Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Culture of the Market

Some earlier observations.

Social and cultural critics often write about how the "market" subverts humanity and its deeper values.  On one hand, market is simply about the exchange of value.  The freer the exchange is from state intervention, with effective regulations to deter malfeasance and exploitation of the environment, the more liberated is the society.  On the other, being subject to market forces with deep pockets can wreak havoc on smaller communities and individuals.

If the essentials of an economy are in elite hands, who have special access to the legislature, media and the army, what does such an economy do to individuals?

But that is at the macro level, what does market do at the micro level?

In what fundamental ways is a market society like modern-day urban America different from a society where money and the overt-ness of value exchange is not all-pervasive?

There are societies, or at least sections of societies, where people invite each other for no good reason.  Where people share home cooked food.  Where gifts are not bought but made.  Where artists and writers practice their craft without an expectation of a reward.  Where gadgets and branded personal items are not talked about.  Where, in essence, there is no expectation of an immediate pay-off or ego-stroking.

I remember an anecdote told to me by an old neighbor from India.  He had gone to the US to meet his sons.  While he was being driven in his son's car, they both noticed a man trying to load a big chunk of lumber into his pickup truck.  They both stopped to help him and lifted the weight into his truck.  As they were about to leave, that individual offered both of them five dollars each.  They were not only shocked, they felt bad at being offered money and vehemently refused it.

It is not my case that India is less money-minded.  Probably the big cities in India are much worse when it comes to helping a stranger.  Even the small towns are getting infected by the virus of "What's in it for me?".

The culture of market can be summed up as: I don't care about you, or have no space to care about you, as long as you don't give me something, now or in the future.

The culture of leisure is opposed to the culture of the market.  The culture of leisure involves doing things just for the inherent pleasure.  To read a book not because it will lead to self-improvement, but because... There is no because.  One just reads a book that one finds in one's hands because somehow something about it speaks to oneself, and one feels that it is a book that one has to read. 

The culture of leisure might be somewhat spartan, but we all understand that a long conversation and a cup of tea with friends is somehow far more valuable than a housewarming party where everybody is stressed about whether their gift will be considered suitable. 

The difference between an act of leisure and an act of exchange is in its lack of expectation.  To do a thing without expectation is to do it without the market driving it.

When was the last time you were at leisure?  Without an awareness of time being "wasted"?

The market finds a home in us when we cannot seem to have leisure and when we cannot relate to other people without an agenda or an expectation of something in return.

It can be said that love can truly exist only in a culture of leisure.

To really get a feel for the culture of the market, read an airline magazine while on your next flight.  Even a holiday is described in a manner which is less of a travelogue than a sales seminar.  Eat this seafood at this restaurant,  have this margarita at this nightclub, scuba dive with this company, try that local handloom market for gifts to take home.  Even if that magazine describes a walk along the beach, it will narrate it in a manner almost as if they are trying to sell nature to you.

Leaf through the magazine, and you might see some doctors who look and dress like models under the heading "The Best Doctors in America".  Everything in that magazine is to sell something to you.  And that is a pity.

Turn your gaze to the small screen in front of you, and you will see singers who are more interested in looking good than in singing well.

"You have to market yourself".  "You have to create an attractive package".  Adele cannot just sing "Hello".  She has to wear make-up, fake eye-lashes, and wear clothes which hide her weight.  The entire notion of a "music video" is for you to divide your attention between the sound and the spectacle.  The music is "packaged" for you.  If even one of the package's contents is a hit, the thing sells.  The package will include auto-tune, beautiful locales, skimpy models, tight choreography, acrobatics, time lapse photography, the latest fashion, sculpted muscles, chic homes and interiors... What does that have to do with the quality of music?  The music will suffer because it is no longer of primary importance. 

Because sale-ability is paramount, packaging has become important.  The creation or product in itself might be simple, but it is glamorized because you have to be bewitched.  Because you are not trusted to just enjoy the music on its own.  You can definitely enjoy the package too, but a sensitive individual cannot help but feel that too much effort is being made for him to deliver his applause and acquiescence.  And that it is somehow impure and almost vulgar.

The logic of the market is that something is worthwhile only if others are willing to give you something for it.  Intrinsic value is nil.  Inherent happiness is not the goal.  Unconditional love is considered medieval.

When art, writing and philosophy get infected by the market, they suffer the most.  At their best, an artist or a writer creates for a future, potential human.  A marketing specialist, though, creates so something will sell now.  A lack of regard for compensation makes for transcendence, while a focus on how much money we can make makes for manipulation of the present and pandering to the baser instincts in us.

I always had a feeling that Jagjit Singh prostituted himself when he used to crack dirty jokes in front of drunk audiences just so he could keep them entertained.  Nusrat corrupted himself toward the end of his career when he, wanting market share, produced the atrocious "Mera Piya Ghar Aya" and "Afreen".  (The latter has been the subject of a short film: "Nusrat has left the building")

Even the rich in a culture of market are not rich because they continue being obsessed by the means of living.  Consider an artist who has internalized the logic of the market.  For such an artist money, status, fame, instead of being organic effects of the artist's creation, will become primary and the work of art or literature is then cunningly designed to achieve money, status and fame.  So the work becomes the means, and what should have been secondary achieves primacy.

That is corruption of the artist's soul.  That is when a writer starts writing "Ph D" on the cover of the book.  That is when a music album contains coupons for the artist's future tour.  That is when a painting makes the news only for how much money it made in the market. 

When was the last time a painting was discussed in a newspaper, unconcerned with its "record breaking auction price"?  What matters for books these days is if they make the "best selling" list, not if they are works of outstanding originality or depth. 

To sell, you have to have your ear to the ground to know how the masses are gravitating.  To create, you only have to listen to your own voice.

Can it be said that true art is unconcerned with its reception?  That true philosophy is not about a TED lecture?

An artist, if he hankers after awards and endorsements, is not an artist but an entrepreneur.  Of course, one could be both, but the desert and the sky and the stars do not need endorsements.  They stand alone.  You can admire their beauty, without a billboard asking you to look up or look further.  It is not a question of money, but of dismay, when I find that a natural landmark has been commercialized.  It is not that I have to buy a ticket to be close to it, but that it is somehow no longer untrammeled nature.

One of the greatest mathematicians of our times, Grigori Perelman, was disinterested in accepting the Field's medal, because his proof of Poincare's conjecture stands taller than any certificate honoring him.  On the other hand, a politician will accept honorary doctorates or a Peace Nobel without even the least bit of self-doubt.  Though we are all subsumed by the market to varying degrees, something in us still marvels at the pure mathematician, and is somehow repelled by the politician.

We admire the freckles on the face of an old woman, and the wavy hair of a child in a very different manner than when we get impressed by an airbrushed Rihanna in People magazine.

That deep light within us, that the market constantly tries to extinguish, recognizes an instance of its nature and reflection quite easily.

The challenge for a sensitive human these days to be in this world, and yet remain un-corrupted by it.  That does not mean a spiritual detachment, but an understanding and awareness of the high and the low, of the silent versus the noisy.  To find oneself in a shopping mall, and yet understand that there is nothing there that one needs or wants.  To find oneself listening to music, and to put the noise of its marketing aside.  To read a piece of news, and to disregard the sensation and outrage of the journalist.  To be silent in the midst of the cacophony around oneself.

It is easier to be silent when in nature, and it is no wonder that those whose souls need healing go to the mountains and to the sea.  Is it not obvious that the primary joy of being in nature is that of being away from civilization and its groping of your spirit?  It does not matter that the landscape be beautiful.  Anyone who tells you that you must visit "those falls" which are "so awesome" does not understand silence.  They regard nature as yet another article of consumption.  You can know them because they will plan their day when in nature, instead of recognizing that what their soul truly needs is that sense of leisure and non-seeking, non-acquisition, non-greed.  Just silence.

For silence, mere wilderness, desolation, solitude is enough.

The market has become more powerful than ever, and so the struggle is harder than ever.  One could say that one is more free to be oneself these days, and choose one's own path, but is it easier or more difficult these days to remain free from influence?  At every turn there is bombardment.  It is an illusion to believe that modern man is more free.  In essentials, when it comes to his life and relationships, he is on the highway of civilization, patrolled by helicopters and cop cars.  He has the freedom to change lanes and choose the color of his car, perhaps.

This has been a meandering essay, but I needed to write this.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Annihilation of Caste, reviewed

Caste is system of social classification in India, which finds some justification and examples in a few Indian scriptures and the common mythological legends.  There are also many Indian scriptures which do not encourage it or give importance to it.

The most important manifestations of this classification are social prohibitions which are exclusive to certain castes, and a segregation which is practiced quite pervasively when it comes to interaction of the castes.  That segregation is especially forceful in terms of inter-marriage, inter-dining and the use of communal resources and places of worship.  This segregation is enforced quite brutally with violence and by various kinds of social punishments and humiliations enforced by kangaroo courts in Indian villages.

I consider caste as a way social power structures in India have preserved themselves.  At the point of social boycott or a gun, any upward mobility of the lower classes has been crushed by the powerful who obviously benefited from the status quo.  The powerful in India remained only somewhat powerful, and due (in part) to this myopic and socially stunting preservation of their privilege and power, did not ascend to the enlightenment and global power of Europe where the lower classes were at least allowed education and organization.

B R Ambedkar, in his work "Annihilation of Caste" advocates a repudiation of the authority of various Indic scriptures, and thereby a demolishing of the various foundations of what is now known as Hinduism, as the only way to get rid of this brutal system.  He was opposed in his view most famously by M K Gandhi, who was inclined to the view that moral education and self-governance was key.  He hoped that benevolent and moral masters would treat the lower classes with compassion, and could be expected to wield their power humanely, and that it was unwise to compel the masters to give up their power or to organize the lower classes to revolt against the masters.

Arundhati Roy has written an introduction to Ambedkar's essay.  I do not take Ms Roy seriously as she is not a social scientist and frequently veers into invective and sentiment after being impressed, and trying to impress the reader, by anecdotes.

But I do believe injustice is endemic in India, and it is of fundamental importance to see how this system of injustice can be, and should be, transformed into a system that is more just and which protects the basic human needs of liberty and safety.

