Thursday, September 14, 2017

Why Babas Flourish in India

When human institutions fail, people turn to God.  Or to Godmen.

The proliferation of deras, babas, astrologers, quacks in India is a direct consequence of failed governance and dysfunctional public institutions.  When someone has no hope from rationality, it is not irrational to turn to irrationality.  It might be considered futile in a material sense, but psychologically, irrationality does offer certain advantages.

It helps people cope.

If people were told that not only that legal institutions have failed, but there is no divine plan or justice as well, what would keep them going?  More than food and water, our desires and hopes keep us alive, and looking forward to some future joy.

Religion and superstition flourish when people are afraid and insecure about their future.  When all rational avenues seem blocked, what are they to do?  Remain depressed?

This is not a defense of charlatans.  But to dissuade people from turning to them, we must understand why they do so in the first place.  They are rational agents and are just responding to their environment.

The only long-term solution is to re-establish their faith and confidence in rational institutions.  To provide them with an assurance that if they follow the rules, work hard, and are law-abding, they will see the natural rewards for it.  And similarly, the dishonest and those who bend the rules will be punished.  Currently, it is the opposite.

No wonder they, pessimistic about the worldly realm, prostrate before someone who claims otherworldly access.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Art, Films and Togetherness

Is art properly enjoyed and appreciated in a solitary manner?

Let us see.  A book is read alone.  Most music these days is listened to using headphones.  Museums often have solitary individuals looking at a sculpture or a painting.  Photographers usually work alone.

But when it comes to films, quite a few people find it odd to go see a movie by themselves.

It is not hard to see why.  Cinema is more like theater than a painting.  Going to a movie theater is usually less about the movie and more about spending time together with someone.  Two or more people go through an experience, a roller-coaster of emotions, together.  They munch popcorn together.  They go for dinner after the film.  It is a shared experience.

But cinema is without a doubt an art form as well.

A movie therefore can be understood to serve two distinct purposes: it is a work of art, and it is a way to spend time together.  It goes without saying that not all films are art-works, just like not all books are literature.

Now of course, these two can overlap to some extent.  It is possible that two friends or lovers find that they enjoy similar books and similar films.  That their appreciation of a work of art is a shared feeling.  Unlike a book, a film can be enjoyed together in front of a large screen, so why not experience it together!

Many people, women especially, are loath to go watch a movie by themselves.  They have no problem watching a TV episode on their own at home.  But to go to a movie is more about socializing, and it is as "weird" to them as planning a dinner outing, going out to a good restaurant and eating by themselves.  Women, moreover, may find it is a an admission of social failure that they weren't able to find a man, or a girlfriend, to spend time with them.

But, and but, I do hold that a great film or a serious work of art is properly enjoyed in solitude, or on one's own.  To go a bit further, even stars and the moon and an awe-inspiring vista in nature is capable of piercing the soul more intensely when experienced alone.

The experience of an intense work of art, or of great beauty in nature, is diminished by distraction.  And it is impossible to not be aware of another, known, human presence when you are with someone.  When you watch a film with someone, a part of you is aware of and is attending to the other person.  How he or she is responding, if they have to go take a break, if they are asking you a question or making a comment.  Full immersion in the film is not easy in such circumstances.

Would you find it easy to be immersed in a book, and do justice to the imagination and intensity it demands, if you and your friend were reading it together?  If, heart pounding to know what happens next, or to finish an exquisite detail in a paragraph, you wanted to turn the page but your friend asked you to wait till he/she finished reading?

Similarly, when in nature, I have found that I experience inward silence and an existential intensity when nature and I are, so to speak, in undivided communion.  It is a different kind of experience, not less joyous, to interact with nature together with someone.  Say, to bathe together in a lake or to climb a mountain together.  But when it comes to a deep appreciation and cognitive immersion in nature, it seems obvious to me that that can happen only in solitude.

Reinhold Messner, one of the great modern alpine-style mountaineers, once said: "I climb higher to go deeper into myself."

To even have one's own mind verbalize and whisper "How beautiful" is a pebble thrown in the lake of stillness of that experience.

This also perhaps illustrates the difference between entertainment and an existential reflection.  Entertainment is heightened by togetherness, while reflection is enhanced with solitude.  Entertainment is more about "fun" or flowing in similar feelings, while reflection is more about a sense of wonder, insight, a meditative stillness, a contemplative dive into oneself.  When alone with an experience, one can cry without self-consciousness, or lose a sense of time, or go far and deep within oneself.

So, do not be self-pitying about watching a film alone, even if in a theater.  You are not there to prove your social desirability, but to undertake a journey into yourself.  If you feel an awkward shame to tell someone the next day that you went to the theater on your own, ask yourself if you would feel ashamed to tell someone that you read a book alone.  This shame is due to the conflation between cinema as an act of togetherness and social proof, versus as a medium of art.  If someone tells you that they "never go to the movie theater alone", tell them they are missing something.  Perhaps they are more fragile to social perception and convention than to an intense experiencing of life.

A great work of art, or a great experience in nature, gets you deeper in touch with yourself and existence.  It is a form of meditation.  Meditation has always been a act in solitude.  And for good reason.  Films are the modern world's most accessible and easily immersive art form.  And a serious, thought-provoking, artistic film deserves to be experienced without distraction, with full immersion, and alone.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Who is a Fake Baba?

In recent news, an organization in India has listed about a dozen godmen in India as "fake", indirectly asserting that all others are genuine.

To selflessly help advance the cause, here is my set of ten guidelines if you wish to consider becoming the follower of a saint or his teachings.  If any one of these is answered in the affirmative, you can move on to the next saintly candidate.

