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)