I am of the considered opinion that Ambedkar had a sound intellect and was well-intentioned, but that he was unrealistic and misguided in his remedy.  Ambedkar did observe the injustice, was pained by it, and wanted to correct it, but his solution suffered from a bad diagnosis (which was probably a result of his own lower-caste background) and, more pertinently, was simply un-achievable.  It is not possible for religion, or the authority of scriptures, to be demolished without severe restrictions on speech and thought, and without state oppression (as was done in Russia and China).  In a country like India, it would have led to outright civil war.

Ambedkar, as part of his remedy, wanted religious freedoms to be massively curtailed, with the state sanctioning and certifying priests, and with unlicensed priests to be prosecuted by law.  Moreover, though he acknowledged that caste and segregation was not limited to Hinduism, he thereby failed to conclude that perhaps it was not Hindu scriptures at fault, but something else.  In his zeal, he quotes obscure scriptures which are not in common use and whose rather brutal assertions and prescribed penalties are nowhere followed in the present times.

As for Gandhi, I consider him to be quite deluded and archaic, thoroughly non-rigorous in his thinking, and quite woefully equipped is his intellectual understanding and acceptance of orthodox religious beliefs.  To list just a few instances, his understanding of human sexuality, medicine, modern science, evolution, the mechanisms of law and power etc. were quite regressive.  He was effective in gaining power through his persona of holiness and self-mortification, and he was possibly seen as a safe opponent by the British, but he had no real sociological or psychological insight which could stand the test of analysis or science or time.  Political success often requires little insight and is usually much more effected by charisma and abject manipulation of impressionable minds.

Coming to the question of injustice in India, I consider that a modern state must first take care of protecting its citizens from violence and intimidation and that any further legislation is dead in its tracks if a citizen can be assaulted and intimidated, without consequence, to remain powerless, ignorant, mute and subservient.

Caste can become a justification of violence, just as religion can be, or ideology, or even something as common as a property or marital dispute.  It is an acceptance of injustice, and a further injustice, if instead of tackling violence per se, the state starts legislating on what it sees as the psychological causes of that violence.  When a state is involved in policing thought instead of acts, it undermines the most important foundation of human happiness: liberty.  When a state outlaws and prohibits conduct which may lead to violence, it is thereby admitting that it is powerless to punish those who are actually violent, and would rather preclude it by clamping down a priori.

If two communities do not wish to inter-marry or inter-dine, it is no business of the state to compel them to do so.  But it is the solemn duty of the state to protect two individuals who defy their communities to inter-dine or inter-marry.  The state is overreaching when it seeks to impose justice by prohibiting or criminalizing acts which are not violent in themselves.

Therefore, Ambedkar is wrong in asking the state to intervene in the religious affairs of its people, just as Gandhi is wrong in asking the state to be religiously guided.  The constitution must be an enlightened one, but it must not seek to force that enlightenment at the point of a gun.  If two people in a modern state want to believe in a flat earth, or believe in global warming, or consider women as superior to men or vice versa, or consider gay marriage as sinful, or consider the Nazi holocaust as a fiction, it is their freedom to do so.  But when they start beating or killing someone who disagrees with them, then the state must protect their victims with all the force that it can muster, and it must punish the aggressors quickly and effectively.

Instead of abolishing caste, what was, and continues to be, needed in India is simply the effective enforcement of laws against violence and intimidation. If the upper-castes butcher a lower-caste man who dared to marry an upper-caste woman, the solution is not to have an SC/ST atrocities act (as Arundhati Roy would giddily advocate) but simply, to deter and punish those who dare to commit such an assault, and to ensure protection to those who claim danger to their lives from social thugs.

Therefore I say: it is much more important to have a tangibly accountable and effective police and judiciary than to endlessly debate on how to have a more just society.

I wonder why Ambedkar sought a far-flung remedy instead of simply helping create a constitution in which ordinary citizens had quick recourse to state protection when they felt endangered, and in which criminals could not appeal all the way to Supreme Court and get away.  He left the IPC and CrPC unchanged.  Did he not see that these were tools of the colonial masters, and not fit for a self-governed democratic republic?

A response to my argument may be that we cannot expect the police and judiciary to be faithful to the constitution and that they will work as per their biases.  And therefore the state must actively legislate against the biases.  But then, what will that further legislation do?  How and why should we expect the police to faithfully enforce the SC/ST atrocities act instead of simply expecting them to faithfully enforce the law against murder?

I have no real problem with prejudice.  I see it as a stage in evolution of human thought, which will eventually wilt or see a scientific basis.  In the longer term, education will hopefully make people more enlightened.  And secular education, after justice, must remain a priority for the state.  But if education is cognitive nourishment and (hopefully) enlightenment, criminalizing "bad" thought is coercion and brutality.  It is not the job of the state to correct prejudices and shape the minds of its people, howsoever we might see those prejudices as harmful to society.  Once a state is given sanction to prosecute prejudices in its people, it will quickly turn into an entity that prosecutes anyone that it sees as prejudicial to its interests, and those of the powerful.

It is the role of intellectuals and the social reformers to educate the society, in a democratic way, of their conclusions.  They may face opposition, as Ambedkar faced from Gandhi, but that dialectic and process cannot, and should not, be short-circuited by state power.  It is a slow process, and revolutionaries often want quick solutions to historical injustices, but such revolutions often leave in their wake suffering and resentment, which then necessitate a coercive state and a violent underground.

Ambedkar was wise to insist on affirmative action for a decade, in government recruitment and higher education.  But such affirmative action has become a permanent firmament in India, and more and more tribes and castes are angling for "reservation".  Arun Shourie's book "Worshiping False Gods" is an interesting take on the corruption and massive resentment that this perpetuation of affirmative action has caused.  I have no doubt that special facilities and budgetary allocation must be provided for the education and upliftment of those communities that have been historically intimidated.  It is debatable whether after 70 years of affirmative action, do we need more of it or do we need to refocus on the ground realities and provide good education and healthcare.  It is not self-evident that those from the oppressed classes who rise to the top do not themselves become collaborators in their oppression.  It is far more important to address the base of the pyramid (of the oppressed classes), when it comes to health, education, sanitation and access to legal remedies, than to continue to only ensure that the top of that pyramid is at an equal height to the other, historically advantaged, pyramids in society.

What a state should seek is lack of prejudice under law, not lack of prejudice between individuals or communities.  As abhorrent as communal or individual prejudices might be to you or to me, the state must stay away from criminalizing them.  What is abhorrent today might not remain so tomorrow, and what is abhorrent to me may not be to you.  If all abhorrence is to be outlawed, what will we do with heretical or unpopular opinions?  Ironically, this manner of thinking (of outlawing prejudice and abhorrent thoughts and acts) is one reason why blasphemy and homosexuality continue to remain crimes in India.  To the Indian state, and presumably to Ambedkar, whatever is offensive and might start a cycle of violence is thereby criminal.

More than an attack on the ideal of liberty, this is also a pragmatic error.  The more a state clamps down on prejudice, the more that prejudice festers and explodes eventually.

Let people be free, and protect them in their freedom.  That is all.  The Indian state fails utterly in the latter, and thereby justifies its failure in the former.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Some Observations on Internet

1.  It is rare that a piece of writing on the internet is re-read.  That is an indication that internet is primarily a medium of interaction, information and entertainment. 

2.  It is well-understood that distraction is harmful for a deeper understanding.  What are the ways in which internet forces distraction on you?  Since the medium is ad-driven, any one page on a major website has many other headlines and titles tempting you to stop reading and click on them.  It is an interesting exercise to time yourself before you click on something else.  Like in modern films in which a cut happens every few seconds (as compared to old films in which each scene is on average much longer), the primary feature of internet consumption is an accelerating disruption in reading (or watching) and the jump to something else.

3.  The primary difference between a written and a streaming medium (even an audio book) is that there is no time to pause.  How many times have you voluntarily paused a lecture or documentary to ponder over it?  This makes it easy to understand why television, videos (TED!) and lectures are much, much less effective in fostering a deep understanding born of reflection and pondering, as compared to reading.

4.  Books are also primitively hyperlinked in terms of footnotes which can motivate you to read the original text from which an excerpt or a conclusion has been quoted.  But streaming media and internet (or even Kindle) make it hard to pause, refer to something else, and then come back to the original text.  The best content on internet takes the best features of the book, and offers easy access to references in their entirety.  Wikipedia, for example.  But Wikipedia is factual, what about opinion pieces on the internet?  This is the primary reason "fake news" is easy to disseminate on the internet than in a book or journal article.  Internet makes it hard to do research because it is easy.  Because it is easy to tempt you, and make you jump to something else rather than really just focus on one text and its sources.

5.  The vast majority is not interested, or doesn't have the mental space for, meditation or reflection on an issue.  Understanding complexity takes effort.  But what is happening to the minority which is so interested?  If the medium is toxic in fundamental ways, it will eventually affect the genuinely intellectual in similar (if slower) ways than others.

6.  It is therefore important to use the internet with discrimination and an awareness of its temptations.  I hope that concerned educators, if they understand what is going on, will introduce courses in schools and colleges on internet and its discontents, probably titled as "online attention and time management".  I can only hope.

7.  Because something is easily available, it can also thereby remain on the watch-list or reading list.  What takes priority is the latest, the sensational and the witty.  One can always (never, as it happens) find time to listen to that one-hour lecture or read that 2000 page essay.  Since it is available, what is the hurry?

8. You might rail against advertising and its intrusive nature, but what about intrusiveness of content itself.  YouTube finishes a video and offers you suggestions which you have to cancel otherwise it will play the next.  Major websites offer click-bait article titles on top, on bottom, and on both sides.  The noise is overwhelming.  How can you read Marcus Aurelius or Umberto Eco in a cacophonous and cackling den of chaos.  If meditation essentially is founded on inward silence, then internet is the most toxic way to never have that silence.

9.  Someone suggested that the elites of the future will predicate their elitism on a longer attention span.  The proles will remain distracted and chuckling at the latest sex scandal or at the fat lady slipping in the pool.  What that means for democracy and evolution is not difficult to comprehend.  Will humanity evolve a balance?  I doubt it.  The last hundred years have gone in one direction only: a greater control of the public mind.  The Century of the Self has now evolved to become the Century of the Distracted.  It is still early days, but given that trillions of dollars, and the very engine of consumption and elite power, are weighing on the other scale, what chance does a teenage student have to preserve his attention and sanity?