Do note that I am not going to question the basis of spirituality or a belief in God, because if we go there, all godmen are, at the very least, delusional.
  1. Has the saint changed his original name or added an honorific (Maharaj, Satguru, Swami, Sri) to his name?
  2. Does the saint live a life, based on donations, which is much more comfortable than that of his average follower?
  3. Does the saint try to hide or be vague about the details of his early life, his romantic or marital relationships, and how he came to consider himself a saint?
  4. Has the saint accepted an award, or a grant of land or money, from any government?
  5. Does the saint offer opinions about something other than spirituality, say about politics, the economy, or science?
  6. Does the saint dress in a distinctive manner, does the saint have a long-flowing beard, or does the saint dye his grey hair or beard?
  7. Does the saint advertise to gain new followers?
  8. Do any of the books authored by the saint, or attributed to him, have his photo on the front cover?
  9. Has the saint ever written or spoken against "western science" or "western medicine"?
  10. (Unlike the above nine questions, this question must resolve to a "Yes" for you to follow the saint).  When asked a question, has the saint ever said something to the effect of: "I don't know enough about this subject."
If a saint clears all these ten queries successfully, then he is certainly remarkable and is not fake.  At least, not on the face of it.

On Police Interrogation in India

Many months ago, I found this question on Quora:

"Why does the Indian system remand arrestees (sic) to 'police custody' vs 'judicial custody'?"

It is an important question.  In most developed countries, coercive interrogation is illegal.  That is not just because it usually involves torture, but also because it is a fundamental right to remain silent when confronted by police.

In India, torture by police is almost never prosecuted, nor is there a real right to remain silent.  Courts do not take suo-moto cognizance of a report of police atrocity, for reasons best known to the courts.  And India has steadfastly refused to ratify the international treaty outlawing torture.

When people talk about the inhumanity of police in India, we must understand that the inhumanity is a result of specific, systemic reasons and structures.  There are laws and provisions in place, and there are laws and provisions which are conspicuous by their absence, that make it almost impossible to hold the police accountable.

For a common citizen, this is the expected behavior of police:

1. They will not entertain your complaint unless it involves rape or murder or kidnapping.
2. If a complaint is registered, they thereby have license to harass the accused (who is not yet a proven criminal) and to arrest and torture him/her.
3. They will not, in any manner, move forward with investigation and collecting evidence unless pressured by a higher-ranking officer.
4. If there is media spotlight on a case, the police will act quickly but in a slipshod manner and the accused would eventually be acquitted by the courts.
5. The police has vastly different standards in its handling of high-profile celebrities and the unwashed masses.  The high-profile will not be arrested till ordered by the court.  The police will go to their residence to ask questions instead of detaining them.  If due to media pressure, the high-profile arrest is made, the police will respectfully allow the accused all manners of facilities, comforts and interaction with the outside world.

This flagrantly unjust behavior of the police, and the system which enables it, is the fundamental reason why Indian citizens are afraid of it, want to avoid interacting with it, and feel that law is not their protector but their enemy.  And therefore, they do not respect and follow the law.  In their eyes, the law is equivalent to the enforcement of the law.  If the enforcement is unfair and selective and unjust, then the law is a tool of injustice, not justice.

Here is my published answer to the question:

--
This is an interesting question and the other responses fail to answer the crux of your question.

In India, the right to remain silent is not constitutionally granted.

In fact, an individual can be punished for refusing to answer questions, and that is the legal basis of police intimidation in India.

The law in question is section 179 of IPC:

“Refusing to answer public servant authorised to question.—Whoever, being legally bound to state the truth on any subject to any public servant, refuses to answer any question demanded of him touching that subject by such public servant in the exercise of the legal powers of such public servant, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine which may extend to one thousand rupees, or with both.”

But what about right against self-incrimination, you may ask? This is where India is messed up. It recognizes the right against self-incrimination in principle (section 20(3) of the constitution) but in practice has never come to the defense of the accused to remain silent.

For example, observe what this judge states when an accused rebelled against the need of police custody (from “No absolute right to remain silent”)

“Justice S. Nagamuthu held that the right of the accused to maintain silence was restricted to questions which might expose him to a criminal charge or penalty or forfeiture. The accused are bound to answer all other questions related to the case and refusal to do so would amount to an offence under Section 179 of the Indian Penal Code.”

Hence, the answer to your question is that Indian institutions are OK with coercive interrogation and torture, despite any claim to the contrary. There is a colonial-era law (sec 179 of IPC) which provides a legal basis for police coercing an individual to answer questions, and everybody in judiciary and police knows this.

You might also want to ask how does police in India, without a subpoena or warrant, have free and unrestricted access to mobile call records and cellphone locations which they use in almost every investigation these days? Isn’t that a flagrant violation of privacy?
--

Saturday, September 09, 2017

How to write a bleeding heart subaltern poem

Social justice warriors love to write poems depicting the suffering and martyrdom of their favorite oppressed groups.  Writing a poem is of course the most authentic act to actually do something about the oppressed.  Lighting candles and marching with similarly perfumed gentry is another authentic act.  Such poetry and candle-lit marches go a long way in ensuring that the oppressors will start shaking in their knees at the revolution happening right before their eyes.

Such poems are usually too intense to pay much bourgeois attention to things like metre and rhyme.  They are more about the suffering of the oppressed than about any claim to artistic value.  It is a mystery to critics why the writer warriors don't simply write in prose.  Most such poetry is prose, only arranged as to have just a few words on each line.

Perhaps brevity and simile is a way to shortcut the laborious and no-doubt useless analysis required to understand a complex situation.  Perhaps it is easier, and infinitely more effective, to just go ahead and pour one's heart out to one's echo chamber.  Anyone who critiques the poetic quality of the poem is a heartless sociopath who cannot look beyond the words into the feeling.  And anyone who critiques the content of the poem is a fascist anyway.

All rhetoric in the favor of the oppressed is a priori true.  Whether that rhetoric changes the economic situation is another matter.  But the wheels of history grind slowly, and any drop of oil is welcome.  Or so we should assume.

To assist writers of such poems, I hereby offer my humble guidance.  By following these hints, you can come up with a poem quickly and effectively, and then get back to angling for doles from the government and from the Rockefeller Foundation.  Follow these five rules, and you shall be successful in your revolutionary intent.

1. You have to use at least one of these elements in your poem: soil, moon, clouds, raindrops, fire, some birds.
2. You have to willy-nilly introduce one of these: a lantern, a torn blanket, a dark corner, a dirty window.
3. One of these characters is a must: a hungry infant girl, a suffering pregnant woman, a debt-ridden farmer, a lower-caste student, and if in America, a non-slim-non-white non-man.
4. Mention some archaic and romantic detail about rural/country lifestyle where life was idyllic and capitalism was at bay.
5. The poem won't feel sentimental enough without at least a few overt uses of these words: heart, dream, pulse, truth, curse, cancer, and so on.

