Friday, December 04, 2015

The Permanent Visa


This news item today about a youth who, unable to get his money back from a services firm, is heart-rending:
He said to his colleague that ‘mera pakka visa lag gya hai, main hamesha lyi jaa reha haan’ (I got permanent visa and was going forever). After that we could not contact him again”, claimed the uncle.
The lack of contract enforcement has chilling effects on society.  Add to this the brutal economic conditions for the youth of Punjab which makes them desperate to go abroad.

To add insult to injury, he was robbed of his possessions after he consumed poison.

Are the policy makers and politicians who have looted the land and  stalled economic and judicial reforms not responsible for this senseless, tragic death?

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Some Notes on Tourist Photography

I recently returned from a world tour, having traveled to Turkey, Greece, Italy, India and Japan.

Especially in Italy (in the museums) and in Japan (at the temples and shrines), I couldn't help but notice the hordes of tourists with their cameras trying to capture everything.  I recognize I was a tourist too, but I did notice a curious fact: most tourists seemed more interested in capturing a picture of where they were than in experiencing the place and the feelings it evoked.

Say, we are at the Golden Temple in Kyoto (the Kinkau-ji).  It is a breathtaking and ethereal place, with the reflection of the temple in the small lake creating a dreamlike atmosphere.  One could keep watching the scene for hours.  But many a tourist would click a picture, and then immediately stop looking at what had been captured.  It was as if they were saying to themselves: Now that I have it in my camera, I can move on and capture something else.

It baffled me.  What's the point of clicking pictures instead of experiencing the place?  Are there not enough pictures available on the internet of that place already for one to enjoy and show others?  Why is it important to capture the picture in one's own camera?

I can still understand the narcissistic urge to capture a selfie or to ask someone to take a pic of oneself with the scene as the background (to show others that "I was there"), but to simply take a picture of a place seemed very irrational to me.

I felt it was very disrespectful to take a picture of something and then lose interest in the subject.  Is it better to enjoy something through one's camera than through one's own eyes?

In one of the outstanding museums in Rome (the Villa Borghese Gallery), I was happy to note that photography was prohibited, but I was quickly dismayed to learn later that only flash photography was disallowed. 

(As an aside, the Villa Borghese Gallery, apart from the marvelous scultptures by Bernini, was showcasing a great collection of fashion art by Azzedine Alaïa.)

I don't think it is realisitc to expect that in our lifetime, major tourist destinations will disallow photography.  In fact, as tourism is a major source of revenue for governments and private sector, any tourist-unfriendly rule will likely not see the light of day.  I am an aberration in the mass of tourists and I have no hope that my preferences will ever become normative.

If someone is a photographer and it is a unique scenery, by all means take a photo and showcase the scenery to the rest of the world.  But otherwise, why not just select one of the thousands of photos of that scene already available on the internet?

It is also more of a problem now that taking pictures is free of cost.  In earlier days, the cost of film and of developing the film gave some pause to photographers to be more discriminating in their activity.  Now, with digital photography that is supremely affordable, it is open season!

Class and Love in Bollywood

Indian mainstream films have come of age when it comes to portraying romance between a man and a woman from different social classes. 

In general, a higher-status man finds no problem marrying a lower-status woman because that is a "dream come true" for the woman (ref the story/fantasy of Cinderella).  The problem arises when a lower-status man falls in love with a higher-status woman.

Due to socialized hypergamy, it is considered a grave affront by the man.  If not the woman herself, her family ensures that the union does not happen.

The factor of class in love was brilliantly handled in Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda  (Shyam Benegal, 1993), but that film was more about how the lower classes can only dream of love talked about in poems, while the reality is more brutal.

One of the earliest films I remember seeing is Hero (Subhash Ghai, 1983), in which the hero wins the girl only by protecting her from a big bad evil man and his gang.  Typical of the era, but still the middle portion of the film is quite entertaining.  The ending is a happy one, of course.

In all of the following films, the ending is tragic.

Let us consider four recent films which tackle this kind of a romance:

Love, Sex and Dhokha (Dibakar Banerjee, 2010)

In the first segment of this film (Love), a lower-class man falls in love with a middle-class woman in North India, and the atmosphere quickly turns dark and tragic.

I found the juxtaposition of love (as a fantasy) and brutality (as a reality) remarkable.  I am still haunted by the final sequence.

Rockstar (Imtiaz Ali, 2011)

A talented young man, curiously named Janardhan Jakhar (Indian heroes in mainstream films almost always have upper class surnames), falls in love with an upper class college-mate.  Once again, the turn of events is not a happy one.  Though the acting of the female lead is atrocious, the films has an outstanding soundtrack and I enjoyed the depiction of the male lead's social background.

Raanjhanaa (Aanand Rai, 2013)

The best of the lot, this film contains a stand-out performance by the south Indian actor Dhanush, and not only does it tackle the class divide between the man and the woman, it defies convention and political correctness by showing the female lead as unapologetically and brutally hypergamous.

Highway (Imtiaz Ali, 2014)

Hackneyed in many ways, the worst of the lot.  But still, the fact that the ending is again tragic is a sign of the times. 

Indian films are becoming more realistic and the bombastic wish-fulfillment of the 70s and 80s is a thing clearly of the past.

 

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

India vs UK

Exhibit A

GDP of India per capita in 2014 was $1627 (current USD).

GDP of UK per capita in 1830 was $1750 (current USD).

Exhibit B

Literacy rate of India in 2001 was 64.8%

Literacy rate of UK in 1830 was 65%

Exhibit C

In  his 1694 essay "Of Identity and Diversity", John Locke writes:
For, supposing a rational spirit be the idea of a man, it is easy to know what is the same man, viz. the same spirit- whether separate or in a body- will be the same man.
Supposing a rational spirit vitally united to a body of a certain conformation of parts to make a man; whilst that rational spirit, with that vital conformation of parts, though continued in a fleeting successive body, remains, it will be the same man. But if to any one the idea of a man be but the vital union of parts in a certain shape; as long as that vital union and shape remain in a concrete, no otherwise the same but by a continued succession of fleeting particles, it will be the same man.
In his twentieth century work called "Forty Verses on Reality", Ramana Maharishi writes:
30. If one enquires ‘Who am I?’ within the mind, the individual ‘I’ falls down abashed as soon as one reaches the Heart and immediately Reality manifests itself spontaneously as ‘I-I’. Although it reveals itself as ‘I’, it is not the ego but the Perfect Being, the Absolute Self.

31. For Him who is immersed in the bliss of the Self, arising from the extinction of the ego, what remains to be accomplished? He is not aware of anything (as) other than the Self. Who can apprehend his State?

The Inner and The Outer

Much of self-help and spiritual literature advises one to derive one's happiness from "inner" sources, as the "outer" is what it is and to want to change the outer is fraught with frustration.

The dichotomy between the "inner" and the "outer" is expressed as if the inner is "me" whereas the "outer" is "not-me".  Supposedly, if I look within "me", I can find eternal happiness.  But if I continue to look for happiness outside of "me", it will be elusive.

This is a serious misconception, and a dangerous one.
 
An immediate problem is the definition of "me", and where to locate this "me".  In many spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta, the mind or even the "soul" is the outer, the not-me.  In those traditions, the way to find happiness in "me" is to regard everything as not-me.  Whatever can be observed, is anyway "not me" (or so it is claimed).  And, going further, even the observer is "not me".  There is just no "me" to be found anywhere.  One's true nature is "nothing" (in Buddhism) and "everything" (in Advaita Vedanta).

But even if we disregard these radical systems and consider "me" as my mind and my attitude, it is still a grave mistake to consider "me" as somehow more likely to provide continued happiness and contentment than the "not-me".

The first issue with this approach is what I call the "loser approach".  The loser says to himself: I can't seem to make a difference in the world, so let me then find fulfillment in an imaginary way.  The parable of the old woman looking for her pin under the light even though she lost it elsewhere is brilliantly pertinent here.


The second issue is that it is a huge misconception that one can in general transform one's mind and one's attitude in a way that is easier than transform one's external situation.  In many situations, it is easier in fact to change the situation rather than escape into oneself.  If one's boss is a bully, it is quite often possible to address this situation so that the boss is given some feedback, rather than adjust oneself to become more stoic.  The self-help approach leads to a status-quo in the world, rather than improvement.  And according to many studies, one's basic temperament and drives are mostly set in stone after the first few years of one's life.  One can perhaps learn to modulate one's anger, but to not get angry at all is a tall order.  Novice seekers vainly imagine that one day they will be free of anger and desire.  Unfortunately, they realize the futility of their quest when it doesn't matter whether they get angry or what they desire.