10.  FANG is an acronym which could not be more appropriately named by gods themselves.  While they used to need guns and armies, it is infinitely easier for the elite vampires to suck the blood of an entire generation without human intervention.  You might have the smartphone in your pocket, but you are quite firmly in theirs.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Three Scenes, and a Parable, on Culture

Scene 1

In an elocution contest in a youth festival, the topic is: "Cultural Policy".  All the participants talk about the importance of culture, and for the need of preserving it.  None talk about the continuum between art and living, what we mean by culture when we talk about it, whether our understanding is from our our life or from a brochure, why the culture is threatened, what is the culture of the threat itself, why the threat seems stronger than what is, whether efforts to preserve are an admission of weakness, whether policy can only preserve the artistic nature or whether it can also preserve a way of life, and whether state intervention or a top-down diktat is really about culture or whether it is about the self-esteem of a fledgling nation.

One of the participants speaking in Punjabi, to my surprise, quotes that (in)famous sentence: "Whenever I hear the word culture, I release the catch on my Browning."  But he doesn't expound on it.

Scene 2

In a series of classical music concerts in a local university, I find almost no connoisseurs who are there for the music.  There are invited VIPs, donors, students and teachers of the organizing department of music.  The university has thousands of students in arts and sciences, and hundreds of teachers.  This event is in a city of a million people.  The artists have come from far away.  But only those are present in the auditorium who have a professional or research or organizational interest in the event.

Some girls leave at 7pm because of the hostel curfew time.

The anchors talk about the "grade" of the artist (apparently signifying how much the artist is paid by public broadcasting for a performance) and which political dignitaries the artist has performed for.  They do not mention the specific interest or inclination of the artist and his/her work, how the music of the artist has evolved over the years, which are some of the stand-out performances or recordings (by the artist) that one could listen to.  The introduction of the artist is performed mechanically, and the artists themselves (except for one) are ill-at-ease introducing themselves and what they are going to present that evening.

Some anchors are teachers in the department of music.  And they refer to the students in the audience as "dear children".

The poster for the event is in Punjabi, but has the words "coordinator" and "convener" in English transliterated in Gurmukhi script.

The artist from Pune does not understand Punjabi.  The head of the music department forgets her name when introducing her.  And he speaks in Punjabi while the artist looks on with confusion.

The anchor instructs the "children" to appreciate the performance properly and not with whistles.

Scene 3

The invitation card of the University youth festival is chock-full of the names of the VIP guests and only as an after-thought mentions the events themselves.  The font for the names of the VIPs is bigger than the event descriptions.

The third page of the invitation reads in Punjabi (translated into English by me):

"Winning students will be fortunate to receive the prizes from the hallowed hands of the esteemed vice-chancellor."

A Parable

The roof had long covered the house but the winds had weakened its joints with the walls.  At present, it scarcely protected the house from rain and dust.  Any minor storm punished the people of the house with the misery of a fresh damage and chaos.

The rainwater came from the heavens above, but due to an old superstition, the house owner continued to build fortifications in front.  He saw the roof as weak, but not knowing the basics of masonry, he continue to add another coat of whitewash to the walls after every storm.

There was intense discord within the family of the house, and they all resented the owner, who they knew was a fool, but who possessed the only gun in that village.

One day  a mendicant came to that village, begging for alms.  The mendicant's loincloth was patched with regular square pieces from his discarded clothes.  As he passed that ugly house (the roof of which was now woefully patched with earthen pots and ramshackle metal pieces), he started singing an old tune: "The leaf is strong.  The rock is weak.  What's alive is well.  Only the dead is bleak."

The perennially annoyed tyrant of that house flew into a rage at hearing this strange song.  He rushed out and kicked the singing stranger, and screamed at him as he fell down: "We are cursed by the storms, and you think of these silly songs?"

The mendicant slowly got up, dusted off his loincloth and his bag, and replied to the angry man: "I have seen many a storm in my life.  But tell me, what are you protecting from the next storm?"

The man blurted: "Why, our possessions and our life itself!"

The mendicant started singing his tune again: "The leaf is strong.  The rock is weak.  What's alive is well.  Only the dead is bleak."

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Purple Rain

The village was in the hinterlands and its inhabitants were simple-minded.  They tilled their land, waited for the rains, and nature was their god.

The village had been ravaged many times by dacoits.  Even its own chief was not known to be kind or generous.  But the village-folks accepted their good and bad times with patience and prayer.

Their life was one of need and survival, and only a few experienced any comfort or luxury.  The rains were infrequent, and good rains led to a good harvest.  Even if the villagers had excess grain, they stored it for a year or two of famine which might befall them in future.

The village priest, like the villagers themselves, was a simple man, given to prayer and simple rituals.  He lived on alms.  He was never in fear of starvation, and he lived in a simple hut with his holy book.  Adjoining his hut was a temple, if it could be called that.  The temple had an ancient and beautiful, but spartan, statue of a mythical God with a few flowers always placed on its feet.

Life continued for the village at a languorous pace.  Nothing had really changed for decades and centuries.  The villagers were mostly content, and their view of the world was limited to their families and their farms.

Presently, it was the season of rains and so far that year the rainfall had been fitful and patchy.  The village-folk were worried and kept awake at night, watching for any sign of the clouds.

One morning during that season, they watched with glee as a fierce storm formed itself and the easterly winds brought a dense cover of thick, black clouds.  They had prayed for rains, and the gods had answered.

The clouds gathered above them, there was a deafening roar of thunder and the lightening almost blinded them with its intensity, and they danced as thick dusty raindrops started hitting the parched soil.

It was raining heavily now, but strangely - the villagers watched with some anxiety - the raindrops were purple in color.  It was water, from appearance, but the wet soil did not smell familiar.  There was a weird stench, and they wondered if the "water" was indeed water.  One of them, a man braver than others, gathered some drops in his palm and fearfully licked them.  He started dancing, as if drunk.  The sweetness was beyond what they thought was possible in this world. They got out all their pitchers and pots, and collected as much of this sweet purple rain as they could.

They had a good harvest that year.  But strangely, as they fed on that harvest, their skin turned purple.  Unknown maladies afflicted some of them.  They became lazy, indolent, and fond of that purple drink that now filled their wells and flowed in their rivers.  The skin of many turned itchy, and all the time of those itchy men and women was spent in tending to their skin.

Afraid and uncertain of what was going on, they decided to seek the counsel and blessing of the village priest.  After all, he was known to understand the mysteries of nature and had more experience and wisdom than any of them.

But the rain had fallen on the priest's hut and the temple too.  The priest had taken to drinking that purple sweet soma, and the statue of the God now had at its feet, instead of those simple flowers, a pitcher of soma and some pieces of gold.  The priest too was itchy, and as he prayed and read his scripture, he could not help but constantly scratch his belly and thighs.

Crestfallen, the villagers cursed him as a fallen man and destroyed his hut.


Spiritual teachers are not immune to the cultural winds, the parabolic nature of technology and consumerism, and the clouds of gratification.  A Buddha of today would have to be on social media.  Ramakrishna would travel in a Mercedes, and a Krishna would have many models as his consorts.

What we are, what our world is, so will be our teachers.  They may say what is old, but their innards are drenched and flooded with the new.  The rare one who will continue to be old will remain unknown and unheard.

Their sickness is not a rare one, but is part of the epidemic.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Sikhism and Renunciation

Almost all Sikhs are householders, and it is widely presumed that the Sikh Gurus condemned renunciation and advocated being a householder.

If we examine Sikhism as practiced in Punjab and elsewhere, it is indeed true that celibacy, living in a monastery, being a hermit, and other attributes of renunciation (as is practiced in India) are absent. Sikhs do not believe in the monastic attributes as worthy, and instead hold that their Gurus recommended living a normal life of working for one's livelihood, getting married, raising a family, etc. with spiritual salvation as the ultimate goal.

However, that is a bit self-serving and is just not true, if we read and interpret the writings of the Sikh Gurus, especially of Guru Nanak. The Sikh Gurus' (presumed) advocacy of a worldly and family life is a myth. Though the Sikh Gurus (and many of the other contributors to the Adi Granth, the Sikh holy scripture) were themselves married and were not hermits, they never quite glorified family life or outright condemned renunciation. One can only perhaps say that they regarded blind renunciation and asceticism as not sufficient for spiritual salvation.

Whether one was a householder, or an ascetic, the Sikh scriptures condemned hypocrisy and attachment. Since Sikhism was essentially an amalgam and a later development of the Bhakti and Sufi movements, the strength and authenticity of feeling and devotion was emphasized, and rituals, attire or an outward change in lifestyle were considered unimportant.

This is also true, that after Guru Nanak became a preacher, he did not really live a householder's life. After the age of 28 (it was 1497 when Nanak's second child, Lakhmi Chand was born), Nanak had no more children and spent most of his life in a manner similar to a wandering hermit.  Similarly, after their ascension, none of the Sikh Gurus earned their living through their vocation (if there was one), but instead depended on donations from their congregation and lived the life of a preacher.

Polygamy was normal in those times, and many of the Sikh Gurus had multiple wives. Even someone like Baba Farid had three wives and eight children. It is also now widely accepted by historians that Kabir was married.

Since a Guru's own life serves as an inspiration, Sikhs reject celibacy as an aid to spiritual upliftment. But the Gurus also condemned, in no uncertain terms, attachment to family, sexual desire and the pursuit of wealth. It is inexplicable to me how one can reconcile a householder's life with a lack of attachment, sexuality or the desire for prosperity (which is usually pejoratively called greed in most Indian scriptures). In my view, such condemnation of normal human drives leads to a chronic feeling of guilt and fallen-ness which then necessitates compensatory devotion and charity to a church or similar institution.