I will of course take my own instruction, and offer you two splendid new poems for the annals of revolutionary literature.

--
The moon
Though it shone shyly through the broken roof
Could not light the path to his dreams.

When I could taste
The blood of that farmer in my bread tonight
I froze.
Was I one of his murderers too?

The birds
Of that farmer's dreams have long since flown away
What is left
Is nothing but the cage.

His still pregnant wife
Who looks everyday at the barren soil of her fields
Wonders
If her tears will be enough to water them.
--

His lantern was almost burnt out
But the light in his eyes was fierce as ever.

He would not be like his father, he murmured,
He would rise through the gutters
And be a man of power and influence

He would then help his brothers
Who continued to dwell in darkness.
And continued to wash away, with futility,
The dirt that was stubbornly under their nails.

But while his mind shone with knowledge,
His heart was heavy with lament.
And his back, bruised by the lathis of the police.

He would not be like his father, he murmured,
Who had been beaten to death by the landlord's army.
Was his father a martyr?
Or merely a lesson he refused to learn.

--

I am sure by now your heart is bleeding as much as mine as I wrote these poems.  You must be feeling motivated to actually do something about these farmers and these poor students.

Well, at least, that's the idea.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Feed and History, some remarks

Original article here.

Many might regard internet, like TV, as a tool to be used judiciously.  It is theoretically possible to watch only documentaries on television, and to use internet to grow intellectually.

But that does not usually happen.  It is far more likely that television and internet are used for stimulation, entertainment and passing time.

As Marshall McLuhan famously said: The medium is the message.  What he meant was that the design of a platform dictates the kinds of interaction and information sharing that happens on it.  Television and internet have been taken over by the advertising and entertainment industry.  The design of these platforms is to serve ads effectively.  This fact will dictate how these platforms are evolved and used.

On cable, you can subscribe to premium channels which do not have advertising, but those premium channels are rarely in the business of edification.  Premium channels offer exclusive content, but that content's purpose is also to entertain.  And of course, product placements and subliminal lifestyle messages are all over such content.  It is a mistake to think that one can watch "Mad Men" or "Sex in the City" and not get influenced or enamored of hedonism and consumerism.

Internet is a relatively new medium, and though one can of course use it for information and fact-checking, that is an aside.  Companies like Google and Facebook and Twitter are ostensibly in the business of "sharing" and "communicating" but that is disingenuous.  They make their money from advertising, and any sharing or communication is used by their ad networks to serve relevant ads to you.  Their intent is to have you keep coming back and refreshing your feed and webpage.  Facebook has gloriously implemented the idea that they need not create any content, if they can have you and your friends occupied and distracted with each other's tidbits, that suits them just fine.

While on television, at least some investment has to be made to produce content, there is no such investment to be made on the internet.  On the internet, these companies are providing a platform.  They do invest in creating and sustaining the platform, but the platform cost is negligible compared to what they earn from you.  And once the platform is there, their primary intent is to serve you more ads.  Any service of theirs which eventually cannot be used to serve you more ads will be discontinued.

There are indeed outstanding non-profit platforms such as Wikipedia, but those are used on occasion for a few minutes, while FB, Twitter and suchlike are used everyday for hours.  There is no excitement in using Wikipedia, but there is plenty of potential entertainment, drama and gratification on the "feed" platforms.

If you offer a drug addict two choices: a healthy salad and an hour in the gym, versus an everyday-refilled dose of his favorite drug, what do you think will happen?

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Feed and History

Modern communication platforms are all about the there and now.

Reading on the internet these days is to browse through the latest.  The past is uninteresting, and it is invisible.

Modern platforms like Facebook, Twitter, blogs and online news sites make it difficult and cumbersome to read anything but what is happening today.  Updates happen, and then slide down and vanish into nothingness.  The latest is what matters.  Who wants to scroll down?

When we talk about attention deficit in modern societies, we must also ponder about how technology is dictating our interests and interactions.  The "feed" is interesting because it is new, and there is always more of this new.  Who will read a book or study something in depth when there is a barrage of newness always on tap?

The "notifications" are all about what happened recently, within the last hour or day.  There is so much coming in the "feed".  There is always something new to check.  When the new is so far unread, the old remains unreadable.  Who has the time or mental space to read old emails, old updates, old articles?  Are those old emails and articles still relevant?  If they contain reflections and insights and cherished memories, they would stand the test of time.  But modern platforms are about the latest trivia, the latest events and the latest reactions to those events.  A reflection on an idea requires, and is helped by, context, but an event or a personal detail can be entertaining without any mental movement in time.

Internet is junk food for the brain.

Entertainment and a quick satisfaction of knowing something new is what is driving human interaction today.  Because the newness dictates a pattern of behavior: clicking on an app or a website again and again to check what's new.  This behavior is good news for the providers of these internet platforms, who make their money by making it tempting for you to visit their estate, stay for a few seconds or a few minutes, and then go away, bored, and then come again.  The more times you come, the more ads they can print for your eyes.

If you stay on an article or an essay for an hour, that time does not generate any new revenue for the platform.  It is in their interest to have you keep clicking like a monkey, and not ponder like a human being.

Facebook posts longer than a few sentences require an extra click on "More" to read.  It is impossible to filter your FB feed for original content instead of external links, and for long content.  Twitter is meant only to offer short bursts.  Newer platforms like Snapchat are explicitly designed to expire messages older than an hour.  It is all about how many times you come to that platform, and not how long you stay.  The design of internet markup is to offer you, via hyperlinks, an opportunity in every other sentence to jump to something else.  Staying, linear and in-depth comprehension and reflection is passe.

Movement, and not stillness, is the paradigm of the internet.

Reading a book or a long essay on paper is fundamentally different from reading something online.  Though you can shuffle pages, you are physically restricted from effortlessly jumping from one content to another.  You have to put down this book, and pick up another.

