Thursday, April 25, 2019

Judicial Pace and Violence

A cumbersome judicial process, as is there in India, leads to horrific crimes by ordinary people when they see no way out to resolve a civil dispute.

Every other day I read about "a woman and her paramour" killing "her husband" because divorce was not a possibility.  Similarly, there are husbands who want to separate from their wives but there being no way to do so legally (and also due to the gender-biased laws which are sympathetic to women),  remain married and are cruel to her.

One often reads of people resorting to stone-pelting, self-immolation and lynchings because they have no faith in the judiciary to deliver justice.  Even the police, the guardians of law, resort to torture, confessions and killings because they know the criminal will likely never be convicted.

There are millions of property disputes lingering in Indian courts.  Quite a few murders in India are because of dubious claims to being a heir, unsettled property disputes or ambiguities in someone's will.

Many of the lynchings are a form of "instant justice" by the mob because the mob, somewhat justifiably, has no faith in the police and the judiciary.

Millions of under-trials languish in jails because their cases are stuck, and they are not literate enough to know their rights to bail or to a speedy trial.  The latter right, of a speedy trial, is probably just a fiction and I have never seen a criminal case thrown out because it took too long.

Judicial fairness and agility is of fundamental importance in any civil society.  If the disputes and crimes are not fairly and promptly adjudicated, feelings of helplessness, frustration, anger, despondence, hysteria, are almost a certainty.

The despots of society are fearless of consequences, and the ordinary law-abiding citizen remains cowed in fear and frustration.  And often, very normal people are driven to criminality because they have run out of patience.

As I have written elsewhere, India suffers from not just judicial dysfunction, but dysfunction at all levels of jurisprudence:

1. The laws are horribly drafted, are ambiguous, and in many cases, archaic.
2. The law-enforcement machinery (the police) is over-worked, corrupt, and openly influenced by politicians and bureaucrats.
3. The public prosecutors are apathetic and either too lax on real criminals or too pedantic (grant-custody-your-honor, deny-the-bail-your-honor) and hence draconian on the innocents.
4. The judiciary is unprofessional, unpredictable and temperamental, glacially slow, unwilling to punish judges whose decisions are reversed in higher courts, and encouraging of the lawyer mafia, uncaring of the endless petitions and appeals process, and soft on the state.

There is no easy or quick solution, but each of these rotting pillars need to be fixed, and they can be fixed.  There are vested interests which want the state of affairs to continue, despite the fact or perhaps because of the fact, that this state of affairs is brutal

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Essays on Modernity

Some years ago, as I came out of the thralldom of spirituality and the self-centered pursuit of transcending one's humanity in order to be "free from suffering", I wrote a series of polemics on the vacuum of meaning in the modern human being.

Spirituality is an an individual attempt to form a personal superego (a grand Self instead of one's puny "self"), while rejecting the superego of tradition, religion and social mores.

Some of those series of essays are listed below:

Superego and Morality

On Non-Attachment: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6.

Nature and Man

Notes on Modernity.

Notes on Suffering: part 1part 2.

Notes on Intellect: part 1part 2part 3.

A note on Morality.

Notes on Meaning: part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5part 6part 7part 8part 9part 10part 11part 12part 13.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Spiritual Wisdom is Anything But

Came across the following quote:
If you are willing to look at another person's behavior toward you as a reflection of the state of their relationship with themselves rather than a statement about your value as a person, then you will, over a period of time cease to react at all (Yogi Bhajan)
You can of course look up Yogi Bhajan and the controversies about him, but let us just focus on the quote.

There is so much wrong in this quote that it is hard to know where to begin, but I'll try.  What is wrong with the quote is all quite basic, but it is bewildering that such truthy quotes still float around.

1. Others' behavior toward you might indeed be about you.  If you are an ill-mannered person, then of course others will avoid you.  If you are lazy at your job, of course your colleagues will criticize you.  If you are an abusive spouse, of course your partner will be resentful of you.  To respond to others' acts and words about you in the manner of "it's not me, it's them" is to believe that you are beyond judgment and there is nothing about you which might be unwholesome.  It is therapeutic and comforting to think this way, but I recommend narcissism to no one.