Considering the writings of Guru Nanak, the following are the major references to a householder's life:

Page 952, Line 13
ਸੋ ਗਿਰਹੀ ਜੋ ਨਿਗ੍ਰਹੁ ਕਰੈ ॥
He alone is a householder, who restrains his passions

(Lest we consider this an advocacy of a householder's life, immediately after this verse, Guru Nanak speaks similarly about an ascetic.)
ਸੋ ਅਉਧੂਤੀ ਜੋ ਧੂਪੈ ਆਪੁ ॥
He alone is a detached hermit, who burns away his self-conceit.

Page 1013, Line 11
ਧਨੁ ਗਿਰਹੀ ਸੰਨਿਆਸੀ ਜੋਗੀ ਜਿ ਹਰਿ ਚਰਣੀ ਚਿਤੁ ਲਾਏ ॥੭॥
Blessed is such a householder, Sannyaasi and Yogi, who focuses his consciousness on the Lord's feet. ||7||

Page 1169
ਜਾਮਿ ਨ ਭੀਜੈ ਸਾਚ ਨਾਇ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥
if you are not drenched with the True Name. ||1||Pause||

ਦਸ ਅਠ ਲੀਖੇ ਹੋਵਹਿ ਪਾਸਿ ॥
One may have the eighteen Puraanas written in his own hand;

ਚਾਰੇ ਬੇਦ ਮੁਖਾਗਰ ਪਾਠਿ ॥
he may recite the four Vedas by heart,

ਪੁਰਬੀ ਨਾਵੈ ਵਰਨਾਂ ਕੀ ਦਾਤਿ ॥
and take ritual baths at holy festivals and give charitable donations;

ਵਰਤ ਨੇਮ ਕਰੇ ਦਿਨ ਰਾਤਿ ॥੨॥
he may observe the ritual fasts, and perform religious ceremonies day and night. ||2||

ਕਾਜੀ ਮੁਲਾਂ ਹੋਵਹਿ ਸੇਖ ॥
He may be a Qazi, a Mullah or a Shaykh,

ਜੋਗੀ ਜੰਗਮ ਭਗਵੇ ਭੇਖ ॥
a Yogi or a wandering hermit wearing saffron-colored robes;

ਕੋ ਗਿਰਹੀ ਕਰਮਾ ਕੀ ਸੰਧਿ ॥
he may be a householder, working at his job;

ਬਿਨੁ ਬੂਝੇ ਸਭ ਖੜੀਅਸਿ ਬੰਧਿ ॥੩॥
but without understanding the essence of devotional worship, all people are eventually bound and gagged, and driven along by the Messenger of Death. ||3||

Page 1329, Line 15
ਜਿਸ ਤੇ ਹੋਆ ਸੋਈ ਕਰਿ ਮਾਨਿਆ ਨਾਨਕ ਗਿਰਹੀ ਉਦਾਸੀ ਸੋ ਪਰਵਾਣੁ ॥੪॥੮॥
We come from Him; surrendering to Him, O Nanak, one is approved as a householder, and a renunciate. ||4||8||

Reading these verses, it is clear that Guru Nanak did not especially recommend the householder role, but was instead an advocate of true devotion, no matter what one's circumstances.

The prime distinction between a householder and an ascetic is the vow and practice of celibacy. Passion (kaam) is considered one of the five vices/bondages according to Sikhism, the other four being krodh, lobh, moh, and hankaar (anger, greed, emotional attachment in a human being, and arrogance, respectively).

But there is a slight problem.  The other worldly activities can be carried out perhaps without desire, out of a sense of duty, but I fail to imagine how the sexual act can be performed without passion or desire. If a Sikh indulges in sex, which is impossible without desire and passion, he thereby must feel like having failed to follow their Guru's teachings. There is no place in Sikh scriptures for a moderate indulgence in sexual pleasure, and a pleasure it is. For a man, sexual arousal (which is a function of desire and is to a large extent psychological) is essential for the intercourse to occur.  This presents quite a predicament. Fortunately or unfortunately, it is easier for women to indulge in (or rather, allow) sex without arousal.

My point is, how can Guru Nanak be against sexual passion but also at the same time be against celibacy. Did he mean for Sikhs to have passionless sex? Did he mean monogamy, when monogamy was not the norm and as I stated earlier, many Sikh gurus and other mystics were married to multiple wives?  The Sikhs have resolved this predicament, quite realistically, by concluding that the Gurus advocated restrained passion, which meant having sex with one's own wife or wives, as a matter of duty rather than pleasure.

Guru Nanak had this to say about sexual pleasure:

Page 152, Line 11
ਕਾਮੁ ਕ੍ਰੋਧੁ ਜੀਅ ਮਹਿ ਚੋਟ ॥
Sexual desire and anger are the wounds of the soul.

Page 1041, Line 14
ਕਾਮੁ ਕ੍ਰੋਧੁ ਪਰਹਰੁ ਪਰ ਨਿੰਦਾ ॥
Leave behind sexual desire, anger and the slander of others.
Page 1110, Line 19
ਧਾਵਤ ਪੰਚ ਰਹੇ ਘਰੁ ਜਾਣਿਆ ਕਾਮੁ ਕ੍ਰੋਧੁ ਬਿਖੁ ਮਾਰਿਆ ॥
The five restless desires are restrained, and he knows the home of his own heart. He conquers sexual desire, anger and corruption.

At a multitude of places, the Adi Granth, like Bible, prohibits and condemns a desire for another man's wife, though it never condemns having multiple wives of one's own.

For an average Sikh, the Gurus' teachings are therefore understood to be for sexual fidelity, which is a matter of morality and moderation, rather than freedom from sexuality, which is a form of transcendence.  But that is a convenient interpretation and ignores quite flagrantly the Gurus' condemnation of sexual desire in itself.

And nowhere does the Adi Granth advocate love and attachment toward one's own family.  In fact, quite the opposite, it asks the Sikh to remain detached from them and perhaps treat them as a responsibility or a duty.

Page 63
ਮਨਮੁਖੁ ਜਾਣੈ ਆਪਣੇ ਧੀਆ ਪੂਤ ਸੰਜੋਗੁ ॥
The self-willed manmukh looks upon his daughters, sons and relatives as his own.

ਨਾਰੀ ਦੇਖਿ ਵਿਗਾਸੀਅਹਿ ਨਾਲੇ ਹਰਖੁ ਸੁ ਸੋਗੁ ॥
Gazing upon his wife, he is pleased. But along with happiness, they bring grief.

Page 556
ਕਲੀ ਅੰਦਰਿ ਨਾਨਕਾ ਜਿੰਨਾਂ ਦਾ ਅਉਤਾਰੁ ॥
In this Dark Age of Kali Yuga, O Nanak, the demons have taken birth.

ਪੁਤੁ ਜਿਨੂਰਾ ਧੀਅ ਜਿੰਨੂਰੀ ਜੋਰੂ ਜਿੰਨਾ ਦਾ ਸਿਕਦਾਰੁ ॥੧॥
The son is a demon, and the daughter is a demon; the wife is the chief of the demons. ||1||

To conclude, Guru Nanak's teachings never go so far as to recommend the life of a householder. At the most, we can say that the Guru equates the life of a householder with that of a renunciate, preferring neither, and praises them equally for their obedience to the Guru, for their devotion and for having attained freedom from passion and other vices, and condemns them equally for not having those qualities.    This equation of an ascetic and a householder is common in Bhakti and Sufi narratives, and not something new from Guru Nanak or other Sikh Gurus.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Guru, Shabad, Naam

The Adi Granth, the scripture of the Sikhs, has many a hymn which sing the glory of divine oneness and of the way to realize it.  The path is not entirely self-focused, but insofar as it is (to guide the soul to the realm of bliss, to avoid rebirth, etc.) it asks the seeker to (a) serve and be guided by the Guru, to (b) contemplate his teachings (shabad), and to (c) chant and meditate on the "naam" to realize or achieve the soul's union with the Lord.

In this essay, I would like to shed some light on these three important words/concepts which recur in the Adi Granth: Guru, Naam, and Shabad.  These terms are important but not well-understood by most Sikhs.  Many scholars have opined on the meaning of these terms.  They have tried to clarify what the original authors truly intended.  I am going to cite only from the hymns of Guru Nanak, though the hymns of later Gurus are more or less in the same vein.

It is perhaps misguided to carefully analyze the hyms and poetry to form a clear and consistent idea of the Guru's teachings as they pertain to the spiritual path.  Since it is all poetry, meant to be sung in a congregation, the teachings are perhaps not supposed to be philosophically rigorous.

The hymns are also generally quite absolutist, as is to be expected in devotional texts.  Examples of absolutism in Sikh hymns are quite numerous: that there is "no salvation without guru/shabad/naam", or that one "forever wanders if one doesn't do this" or there is "only darkness without xyz".

Absolutist assertions are not nuanced, but they do facilitate surrender.  If there is no other way, and if there is a grave fear of going astray, then the devotee feels impelled to dedicate himself wholeheartedly to the given path.

Sikh spirituality, being an offshoot of the Bhakti and the Sufi movements, is devotional and feeling-oriented.  The Sikh scriptures appeal to the emotions, and there are plenty of instances where the punishment of an agonizing death, of hell, or of a painful series of rebirths are mentioned.  The fearful consequences of not following the spiritual teachings are contrasted with the everlasting bliss and orgasmic feeling of union that will result if one follows the path.  The contrast is not at all vague.  While the loyal and obedient devotee is promised protection and deliverance, all kinds of hell-fire and suffering is predicted for a heathen or a self-willed man.

It is also a misconception that doubt and inquiry is encouraged in Sikhism.  In devotional paths, doubt is considered a grave impediment.  Sikh scriptures, being overwhelmingly devotional, exhort surrender and total dedication rather than intellectual inquiry or self-reliance.

Page 153, Line 10
ਰੇ ਮਨ ਮੇਰੇ ਭਰਮੁ ਨ ਕੀਜੈ ॥
O my mind, do not give in to doubt.

Page 145, Line 6
ਸਤਿਗੁਰੁ ਸੇਵਿ ਨਿਸੰਗੁ ਭਰਮੁ ਚੁਕਾਈਐ ॥
Serve the True Guru fearlessly, and your doubt shall be dispelled.

Page 414, Line 12
ਭਰਮਿ ਭੁਲਾਨਾ ਫਿਰਿ ਪਛੁਤਾਨਾ ॥
Deluded by doubt, he later regrets and repents.