This fascination and addiction to the latest trivia is the hallmark of how most people are using the internet.  Who will read a book when the payoff and insight is far away, and the gratification of seeing something new on the social platforms is instant.

The book is you interacting with an idea.  Internet is about you navigating other personas.  While on the internet, you may be up-to-date with what someone did or what their reaction is to something that happened today, a book, even if fiction, is about you taking a deep dive into an idea or a personality.

We are moving away from a sense of history, to a constant immersion in the present.  The latest is important, all else is out of date.  This is good news for the elites, as a stupefied, satiated, scrambling population is always a compliant one.  You cannot expect a rebellion or a revolution from those who are refreshing their twitter feed and checking for likes.

To repeat, the platforms are designed for ad-revenue.  What they do to you, and what you become as you spend most of your day on these platforms, is not their concern.  They say it is up to you how you use the internet, but as more and more the internet is these platforms, the design of these platforms is dictatorial about how your mind should work.  Once your mind is hooked on this heroin of little rushes and quick fixes, you and the platform become one.

The shallow pools of the internet are numerous, but a shallow pool can only hold little creatures and can only reflect a little of the sky.  The ocean of life is being barricaded with this minefield of shallow potholes.  It is entirely possible these days for a reflective individual to start walking to the ocean, and never make it.  He doesn't get swallowed by the shallow pools, and he thereby retains an illusion of selfhood, but he also never gets anywhere.  As he wanders from one shallow pool to another, he might think he is progressing toward the ocean, but he will never reach it.  The shallow pools are numerous, easy to get in and get out of, and safe.  There is no risk in shallowness.

The danger is of course, that you would have never started your journey to the other shore.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Charlottesville, Cows and Fascism

On Saturday, August 12 2017, there was to be a rally in Charlottesville (Virginia) to protest the removal of the statue of Robert E Lee, a confederate General during the American civil war.  Many right-wing groups were expected to be there.  Many of these groups are advocates of White nationalism and are extreme right wingers.  They generally denounce immigration and diversity, and are stridently against multiculturalism.

On the other side, extreme left wingers were expected to protest this rally.  Some of these left-wingers have a history of disrupting meetings, speeches and to indulge in violence against police and right-wing personalities.

Because of my interest in identity politics in US, I went there as an observer.  I, of course, am an Indian immigrant to United States.  But I thereby have no special sympathy for the left-wingers and diversity advocates.

Having witnessed countless protests and rallies in India, I was curious about how the day was going to turn out.  Violence was expected.  Heavily armed citizens in military fatigues were there as neutral peacekeepers.  There was a sizable police presence.  Barricades had been installed on certain streets and around the Lee park.

Aware that vandalism and violence was a possibility, I parked my car about a half-mile away from the scene.  I walked to the park and was there at 10am.  The rally was supposed to start at noon.

The right-wing protesters started arriving in groups and gathered inside the barricaded park.  The noisy counter-protesters with loudspeakers, drums and chants gathered on the street facing the park.

Water bottles were flying to and fro.  There were minor skirmishes and pushing and shoving, but nothing remarkable to my eye.  I had witnessed much more intense protests in India where houses and shops were burnt, people were stoned and chased, and the army had to be called in.

Pretty soon, in addition to the water bottles, harmless smoke canisters were being thrown by one side at the other.  And I discovered that many of the water bottles contained pepper spray liquid, urine and I don't know what else.  I stayed at a safe distance.

There were many reasonable folks among the spectators in my vicinity and I talked to some of them, including to one militia-man who explained that he was neutral to both viewpoints and was there to ensure the lawful assembly ended peacefully. All local citizens were just anxious for the day to be over because their downtown had been converted into a fortress.  They didn't want any violence.

The counter-protesters, the left-wingers, had placards and signs which were full of expletives and provocative insults, while the right-wingers were carrying their flags and holding their shields to protect against things thrown at them.

The police was passively watching and did not move a finger to keep the two groups from each other.  If the groups had been separated by even fifty feet, it would have been much safer for both sides.

Suddenly, a tear gas canister landed in a parking lot just opposite the park and the very next minute, the police announced that the rally had been declared an "unlawful assembly" and everybody should disperse.  The right-wingers dispersed but the left-wingers continued to be there, chanting their slogans and marching in the streets.

I thought maybe the rally might happen at another venue (McIntre Park), but I saw some twitter updates that the rally was unlawful to hold anywhere at all.  That was disappointing to me.  I had expected that there would be some tension but the police would act to let the rally be held in peace.

The rally was subjected to the hecklers' veto.

I left soon after.  In the afternoon, a car ran over the still-marching left-wing protesters many of who then tried to destroy the car and the driver.  The driver quickly reversed but was arrested that afternoon itself.  One woman died in that accident.  Then, tragically, a police helicopter crashed at a golf club, in which two cops were killed.

After that day, the mainstream media went into a hysterical overdrive.  The rally was soundly condemned as being violent and reprehensible.  Anyone who came to the defense of the rally-goers (they had secured a permit to peacefully assemble in the park) was labeled a sympathizer.

The President denounced the violence, but the media pounced on him because he did not explicitly condemn the right-wing groups.  He then released a statement naming them explicitly (which I thought was a weak, pandering gesture to calm the howling wolves in the mainstream media), but the media was still shrill and thirsty for more.

Then the next day, the President condemned the violent baddies on both sides, emphasizing that the left-wingers also were to blame and strangely nobody was talking about them.  It sounded eminently sensible to me.  And all hell broke loose.  CEOs left his councils, the Republicans started saying there was no "moral equivalence" between the two groups, and suchlike.

It was an insightful series of events to me.  The events confirmed to me that

1. The mainstream and the engineered feeds on social media in the United States are there to milk every little story to create controversy and hysteria.  There was no discussion about the statue of Robert E Lee and the issue at hand.  All they talked about was the white nationalists and that we should all hate them and anyone who sides with even their right to hold the rally is despicable.

