertion that such a destination exists, and obviously, that it is worthwhile.

The third noble truth asserts the existence of a state where there is no more suffering, as its causes are no more.  Buddhist texts refer to this state as Nirodha or Nirvana.

From the Wikipedia article on Nirodha:
In the context of the four noble truths, nirodha refers to the cessation of suffering and the causes of suffering. It is "the cessation of all the unsatisfactory experiences and their causes in such a way that they can no longer occur again. It’s the removal, the final absence, the cessation of those things, their non-arising."
If suffering is the response to undesirable states, then a state of Nirodha can only mean that one has no more desires, or cravings.  It therefore implies that one is neutral to all states of affairs, not preferring one over the other in any way.  To prefer would indicate some form of desire in oneself, even if mild, and experiencing the non-preferred or the less-preferred can cause consternation or worse.

 So, no desires, no preferences, no attachments and only then: no suffering.

As long as the body is alive, it requires nourishment and protection from the elements.  And nourishment and protection require effort: even if that effort is to go beg others for food or clothing.  That is, the body requires a certain state of affairs to remain alive, and that state of affairs is not natural/spontanteous but contrived and effortful.

Anyone who wants to remain alive would therefore prefer nourishment and protection to starvation and exposure.  And to fulfill that preference, one would need to plan, think, avoid harmful situations, and spend effort at gathering food and other necessities.  Autonomic processes such as the beating of the heart or breathing require no effort or desire and are excluded from this analysis.

As we have noted earlier, preferring or desiring a state of affairs is not consistent with an absence of suffering.

Hence, someone who has attained Nirvana can no longer claim to have even the desire to stay alive.

To be fair, all spiritual traditions, and not just Buddhism, point to such a state and dangle it as a carrot to seekers.  It is a lofty reward: no more suffering, all bliss and happiness and peace.  But since no suffering equates to no desire which implies not even a desire to stay alive, such a state can only logically exist in an individual who is making no efforts to stay alive and is therefore going to die in a week or so.

Hence, Nirvana is a death wish, whether one realizes it or not.  There are many reasons why spiritualists don't openly advocate suicide (which they should, since the world is just one suffering after another, according to them):
  1. It wouldn't win them many adherents.  People do want to live and prosper.  Nirvana can wait till the kids are in college.
  2. It would expose their life-negative philosophy in a rather obvious way.  Much more pragmatic it is for them to say that life is suffering but there IS happiness if you transcend life-as-it-is.  People don't know much about transcendence, so they are happy that all is not lost and proceed to work towards that talked about destination while donating money and food to the transcendents.
  3. Spiritualists typically believe in life after life.  Whether that be another world (heaven), or a resting place for the soul, or its merging with the infinite, it doesn't matter.

    It is sometimes expressed (with a profound face) in contemplative circles that Nirvana is not for oneself, since there won't be a self to reap the rewards if one truly transcends it all.  But it is true nevertheless that all seekers are seeking Nirvana for themselves.  Even Buddha's last words were, supposedly: "Work out your salvation with diligence."  If spiritualists did not believe in life after life, then the promise of Nirvana considerably diminishes in appeal.  No point spending twenty years in meditation for one week left to die.
The third noble truth of the Buddha is not only not true, it is the re-assertion of a dangerous idea that while this life is all suffering, there is an end to it in some other place to which you must strive to go.

As long as one is alive, there will be states of affairs which will be cognitively or emotionally less acceptable than others.  That is pretty much what life is.  If a narcissistic individual wants life and the universe to be as per his wishes and desires, he will find that indeed, life is suffering and there seems to be no way around it.  And such an individual will find the third noble truth to be a breath of hope.  

But he should analyze this hopeful thought a little before getting too excited.

Only a dead body has no preference or desire, and therefore does not suffer, and is therefore in Nirodha.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Self, part 1

If there is one concept which the spiritualists love to talk about, it is the "self" or the "ego" and how it is the cause of all that is wrong with the world.

Religions are against mostly pride and egoistical behavior whereas spiritualists decry the very feeling of being a self.

Spiritualists regard being oneself as an unmitigated evil which needs to be done away with.

According to spiritualists, being or feeling an individual causes humans to feel separate from each other and from the world; it causes violence and suffering; it causes the mind to play tricks with itself and with others; it causes greed, lust, desire, attachment, sorrow, and all the usual miasma of human interaction.

While in Hinduism, the aham (I) is asked to realize its unity with Brahman (God, see note), in Buddhism one is asked to realize that there is no individual self at all, and that it is all an illusion.  Buddhists claim that the "true nature" of everything, especially the self, is "Emptiness".

The fact of the matter is that all normal human beings do feel as individuals.  Such an extreme criticism of such a basic feeling as being oneself causes a not unsurprising effect: the mundane individual feels guilty and un-evolved when compared to the selfless ideal.  This guilt then expresses itself into all kinds of compensatory behavior: from submission to the guru, to giving money to godmen, to feeling depressed and helpless against this existential curse.