Now I will quote some verses by Guru Nanak, part of the Adi Granth which talk of the spiritual path in Sikhism:

1. To serve and be guided by the Guru

Page 57, Line 10
ਐਸਾ ਸਤਿਗੁਰੁ ਜੇ ਮਿਲੈ ਤਾ ਸਹਜੇ ਲਏ ਮਿਲਾਇ ॥੩॥
If one finds such a True Guru, the Lord is met with intuitive ease. ||3||

Page 58, Line 3
ਬਿਨੁ ਸਤਿਗੁਰ ਨਾਉ ਨ ਪਾਈਐ ਬਿਨੁ ਨਾਵੈ ਕਿਆ ਸੁਆਉ ॥
Without the True Guru, the Name is not obtained. Without the Name, what is the use of it all?

Page 221, Line 7
ਗੁਰ ਸੇਵੀ ਗੁਰ ਲਾਗਉ ਪਾਇ ॥
I serve the Guru, and I fall at the Guru's Feet.

Page 223, Line 6
ਸਤਿਗੁਰਿ ਮੋ ਕਉ ਏਕੁ ਬੁਝਾਇਆ ॥੫॥
The True Guru has led me to understand the One Lord. ||5||

Page 227, Line 4
ਕਾਲੁ ਨ ਛੋਡੈ ਬਿਨੁ ਗੁਰ ਕੀ ਸੇਵਾ ॥
Death cannot be avoided, without serving the Guru.

Page 228, Line 16
ਗੁਰ ਸੇਵਾ ਪ੍ਰਭੁ ਪਾਇਆ ਸਚੁ ਮੁਕਤਿ ਦੁਆਰਾ ॥੪॥
Only by serving the Guru is God obtained, and the true gate of liberation found. ||4||

Page 229, Line 3
ਬਿਨੁ ਗੁਰ ਪੰਥੁ ਨ ਸੂਝਈ ਕਿਤੁ ਬਿਧਿ ਨਿਰਬਹੀਐ ॥੨॥
Without the Guru, the Path cannot be seen. How can anyone proceed? ||2||

It is without a doubt that the Guru in Guru Nanak's hymns is a living human being.  There may be an occasional verse asking one to recognize the guru in one's heart, but most verses describe the Guru as a persona whose teachings are to be followed, who "gives" naam, and who is to be served.  Reference to the guru's feet is a clear indication as well.

2. To chant and meditate on the Naam, which only the Guru can provide

Page 57, Line 16
ਜਿਨੀ ਨਾਮੁ ਵਿਸਾਰਿਆ ਅਵਗਣ ਮੁਠੀ ਰੋਇ ॥੭॥
Those who have forgotten the Naam are plundered by evil; they weep and wail in dismay. ||7||

Page 57, Line 19
ਹਰਿ ਜਪਿ ਨਾਮੁ ਧਿਆਇ ਤੂ ਜਮੁ ਡਰਪੈ ਦੁਖ ਭਾਗੁ ॥
Chant and meditate on the Naam, the Name of the Lord; death will be afraid of you, and suffering shall depart.

Page 58, Line 1
ਮੈ ਧਨੁ ਨਾਮੁ ਨਿਧਾਨੁ ਹੈ ਗੁਰਿ ਦੀਆ ਬਲਿ ਜਾਉ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥
The Guru has given me the Treasure of the Wealth of the Naam; I am a sacrifice to Him. ||1||Pause||

Page 59, Line 10
ਗੁਰ ਭੰਡਾਰੈ ਪਾਈਐ ਨਿਰਮਲ ਨਾਮ ਪਿਆਰੁ ॥
From the Guru's Treasury, we receive the Love of the Immaculate Naam, the Name of the Lord.

Page 57, Line 15
ਚਹੁ ਜੁਗਿ ਮੈਲੇ ਮਲੁ ਭਰੇ ਜਿਨ ਮੁਖਿ ਨਾਮੁ ਨ ਹੋਇ ॥
Those who do not have the Naam in their mouths are filled with pollution; they are filthy throughout the four ages.

Page 1285, Line 7
ਤਿਨ ਮੁਖਿ ਨਾਹੀ ਨਾਮੁ ਨ ਤੀਰਥਿ ਨ੍ਹ੍ਹਾਇਆ ॥
The Naam, the Name of the Lord, is not on their lips; they do not bathe at sacred shrines of pilgrimage.

Page 243, Line 11
ਤਿਸੁ ਬਾਝੁ ਵਖਰੁ ਕੋਇ ਨ ਸੂਝੈ ਨਾਮੁ ਲੇਵਹੁ ਖਿਨੁ ਖਿਨੋ ॥
Other than this, I can think of no other merchandise. So chant the Naam each and every moment.

Page 993, Line 9
ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤੁ ਨਾਮੁ ਸਤਿਗੁਰਿ ਦੀਆ ॥
The True Guru has blessed me with the Ambrosial Nectar of the Naam.

Page 1029, Line 11
ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤ ਨਾਮੁ ਗੁਰੂ ਵਡ ਦਾਣਾ ਨਾਮੁ ਜਪਹੁ ਸੁਖ ਸਾਰਾ ਹੇ ॥੧੦॥
The Guru is the Great Giver of the Ambrosial Naam, the Name of the Lord. Chanting the Naam, sublime peace is obtained. ||10||

Page 1041, Line 9
ਮਨਿ ਮੁਖਿ ਨਾਮੁ ਜਪਹੁ ਜਗਜੀਵਨ ਰਿਦ ਅੰਤਰਿ ਅਲਖੁ ਲਖਾਇਆ ॥੧੨॥
Chant the Naam with your mind and mouth; know the unknowable Lord, the Life of the World, deep within the nucleus of your heart. ||12||

Page 1127, Line 10
ਰਾਮ ਨਾਮ ਬਿਨੁ ਮੁਕਤਿ ਨ ਪਾਵਸਿ ਮੁਕਤਿ ਨਾਮਿ ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਲਹੈ ॥੧॥
But without the Lord's Name, liberation is not obtained. As Gurmukh, obtain the Naam and liberation. ||1||

Page 1170, Line 3
ਗੁਰਿ ਨਾਮੁ ਦ੍ਰਿੜਾਇਆ ਜਪੁ ਜਪੇਉ ॥੨॥
The Guru has implanted the Naam within me; I chant it, and meditate on it. ||2||

Page 1170, Line 12
ਫਲੁ ਨਾਮੁ ਪਰਾਪਤਿ ਗੁਰੁ ਤੁਸਿ ਦੇਇ ॥
They obtain the fruit of the Naam, when the Guru's favor is bestowed.

3. To contemplate the Shabad

Page 17, Line 19
ਪਿਰੁ ਰੀਸਾਲੂ ਤਾ ਮਿਲੈ ਜਾ ਗੁਰ ਕਾ ਸਬਦੁ ਸੁਣੀ ॥੨॥
We meet with our Beloved, the Source of Joy, when we listen to the Word of the Guru's Shabad." ||2||

Page 23, Line 4
ਨਾਨਕ ਮਨੁ ਸਮਝਾਈਐ ਗੁਰ ਕੈ ਸਬਦਿ ਸਾਲਾਹ ॥
O Nanak, instruct your mind through the Word of the Guru's Shabad, and praise the Lord.

Page 55, Line 1
ਹਰਿ ਜੀਉ ਸਬਦਿ ਪਛਾਣੀਐ ਸਾਚਿ ਰਤੇ ਗੁਰ ਵਾਕਿ ॥
Through the Shabad, they recognize the Dear Lord; through the Guru's Word, they are attuned to Truth.

Page 55, Line 17
ਤਿਥੈ ਕਾਲੁ ਨ ਅਪੜੈ ਜਿਥੈ ਗੁਰ ਕਾ ਸਬਦੁ ਅਪਾਰੁ ॥੭॥
Death does not reach that place, where the Infinite Word of the Guru's Shabad resounds. ||7||


The teachings of the Sikh gurus were not meant only for the elites.  On the contrary, their appeal was in their simplicity and accessibility.  When one considers the language used (Gurmukhi), the idiom and poetic form, as well as the non-complicated philosophy, it is evident that the Gurus did not want to propagate something which was esoteric or meaningful only to a select few, but rather, wanted to reach the masses.

It would be therefore a mistake to attribute exotic and abstruse meanings to the various simple words used in the hymns.  The straightforward and mostly literal meaning is what should be emphasized.  If the verses are complicated and need careful analysis, it would be in contradiction to the fact that Sikh gurus and the other mystics/poets whose writings are included in the Adi Granth, enjoyed immense popularity with the illiterate and lower-classes of society.

The Radhasoami sect, which follows the teachings of the first five Sikh Gurus (in addition to the various other saints), ascribes the following meaning to the three religious terms:
  • Guru is the living Guru of the sect, or the past Guru who initiated the devotee.
  • Naam is "given" by the guru during the initiation.  It means the blessing of the guru and the method: repetitive practice to be followed by the devotee.  "Naam-daan" is what the initiation ceremony is called.
  • Shabad is the internal "sound" that the meditator might hear.  It is similar to the Hindu concept of brahm-naad (the universal sound) or anhad-naad (the endless sound).  The meditative practice of Radhasoamis is called "Surat-Shabad Yoga"Shabad in Radhasoami teachings does not refer to the scriptural teachings but to this inner experience of sound.
Radhasoamis claim, not without some justification, that their interpretation is correct.  But their main spiritual practice is definitely a silent meditation which goes counter to the congregational aspect of Sikh gurus' teachings.  It might well be that both congregational and solitary practices are encouraged by the Sikh Gurus, but the history of Sikh religion does not lend much importance to solitary meditation.  In Gurudwaras for example, all activities are collective, except perhaps a solitary reading of the scripture.

We can therefore dispel with the aspect of the meditative practice of the Radhasoami sect as a later development, not quite the norm during the time of the Sikh gurus.  The Radhasoami meditation involves, with one's eyes closed, imagining the Guru's face in between one's eyes, and this finds nary a mention in the Sikh scriptures.