2. There are vested interests driving the narratives on social media, helped by the left-leaning, liberal, politically correct bias of those platforms.  Most of these platforms earn their advertising dollars from the urbanites with disposable incomes.  These urban folks have been given a steady dose of brainwashing by the very same social media and television, and want their echo chambers to be protected.  Anyone saying something disagreeable is to be censored, banned or fired from his job.  No nuance, no discussion, just "repeat what I say, or you're dead to me."  (ref the recent incidents involving James Damore at Google, the Dailystomer website de-registration by GoDaddy and Google and CloudFlare, and the ever-increasing banning of accounts and discussion groups by Twitter, Facebook and Reddit).  Just today, Google took down the Gab social media app from its app store.

3. America has one of the most remarkable constitutional documents in its Bill of Rights, which protects free speech, whether it be considered offensive, blasphemous or seditious.  Most social media participants, media personalities, politicians and commentators (even educated ones) show little to no understanding of this central tenet of American constitution.  They do not understand, or at least willfully ignore, that to censor disagreeable voices is to advocate a fascist, police state.  They act as emotional infants who cannot bear to hear something that they dislike.  Even more alarmingly, they show little understanding of democracy and want their ideological and political opponents to be jailed or silenced.

4. The internet platforms, originally to foster freedom, enlightenment and dialogue, are now owned by private corporations.  These corporations have no interest in fostering free dialogue (ref the Google discontinuation of Google Reader, the IMDb discontinuation of its discussion boards).  Their primary interest is to hold their audience captive for advertising dollars.  The industry magnates, afraid of public opinion and wanting social media popularity, increasingly tend to virtue-signal and side with the mob.  If the media says personality X is bad, a celebrity or CEO can disagree only at his peril.

I firmly believe that, in this country, at this time, the right-wing voice is the one in minority and the vast majority of media is left-wing.  That in part is because statistically, right-wingers are relatively uneducated, technically not as adept, and inarticulate and have little to no voice on the mainstream media.  This is a grave phenomenon deserving of the highest attention.  If this silencing escalates, we can expect only resentment and ultimately, violence.  A suppressed voice finds its expression in explosive action.  This has ramifications not just in society, but in a family, a corporate office or a place of worship.

5. In United States, I believe that the left is awash with intolerant, authoritarian and fascist tendencies, wanting to violently disrupt, silence, hurt, impoverish and jail those that it disagrees with.  It is emboldened in its tactics and supported by the mainstream media.

For those who say that the current President has "emboldened" the hateful right-wingers to come out of hiding, I find it astonishing that they would consider it healthy that somebody with different, even hateful, views stayed hidden and afraid.  Why were they not coming out of hiding before?  What were they afraid of?  Isn't it laudable that people who were earlier afraid to express themselves are now less afraid to speak up?  Is their coming out of their "hiding" a bad thing?  Engaging someone in discussion openly, with them free to speak according to their conscience, is far more likely than suppression to yield common ground and mutual understanding.

What does all this have to do with cows in the title of this essay?

This.

Fascism is not about one's ideology per se.  It is about the tactics and power to enforce that ideology on others.  I consider Hitler, Stalin and Mao to be equally fascist.  It does not matter that Stalin fought against Hitler.  It does not matter that Hitler was a right-wing nationalist while Stalin was a communist.  They did not allow divergent opinions to be heard, and dissidents to live.

With this understanding, it is consistent to consider the left-wing as fascist in the United States, while in India, the right-wingers (the cow vigilantes, the nationalistic "bhakts" etc.) are similarly intolerant and fascist.

Since I consider fascism as evil, and I hope you do too,  my sympathies are with the protection of the rights of the "silent majority" in the US, and of the "silent minorities" in India.  They are both victims of fascism.

In the US, the majority ideologies (from a media standpoint) are: third-wave feminism, diversity, globalization, immigration, climate change, restriction of gun-rights.  The minority voices are for men's rights, strong borders, nationalism, free speech, and those against Islam as a religion of terror.

In India, the minority opinions which are routinely suppressed are: criticism of India as a nation-state, heretical opinions about religions, godmen and politicians, criticism of gender-biased laws, etc.

I may not agree with them, in fact I may vehemently disagree with them, but that is irrelevant to how much I want them to be free to express themselves and how much I condemn those that would seek to silence and suppress them.

Some profound essays on the freedom of expression:

Some Elementary Comments on The Rights of Freedom of Expression (Chomsky)

Censorship more dangerous than hate speech (Glenn Greenwald)

I end this essay with this quote:

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.

(John Milton, 1644 in Areopagitica: A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicens'd Printing, to the Parliament of England) 

Monday, June 05, 2017

Three classes, Three Gurus, with some notes on Sri Sri

An ancient post on a classification of Gurus.

Swami Ramdev, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev are the three major godmen in India at present.

Swami Ramdev started as a Hatha Yoga and Pranayama evangelist.  His ascent was mostly due to the 24x7 religious channels on Indian cable TV which beamed his Yoga instructions to millions of home.  Now he has diversified into being the head of an Ayurvedic-themed FMCG empire.  He wears orange robes and can be considered a monk.



Sr Sri, a past follower of Mahesh Yogi, teaches a form of breathing exercise called the Sudarshan Kriya through his Art of Living Foundation.  The foundation runs courses for beginners and experienced practitioners for a fee.  He wears white and is presumably living a celibate existence.


Sadhguru, about who I have written a bit on this blog, teaches what he calls "Isha Yoga" through his Isha Foundation which now also runs shops selling yoga-themed trinkets and accessories.  He wears both modern and traditional wear, and has a long beard.  He was married at one time, but is now a widower.


It is interesting to note that these three gurus cater to different demographics in India and abroad.

Swami Ramdev talks in Hindi, and appeals to lower-middle-class Indians.  He has almost no foreign following.  He is a "1.5-star" guru in terms of ambiance.

Sri Sri, speaks mostly English, and appeals to the middle classes who have moderate exposure to English but may not be too fluent.  He has some foreign following.  He can be considered three-star for his venues and training materials.

Sadhguru speaks primarily in English, and appeals to the elite classes who don't mix with the riff-raff.  His stuff is four-star and above.

Mind, the star-rating is not for their spiritual or philosophical insight, which is third-rate for all three, but only for the material quality of their atmosphere.

(Curious folks might be interested in the long-running Sarlo's Guru Rating service.)