Feeling oneself to be an individual is supposed to cause all the normal human failings and thereby suffering.  On the other hand, being selfless (or being one with the "Self" with a capital S, God in other words) is supposed to end all suffering.  Selflessness is the end goal of human life, it is said.

If a person is told that he is wrong about a particular fact or feeling, one can still feel reasonably confident about one's mental faculties.  But if one is told that one is wrong even about what one is, that one's very being is a fraud perpetrated by unholy forces, there is not much ground left for one to stand on.

Then one is at the mercy of the guru or the scripture.  After all, if one is wrong about oneself, what could one be right about?

For the recorded human history, these statements of spiritualists and godmen have gone unchallenged because the field of developmental psychology was not yet advanced enough to answer this question: How does the feeling of "I" form and what is its nature?  What is the "self", after all?  How can we explain subjective consciousness or awareness as a phenomenon?

All we had as answers to this doubtlessly important question were stern proclamations and repetitions by stern faced godmen and their ilk.

(to be continued)

Note: God in Vedantic Hinduism refers to many kinds of entities.  There is Ishwara, the director of affairs.  Brahman is the very source of it all and is considered at a higher plane.  It is Brahman into which the self, the Atman, is to merge (or to realize its unity with).

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Investigation

Sherlock Holmes the philosopher-detective was investigating a serious crime.  The crime involved fraud, false advertising, peddling phony wares, and a possible murder of language.  The only evidence that he had for the crime was a bag full of books, written by people like J Krishnamurti, Osho and Deepak Chopra.

The investigation took him to the famous city of Time.

In the City of Time, there were three main areas of interest to Holmes: Time Boulevard, the Eternity Circle, and the Timeless Point.

His first stop was Time Boulevard, since it was the easiest to cover.  The street went in the east-west direction, with clear markers for each quarter-mile.  All the vehicles on that street moved at a constant speed, and there were no entry or exit streets and no stops or traffic lights either.  As the vehicles progressed on that street, their engines became noisier and noisier and the drivers' hair became grayer and grayer.  This street had no beginning and no end, as far as the eye could see.  Watson had once mischievously remarked to Holmes that the street did begin many billion miles to the west, but since there was no entry or exit, Holmes wondered how the vehicles entered that street so many billion miles ago.  It didn't make sense, and Watson started waving his hands in a rather singular manner when pressed.

There were a lot of interesting stuff happening on the Time Blvd, but Holmes was in a rush.  He wanted to get to the Eternity circle and took out his map of the town, as well as his pipe.

Difficulties were entering the picture.  The Eternity circle was there on the backside of the map as a name, but on the front side of the map it was nowhere to be found.  Oh finally he found it.  As the Time Blvd reached the edge of the map, there was a small sign there with an arrow titled "To Eternity".

Holmes was perplexed.  He called Watson on his cellphone (it was the 21st century after all): "If, as you say, the Time Blvd began some billions of miles ago, how far is eternity circle on this road?"  Watson chuckled on the other end and said, "No matter how far you go on this road, Eternity circle is always further down.  But some people, not wanting to go that far, consider Forever to be a good alternative destination.  That is just about a lifetime away.  I will be there for you forever, Holmes."

Holmes frowned as he blew a cloud of smoke in front of him.  He continued to walk along Time Boulevard, in deep contemplation.  Suddenly a rat or something similarly vile ran over his right foot and, startled, he froze.

As he did, he saw his pipe smoke mysteriously form itself into two words in the air "Timeless Point".  It was but for an instant, and the smoke vanished as soon as he noticed it.  He then looked to his side and noticed a billboard advertising a new show: "The Timeless Point Show!  Never Before seen, Never again.  Only now!  Come one, come all!!"

The billboard seemed to be pointing downward into a basement.  Holmes rushed towards it, thinking that the show might have ended.  But he was surprised to see that the show continued, only that it was a different show every moment, and yet intimately connected with the previous one.  No show was repeated, there was a slight difference every time, and it was hard if not impossible to pinpoint which show one had watched.

Holmes realized that his investigation was far from over, and that he needed more time to ponder over all this.  He slowly walked to his inn, and picked a random book by a German sounding author from his bag of books.  He anticipated trouble sleeping, and "Wittgenstein" seemed the most potent remedy to put one to sleep, he smilingly muttered.

He had read only a few pages of this weird little book and he drifted to blissful sleep.  As he did so, the book fell on the floor along with his cellphone.  The cellphone's only button clicked as it fell, taking a photo of the open page, and as his last call had been to Watson, it somehow sent a message with that photo to him.

Watson heard a loud "beep" on his phone.  Had Holmes solved the crime, after all?

He wasn't too sure, after he read the text on the photo that Holmes had sent:
"Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present." (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus)
Perhaps, next day he would talk to Holmes.  It was confusing, but it was too late now.

The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, part 3

Parts 1 and 2.