However, the interpretation of Guru and Naam does seem accurate.  In many Hindu traditions, initiation of a monk by a teacher usually involves giving him a new name (starting with the title "Swami", for example).  That obviously is not the case in Sikhism, where the initiation is more about the Guru's blessing and being considered as one of the Guru's followers.

If we agree that Sikh teachings are meant to be accessible, then we must conclude that the simplest explanation of these words is the correct one.  If we agree (as is widely accepted by historians) that Sikh gurus intended their teachings to be understood and followed by all sections of the society, and not just high-IQ or educated folks, then only a simple interpretation does justice to their intent.

Therefore, contrary to most modern Sikh scholars who perform convoluted analysis to come to a conclusion about the meaning of these terms (to be consistent with the later development of considering the scripture, instead of a living human being, as the Guru, etc.), I hereby state that the meaning of the words Guru, Naam and Shabad, as used by Guru Nanak, is simply as follows:
  • Guru is the human being who claims (or is claimed to have) enlightenment and offers initiation and guidance to the followers. 

    In Guru Nanak's verses, the Guru word referred to Guru Nanak himself (which seems odd and a bit egoistic, but can be palatable if we accept that enlightenment dissolves the sense of self as a separate entity, and that Guru Nanak after his enlightenment did not think of himself as an individual self anymore.).  Or it could refer to Nanak's own Guru, of who little is known.  At least Guru Nanak does not give any indication about his own teacher and neither is there any historical mention of Nanak's guru finding a prominent place in Nanak's community.  On the face of it, it is an unusual notion - the Guru advising his followers to surrender to the Guru (himself) - but it is actually quite common in spiritual circles.
  • Naam is the initiation, most likely involving the simple practice of a chant, given to the devotee by the Guru.  References abound in Sikh scriptures (see above) about ensuring that the naam is forever on one's lips.  It is doubtful whether the chant was the modern one of "Sat Naam Wahe Guru" or some other mantra.
  • Shabad is the Guru's teaching or his poetic verses, which would include those of earlier Gurus in the lineage.
In the Adi Granth, one can find some references to "shabad" being the inner sound and not an audible chant, and some verses where the Guru is considered equivalent to the Lord himself, and some where the Naam or Shabad itself is considered the Guru, etc.  But these references are in a minority and perhaps involve a poetic license.  Sikh scriptures, for example, also occasionally encourage reading the Vedas and going to pilgrimages as well, but the main thrust of the teachings is to avoid bookish knowledge and holy travels.  We have to consider the meaning as is apparent in most of the verses.  I consider that the vast majority of hymns in Sikh scriptures are consistent with my simple interpretation.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Curse of Jaggi Vasudev

Jaggi Vasudev is a charlatan, a fraud and though he will eventually have his downfall, it will take time.  History teaches us that charlatans like him go through a period of glory and gushing admiration from fools who flock to him like sheep while they peddle the snake oil of bliss, transformation and divine energies.  Like in any Ponzi scheme, these fraudsters exploit gullible, impressionable, weak minds to invest themselves in the service of greed, in this case spiritual greed, while the charlatans snicker from their high pedestals, and enjoy the ride.

Egoistic, immoral and cunning salesmen like Jaggi Vasudev and Deepak Chopra speak erudite nonsense and act holier-than-thou while verbally bullying their feeble critics and amateur spiritual seekers with their voice full of undeserved authority and condescension.

Hifalutin aunties and "I've read Eckhart Tolle and Rumi" kurta-wearing-westernized-idiots might think that they are better than the followers of Ram Rahim who, they say, shaking their heads, must have been blind not to see his garish lack of depth.  But they themselves are in the psychological vice-grip of better-dressed expensively-environed imposters.

People who flock to these fraudsters for emotional relief are those who are justifiably stressed and suffering from the circumstances of their own lives.  These people have genuine questions about life, love and happiness.  But when you are in emotional trouble, you are seeking comfort, not truth.  Truth is harder to accept.  These charlatans are professionals when it comes to bamboozling these dumb seekers with their pseudo-scientific talk of subtle energies, mystical cause and effect, quantum consciousness, the realm where the sun don't shine, and the effectiveness of "inner" engineering.

Well, of course, a disciplined life handed down from the master will help some to shed their drug addictions and distracted life.  But at the cost of emotional servility.  For some, it will definitely bring about stress relief.  But at the cost of superstition and an abdication of intellect.  Just because a quack's remedies occasionally work does not thereby mean he should be awarded an MD.

The problems faced by modern humans are diverse, and are in many cases, psychological in nature.  They seek an authority figure to tell them to be better human beings.  The authority figures are only too happy.

I feel bad for the seekers.  Like the followers of Baba Ram Rahim, they venerate their Baba as the all-knowing who has the answers to every question, be it scientific, emotional, ecological, social or political.  But they scarcely realize that these charismatic sons of bitches are professionals in the business of conning amateur wannabe philosopher-seekers to depend on them as their tickets to nirvana.  Ask these criminals any question, and they will answer authoritatively.  These greedy, gaudily-dressed men of paunch will prescribe humility and inquiry, but one look at them and you know that if there was a Nobel prize for arrogance and hubris, the prize must surely go to them.  The weak-minded followers will lap up their answers without scrutiny and will regard any rigorous analysis of their bullshit as faithless suspicion and the evil intellectual opposition from the inexperienced-in-divinity.

"You have to attend his course, only then you will see."  "Try it once."  "If you haven't felt it, you won't understand."  "You are only talking from your intellect, which is limited."  "Without tasting honey, how can you critique its taste?"  Oh please!

Though I condemn without hesitation these long-bearded fakers, I am more appalled at their followers.  After all, a conman stands a chance only if his target is himself greedy and gullible.  These politically-connected usurpers of public resources residing in their five-star fragrant abodes are just milking the opportunity presented to them.  If the followers are willing to be sucked dry, these reptilian milkmen have no compunction doing so.

Like any astute businessman, Jaggi Vasudev is now advertising with all cylinders firing, be it on social media, in the newspapers, on YouTube, on roadside billboards, in airports, ...  He is calling you.  The guru has finally appeared, and you, the seeker, must have been ready, that's why.

Otherwise educated men and women, but those who have little grounding in modern physics, cosmology, philosophy, analysis, human psychology, the scientific method and all else, see Jaggi Vasudev as the modern messiah who, with his polished lingo and his charismatic gestures, has finally descended from heaven to offer them the release from their ignorance and sorrows.  Thank God for Jaggi, they say.

Fatal error.

The followers will be eventually left high and dry, but in the meantime, what a waste.  I would probably not be as bothered if these charlatans and their sheep were indulging in their ugly internal circle-jerking orgy of surrender and "take me, oh master.  yes of course dear soul." while the rest of the world continued as it did.  After all, there is all kinds of malfeasance going on in the world, so why single out these specialists of speciousness?

But when they start indulging in harming the society at large, murdering journalists and encroaching on public lands, planting trees while also planting their seed in their women followers, rallying for rivers and the mother-nature while incestuously raping that very mother by destroying sensitive ecosystems and having a cavalcade of gas guzzling vehicles (but they need comfort while they save nature, you see?), ignoring the laws of the land, getting their children settled abroad while they ask their followers to work tirelessly for a pittance, having their mistresses order everybody around in their "ashrams", getting grants and patronage and legal immunity from vote-bank politicians who are only too happy to associate with these nirvana-peddlers, offering garlands to murderous ministers, and causing immense collateral damage on the families of their followers, then it is the solemn duty of normal citizens to speak up and ask: Just who the hell do these emperors-with-no-clothes think they are?

Have they no shame?  But of course they don't.  But have their followers no sense?

From Reddit:

  • Was Jaggi accused of killing his wife Viji by her parents? Yes
  • Was there another women involved in this matter? Yes
  • Did this women divorce and leave her family? Yes
  • Was she the closest disciple of Jaggi in a previous life time? Yes
  • Is she a Brahmachari/Sanyasi now? No
  • Is her life opulent in the ashram just like Jaggi’s? Yes
  • Did Jaggi initiate his young daughter into Brahmacharya? No
  • Is he initiating other young girls/boys into Brahmacharya? Yes
  • Did his daughter ever do volunteering? No
  • Did she ever go through long term/permanent ashram life in her teens like Samskrithi kids? No
  • Is there any objective proof/witnesses of Jaggi solidifying mercury? No
  • Is there an objective proof that he learned and practiced yoga from Malladihalli Swami? No
  • Is there an objective proof that he was student of Rishi Prabhakar for more than a year? Yes
  • Is Jaggi and his colleagues are teaching the same yoga, meditation and BSP with minor differences? Yes
  • Did Jaggi ever gave credit to/confessed about Rishi Prabhakar? No
  • Did Jaggi’s contemporary/colleague Ravisankar Mysore Ramakrishna commented about Jaggi’s plagiarism and lies? Yes
  • Is there an objective way to confirm Jaggi’s enlightenment before taking his programs? Yes
  • Is he a self confessed liar? Yes
  • Does Jaggi have political tie-ups? Yes
  • Does he shadow celebrities and crave media attention? Yes
  • Did Isha ever disclose their social outreach program details/numbers to public? No
  • Is Isha a 100% volunteer run organization? No
  • Did Isha use/is using immoral tactics to usurp land? Yes
  • Are Isha fanatics waiting for an utopian mass enlightenment never explicitly promised by Jaggi? Yes
  • Are they dangerously delusional/hypocritical? Yes

India will remain a land of suffering, superstition and sycophancy as long as these wolves-in-robes continue to have their way with their millions of sheepish followers.  These godmen are not the ones who will remove the curse of servility and backwardness from this fallen motherland of mine.

These godmen are themselves the curse.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Out of gas in Mojave Desert, part 2

Part 1.

Many years back, I had come across this website of a survivalist/frugalist.  When he used to talk of his car, his emphasis was on how to get the most mileage out of every drop of gasoline.  I vaguely remembered him mentioning that a modern car goes the maximum distance if, while in top gear, you keep the RPM around 2000 and the speed around 50mph.

I wasn't quite sure if that was the optimum but it did seem reasonable.  I had no time or capability to plot a chart or to search the internet on my "searching for signal" phone.