All three gurus are still in business and have managed to avoid, unlike the unlucky Asaram "Bapu" or "Satguru" Ram Rahim, criminal prosecution for nefariousness.

...

Some notes on Sri Sri, who has been in the news recently for the wrong reasons.

  • Why the dyed hair and beard?  He is 60+ and why this subterfuge about appearance.  One should note that both the late Sathya Sai Baba and Swami Ramdev likely dye(d) their hair as well.
  • Why does he allow his humble self to be called "Sri Sri"?  The explanation that he just went along with it as his followers decided on this name is somewhat weak.
  • He is described by his sister, and himself, as a child prodigy.  But he likely graduated only with difficulty, and in third class.  His degree is not in "advanced physics" as claimed, but is merely a regular 3-year undergraduate bachelor's course which he was able to clear only on the second attempt.
  • Given his mannerisms, I consider him quite likely to be a gay man.  There is nothing wrong with being gay, of course.  But if true, he would be the first gay guru in modern India.
  • He, like Swami Ramdev and Jaggi Vasudev, is politically well-connected.  This is a rather good way to get land at concessional rates, and generally avoid trouble.
This blog article offers more color on him and his courses.  The comments are interesting as well.  The title phrase of the blog "How genuine is ..." can be construed as an effort to determine his category in the guru-world.  As per my taxonomy, I would categorize him as a second-category teacher.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Ghazal by Mirza Ghalib

(With gratitude toward the authors of these two blogs for helpful translation and commentary)

This famous poem by Asadullah Khan Ghalib was partly rendered by Chitra Singh for the soundtrack of the TV series Mirza Ghalib.

ये ना थी हमारी किस्मत के विसाल-ए-यार होता
अगर और जीते रहते यही इंतज़ार होता

It was not my destiny to have met my beloved
To have lived on would just have been more of this waiting.

तेरे वादे पे जिए हम तो ये जान झूठ जाना
कि खुशी से मर ना जाते अगर ऐतबार होता

Consider it false, o beloved, that I lived on your word
I would have died of joy had I really believed you.

तेरी नाज़ुकी से जाना कि बांधा था अहद बोदा
कभी तू ना तोड़ सकता अगर उस्तुवार होता

Your delicateness gave away the fragility of your promise
You could never have broken it had it been strong to begin with.

कोई मेरे दिल से पूछे तेरे तीर-ए-नीमकश को
यह ख़लिश कहाँ से होती जो जिगर के पार होता

Ask my heart about the arrow of your casual glance
It would not have caused this pain had it gone through, killing me.

ये कहाँ की दोस्ती है कि बने हैं दोस्त नासे
कोई चारासाज़ होता, कोई गमगुसार होता

What kind of friendship is this, that friends have turned sagacious counselors?
I wish there was one who was a healer, one who was a comforter.

रग-ए-संग से टपकता वो लहू कि फिर ना थमता
जिसे गम समझ रहे हो ये अगर शरार होता

If what you consider as my sorrow was instead a spark of fire
It would have melted rocks and endlessly flowed as their blood

गम अगरचे जां-गुसिल है पर कहाँ बचें कि दिल है
गम-ए-इश्क अगर ना होता गम-ए-रोज़गार होता

Agreed, sorrow makes life difficult, but there is no escaping the heart and its pain
If not for the pain of love, there would have been the pain of tedium.

कहूं किस से मैं कि क्या है, शब्-ए-गम बुरी बला है
मुझे क्या बुरा था मरना अगर एक बार होता

How to describe to another the ordeal that is a night of pain
I wouldn't have minded this death if it was to be only once.

हुए मर के हम जो रुसवा, हुए क्यों ना गर्क-ए-दरिया
ना कभी जनाज़ा उठता, ना कहीं मज़ार होता

My death revealed my pain. Why did I not just disappear down a river?
Then there would have neither a burial nor a tomb for me.

उसे कौन देख सकता कि यगना है वो यकता
अगर दुई की बू भी होती तो कहीं दो-चार होता

Who can behold the incomparable, for it is unique!
If it was indeed common and easily imitated, an encounter would have happened by now.

ये मसाइल-ए-तसव्वुफ, ये तेरा बयां ग़ालिब
तुझे हम वली समझते जो ना बादा-ख्वार होता

These mystical riddles, these descriptions from you Ghalib!
We could have mistaken you for someone important, if you weren't such a drunk.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Kinatay (2009) by Brillante Mendoza

This Filipino/Tagalog film won the Best Director award at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival.


One of my go-to reviewers, Mike D'Angelo, gave this film a C rating while calling it "audacious".  Needless to say, I was intrigued.

The film was panned by Roger Ebert who called it the worst film that had ever been screened at Cannes, even surpassing The Brown Bunny (Gallo, 2003) in worthlessness.  Since I had definitely enjoyed TBB (as well as Buffalo 66, directed again by Vincent Gallo), I put this film on my watch-list.  It is as interesting, and important, to watch films which critics hate as to watch the ones they love.  A film evoking strong reactions is bound to be interesting.

Given the humanist leanings of Ebert, I find it surprising that he did not see more in the film.

Kinatay, which means "Butchering", is about a single remarkable day in the life of a young man.  He marries the mother of his 7-month old child early in the day, goes to his police school around noon, and then later in the day unwittingly becomes part of something horrific.

Critics were unhappy mostly with the form of the film, much of which is a jarring, hazy, darkly-lit journey in a van to and from an out-of-town house.  The film can be called minimalist, but there are certain oblique (though by no means opaque) choices made by the director which most reviews seem to have overlooked.  The film is remarkable also for its sound design, and is more of an auditory experience.  It is also a very morally intense film, but that is quite apparent.

The film is essentially the journey of an un-corrupted, naive, innocent man from heaven to hell and back.  From being a creature of light, he becomes aware of darkness.  He witnesses hell, and wants to run away.  He cannot, or does not.

And when back in "heaven", the man tainted by hell is not the same.  Religious references abound.  Paintings of Jesus, frequent sightings of the cross, and of course the victim named "Madonna".  Hell is literally a basement below the ground in this film.