The third issue is that this approach leads to a high degree of isolation.  Since "I" am to derive "my" happiness from "myself", I no longer deeply care for others.  I may be compassionate in a condescending manner, but I cannot be passionate or sentimental or attached or loving or sad, because these are directed emotions in which another person is deemed significant.  In the self-help approach, all significant emotions must be directed to oneself.  Any outward expression is fraught with complication and suffering, and an "inward-looking" person is unsure of handling such complications.  For an "inward-looking" person, only one's own happiness is important.  Others should also focus on themselves, instead of expecting anything from oneself.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Self as a Linguistic Error

Spiritualists, including Mr Jaggi Vasudev, like to argue that to say "My Body" is proof that I am not the body.

But then, people also say "My soul is attracted to this.", or "I love him with my body and soul."

So, to continue the argument, "I" am not even my "soul" (whatever that might be).

But that would be mistaking a linguistic convention for the proof of an entity's existence. 

It is easier, however, to just understand the "my" adjective as referring to "this".  In fact, vedantins of some sects are fond of referring to themselves as "this body" instead of "I".

As Chomksy writes in his outstanding essay on Mysteries of Nature:
Priestley urges that we also dismiss arguments based on “vulgar phraseology” and “vulgar apprehensions,” as in the quest for an entity of the world picked out by the term me when I speak of “my body,” with its hint of dualism. “According to this merely verbal argument,” Priestley observes, “there ought to be something in man besides all the parts of which he consists,” something beyond both soul and body, as when “a man says I devote my soul and body,” the pronoun allegedly denoting something beyond body and spirit that “makes the devotion.” In Rylean terms, phrases of common usage may be “systematically misleading expressions,” a lively concern at the time, based on a centuries-old tradition of inquiry into the ways surface grammatical form disguise actual meaning. Like Priestley, Thomas Reid argued that failure to attend “to the distinction between the operations of the mind and the objects of these operations” is a source of philosophical error, as in interpreting the phrase “I have an idea” on the model of “I have a diamond,” when we should understand it to mean something like “I am thinking.” In an earlier discussion, the Encyclopedist César Chesneau du Marsais, using the same and many other examples, warned against the error of taking nouns to be “names of real objects that exist independently of our thought.” The language, then, gives no license for supposing that such words as “idea,” “concept,” “image” stand for “real objects,” let alone “perceptible objects.”

Momentum

It was dawn and he hadn't slept all night.

He was riding, without permission, on a cross-country freight train.  The noise wasn't letting him sleep.  The train had passed through thousands of miles of terrain: desert, mountain, lake, forest, rock...

The train had killed many a wild animal straying on the track.  It had killed many birds in its hurtling motion.  It had gone over carcasses and boulders and fallen trees and snow and sand...

The momentum of the train was immense.  Against its momentum, nothing lasted for long.  No view was eternal, no horizon remained a horizon, no cloud was permanent, no object was an obstacle.

It was dawn and he hadn't slept all night.

The sun was coming up far in the east, and the silence and softness of that early hour was in sharp contrast with the thundering roar of the train.

On a whim he jumped off the train.  The momentum continued to thrust him forward, dragging and bouncing him by the tracks, injuring and lacerating and scraping him all over his body.

Eventually he came to rest.  The train had disappeared in the distance.  He looked around him and saw tiny leaves, flowers and dewdrops on the grass.  The sunlight was shimmering on the drops and he dared not move, afraid to disturb those precarious beads of water.

He remained that way for what seemed to him an eternity when another freight train leaped up from behind him and deafened him with its roar.  This train was filled with cattle and sheep and monkeys who were all asleep at that hour.

As the train was passing him, he gulped a mouthful of air, stood up, faced the tracks, picked up a big rock, and with all his might, threw it under the train.  He had a perverse impulse to derail it.

The wheels of the train came in contact with the rock, and crushed it to powder.  No animal on that train even registered what had happened.  In all that noise of that train, that incident was as-if silent and non-existent.  The wheel smoothly passed over that powdered rock without experiencing even a minor bump.

He laughed aloud at his own ambition and foolishness, turned around, and vanished into the forest.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Suspicious Indian

India ranks pretty much at the bottom of the world when it comes to contract enforcement.  This doesn't mean that people are honest and only in the rare case that the contracts are breached that there is a problem.  It also points to the fact that contracts might be being broken with impunity without fear of consequences.  With an understanding of behavioral economics, it stands to reason that without a strong disincentive, people will try to gain unfair advantages over others.

That means, not only is there no justice in India, there is no incentive to being ethical in India.  And hence, being ethical is an exception rather than a norm in India.

This has some curious consequences and corollaries which I will explore in this essay.
  1. The vast majority of Indians live in a state of terror.  They are afraid that they will not get their due.  They are in a constant state of insecurity and risk-avoidance.  They are apprehensive that they will be cheated and short-changed.  They don't venture out of the familiar because who will protect them if things go wrong.

  2. Indians do not trust and respect each other.  Trust is predicated on whether there are legal consequences for breaking that trust.  In India there is no real consequence.  Hence, there is no trust.  Indians see others as out to cheat them.  Therefore, they see no harm in cheating them first.

  3. Indians are blank-faced and not very expressive in day-to-day interactions.  They do not betray what they are thinking inwardly.  They are hawk-eyed, gawking and staring at others, but not expressing much themselves.  They only react in extremes.  Extreme anger, extreme pity, extreme sorrow, ... make them suddenly explode with emotion.  Mild emotion is kept repressed.  Expressiveness is a sign of a trusting society.  To express is to be vulnerable.  To be vulnerable in a society of cheats is to be suicidal.

  4. Indians are perceived as untrustworthy and opportunistic by more educated and trusting societies.
     

  5. Indians are pleasantly surprised when they travel to a trusting society.  They are amused that people are following rules and laws without any overt enforcement.  They find it a bit comical though they grudgingly admire this vision of "paradise".

  6. Indians are hypocritical and sociopathic.  Their cheating persona (which is a consequence of, and which feeds, the cheating atmosphere) makes them incapable of being congruent and wholesome.  They rail against other Indians' corruption while turning a blind eye to their own corruption.  They have a huge "secret self" full of shame which expresses itself in anonymous groping, shoplifting, petty thievery, bad hygiene, decrepit underwear, shabby dwelling spaces, ... In general, an impassive, moralistic public persona and a shameful private persona.

FAQs on the "Self"

Q: Who am I?

A: You are a carrier/propagator of DNA inherited from your parents.  You (as a carrier of a unique DNA) came into existence at soon after the moment of your "conception".  You were ejected out of your mother's womb (or equivalent) at the time of your "birth".  You cease to exist at the moment of your "death".

You are many things:

(a) A physical body which has an aggregate continuity through its lifetime, and which can be identified by its unique DNA.  This disintegrates at death.

(b) A set of memories stored in your brain cells.  Since these memories are stored as patterns in physical cells, they cease to exist as-such when your body disintegrates after your death.  It is possible for you to transcribe/describe these memories to other people or to other media and they can thus outlive your physical body.

(c) A set of external characteristics (especially your name, your face and your voice) that other people recognize as yours.  There are also certain higher level characteristics, such as your educational credentials, your credit history, your criminal history, your citizenship, etc. which are useful to certain institutions.  You can change or update some of these characteristics as you go through life, but taken together they are your "identity".

(d) A set of internal characteristics which exhibit themselves as patterns of thinking and behavior.  These characteristics usually derive from a combination of your DNA traits, your upbringing and your experiences/memories.

Q: What about consciousness?

A: Consciousness is a general term for denoting the "feeling" of brain activity when the brain is processing information or otherwise "buzzing", or "experiencing".  As a corollary, there is negligible consciousness in deep sleep.  There is only autonomic activity and no conscious activity at that time.  (see http://www.brainfacts.org/sensing-thinking-behaving/sleep/articles/2012/brain-activity-during-sleep/)

In consciousness, there can be experiences of sensory inputs, as well as of one's thoughts and memories and internal body phenomena.  As a human infant grows, its brain becomes capable of higher-order experiencing: linguistic/abstract thought, thinking about thinking, thinking about consciousness, and so on.

Q: What is self-awareness and isn't that unique to humans?