My windows were open, the air-conditioner was of course shut off, and the hot air was was like a blow-dryer constantly in my face and every few minutes, I was sipping from the water bottle and licking my lips.

Thankfully, the road south from Kelso toward Interstate 40 was slightly down-sloping.  With a delicate, feather-touch pressure on the gas pedal, I was cruising down and away.  There was nobody else on the road for miles.  My hazard lights were on, as I was going less than the speed limit.

I was listening closely to the engine for any hint of sputtering or misfiring.  No, all good so far.  The gas needle was now firmly at the absolute zero, and it could not go any further, but the Jeep was still running.  Good Jeep.

Every mile was a victory.  I knew that if I reached the highway, not only would my phone come to life, I would probably find it easier to get a ride.

Wilderness and desolation offers great experiences to the soul, but when faced with an emergency, one re-develops a healthy respect for modern conveniences.  Whether after a long hike, or after a long road trip, having being away from phones, shops and air-conditioned bedrooms, coming back to comfort always makes me feel grateful and proud of human achievements.

Mile after mile passed, the Jeep was still running.  It felt like it was truly running on hope.

I never once put my foot on the brake or came out of the fifth gear.  I just kept going, with that feather-light pressure on the gas pedal, and with the engine RPM just slightly south of 2000.

Mile after mile passed, the Jeep was still running.

I crossed Interstate 40.  The engine could now stall anytime, and it would be a pity if I stopped just a few miles short of the gas station.  All this effort, and I still had to ride with someone, figure out a way to get gas in a canister, and get back to my car.

But mile after mile passed, I was inching closer to the right turn toward Amboy, and the Jeep was still running.  My bare arms were now hot and dry, and the bottle of water was empty.  Only ten more miles, and I would be home free.

I reached the stop sign to turn right.  I had to brake and come to a stop.  But I just took my foot off the gas pedal and shifted to neutral.  The car glided toward the stop sign.  There was no one in sight.  At the turn, it was still doing 25 miles per hour, and inspired by the driver character Kowalski from Vanishing Point, I saw the law coming at me but did not stop, and took a smooth right turn on the intersection, tires screeching and leaving their marks on the tarmac.

Now it was only only six miles to Amboy, and boy was I glad to see finally a true gas station billboard in the distance.  "I will push the car if I have to, but I will not need a ride."  The Jeep, miraculously was still going.  Hallelujah, praise the lord.

As I pulled into that gas station in the middle of nowhere, in the ghost town of Amboy, I shut down the brave engine.  I came out of the Jeep and patted it gratefully on the bonnet.  Good Jeep.  The crisis was over, and a celebration was in order.

The gas station seemed like one from the seventies.  Analog meters, no self-serve, and a Psycho-esque motel next to it.  The motel reception area had an old piano, a torn couch, and a grandfather clock behind.  David Lynch could not have done the set design any better.  I almost saw a bulb flickering as I neared the motel.

The gas station was selling gas for $6 a gallon, and I, least bothered about the price and grinning ear to ear, said to the owner: "Take all my money, just fill it up!"  He was a kind old man and he told me there was a "regular" gas station a hundred miles south near TwentyNine Palms, and I should get just enough to reach there.

I thanked him for his kindness, and requested him to put in six gallons in the tank, and I swear as the gas hit the walls of the empty tank, the tank sounded a hiss of relief.  As I paid him inside the station with my card, he gave me a souvenir. a $1 million dollar bill with his photo in place of Ben Franklin's.

A dear friend had given me a bottle of rye whiskey for just this kind of a happy moment during this journey, and as I loitered around the gas station (I couldn't just leave it, it deserved a leisurely stop and an appreciation of its quaint history), I poured a generous measure into a plastic cup.  It was 115 degrees F, and sipping that warm golden liquid at noon, while sitting on the veranda of that old motel and watching a historic US Post office across the road, I was smiling and ... grateful.

Grateful for these joys, for the roller-coaster ride of the last few hours, for these unexpected turns on my journey, for the kind old man, and for life itself.

What Fear Does to Children

A child who is afraid of his parent(s) suffers lasting emotional damage.

The reason is not too complex: a child, being unable to navigate and confront the world, seeks its parent when experiencing fear and anxiety.

If the parent is itself a source of fear and anxiety, the child will form internal, and likely unnatural, defenses against those feelings.  It will either become reckless, or become insecure and develop feelings of inferiority.

If you are a parent, you might wonder if you cause fear or anxiety, or whether you are a protective presence in your child's life.  Sometimes, due to lack of awareness and sensitivity, we may not be aware of the effect we are having on others' emotional states.

The way to resolve this uncertainty is very simple:

Ask yourself if your child feels happy at seeing you, or does it appear anxious.

Ask yourself if your child comes to you for help when it is feeling uncertain or afraid of something.

Ask yourself if when your child was faced with some trouble or confrontation with others, whether you joined the "world" in condemning and punishing the child, or whether you allowed the child to see you as a bulwark of strength, kindness and guidance.

Ask yourself if your child, if it has done something wrong, finds it easy to admit its mistake to you, knowing that you will treat it with kindness and not with cruelty.


This supposedly trivial scene from "The Seventh Continent" (Haneke, 1989) has haunted me for a long time.  A child is acting "blind" in school.  That itself is a cry for attention.  The mother is concerned (for what?) and asks the child to speak the truth (whether the child is really blind) without fear.  And then, something.

A relevant fact is that the mother has been earlier shown as an eye-doctor of sorts.

I do not recommend the movie to the faint of heart.  It is a devastating portrait of subtle emotional traumas of various kinds building up to a climax.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Out of gas in Mojave desert, part 1

So it was going to be another hot, clear day and I was to drive 350 miles from Vegas to San Diego.  This was the third day of my "Deserts and Glaciers" national parks road-trip.

It was 40 degrees Celsius at 8am when I started.  The gas needle showed less than a quarter tank still remaining, and the next big stop, Kelso, in big bold letters on Google Maps, was only 80 miles away.

The white Jeep Compass was not a gas guzzler by any means, and its color reflected the scorching heat back to the Sun.  Driving in the dry desert, with cactus, bushes and little Joshua trees around, with the seemingly endless empty road up ahead and behind, was a meditation in solitude.  And in heat.

It was going to be a very hot day, and the Jeep and I were hurtling through the Mojave desert toward the big city Kelso (it's worth repeating its name in bold letters, since this is a town that will live forever in my memory), with many a gas station and their cool interiors.  Or so I sensibly assumed.

The road was, to re-use a word, deserted.  I stopped occasionally to get out into the heat, and walk on the gravel by the road, and to let the hot silence permeate me.  A police car passed me in the opposite direction.  Even though one might be in the desert, the law is never too far.  Better mind the speed!

The "low fuel" light came on, and I was still 25 miles from Kelso.  Never mind.  There was still enough to reach the town and fill up.  The needle, moving ever so gradually toward empty, wasn't a cause of anxiety. 15-20 minutes more, and all would be well.

A few miles from the town, and the gas station billboard was almost visible in the distance.  Cheers!

I decreased the speed as I entered the town.  What a quaint town.  What a quaint little town!  Historic cabins, a railroad depot, a visitor center.  The billboard was nice too.

But there was no gas station.  A shudder passed through my body as I instinctively took my foot off the gas pedal.  I looked around, and confirmed, there was no gas station.  The air conditioner was still running, so why then did I feel the beads of sweat form on my forehead?

(The big town of Kelso)

The GPS on the phone stayed alive and continued to show the map from memory even though there is no signal.  The next bold-lettered stop through the desert was 50 miles away.

I parked my car, and with an unnecessarily strong twist of my wrist turned off the ignition, not without a slight feeling of dread.  I was hesitant to even drive it around the "town" to see if maybe there was something somewhere.  Every drop of fuel was now going to be important.  This was the visitor center parking lot, and few other cars were parked.  There were a couple of gas-guzzling pick-up trucks.

Thoughts started swirling in my head.  "Surely those trucks have lots of fuel and could spare some."  "Maybe the visitor center people could help."  "I did see that cop car back there, maybe he will come back and will have some fuel for these emergency situations."  "I have no containers except my water bottle to transfer fuel from one vehicle to another."  "This is not a big deal."  "This is a problem.  No mister, this is a proper crisis."  "How could I have allowed myself to be in this situation?"  "Why did I not fill up as I was leaving Vegas?"  "I will miss meeting my nephew who is waiting for me in San Diego."

The visitor center guy was trying to be helpful, but the only help he could offer was the phone number of a tow-truck company.  He said that they would send a tow-truck with some fuel, charge a bunch of money, and take at least 2-3 hours to come.  That was the "reliable" solution, but not an acceptable one.  Not for me, not that day.  For one, it was going to be an embarrassing admission of defeat.  And more importantly, I would definitely miss the evening planned for me in San Diego.  My tongue felt quite dry now.  It must be the heat, I thought.

I asked a few truck people if they could spare some fuel, and one of them was almost amenable.  But how to transfer the fuel?  Modern car gas tanks are not easily accessed.  I borrowed a siphon pipe, made in the 70s, from the visitor center, but it was only a yard in length, and too thick to enter even my own car's gas tank.  Disheartened, I sheepishly returned the siphon pipe to the helpful old man in the center.  He remarked, "This kind of thing does happen every few months.  Last year, there were these two girls.  They had to call the tow truck."  I nodded with understanding: "I know how they would have felt."

"Oh look, the cop that had passed me on the road!" The cop came through into the visitor center.  I looked at him with eyes full of hope and despair.

He quickly understood the situation.  "I'm sorry, but we are not allowed to carry any gasoline."

Me: So what are my options?

Cop: (looking down, shaking his head) Not many...

Visitor center guy: Well, you see the row of those houses back there?  Lisa lives in the second to last one.  I know she keeps some gas at home.  Maybe you can go knock at her door?

I smiled a desperate smile.  "Thank you."  But decided not to check it out.  For one, I was loath to start my car unless it is absolutely necessary.  And two, who knew if Lisa was even home, if she even had extra gas, if she even wanted to give it to me?

Visitor center guy: So the next gas station is HERE. (pointing at the map)  What kind of car do you have?  When did the low-fuel light come on?  Hmm...  Hmm...