The most harrowing sequence in the film, for me, is not the one critics are focusing on, but is the one towards the end of the film when Peping, the young protagonist, is trying to get back to his home.  He hires a taxi, the taxi has a flat tire, and while the taxi is stopped, he tries desperately to flag down a bus or some communal transport.  Nobody stops for him.

He is a forsaken man by then.  Back from hell, and tainted by sin, he is no longer part of humanity.  He tries desperately to again merge in the sea of light, but finds himself invisible to God.

Contrast this sequence with the sequence during the morning, when he and his wife go together to the wedding venue.  Contrast the sequence also of them having a celebratory meal with the sequence of Peping not being able to eat after being back from hell.  The two sequences are similar outwardly, but could not be further apart inwardly.  During the morning sequences, there is an understated gaiety and camaraderie.  Western viewers might find the humble wedding and the "feast" curious, but the happiness is palpable.  During the later sequences, there is a similarly understated sense of having lost one's way and of a forlorn loneliness and despair.

The taxi driver fixes his tire, and invites Peping back into the taxi.  But inexplicably, Peping is not interested in re-entering the taxi.  Does he not want to be alone with his guilt?  Does he seek admission back into the heaven but is refused?  Does he wish to be normal again, and not wanting to spend the money that he has just "earned"?

The last shot of the film is his wife cooking for him and caring for their child.  Will he find his way home?  Will he use the money to buy milk for his child, as suggested by Satan?

We never find out.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Definition of An Evolving State

I am not sure if this idea has ever been stated in these terms, but it just occurred to me today morning.

This came to me while reflecting on the two first amendments in the two largest democracies in the world: India and the United States.

The First Amendment to the constitution of the United States guarantees free speech:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The first amendment to the constitution of India restricts free speech:
Nothing ... shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub-clause in the interests of the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.
As is obvious, the first amendment to the US constitution radically curtails the power of the state, while in case of India, the first amendment radically expands the power of the state.

And it is equally clear that the right to free speech in the United States is more libertarian than the one in India.  There is a sound reason why people flee oppressive regions and regimes and want to migrate to United States.  It is partly to have a "better life" in terms of prosperity, but it is also indubitably to live a life of more dignity and freedom.  Many sociologists would contend that the two are inextricably related.

Especially when it comes to intellectual creativity, scientific and ideological progress, and a critique of prevailing paradigms, the protection of free speech can be easily seen as the fundamental building block of a society.

Hence, this definition:
The evolution of a nation-state can be measured by the limits it places on its powers, and by the powers and protections it thereby guarantees to its citizenry against its own government.
By this measure, there is only one significant progressive event in India in the seventy years since its independence, which is the passage of the Right to Information Act.  This was enacted by the Parliament of India in 2005.  It is not ideal, and it has many loopholes.  But in a rare deviation from India's legislative narrative, it places a burden on the state.  It confers a new right to its citizens, and prohibits the state from infringing on that right by prescribing penalties on the state in case of such infringement.  It also sets up a somewhat independent body to handle disputes about the execution of this right.

I fail to find any other significant law in India which similarly, and more to the point, effectively limits the power of the state.  It is one thing to blithely state some new right, but it is an entirely different matter to guarantee that right by a quick process of redress.

I am at a loss to find a right in India which can be enforced effectively by its citizens.  This is somewhat due to the dysfunctional courts, but even the intent seems to be missing from the statement of these rights.  The intent is to pay lip-service to a right, while keeping the right ambiguous enough to grant a lot of leeway to the state and others to come after you if you truly exercise that right to their consternation.

There have been many laws passed for the benefit of minorities, or of women, but most such laws confer a right to one section of the population to the detriment of another.  Such laws seek to re-balance power, for better or worse, between two sections of the population, not between the state and the citizenry.  In no way does do these laws confer a right to the citizenry while taking a power away from the state.

For example, the SC/ST atrocities act, which among other things makes it a crime to use a pejorative or expletive when addressing people from certain tribes obviously grants a right to those tribes, but inhibits the liberty of others.  Similarly, the Domestic Violence act which tries to guarantee domestic peace and happiness to women does a flagrant disservice to men.  Not just because men are seen to be never the victims and always the aggressors, but also because the state confers this right on women and thereby imposes a duty on men and their families (e.g. of maintenance, and of keeping their wives or daughters-in-law in good humor, et al).

Leaving aside the fact that it was already a crime to intimidate anyone, be it a minority community member or one's domestic partner, these laws are regressive according to my definition.

In fact, such laws make the state more and more powerful by bringing hitherto unaddressed activities within the purview of its powers.  They further limit the acts of its citizenry and further empower the state to go after and prosecute its population.

A truly progressive law, under my definition, would be to guarantee something to the citizenry and making the state not just the guarantor, but also the party liable to be punished in case of the infringement of that right.

Now one may ask: "What about subsidies and largesse?"  Aren't they a right conferred on the citizens making the state liable?  Not at all.  The state is not a generator of wealth, so to begin with it had no right to confer that wealth on an individual or community of its choosing.  In such cases, the state is using the wealth of one section of the population to benefit another.  In fact if a state uses this kind of "right" too often, it is usually a sign of corruption, nepotism and cronyism.

If we agree that a progressive state is one that is a freer state, and if we regard liberty as the fundamental measure of human progress, it stands to reason that India has a long, long way to go.  Not just that, but India has been regressing by passing more and more laws to empower the state.

True progress is that which promotes liberty, and on that measure, India is not significantly better today than it was in British times, and quite likely worse.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Change or Accept, part 2

First part.

The general approach to solving anything is to identify the problem, figure out possible approaches to solve it, and evaluate the approaches on their (a) risk-vs-reward, (b) effort-vs-results or (c) competence-vs-weakness-of-the-individual factors.

Our evaluation of ourselves is necessarily tinged by how others see us.  The evaluating part of us is a product of our environment.  And surprisingly, our desires too are in many cases the effect of influence.  We see others, we see them happy or sad, and we want the things happy people have and we reflect on others' sadness, somewhat gratefully, as lessons on what to avoid.

What we want first must be validated as something that we really want, and not something that we think we want.  What is the difference?  What we want must resonate with what we are, and not how we want to be perceived.  What we are is found by going back to our childhood, before puberty (because that is when society starts exerting itself), and reflecting on our in-born traits.