A: Self-awareness is to think about oneself and is primarily a consequence of the capacity for abstract thought.  To think about one's past or future, or to reflect on one's present affairs, or to think about mortality, the "self", one's identity, one's reputation, etc. are all abstract activities, which animal brains are not sophisticated enough to indulge in.  There is nothing called "pure awareness" without there being an object of awareness.  All awareness is of something.  An awareness of almost-total brain silence (e.g. in a long meditation session) happens concurrently with the thought of "what silence!" or something similar. 

It is conceivable in near future that an advanced computer, by scouring internet literature about computing machinery and by analyzing its own logs, deduces a few things about itself and makes an improvement in its functioning.  For example, by discovering that a bug has been discovered in its web server software, it starts running that web server in a sandbox high-security mode.  Or by discovering that a new, faster, network interface card is available in the market, orders it from the factory and logs a ticket for the technician (could be a robot) to install it.  Such self-improvement and self-reflection is not far from human self-awareness.

Self-awareness is, till now, quite uniquely human, but it is not a mystical phenomenon.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Follow the Heart, but How?

Spiritual and self-help literature often advises people to "follow their heart". What it means is: go with your feelings.

This advice bears some close investigation.

In an infant, feelings are, to borrow a phrase from the visual field, monochromatic. They are of a single flavor.  Either the infant is happy, or sad, or fearful, etc.  There aren't multiple conflicting feelings which have to be resolved.

As the infant grows up, and even in some advanced mammals like a pet dog, it is possible to have multiple feelings at the same time, usually as a result of learning.  The child or the pet dog might be desirous of a candy, but might be apprehensive of what the parent/master would do or say.

In fact, growth or domestication are synonymous with restraining one's instincts, or in moderating the expression of one's feelings.

The more a man gets socialized, the more stops are put on just acting out on one's feelings.  A man might want to make love to the beautiful woman he just saw on the road, right then and there, but extensive socialization tells him to behave himself.  An overweight woman might want to eat another tub of ice-cream, but her knowledge about the calories she would consume and would need to burn via exercise, makes her give up the idea.

A pet which acts out and has no fear of the master, or a human which does not restrain himself, is called wild or a brute.  The unruly pet is taken away and put down, and an unruly human ("a law unto himself") is imprisoned.

The advice to follow one's heart assumes that there is a dominant "pure heart" whose voice one must listen and act upon.  That one should disregard the "mind", and the socialization-caused "fears" and just follow one's "inner truth".   But it is logically obvious that if the "pure heart" is  indeed dominant, or if the feeling is without its opposite, one will act it out without the master's advice or the self-help literature. 

It is only in cases of conflict that one seeks guidance.  In cases of conflicting feelings, it is generally true that one feeling is the instinctual one, and the conflicting one is due to the force of socialization.  The self-help advice is to act out one's instincts and disregard the "imaginary" consequences (they won't be imaginary for very long, unfortunately).  The fear of imprisonment if one steals an attractive watch from a shop window is about an "imaginary" future, but that imagination is not without a foundation.

Some seemingly intelligent and educated gurus like Mr Jaggi Vasudev or Osho were fond of extorting their followers to see their fears as born of their past and projected into their future, and hence unreal (!).  Yes, they are unreal now, but try to disregard your fears, and see how soon the law or the society catches up with you.

To follow one's heart is good advice only if one has become over-socialized, is overly scared and worried, and is hesitant to take even little risks.  But for the vast majority of humankind, to live with conflict between the instincts and the social influences is a form of discontent (ref Freud's "Civilization and its Discontents") that has to be endured.

Self-help and Spirituality advise a regression to the id, when its conflict with the superego becomes too much to handle for the ego.  In such cases, the id and the superego are both strong and constantly in opposition.  It is important to lessen this friction (e.g. by sublimating one's instincts, or by finding valid avenues for their natural fulfillment) but it is not recommended to want to be free of this friction altogether.

Everybody wants to revert to the simplicity of childhood and to the way of heartful living.  But one forgets that a child had the protection and supervision of its parents.  The parents were an externalized superego.  An adult, to protect himself, has to internalize his superego.  He can no longer depend on his parents to guide or protect him throughout the day.  And therefore, he is comprised and burdened with both the child-nature and the parent-nature.

This burden and this friction is entirely natural.  To seek to be free of this burden is to misunderstand our nature and to indulge in fantasy.

FAQs, continued

Original FAQs article

Q: Do you recommend Goenka Vipassana meditation?

A: I get this question quite frequently in response to my oft-read critique of Goenka Vipassana.  In my opinion, attending a Goenka Vipassana retreat can be an instructive experience.  Most people have not had the opportunity to practice attention manipulation for a period of 10 days.  If nothing else, being distraction-free (no TV, no smartphone, no internet, no news, no social media) will probably "detox" your brain.  Being distraction-free and silent for ten days can bring up thoughts and feelings which otherwise remain submerged.  I recommend the retreat with the proviso that one should be slighly careful not to get brainwashed by Mr Goenka's lectures, his teachers and his organization.  They don't try too hard and are quite gentle, but given that many people fall into their archaic Buddhist ideology, the risk is quite real.

Q: If not Goenka meditation, what type of meditation do you practice and recommend?

A: I am assuming you want to practice meditation to become more peaceful and gain more insight into yourself and into your environment.  A calmness practice, or a retreat from the bustle of civilization, might help.  Sitting in nature, reading a classic, watching a slow film, taking a long walk, fishing, sitting silently and observing one's thoughts or breathing, going on a solo hike or road trip, ... are some example activities.  If you have time and if your environment permits, you could perform some experiments to learn more about how your mind works: staying silent for a few days, being blindfolded or ear-plugged for an entire day or more, being in an unfamiliar surrounding, being in a poor neighborhood or a hospital or a burial ground or a police station or a strip club or a courthouse, stretching your psychological and physical comfort zones, ...

A Refutation of Solipsism: A comment

Anonymous (May God bless his soul) comments on the last post:

"After thousands of years of human consciousness there is still no 'evidence' (it is not an absolute truth let alone a fact) that physical substance is metaphysical and nothing actually exists -- except consciousness that is somehow magically independent of physical neural memory banks. So James Randy still has his million bucks.

Perhaps it's time to start looking for the facts, because not doing so has perpetuated a mass on nonsensical suffering.

So far all the evidence points to awareness always being conscious of some form of content, whether it be experiential knowledge (sense data) or mental images fabricated from sense data memories stored in neurons. Consciousness is always consciousness of something. No one has ever proven they were 'conscious of nothing' whilst unconscious. No disembodied consciousness has ever made itself known independent of or to a physical brain.

Zen practitioners 'claim' to experience consciousness without content, but only after many years of intensive meditation. Basically they psyche themselves into a dissociated state. They train the brain to ignore, become unawareness of, it's own bodily sense data. How senseless is that? And all the while they remaining dependent on their brain to maintain that pointless content-less consciousness. For what benefit?

Instead of growing into a more intelligent benign less aggressive human being they cop out, or protest human suffering by showing how they can violently set themselves on fire without writhing in agony -- and still -- leave no 'evidence' that their senseless consciousness lived on independently of that innocent body they burnt to death?

Try pondering why and how a formless consciousness would dream up an illusory physical realm so well it can no longer prove it's not really here? Why? And what would trigger it's first imaginings out of it's formless metaphysical state? And how would consciousness even know it existed in a no thing world with no feedback loop of experiences to reflect on?

If this physical world really is a metaphysical world of no things, then prove it and claim James Randy's million bucks. Otherwise you're just wasting your intelligence writing about unprovable metaphysical nonsense."

A Refutation of Solipsism, continued

Original post.

A commentator responds:
According to Vedanta the world is created by the universal mind, even so called my mind is really part of the universal mind, when your mind goes to sleep it just means part of the universal mind has switched to a different state. It does not mean the whole universal mind goes in abeyance. 
"Universal Mind" is presumably a translation of Brahman, a concept notoriously difficult to explain.  It is frequently stated to be beyond comprehension and beyond thought and beyond the mind and language, but for a phenomenon so unknowable, the sages sure do know a lot about it:
Several mahā-vākyas or "Great Sayings" from the Upanisads indicate what the principle of Brahman is
  • brahma satyam jagan mithya  (Asangoham,18): "Brahman is real, the world is unreal"    
  • ekam evadvitiyam brahma (Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1): "Brahman is one, without a second"    
  • prajnānam brahma (Aitareya Upanishad 3.3): "Brahman is knowledge"
  • ayam ātmā brahma (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.5): "The Self is Brahman"
  • aham brahmāsmi (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10): "I am Brahman"
  • tat tvam asi (Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7 et seq.): "Thou art that" ("You are Brahman")
  • sarvam khalvidam brahma (Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1): "All is truly Brahman"
  • sachchidānanda brahma: "Brahman or Brahma is existence, consciousness, and bliss"
Leaving aside the epistemological quandary (if something is unknowable, what's the basis of statements made about its qualities or even its existence?), the original article's argument about the inconsistency of solipsism for an Atman (the individual mind or soul) can be applied with some minor modifications to the Advaita Vedanta's formulation of Brahman (the "universal mind") as well:
  1. State data is information.
  2. Storage of information requires matter.  
  3. The "universal mind" contains the state data of the entire universe.
  4. Hence "universal mind" contains matter.
  5. Hence, matter exists before its creation.
  6. Hence Advaita Vedanta is inconsistent.
     