I was on this journey through desolation.  So I had to act in character.  I couldn't depend on being saved by modern institutions.  And I boldly and foolishly thought: I have to depend only on the desert, on the road, and on myself.  Not sure what that meant, to be truthful, but it did have a nice ring to it.  The  High Plains Drifter wouldn't have called a tow truck, so how could I?

All false options eliminated, now only the truth remained.

It was time to put truth to the test.

"If I do break down in the middle of nowhere, I'll lock my car, flag someone down, ride with him to the middle east if I have to, get gas and get going again."  There was going to be no cellphone service in the desert, but I did fill up my water bottle.  At least I won't be thirsty.  Even if my car was going to be parched dry.

And who knows, maybe the car was not engineered that well.  Maybe the needle was imprecise.  Maybe.  Hope springs eternal.  Till it doesn't.

I recalled the famous sci-fi story: The Cold Equations.  The universe is unsympathetic to human suffering.  Our wishes, fervent as they might be, don't move the stars and the sun.  If there is no gas, the car won't run on hope.

And so, with that bull-headed resolve, with the car's air-conditioner switched off ("Not one drop to be wasted."), windows open to the hot, dry, still air of the ancient Mojave desert, I pulled out of the parking lot of the Kelso railroad depot visitor center, took a left turn onto the desert highway, and sped up, slowly.  Ever so slowly.

It was fifty miles to the gas station.  A town named Amboy.  And the gas tank needle wasn't as much as moving now.

(to be continued)

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Love, Attachment, Alienation

The desire for love is a modern phenomenon.

For most, if not all, human beings prior to the industrial revolution, the bond between a man and a woman began either as an arrangement or as a lustful courtship.  And after two people started living as a unit, children, practicality, social pressures, habit and dependence kept them together.  It could be called attachment, since it was scary to imagine a life without one's partner.

While lust, as well as attachment, have a pragmatic and tangible basis, love does not.  Love is more about one ego seeking validation, assurance, attention and admiration from another.  But since the adult "ego" is a construct, it is always fragile, and always in need of love.  It needs love, needs love desperately, but it is seeking it from a human being what has been taken away by the world.

Love is essentially to affirm to another that "You exist for me, and are precious to me."  What are the forces which make the need for romantic love today more insistent than ever before?  Why is it that though everybody is seeking romantic love, it so rarely lasts?  Is it worth asking, if we, when we desire love, are seeking something unrealistic from another human being?

Why is it that the desire for "fulfillment" is something that afflicts only the modern man?  If someone is chronically unfulfilled, he will seek emotional succor from what seems possible.  With all the billboards, screens and sirens blaring "Love is the answer" to the modern alienated and psychologically starved man, is it any wonder that he seeks in another human being what should have his natural state?

If we agree that the desire for love is the desire for emotional fulfillment,  and if we recognize that this feeling of being unfulfilled is quite recent in human history, then we have to ask: what has changed in the last few centuries that has left people perennially starving, psychologically speaking.

Why does the modern man feel unfulfilled?  Is it that this state of disequilibrium is because the social and economic conditions do not allow for us to satisfy our psychological needs in a normal, healthy way?

As the Unabomber wrote in his "Industrial Society and its Future":
We divide human drives into three groups: (1) those drives that can be satisfied with minimal effort; (2) those that can be satisfied but only at the cost of serious effort; (3) those that cannot be adequately satisfied no matter how much effort one makes. The power process is the process of satisfying the drives of the second group. The more drives there are in the third group, the more there is frustration, anger, eventually defeatism, depression, etc. 
In modern industrial society natural human drives tend to be pushed into the first and third groups, and the second group tends to consist increasingly of artificially created drives.
 It seems that for many people, maybe the majority, these artificial forms of the power process are insufficient. A theme that appears repeatedly in the writings of the social critics of the second half of the 20th century is the sense of purposelessness that afflicts many people in modern society. (This purposelessness is often called by other names such as "anomie" or "middle-class vacuity.") We suggest that the so-called "identity crisis" is actually a search for a sense of purpose, often for commitment to a suitable surrogate activity. It may be that existentialism is in large part a response to the purposelessness of modern life. Very widespread in modern society is the search for "fulfillment." 

Because modern society offers so little in the way of natural way to fulfill us emotionally, we seek another human being to fill that void.

But that is a tall order for any one to fulfill.  One hand is the entire machinery of the world, and on the other we are asking one human being to be its antidote.  Sooner or later, the world wins.  Either love is seen as "not the same as before", or it doesn't offer the same intense reassurance and validation, or the other person refuses to be its slave and work and work for this insatiable master.

And more than ever, adults are seeking from other adults what their overworked, lazy or ignorant parents were not able to provide: emotional nourishment.

Emotional nourishment, for children as well as for adults, was a normal feature of human societies.  Children felt cared for, and safe.  And adults felt autonomous, and fulfilled.  Urban and industrial life has blown away the natural conditions of man, family and community.  Is it any wonder that there is a sense of alienation, depression and emptiness?

As parents feel pressured to emotionally "be there" for their kids, in an era of working mothers, absent neighborhoods and an atmosphere of paranoia, so do adults feel pressured to continuously provide "love" to each other.  The frequent vocalization of "love" is needed precisely like the administration of caffeine or nicotine every few hours.

And leaving aside the modern adult's desire for love and fulfillment in the industrial desert, there are plenty of studies to indicate that an emotionally deprived childhood, for which the parents are only circumstantially responsible (they did not create the conditions in which they were solely, without the help of the community, responsible for a child's emotional needs, and the conditions in which both parents were catering more to the economic system than to their families), leads to a lifelong void of a parent that the adult continues to seek from another adult.  They seek from another adult the unconditional love and selfless attention of their idealized parent.

Separate a beast from its natural habitat, and though it may be kept alive for long, it will not feel energized or motivated.  One may say that there are more and more books and podcasts and whatnot available to administer help to oneself (the "self-help" movement), but isn't it alarming that the need for these is becoming more and more widespread?  Should we celebrate a motivational speaker, or reflect harder on the fact of de-motivation in the audience.

Love, as is understood today, is an unnatural desire, an unrealistic demand, and a fantastical solution to a set of deviant but pervasive social conditions which leave us psychologically empty and unfulfilled, emotionally barren, and existentially invisible.

We seek the kind of persistent fulfillment from a person ('make me feel loved, make me come alive"), a parent or a partner, for which the chronic need did not exist a few centuries ago, and which was to be provided in the natural course of one's life by one's community and working conditions.

I'm not pessimistic about love, but if we understand what we are seeking, we might be less emotionally taxing on our partners.  We might not end up nailing them to the cross for the sins of the world.

Friday, September 22, 2017


“Ends are ape-chosen; only the means are man’s” (attributed to Aldous Huxley)

Do humans seek happiness?  If so, why is there pervasive stress and suffering?

Humans would of course choose happiness over suffering.  We seek what would make us happier.  That is almost a tautology.

To go through suffering is usually to seek happiness in an indirect way.  To work hard so that one's family is provided for.  To go through stress and ambition to achieve fame.  To take on debt so that one can be eventually rich.

We are aware and conscious of time, unlike other animals.  Many of our decisions are for future happiness, and can lead to lower levels of happiness in the interim.

But I believe it is a mistake to look at human effort as happiness-focused.  Happiness is an abstract goal and cannot be pursued in a vacuum.  It is a side-effect of achieving meaningful goals.  The common spiritual pursuit of just seeking happiness on its own is misguided.  To seek happiness as a goal in itself is, so to speak, to defraud existence in giving us something for nothing.  It won't work for long.

Spiritual practices are more meaningfully seen as a way to cope, and a way to reduce stress.  They are strategies to heal, not to achieve.  They are not meant to create, but to calm.

The existence of suffering is the clearest proof that we live not just to be happy.  We seek the achievement of our goals.  Progress toward those goals makes us happy.  Those goals could be intrinsic or could be socially motivated, and one can argue whether those goals are well-founded or whether as a species we have gone astray.

The apocryphal story about the happy bum who was enjoying his afternoon in the shade of a tree is instructive.  The rich man asks him why the bum doesn't go do something and get wealthy.  The bum queries the rich man what he would do with his riches if he already has the happiness that those riches promise.  The story ends there.  The rich man should have asked one further question that is missing from the story.  "What makes you assured about your future happiness?"

We work, undergo stress and trials, so that by enduring some pain in the present, we hopefully lessen the overall stress and suffering in our life, and in the lives around us.

But that still is not the complete picture.  It might actually be that our stress and suffering continue in different ways.  Is such a life worthwhile?  If someone just suffers and works through most of one's life with moments and glimmers of joy, is that life worth living?

I believe so.  To want to end one's life out of depression is understandable, but that usually means that one sees no realistic way to achieve any meaningful goals and there is excessive, paralyzing pain in one's present.

We live to further life.  In that effort, we feel happy.  That effort and its success give us joy.

Happiness is not a goal, it is a measure.

Manas had been in the monastery for many years, seeking everlasting bliss.

Occasionally, a villager or his family would come visit the monastery.  They usually prayed in front of the altar, and sought blessings and good fortune.

One day, when the sky was clear and the air was pleasantly cool, a village family was walking around the peaceful gardens of the monastery.  Manas was sitting quietly in his spartan room, cross-legged, listening to the sounds of nature around him.

While the two little children of the family were running around in the garden, the father gently knocked on Manas' door.  Manas nodded and the father came in, touched Manas' feet in a gesture of respect, and sat down on the floor in front of him.

The father spoke hesitantly: "We are going through trying times.  This year it has not rained well.  We are poor.  We hope next year will be better.  Do you see happiness in our future?"

Manas sat quietly for some time before replying: "Your very nature is happiness.  These transitory trials should not bother you."

The father, perplexed, asked: "What is worth getting bothered about, if not this?"

Manas calmly replied: "Nothing at all."

The father remained quiet.  He had not received the assurance that he had come for.

He had picked up a beautiful, lustrous stone earlier from the garden.  He placed that stone near Manas' feet as an offering, and got up and respectfully bowing, slowly walked back out of the room.

Manas looked at that stone for a long time.  It was time for the evening tea ritual but the monastery bell had not rung yet.  The stone was unperturbed.  Nothing bothered it.