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.

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
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.