  7. Hence wrong.
In fact, this line of argument is strong enough to refute "the soul remembering past lives" phenomenon as well.  The "soul" is generally conceived of as an immaterial "essence" which exists before the birth of a human, and survives human death.  After the soul attaches itself to a new human body, it is claimed that in some cases the human being can remember some things from his "past life".
  1. Memory is information.
  2. Storage of information requires matter.
  3. The brain stores the memories acquired during its existence.
  4. Matter is required for preservation and transmittal of memories after the destruction of an organism (specifically, the destruction of its brain).
  5. Hence, the "soul" needs a material medium (for transmittal from the brain) and a material substrate (for storage).
  6. Hence the "soul" is not purely immaterial.
  7. Hence the conception of "soul" as immaterial is inconsistent, and wrong.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Refutation of Solipsism

G E Moore published his "A Defense of Common Sense" in 1925.  It is a long, philosophical essay arguing against skepticism, idealism and solipsism.

It is hard to read.  Having been a solipsist myself - and I am embarrassed to admit it - I feel that a more succinct and cogent response is necessary to refute the non-dualist/Advaita-vedantic position regarding the objective/independent existence of the world.

The non-dualist position is known as drishti-srishti-vada, SSV from here on, and is actually quite easy to refute.  The position is a cousin of theories like idealism, "essence precedes existence", "perception causes creation" etc.

The position states, in essence:
The world only exists when it is perceived.
This has been the position taken by spiritual heavyweights of the last century such as Ramana Maharishi and Nisargadatta Maharaj, and (in an oblique way) Jiddu Krishnamurti ("You are the world").

Let us define each of the terms used in the quoted sentence:

The world is the universe containing the galaxies, stars, planets, the sun, the moon and the earth and all things thereof.  The universe is: space-matter-energy and all things thereof.  We all understand what the universe is, so no further elucidation will be provided.

To Exist is to interact with other existent objects, to occupy space and to flow through time.

To Be Perceived is a special kind of interaction: with human sense organs (or perhaps even animal sense organs, or with a "life" form), directly or indirectly (indirectly e.g. via a measuring/recording apparatus).  In a way all interactions leave an imprint on the other objects, but to be perceived is to have an interaction with a living or sensory apparatus.

Now, we can argue about whether object X exists or not in a reasonable manner, by evaluating evidence for its interaction with other objects or its perception by someone.

But to argue whether the whole universe (i.e. the entire existence) exists or not is obviously not possible in the same way because objects interact with each other in the universe.  The universe doesn't interact with any objects.  There are no other "entities" apart from those contained in the universe, by definition.

But, in a way the universe does interact with objects in one peculiar way: it "provides" space for them to exist.  Hence, if X exists (and X can be anything) the universe does exist as a necessity.

...

SSV states that the universe exists only when perceived.  Let us take the case of a human perceiving the moon.  According to SSV, when the human is in a coma, or in deep sleep, the moon does not "exist", in fact the entire universe stops existing.  When the human wakes up, the entire universe is created.

I had this idea about refuting SSV in 2002.  When I asked my erstwhile guru (an advaita-vedantin monk) about it, he could not provide a satisfactory response.  In fact, I'm not sure he understood the import of the argument.

The refutation of this peculiar paradigm is as follows:

1. The world is perceptible at some time (e.g. right now).
2. The world is imperceptible at some times, e.g. during deep sleep and coma.
3. The world re-appears after the imperceptible period.
4. There is evidence of the imperceptible world having carried on its affairs during its disappearance. 

To be more specific:

1. I am lying down on my bed. The time is now 12noon by my clock. The world is perceptible.
2. I go to sleep at 1pm by my clock.  The world is imperceptible (hence non-existent as per SSV).
3. I wake up and see the time on my clock as 5pm.  The world has reappeared, my body and clock all being a part of it.  Other objects show the passage of time as well: the clothes hung to dry have now dried up, the phase of the moon has changed, and innumerable other evidences of the passage of time are there.

Now it is clear and obvious that all the changes (except my own physical and mental states due to sleeping, dreaming etc.) which I perceive at 5pm are exactly as if I had stayed awake and kept perceiving the world.  This bears repeating: The state of affairs at 5pm is exactly as if the world had continued to be perceived and hence to exist, with all the concomitant processes (trains running on their tracks, airplanes flying to their destinations, planets traveling in their trajectories, etc.) during the 1pm-5pm period.

It seemingly makes no difference to the world whether I was perceiving it or not.

The state of affairs observed at 5pm is independent of my state of consciousness from 1pm-5pm.


There are only two possible explanations: either the world continued to exist and time continued its passage while being imperceptible (which non-SSV adherents, i.e. most people, would accept as obvious), or someone is playing a really cool trick where "he" keeps track of every little object and transition and makes the world seem exactly as if the world had continued to exist while it was not.

The second explanation implies that when I stopped perceiving the world, the state data of the world got stored somewhere, and when I perceived the world again, the state data of the world now conformed to the effects of the passage of time.

The question is: where was the state data being stored, if not in the universe?  While the universe was in "abeyance", who (and it could well be a device or an "energy" or a "universal mind", rather than a human or alien entity) knew that, e.g., clothes were drying outside my home?

Now we will demolish SSV via the following propositions:
  1. State data is information.
  2. Storage of information requires matter.  
  3. Information storage is necessary to recreate the world  after its abeyance.
  4. Hence matter existed while the universe was supposedly in abeyance.
     
  5. Hence universe existed while supposedly in abeyance.
     
  6. Hence SSV is inconsistent.
     
  7. Hence wrong.
 ...

In fact, if you think about it, the easiest way to store the state data is for the universe to continue to exist and have the state data continue in situ (in the objects themselves).  This is a fit case for Occam's razor.  SSV requires an extra set of assumptions without offering any additional predictability about phenomena.  It fails the test.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

On Guru's Grace

An elderly relative asked me this question a few weeks back, and I believe a response to it might be illustrative to many others.

The question is, in my own words: If, as per many scriptures, one gets enlightened only with the grace of a Guru, then how and when will that grace happen?  Do we need to do something to be enlightened, or should we just wait?

Let's look at some answers to this question from the big shots of the last century:

Osho:

Grace is not something that happens sometimes and does not happen other times; grace is always happening. It is the very nature of existence. The existence is grace-full. But sometimes you get it and sometimes you miss it. The rain is falling; sometimes you are showered, sometimes not. But the rain is continuously falling, So something has to be searched within you. Sometimes you are sheltered against it. Grace is the very nature of existence. And ego is the shelter. You protect yourself, even against grace. Unknowingly, you create defense measures around you, you create an armour. The grace is available but you become unavailable -- that's why rarely it seems to happen.

J Krishnamurti:

You must understand it, go into it, examine it, give your heart and your mind, with everything that you have, to find out a way of living differently. That depends on you, and not on someone else, because in this there is no teacher, no pupil; there is no leader; there is no guru; there is no Master, no Saviour. You yourself are the teacher and the pupil; you are the Master; you are the guru; you are the leader; you are everything. (Talks by Krishnamurti in U.S.A 1966 p.73)

Ramana Mahrishi:

Divine grace is essential for realization. It leads one to God realization. But such grace is vouchsafed only to him who is a true devotee or a yogi. It is given only to those who have striven hard and ceaselessly on the path towards freedom.

Ramakrishna:

No matter how much sadhana you practise, you will not realize the goal as long as you have desire. But this also is true, that one can realize the goal in a moment through the grace of God, through His kindness. Take the case of a room that has been dark a thousand years. If somebody suddenly brings a lamp into it, the room is lighted in an instant.

...

The quotation by Osho begs the question because enlightenment, the result of grace, is the same as egolessness, which is cited as a condition for achieving enlightenment through the Guru.  Hence we can disregard his verbal acrobatics.