"Am I true to my ten-year old self?"

Once we have some confidence in our desires and ambitions (even if it is the ambition to live peacefully, somewhat off the beaten track), we must:

(a) Understand what changes in direction that desire will require.  The change will be painful, and risky.  Is the desire strong enough for us to bear that pain?  The path to wealth, for example, is a path of many failures before any kind of success, and we might have to give up the certainty of our daily existence to reach for something that currently seems out of reach.

(b) Understand what it takes to achieve our desires.  Are we ready for that effort?  Given our history of effort and persistence, does it seem like we will be able to pull through the effort?  Sustaining a family requires adjustments and tenacity which a restless nature might find impossible to bear.

(c) Understand whether that desire is realizable, given our limits and circumstances.  A 45-year old woman may want to be a mother, and it may not be easy to accept that her time has passed.  But without that acceptance, one is destined to a life of futility and bitterness.

...

When trying to understand a human being and his situation, we have to bear in mind that the totality of his life is reflected in his present.

There are in-born traits, there are patterns established by experience, and there are situations which present themselves to a human.

Truthfully, I am yet to come across an individual who has radically changed himself as an adult and lived effortlessly thereafter as a transformed man.

Those who understand addictions know that an addiction lies dormant, and is never extinguished.  It has to be overcome again and again by power of will and with the help and support of external angels.

A relapse almost always results in the addiction or the habit pattern being fully established all over again.  It is not that the relapsed individual is more capable of understanding and restraint.  The patterns of behavior that one finds, and resists, in oneself are deeper than the force of will and awareness.

At some point in one's life, one has to accept that "this is what I am".  If "this is what I am" is not going to lead to "what I want", then a struggle is inevitable and there will be a life-long inner conflict.  That is by no means a negative.  It just means that one has to live with all three: "what I am", "what I want to be" and conflict.

Giving up on "what I am" is impossible and is a denial of reality.  Beware of those paths which make you doubt and deny yourself.

Giving up on "what I want" is resignation.  Beware of those who decry desire as evil.

Wanting to avoid conflict, or in other words, suffering, is delusion.  Beware of those who peddle the snake oil of a life free of suffering.

An adult lives in internal conflict between various drives, some of the past, some looking forward into the future.  Shyness versus loneliness, lack of ambition versus insecurity, misanthropy versus the desire to be liked and admired, laziness versus the desire to be athletic, ...

Self-acceptance does not mean that one stops improving.  It only means that improvement will also have to be accepted as a life-long struggle.  Perhaps the process of improvement can be so sustained and persistent that it becomes a habit, but the unimproved self lies in abeyance, un-extinguished.  Watchfulness will be forever necessary.

As we age, it requires more and more energy to take new paths and to take new risks.  But it is by no means impossible.

As long as you are alive, you can choose.  Radical choices in later life require more courage than those in youth.

But there comes a time, when after having analyzed ad-nauseum, and when fear is the only obstacle, one must take the plunge.

While failure might await those who do, regret definitely awaits those who don't.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Change or Accept

I had a somewhat interesting conversation with a friend today morning.

The conversation centered on whether one should accept oneself (to "be"), or whether one should attempt to "become".  "Being" is generally associated with peace and happiness, while "becoming" is associated with desire and frustration and suffering.

This is a nuanced topic, and while spirituality advocates a wholesale "being", many forces in the world relentlessly try to coerce, inspire, influence or shape an individual: to "become".  Some of these forces are probably with good intentions (parents, teachers, etc.) while others (advertisers, peer pressure) are often vicious in their intent.

Which features or characteristics of a human should be accepted as innate?

Which features or patterns of a human should be attempted to be changed in order to live a better life?

And lastly, at what point should one attempt to transform the circumstances instead of oneself?

To make the question more specific, let us consider three hypothetical individuals:

1. James likes to live large.  He has a busy corporate life, and out of office he likes to drink, party, and spend money.  He likes to buy new gadgets and show off flashy possessions.  He has some credit card debt.  His parents are old but he rarely calls them.  He meets many women but none of them are found suitable by him for getting married.  Maybe he doesn't want to get tied down.  He likes to live "in the present" and not think too much about "life".  He sleeps well but is sometimes stressed about the possibility of losing his job.

2. Matthew is an introvert.  He likes to work from home.  His parents are chronically unwell and he grudgingly takes care of them.  In his leisure time, he plays video games and eat simple food.  He doesn't like to meet women (or men, for that matter).  He is mildly overweight and he tries intermittently to exercise without much effect.  His needs are few and he has no significant ambition.  Of late he has become interested in existential philosophy.  People would consider him sober and mild-mannered.

3. Leah is driven, and very focused on self-improvement.  She is extremely fit, quite ambitious but emotionally vacuous.  She earns a lot of money as a Vice President but is often lonely.  She focused on her career in her twenties and early thirties and given her age, motherhood is no longer an option.  She is a vegan by choice, likes to volunteer to help the poor, and likes to travel to exotic places.  She never wants to retire but has a nagging feeling of emptiness and purposelessness.  She ensures that she sends birthday and anniversary cards to her parents every year.

In each of these three individuals, one can see shades of self-acceptance as well as self-doubt, "being" as well as "becoming", contentment as well as discontent.

If James, Matthew and Leah come to you for advice on whether they should continue to be the way they are or whether they should change themselves, or their circumstances, what will be the way you begin to form your response?

Complete acceptance of oneself and the world might be sub-optimal, but so might advocating a change which is in conflict with one's "nature".

Is it important to investigate the kind of discontent that one has, and after due consideration, to advocate: (a) accept the situation, (b) try and change yourself, or (c) try and change your situation?  Or a mixture of all three?

(to be continued)

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Three Poems, Three Poets, Three Fathers

1. Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (Dylan Thomas)

"It has been suggested that it was written for Thomas' dying father, although he did not die until just before Christmas 1952." (Wikipedia)



2. एक गली का अँधेरा (Kumar Vikal)

(Explicitly dedicated to his late father)

3. तुम्हारी कब्र पर (Nida Fazli)