The Buddha's second noble truth ("There is the cause/origin of suffering")  is expounded in greater detail in other Buddhist sutras.  In its more detailed version, the Buddha goes into the causation of suffering over time.
The Buddhists call it the doctrine of "Dependent Origination", or Pratītyasamutpāda.

According to this doctrine, there are twelve stages through which Dukkha (or suffering) gets established.

Many of these twelve stages explicitly presuppose the doctrine of reincarnation.  Buddhists believe that sankharas or conditioned responses propagate through a non-material medium across many lives.

For a person who does not believe in reincarnation, the Buddhist explanation of suffering falls flat on its face.  The Buddha has very little to teach us if his explanation of suffering's origin is off the mark.  That is his central teaching.  The rest of Buddhist teaching is more about ethical behavior and about being careful and mindful in one's thought, speech and action.  Good advice without a doubt, but hardly earth-shattering.

The more one studies in depth the twelve stages as enumerated by the Buddhists, the more it becomes obvious that they were more interested in creating a theology and a formal structure of terms than to seek out any truth.  Buddhist teachings and sutras are known for highly formalized, repetitive statements.  They are good for chanting, but don't do a lot for elucidation or insight.

Consider this translated tract from the Mahasatipatthana Sutra:
Herein, monks, an aspirant when experiencing a pleasant feeling knows, "I experience a pleasant feeling"; when experiencing a painful feeling, one knows, "I experience a painful feeling"; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling," one knows, "I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling." When experiencing a pleasant worldly feeling, one knows, "I experience a pleasant worldly feeling"; when experiencing a pleasant spiritual feeling, one knows, "I experience a pleasant spiritual feeling"; when experiencing a painful worldly feeling, one knows, "I experience a painful worldly feeling"; when experiencing a painful spiritual feeling, one knows, "I experience a painful spiritual feeling"; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful worldly feeling, one knows, "I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful worldly feeling"; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful spiritual feeling, one knows, "I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful spiritual feeling."
Thus one lives contemplating the physical senses internally, or one lives contemplating the physical senses externally, or one lives contemplating the physical senses internally and externally. One lives contemplating origination factors in feelings, or one lives contemplating dissolution factors in feelings, or one lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in feelings. Or one's awareness is established with, "Sensation exists," to the extent necessary just for knowledge and awareness, and one lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus, monks, an aspirant lives contemplating the physical senses.
The third rung in the twelve rungs of Dependent Origination states that Consciousness leads to Name and Form (?).  Name and Form are not what is normally considered name and form, apparently, but the are supposed to refer to feeling, perception, intention, contact, and attention.  The fourth rung states that Name and Form lead to the six sense bases (?).  Really?
"And what [monks] is name-&-form? Feeling, perception, intention, contact, & attention: This is called name. The four great elements, and the form dependent on the four great elements: This is called form. This name & this form are, [monks], called name-&-form."
In Buddhism, to nip the chain of origination in the bud, one is supposed to attack Avidya (Ignorance) by becoming more and more aware of truth within and without.  But in practice, Buddhists typically start practicing one of the many Buddhist meditations based either on the Samatha or Vipassana cores.

Seeking knowledge or truth is a great pursuit, but I assert that any seeker who disregards the modern understanding of human behavior and plunges straight into an ancient meditation technique with an esoteric world view is not pursuing self-knowledge, but is after attaining a supposedly higher state of consciousness.

No philosopher in this age and day would find the fanciful spiritual conceptions and the obtuse taxonomy in Buddhism worthy of a serious response, but still we see many otherwise intelligent people regard Buddha as a great philosopher who elucidated the truth of suffering and pointed at a way out of it.

I think the reason for the recent popularity of Buddhism in urban educated classes is not hard to fathom.  It is that they have not studied Buddha's teachings at their source, or in depth, but have depended on hearsay.  Because they are themselves disenchanted with the world due to its stresses, and because they find enlightenment to be a worthy goal, and because they find their own religions and institutions to be hopelessly corrupt, Buddhism and the Buddha become their icons of "true spirituality" and "inner evolution".  The seemingly scientific and structured nature of Buddha's teachings give the impression that they are thoroughly modern and the correct results of painstaking research.  They are anything but.

As I have remarked in my other writings, I find Buddha's inquiry and search to be a great philosophical quest, but the results of his philosophical quest must be evaluated and questioned, not merely accepted or venerated.

Unquestioning veneration and scientific inquiry don't go hand-in-hand.  In fact, they are the exact opposites of each other.

Buddhist teachings, especially the noble eight-fold path, are simple on the surface.  But as soon as one goes below the surface, Buddhism reveals itself to be esoteric and non-obvious and presumptuous.

Buddhism is also known for discouraging "idle inquiry" and focusing more on practice and its results.  However, if Buddhist scriptures talk a lot of apparent philosophy in their primary sutras, then they open themselves up to scrutiny.  Moreover, any practice is built upon a bedrock of theory.  If the theory is suspect, what will the practice yield except a feel-good piousness and a practiced calm without understanding?

In the next part, I will focus on the third noble truth of the Buddha.