Krishnamurti clearly says that a Guru is not necessary.  But he was being disingenuous.  He was himself a Guru through and through.  He didn't say, "A Guru is not necessary" and proceed to working in a factory or writing some other kind of book.  Throughout his life, he went around the world trying to "teach" and tell others how to meditate and suchlike, and benefiting from his exalted status as a realized man.  He hinted many times that his "presence" was a blessing and only if the listeners let his presence and energy go through them via non-judgmental "listening", they would get a glimpse of "truth".

Ramana states that the grace is only granted to those who deserve it.  But then it's not really grace.  The dictionary meaning of grace is: "unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification ", or "the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings."  Ramana's statement essentially says: Effort -> Grace -> Realization.  But it is not made clear why Grace needs to be mentioned at all.  If grace logically follows ("it is vouchsafed only to him") from effort, then there is no need of agency of God or a Guru to bestow it on the seeker.  Then the statement "Divine Grace is essential for realization" becomes: "Striving hard and ceaselessly is essential for realization."  Grace is guaranteed if that happens and one needn't worry about it.  If, for the sake of argument, Grace is not guaranteed through "hard and ceaseless striving", then on what is it contingent?  Is it a random roll of dice to select the lucky few from all the eligible applicants?

Ramakrishna is being his usual self: confused.  Like Osho, he talks in circles. Since "realization" is the same as absence of desire, his statement that as long as one has desire, one won't achieve the "goal" begs the question: what's the way to be free of desire while being un-realized?  And he claims that instant enlightenment is possible via the Guru, but how the Guru chooses amongst his unrealized-hence-full-of-desires disciples is unclear.

...

Now that we are through with this brief commentary, how is a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, to approach such a question?

The primary question in such investigations must be: how does one know, and what are the means of distinguishing fact from fiction in these mystical subjects?  The epistemological rules must be clarified first.   If one claims that such mystical subjects are not amenable to thoughtful analysis, then the investigation is over and the question should be left as unresolvable.

But I believe that mystical subjects and statements suffer from confabulation, contradiction and confusion, and that they should be, must be, subjected to rigorous analysis.  There are no logical contradictions in the natural world, in mathematics and in the sciences.  If a thesis has a contradiction, it is not mystical, it is nonsense.

Not all mystical topics or experiences are nonsense.  Science is still trying to figure out the fundamental properties of life and the universe: the origin of life, the structure of space-time, whether there was a big bang, etc.  To wonder about these unanswered questions, and about the universe, can be a mystical experience, and it has no contradiction in it.

Before we even tackle the topic of Grace, we need to be careful about the question. The original question contains many hidden assumptions, which need to be investigated:

1. There is something called enlightenment.
2. I want to be enlightened.  I consider it a valid goal.
3. There are enlightened Gurus.
4. There are scriptures and what they say is the truth.

The fourth is the easiest to dispense with.  Scriptures of various religions contradict each other, just like the Gurus we discussed above.  Hence, scriptural authority is not unquestionable.  But if scriptures are not to be taken on faith, then it is important that one figures out what is true or false in those scriptures through discrimination.

As to the third assumption, that there are enlightened Gurus (either in human form, or in a non-human or non-material form), it is again not clear how one knows this.  Assuming there is something called enlightenment (and we will come to that), how does one identify an enlightened human?  Does an instance exist in today's world?  Krishnamurti, in his criticism of Gurus, was at least right on this count: if one is "un-realized", one has no way of judging someone else to be a "realized" master, hence one will choose a guru as per one's prejudices and he won't be a "true" guru. (The hidden assumption in Krishnamurti's argument is that there are "realized masters", but it is worthless looking for them.)

It is the first and second assumptions which really need a thorough investigation.  Before we even attempt to say anything about grace, we must be clear that there is something called enlightenment, that one understands what it is, and that it is a worthy goal.

It is evident that everybody hears about this state called enlightenment from a book or a scripture, or from someone who has read some books or scriptures.  It might just be a long-standing "urban legend" or myth which has attained the status of a hallowed belief.  It might be an actual state, it might not be.  How does one know?  Has one ever seen an enlightened human being?

What is more interesting is, how does one form a goal of this state?  What is so good about enlightenment that it entices everybody?  The answer is obvious.  In all scriptures, in all lectures and "teachings", spiritual masters and authors dangle the carrot of enlightenment as the end of all suffering, wonderful bliss, no more desires, something better than a thousand orgasms, becoming free from the stresses of the world, some kind of immortality for the "soul" (no more birth or death), etc.  Through subtle and non-subtle hints, the reader or the listener is made to want this state as the ultimate goal which will lead to eternal happiness.

Naturally any sane person would want it.  But a sane person would also be suspicious, because though everybody talks about it, nobody seems to have experienced it.  Unfortunately, sanity goes for a toss once a person becomes a "seeker".

In general, various kinds of maladjustments lead one to seek this other-worldly solution.  Instead of trying to resolve those maladjustments, or to live with them, one starts following this chimera of enlightenment.  One still suffers from those maladjustments, but this "fictional final goal" (as Adler would put it), makes one believe that eventually the problem will be over.  Unfortunately, it is life that gets over.  One dies a maladjusted person.  And that's it.  One does not get re-born (!) as a seeker on a slightly higher plane more likely to be "enlightened".

Hence, the correct response to such questions is: What are the problems or sufferings (and it might be just boredom, or a fear of death or of insignificance) which make you seek the state of enlightenment?

To analyze and understand those problems, and some of them may be unsolvable, is the only valid response.

Seeking enlightenment is to evade the present circumstances and escape into a fantasy quest.

And as for the Guru's grace, it is a fiction on top of a fiction on top of a fiction.  To achieve "enlightenment", you need "grace".  So it is claimed.  And for grace, you need a Guru.

One would be well-advised to avoid this circus altogether.

(The "true" seekers will condemn this essay as the essay of a bitter ex-spiritualist.  May they be blessed with sanity.  My best wishes are with them.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

FAQs

I get some form of these questions every once in a while, via email or in person.

Q: What is the meaning of life?

A: Life forms, including you, have evolved for genetic propagation.  You live and toil so that your kin (your children, your family, or your tribe) might live.  People differ in the breadth of their kinship.  Some include all humans, some include pets and domesticated mammals, some include all life forms ("biodiversity").   If that is unsatisfying, there is no greater meaning.  You can invent and live by certain artificial meanings, but that's obviously up to you and begs the question.

Q: Should I live for pleasure?

A: Study the mechanism first.  The neurochemistry of pleasure in your brain is ill-matched to handle the endless availability of inexpensive carefully-designed man-made gratifications in the modern world.  You will wear yourself out and become incapable of deep thought or long-term projects.  Pleasure is short-lived and needs repeated effort with diminishing returns.  Be open to pleasure, but strive to create long-term contentment and fulfillment.  Pleasure is usually an act of consumption for oneself, whereas contentment and fulfillment involves something larger than oneself.

Q: Does God exist?

A: No.  There is no creator, no supernatural justice delivery, no life after death, no past lives, no "enlightenment", no "nirvana", and no "sin".  But to believe in God (or a higher power, or a grand design, or divine justice, or a religious foundation for morality) serves a psychological and communal need in human beings.  It is quite likely that you have that need as well.  You have to live with that need remaining unfulfilled.  There is no substitute for God.  You can start believing in an ideology, and while that might help you communally or direct your actions, that will not provide you with a similar psychological comfort.

Q: How should I live my life in the modern world?

A: Understand yourself and human nature.  Have few needs.  Grow physically stronger and mentally more discriminating.  Resist media influence and distractions.  Add value around yourself.

Q: How should I think?

A: Scientifically, and with self-awareness.  Science, in essence, is thinking with rigor.  Rigor is to be consistent and logical, to steer clear of fallacies, and to be congruent with available evidence.   To be self-aware is to be conscious of one's strengths, limitations, biases and dispositions.

Q: Should I get married?

A: If you're a man living in a modern state: no.  Third-wave feminism, disappearing gender roles, and the rapidly changing legal landscape has made marriage a dangerous legal contract for heterosexual men.  Better stay together if you like each other, without state intervention.  In many jurisdictions, that counts as marriage though.  In those jurisdictions, stay apart while "dating" each other.

Q: Should I have kids?

A: Only if you want to, if you have a friendly, altruistic and harmonious long-term partner who also wants to, and if you two (while not signing a marriage contract) promise to be there for the kids for a long time, and if you two understand the sacrifice, responsibility and expense involved.  Once you have kids, the kids are not for you, they will never be for you, you are for the kids.  Which is how nature intended it.

Q: I am bored.  What should I do?

A: Boredom is a problem of stimulant starvation.  The cure for boredom is to endure it.  Boredom is its own symptom.  The more you endure it, the faster your neurochemistry will adjust to a non-craving state.  Like any addiction, the more you give in to stimulation for a short-term fix, the worse the addiction becomes.

Q: Is our civilization in decline?

A: In material terms: No.  In psychological terms: Yes.  We have the best technology, the longest lifespan, and a more evolved scientific understanding compared to any other time in human history.  On the other hand, more and more people are self-focused, mentally ill, emotionally starved, unhappy, stressed, unable to cohabit with another human being, brainwashed and distracted to death with media, and addicted to one or more things peddled by modern industry.  The momentum of consumption, technology and economy will continue to amplify this state of affairs for the foreseeable future.

Blue Ridge Parkway, all the way (Day 3)

Day 1 and Day 2.

It was the morning of the final day of my journey.  I still had 180 miles of the parkway to look forward to, and another 120 or so miles to get home.

In some ways, this was the best day of the three.

As suggested by the kind owner of the Blue Ridge Motel, I had decided to have breakfast at the nearby historic Mabry Mill.  It was an old mill now converted into a store and a restaurant.  He had told me that it got filled fast.  I checked that the restaurant opened at 8am, and started from the motel at 7.45am.  The restaurant had just opened its doors, and I was among the first to be seated.

There were four people of varying ages at a nearby table discussing the political mistakes of Mao, and an old couple was next to me looking like they had been here many times.  I got the "Long haul" breakfast: pancakes, eggs, sausages and home fries.  The waitress recommended that I try the buckwheat pancake.  Always up for new things, I said sure.  When the food arrived, I noticed that the buckwheat pancake was dark brown in color.  It was slightly bitter in taste but eminently edible - with generous helpings of maple syrup.  I couldn't finish it.  There was too much food (like every other time I eat out).

The hostess personally checked on each table.  She was a genuinely caring person and made sure everybody was having good food and a good time.  Sometimes these little touches go far in making an impression.  I probably won't have an opportunity to eat there again anytime soon, but I will surely recommend it to everybody.  She wished me best of luck on the road, and was concerned that it might rain.  "Fingers crossed!"

With both the tummy and the gas tank full, it was time to hit the road.  There wasn't any rain, but the road was slightly wet.  It was perfect, almost like the roads they show in motorcycle and car ads.  Absolutely no traffic, and a canopy of bright green trees on both sides of the road.  I was in heaven.


Just ten minutes into the ride, and heavy fog engulfed the road.  I turned on my blinkers, and the high beam, and continued at a slower speed.  I could only imagine the green valleys around me.  The air was pristine and pure, and the fog only made it more dreamlike.  The fog disappeared as I came to a lower elevation, and reappeared as I climbed back.  Sometimes, the visibility was just 50 feet.  I had to repeatedly wipe my visor with my gloved left hand to see where the road was going.

There was absolutely no one on the road at that hour going in my direction.  None, for the next hour or so.  Where were the parkway bikers?  I was alone, hurtling down the blue ridge, my mind silent and meditative, with no words to express the sheer beauty of the forest.

This went on for two hours.  I crossed the "Smart View" which overlooks the "Fairy Stone State Park".  I crossed Roanoke, without a hint of having passed a large city.

At milepost 86, in Jefferson National Forest, I stopped at the "Peaks of Otter" restaurant for a cup of coffee.  It is a set of three peaks: Sharp Top, Flat Top and Harkening Hill.  From the Wikipedia page:
Thomas Jefferson once wrote that "the mountains of the Blue Ridge, and of these the Peaks of Otter, are thought to be of a greater height, measured from their base, than any others in our country, and perhaps in North America." Of course this later turned out not to be the case, but not before Virginia had sent stones from the peaks to be its part of the Washington Monument.
They had the most delectably soft blueberry muffin I've ever had.  It was a small cafe with just a few tables, but the lady at the counter was extremely warm, welcoming and friendly.  I praised the muffin no end, and she implored me to have another, but everything in moderation, as they say!

I continued further north.  The road went up and down the hills, twisting and turning and it was sheer joy to lean one way and then the other on the motorcycle to take the hundreds of turns.  Once in a while a car would be in front of me, but I would soon overtake it.  I was the fastest thing on that road that morning.

I was reminded of my first few months of motorcycling in the US in 1999, with a group as part of the famed "Doc Wong Riding Clinic".  Dr Wong is a chiropractor in the Bay area, and on weekends takes groups of bikers of all experience levels through the twisties.  Just like there is a famed Skyline Drive in Virginia, there is a Skyline Boulevard in Bay area as well.  And both are huge favorites with motorcyclists.  It was on that road that Doc Wong and others in his group taught me how to lean the motorcycle and turn the corners at high speeds.

Only 80 miles of the parkway were left.  And now the landscape was varied: farmland, forests, pastures, rolling hills, distant views of the Allegheny mountains, ...






I continued leaning, and turning.  Going up a hill and then down, a roller-coaster straight stretch, and then again hills and turns.  At a few points I relaxed a little and had a bit of scare when suddenly a tight corner presented itself and not prepared to lean, I went wide over the double yellow line.  That was scary and I resolved to pay more attention to the road.  There wasn't any traffic, but that wasn't an excuse!  Accidents happen when you take the road and traffic for granted.

I was getting closer to the end of the parkway, and though there was exhilaration at having done it, there was also a mild sadness at having to leave this friendly, beautiful road for the impersonal freeways.

But all good things come to an end.  And so did the parkway.  It then turns into the Skyline Drive and goes through Shenandoah.  But I had rode Skyline last fall.

I parked my motorcycle near the north end of the BRP, and got a few pictures taken...



Goodbye dear BRP.  I hope to ride on you again some day, maybe in autumn, when you are draped in fall colors.

East on I-64, then North on US-29.  Lunch and resting the sore butt at Shadwell, VA.  Then on through to I-66 East.  Corporate buildings, apartment complexes, big business.  Through the Manassas battlefield region, and on VA-28N, the home stretch.

I was home at 7.  Trip meter 1176 miles.  Home sweet home.  Wine!  Chocolates!  Celebrations!

The motorcycle behaved flawlessly through the long ride and didn't as much as sputter once.

A shirt maker from Bombay, with the archaic name Charagh Din, used to have kitschy magazine adverts for its horrendously designed shirts.  But they used to have this memorable tagline in their ads: "Beautiful Great Day.  Beautiful Great Shirt."

At the end of the third day, and at the end of my journey, with some wine in my system, I couldn't stop muttering: "Beautiful Great Experience.  Beautiful Great Ride."

Blue Ridge Parkway, all the way (Day 2)

Day 1.

This was the day I would start my journey on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Having traveled all the way to its southern end via busy freeways, I was looking forward to scenic beauty, unspoilt nature, solitude and a leisurely ride.  The day more than fulfilled its promise.

As I woke up, it was 6.30am.  I had planned to start my ride at 7.  But as I looked outside the window, it was still foggy and cold.  With my jeans and socks still wet from the day before, I was in no mood to ride shivering in the fog.  I decided to wait a while till the sun came up and went back to sleep.  Got up again at 7.45, and the fog was gone and the sky was indeed much lighter.  The weather forecast predicted some rain, and the uncertain weather was going to be part of the adventure.

After a quick shower and pack-up, I started from the motel at 8.15, waving goodbye to the inept reception man.  From Maggie Valley, I had to go west for around 20 miles till I reached the southern end of the parkway at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, and then turn back from there.


As soon as I got on the southbound Parkway, I realized what a beauty it was.  Tunnel after tunnel, vista after vista, lush valleys on both sides so green that it hurt the eyes.  And this was just ten minutes into the ride.  The tunnels were long and dark, and named inventively to be sure: "Big Witch Tunnel" and "Bunches Bald Tunnel" were two of the most memorable.

The longest tunnel is the Pine Mountain tunnel (almost 400m long) at milepost 400.  As one entered the tunnel, one had to remove the dark sunglasses to be able to see where the road was going.  The parkway does not have white lines on the edges (to give it a rural feel, as per a collection of FAQs), and one has to be extra careful not to go off the road in low-light conditions.

So I was at the south end, and the scenic journey had started in earnest.



My breakfast was to be at Pisgah Inn, after 60 miles or two hours (counting the time spent admiring and photograping the views).  I wasn't sure if I would be able to reach the inn before the end of breakfast hours, but never mind!  It was almost 9am.

As I continued up north, there was hardly any other vehicle on the parkway.  I met a fellow motorcyclist who was just doing a ride till Asheville (85 miles).  We both reached the highest point of the parkway together, and I asked him to click a few photographs of me and the bike.



Today I was dressed in layers, and wasn't cold at all.  Everything was just wonderful.  The sky was overcast, and the clouds hung below, over the valley.  It made the view almost unearthly.


I continued through the tunnels and the vistas.  As the day progressed, there were a few more vehicles on the road.  Motorcyclists still outnumbered cars!

At Pisgah Inn at 10.35am, I was told that though the breakfast time was over, they would still serve me from the breakfast menu.  The restaurant was almost empty but had great views.  I sat near a window overlooking the valley, and had a leisurely breakfast with many cups of coffee.


There was no cellphone reception at the restaurant.  I wanted to check on my parents who had just returned from a cruise vacation but that would have to wait.  In the parking lot I chatted with some other visitors who were extremely mellow and friendly.  With one I discussed the evolution of Toyota's RAV4.  She was driving a V6, which Toyota doesn't make anymore.

I was on my way again.  As noon was approaching, the greens of the valleys were becoming even more vivid.



Further north, most traffic disappeared into roads heading toward Asheville.  The road was empty.  At milepost 370 (now almost 100 miles from the start), was the Craggy Gardens visitor center.  The region is so named because of the rock formations, though the region is dotted with shrubs and rhododendrons which bloom spectacularly in June.



I stopped at the visitor center and bought a Blue Ridge Parkway lapel pin for my leather jacket.  After all, I was doing it "raw" on the motorcycle, all the way in two days.  The jacket could do with a memento of the journey.

Even though the speed limit was 45mph, with many curves and turns marked well below that, most vehicles were doing 50-55mph on the straight stretches.  I saw only one police car on the parkway in two days (the radar aimed at oncoming vehicles), but the folklore is that they don't bother one unless one is doing more than 55mph.

Another hour on the pretty parkway, and I was at the amusingly named "little Switzerland".  It was lunchtime.  It was very picturesque, had a few bars where dozens of motorcycles were parked, but there wasn't any gas station.  I hadn't filled up at all today, and I was 160 miles into my 200 miles limit.  I had planned to get gas when I stopped for meals.  So I went westward instead, into the town of Spruce Pine.  It had a weird gas station where there were self-service pumps as well as attendant-served pumps.  And some pumps had 100% gasoline without any ethanol blending, suitable for very old vehicles.  (on a digression, check out the raging controversy about E15 gasoline-ethanol blend)

After a quick lunch, I was on my way again.  I was only halfway done, and was 150 miles away from my stop for the night.  Given that I could do 40 miles per hour on average (with stops factored in), my destination was 4 hours away.  It was already 2pm.  But the days are long in summer, and the ride was fantastic, and I wasn't tired in the least.  The beauty of the parkway was invigorating and rejuvenating.

As I proceeded further north, the parkway was closed for repairs at two places.  The first closure (and detour) was at milepost 276.  This was a short detour and very pretty.  I passed through farmlands and pastures which were picture-perfect with their gentle slopes and rolls of hay.  The second detour, at milepost 243, was much longer.  The detour took me through a town named Sparta.  I guess if I asked one of its inhabitants (especially his wife) to give me some water, they would launch into this speech:



The detour unfortunately made me miss riding alongside the famous "Stone Mountain State Park".  Here is a photo of this park from Wikipedia:


Soon after the two detours, I stopped on an overlook to call my parents.  A few bikers were hanging around as well.  They were somewhat miffed with the "f'ing detour".  "It took us all the way through Sparta, huff huff."  I nodded in sympathy.

Continuing through Cumberland Knob, and the Groundhog Mountain, I reached the tenderly named "Meadows of Dan".  The "Blue Ridge motel" that I was to stay at was supposed to be close by, but I had no cell reception.

I had realized the day before that it saved time to do the errands and have dinner before checking into the hotel for the night.  The town had 5-6 motels, a few restaurants and a couple of gas stations.  The gas station people were the friendliest ever!  The gas stations were across the road from each other, with a price difference of 1 cent per gallon.  I filled up on gas for the next day, found out where the motel was, and had a "southern" dinner of ribs and corn bread and mashed potatoes.  It was too much food, but the ribs were great.

The motel was hardly a quarter mile away.  The check-in person was a rather jovial and friendly old man who had interestingly lived and worked in Herndon, my home town at present.  I asked for recommendations on where to have breakfast in the morning, and he secretively told me to go eat at the Mabry Mill a mile up the parkway ("but don't tell my neighbors I sent you there!").  I shook his hand, wished him good night, and called it a day.

Thankfully, the room on this day was much more "standard".  It even had WiFi.  I checked the history of the Mabry Mill where I was to dine tomorrow morning, and drifted off to blissful sleep.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Blue Ridge Parkway, all the way (Day 1, continued)

Previous post.

From the map, it was clear that after I entered Tennessee (at Johnson City), the tedium of riding on a busy freeway will be a thing of the past, and I will be traveling through forests and hills.

But Johnson City was another 140 miles on I-81south.  By now my butt was getting a little sore.  I had been riding for more than 6 hours, after all.  I wondered about the IronButt association's honors for relentless riding, some of which are:
  1. SaddleSore and BunBurner: 1000 miles in 24 hours, or 1500 miles in 36 hours.
  2. SS2000: 2000 miles in 48 hours or less.
  3. 50CC: Coast to coast on a motorcycle in 50 hours.
When I was around eight, my dad took my sister and me on his scooter from Patiala to Dehradun and Rishikesh.  It was "only" 200km, but since a scooter could only average 35kmph or so on the tricky Indian roads, we were on the saddle for 5-6 hours on day one.  After about 3 hours of riding, my sister and I were jumping up and down on the scooter seat to relieve some pressure on our butt, even if momentarily.  That annoyed my dad, since the scooter wobbled out of balance every time we did it.

In a rare prank, he dropped us both near a river bridge, and rode off.  My sister and I both started crying.  In a few minutes we saw him coming back toward us.  I don't know if we loved him or hated him at that instant.  After that incident, we merely tried to wiggle our butts without leaving the seat.  But it was mighty uncomfortable.  It was our mini-BunBurner ride.

But this time it was only me on the motorcycle, so I had full freedom to wiggle, to lift my butt for a few moments, and do other amusing manouvers.  They helped somewhat, but I realized I needed to take rest stops every couple of hours.  I stopped for gas after an hour or riding at a village aptly called "Rural Retreat", and had another stop for sipping some iced tea another hour later in Bristol.

I finally exited I-81S onto 26-East, and it was a welcome change.  Now the scenery was lush forests on both sides of the road, with ominous clouds looming low.  The air was cool and moist, and smelled of damp soil and grass.  Up ahead on the horizon the clouds were dark and I wondered if I would be able to continue to ride without getting wet.  About twenty miles in there was a "vista point", and I stopped for a few minutes to admire the view.  Here's a photograph of the motorcycle from the top of the vista point:

It was a beautiful spot, but as you can see, the storm was gathering up ahead.  I climbed down and was back on the highway.

Not ten minutes had passed that drops of rain started hitting my helmet visor.  It was just a drizzle, and I felt confident that I could ride on.  Oh but soon the drizzle turned into a downpour, and I was getting soaked.  The leather jacket and the helmet were protecting my upper body, but the raindrops hitting my legs (at 60mph) felt like darts.  It was so bad that I wondered if there was hail and not raindrops.

Thankfully there was an underpass up ahead, and I exited the highway to shelter under it.  I must have been there for almost three quarters of an hour.  But it was fantastic to see the torrent come down.  It was almost 5pm and those who lived nearby were going back home from their places of work.  Every few minutes a car would pass me while I was just standing around watching the rain.  It was Friday evening, and I imagined that these people must be looking forward to the evening and the weekend.

Twice it happened that a woman driver passed by me and slowed down to take a better look.  One of them even missed the stop sign and had to reverse her car.  I allowed myself to think of a poetic and romantic turn of events befitting a Wong Kar Wai film.  I imagined a woman stopping to ask me if I was fine, and inviting me to her abode for a cup of hot chocolate.  And then, we would part ways and think of what could have been, never to see each other again.


Suddenly there was a cacophony of sirens.  Three, four and then five emergency vehicles went by me on to the eastbound highway.  I was alarmed that an accident must have happened due to the rain and the slippery road surface.

Soon the rain slowed down and the sky became a little lighter and some birds came out.  It was time to be on the road again.

To be sure, a few miles down the road there was a bad accident involving two cars, one of which had gone off the road into the median.  There were ambulances and fire engines and I hoped nobody was injured too badly.  Just a mile from there another car had gone off the road about thirty feet down into the grass valley.  I tightened my grip on the handlebars (but not too tight, as the motorcycle safety foundation will tell you!) and became even more alert and cautious.

But the raindrops were again increasing in intensity.  At that speed, the front wheel of the motorcycle was throwing back the water on the road on to my lower legs and my feet were soaking wet in the squishy socks.  The road was good, and the traffic was fortunately light.  After about ten miles the dark clouds gave way to a lighter sky.  I was in Asheville.

Another hour or riding, and I was off the highway onto country roads.  I had rode such a long distance, that it was perplexing to me when an expected exit wouldn't come, and I had to check my GPS a few times to make sure I was going in the right direction and on the right road.  Finally I saw Lake Junaluska and "Maggie Valley" on the signboards, and heaved a sigh of relief.  The lake was not too big but it was pretty, and here's a picture of it:



I reached the quaint "Clarketon motel" at around 6.30pm.  The man at the reception desk had no clue how to handle a check-in (he was filling in for his sister).  He forgot to give me the room key.  He allocated me the room right next to the road, and when I asked for a better, quieter room, he said there was a better room which cost $15 more, but I could just pay him $5 cash if I wanted it.  In the first room, he asked me not to sit on the bed or anything.  I complied.  I was shivering with the cold and with my feet still soaking wet, and as soon as I entered the "more expensive" room, I turned on the heat and changed into dry clothes.

The room was, um, interesting.  The ceiling was around seven feet high, and it had a kitchen sink instead of a washroom sink.  Well, never mind.  The heating was working and the bed was king-sized.  I went out for dinner, got soaked again, filled up the gas tank for tomorrow's great ride, came back, closed the curtains, and went off to sleep.

Outside, the motorcycle's trip-meter showed 525 miles traveled that day.

The day wasn't over yet.  I woke up in the middle of the night and wanted to check the time.  The room had no clock, so I had to go get my phone which was getting charged.  The room was dark, pitch dark.  As I gingerly and groggily trudged toward the phone, suddenly I hit something metallic, and hit it hard, near my right eye.  I winced in pain and crouched on the bed, cursing silently and not understanding what I had hit.  I switched on the light, and it was a badly positioned TV stand at eye level, with metal edges jutting out.  It could have taken out my eye had I been walking an inch to the right.  I inspected the injury in the mirror and it wasn't bleeding, but it was swollen.

Cursing the room, but grateful for my still intact eyes, I went back to sleep.  But before I did so, I made sure the curtains were open just a little, to let in some light.

What a day!

Blue Ridge Parkway, all the way (Day 1)

There is a strange but undeniable charm to riding a motorcycle through desolation.  Riding a motorcycle for long distances can be uncomfortable, and requires endurance and alertness.  But one is also much more intimately in touch with the environment and the road.  The texture of the air and the smells, the road surface, navigating the curves, the exposure to the wind and the sounds, ... It is perhaps this closer connection to the elements and being a more involved part of the ride that attracts the adventurous to this form of transport.

It is somewhat riskier than driving a car, but that doesn't hold anyone back.  In fact, cars have become too comfortable.  Heated seats, automatic everything, seat belts and silence, are comfortable, but also insulate the driver from the experience of the journey.  Motorcyclists in the US euphemistically call car drivers as "cagers" - people trapped in a metal cage looking out through their window - while the motorcyclist is "free".

My last long ride was in California.  From Orange county, I went through the deserts and the western Sierra mountains to the Devil's Postpile national monument, and on to Mammoth Lake.  It was a great ride.

After I moved to Virginia, winter set in and the motorcycle had to go into hibernation.  A few weeks into the spring, and I was longing for another long ride.  I asked around, and almost everybody, and every website, recommended a ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a national park.  Interestingly, the road itself is the national park.  Hundreds of trails, scenic overlooks, historical places, cultural artifacts, mountains and lakes are scattered on both sides of the road.  The road starts near Cherokee, NC and meanders 469 miles before ending at the entrance of the Shenandoah National Park near Waynesboro in Virginia.  The speed limit on the road is a leisurely 45mph.  It can be done in one day, but obviously that would make one miss out on pausing to enjoy the scenery and the side attractions.

I decided to take a Friday off, travel to the South end and then ride the parkway all the way to the North.  Many riders preferred the ride from South to North as the sun wouldn't be in one's eyes for most of the day.  And also, after finishing the ride, the long 500 mile ride back home on the busy high-speed freeways, with trucks and all, wouldn't be something to look forward to.  To do that (relatively humdrum) distance before the ride would be psychologically more canny.

For me, the parkway ride would therefore begin at milepost 469 (the south end) and end at milepost 0 (the north end).  From the north end, it is 120 miles to home.

The weather forecast showed scattered showers during the Saturday and Sunday in that region.  I decided to take a chance.  If it starting raining too heavily, I could always stop and wait.

I booked a night's stay in Maggie Valley, NC (about 19 miles from Cherokee), and another near Meadows of Dan, VA (milepost 180 or so).  I decided to go the whole way to Maggie Valley (almost 500 miles from Northern Virginia, where I live) on day 1.  Then cover almost 300 miles each during the next two days.  It proved to be a good plan.

There are no gas stations on the parkway.  Not even a stop sign or a traffic signal or a sign showing where to get gas.  So I had to plan the stops with my motorcycle's fuel range in mind.  Suzuki C50 has a gas tank capacity of 4.1 gallons, with each gallon contributing around 50 miles.  I chose the parkway junctions with other highways where I wouldn't have to go too far to get gas.

It was Thursday evening.  With the planning and bookings done, it was time to get physically and mentally ready.  I packed my backpack (to be attached to the bike using bungee cords), made sure to carry some warm layers of clothing, filled my water bottle and the travel-ready flask of Vodka, and went to sleep.  I planned to start early the next day.  It was going to be a long, long ride.

I started around 7am.  It was almost 65 degrees F, pleasant and not too warm.  I kept the warm layers packed, and after a quick breakfast, proceeded to ride to my first stop: to have coffee at Harrisonburg, 120 miles from home.

Earplugs in, jacket and helmet and visor and gloves on, all systems go!

It was an uneventful ride.  Continuing on the interstate 66 East, I soon came to its junction with the notorious (too may trucks!) but beautiful intestate 81 South.


At Harrisonburg, I stopped for gas and coffee.  I was so cold that I could not stay indoors in the air-conditioned cafe, but had to come out into the sun.  That told me I needed to wear some more layers.  As I was finishing my coffee, a man came to look at my motorcycle and remarked that he too was the owner of a C50.  We chit-chatted, and he wished me luck.  Interestingly, there was a "spa" right next to the gas station.  It looked shady.  Why would there be a "spa" near a truck stop?  I googled it and my guess proved right.  It was an establishment of "pleasure".  Hmm... I guess the truckers do need a good massage.

Continuing South, I tried to take the parallel, lower-speed US-11 for a more relaxed ride.  81-South has a speed limit of 70mph.  That means most traffic, including a LOT of 18-wheeler trucks, are hurtling down at 75mph or more.  It is fast, but also not too enjoyable.  It turned out that the side-road, US-11, had too many stop signs or stop lights.  From being relaxing and leisurely, it quickly became bothersome.  I decided to get back on 81-South.

The traffic wasn't too bad.  There were quite a few trucks, but I was cruising at 75mph in the right lane, and thankfully they kept their distance.

It was getting warmer and warmer.

Soon I was near Blacksburg, and it was lunchtime.  The Virginia Tech University was nearby, and I decided to try the country restaurant chain "Cracker Barrel".  I had never eaten there, and had heard good things about it.  First thing I ordered was a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade.  It was heavenly.  And it came with endless refills.  So I had another!  I ordered a big sized burger with all kinds of country seasonings, and almost couldn't finish it.  There were easy chairs on a porch outside, and I lounged around for a while, while looking at retired folks (it was Friday, a working day) coming for their lunch.  All white people.  No Asians, Blacks or Hispanics.  No students.  And mostly couples.  It was quaint.  The Cracker Barrel restaurants have a country "store" next to their dining room.  They sell preserves, quilts and chairs, and other "country" stuff.  Oh well...

I had traveled almost 260 miles.  Only half-way done.

(to be continued)