2. The quote is suggesting that if you are pained by others' opinion or behavior toward you, then they have "issues" and once you understand that, you will not react but will "understand" them and be beatifically compassionate toward their inner suffering.

In other words, it is saying: others need to fix themselves, not you.  That of course might be true in certain cases.  If you are learning to drive and another driver, frustrated at your rookie mistakes on the road, gives you the middle finger or honks at you, of course they are frustrated and it will do you no good to get into a mutual road-raging fight.  You just mutter to yourself "oh well, i'm still learning" and move on.

But in many cases, as partly in the case of the rookie driver, you are to blame as well.  Another's reaction might be an overreaction, but it is oftentimes indeed a reaction to something that you did.  No, not all reactions of others are due to their "issues".  You might have done something to trigger that reaction as well.

This is not to say that you need to make everyone happy.  There will be people who are offended at your telling the truth about, say, their favorite leader.  That does not mean you need to shut yourself up.

3. The phrase "relationship with themselves" is a curious one.  It probably means the soul's relationship to the mind, or it may mean a mind's inner conflict.

Somebody gossiping about you may indeed have "insecurity" or a complex, somebody envious of your happy marriage may have an unhappy one of their own, somebody calling you anorexic because you believe in fitness may have an unhealthy relationship to food, and so on.  Indeed all this can be true.  But it is the height of egotism to believe that everybody else is crazy but you.  What if you too have a bad relationship with yourself?  What if you have unhealthy eating habits and your spouse tells you that you are overweight and need to watch it?  What if your marriage is an unhappy one and a happily married individual tells you that oftentimes you speak with contempt toward your spouse and that is not a good thing?  What if you indeed are trying to date someone with criminal tendencies and your friend tries to warn you about it?

4. If somebody's behavior toward you is because of their inner issues, then logically, so should one consider their behavior toward others.  If we go by Yogi Bhaja's advice, there need not be any reaction.

So, there is no need to stop a cruel dictator, a murderer, a pickpocket, an embezzler, a drunk lout, an ill-behaved adolescent, in fact, anyone whose behavior is not appropriate.  But if you would intervene when somebody is being inappropriate to others, why not also respond if they are being inappropriate toward you?

Now of course, the spiritualist will, ahem, respond, and say that you should not react but respond.  As in, not immediately, impulsively respond but respond "mindfully" or after due reflection, or after ensuring that you are free from any impulse of anger or irritation.

In my opinion, if I am stopping a violent thug from beating somebody up on the street, my primary consideration would be to stop him, and a much, much more feeble consideration would be to navel-gaze and determine if my own state of mind is completely wholesome.  Unwholesome emotions are rough and ready responses to unwholesome situations, and they serve us well in cases of danger.  Often, unwholesome emotions lead us to react less than optimally to a situation, but sometimes there is no time.  Most of the time, we react appropriately, with a mix of emotions and cogitation.

If you are short-tempered, easily annoyed, paranoid, or otherwise suffer from an exaggerated impulse or emotionally fragile nature, by all means moderate those impulses.  But to not react at all is to be an inhuman robot which only evaluates a situation and after a proper computation, decides the best course of action and executes it.

5. To react (or to respond) to change circumstances, which circumstances can obviously include other individuals, is the very stuff of life.  Only a stone is unperturbed.  To be perturbed is to be alive.  To see injustice and be moved by it, to have moist eyes after having witnessed a heroic gesture, to feel a sense of outrage at a mob heckling a philosopher during his speech, are all entirely wholesome "reactions".  To seek to rid oneself of reactions is likely a spiritual quest to reach a state of "stillness".

As I have often asked, what will then be your motivation to act?  What will be the desire that will make you get up and do anything, anything at all?  Absolute stillness is a death.  There is a total lack of perturbation in that state.  Spiritualists will tell you that you can experience that state while alive, but then again, something happens to them in that state that makes them not just remain sitting in silence.  They eventually get up and talk, or go out of the room.  Why?  Why don't they just stay there?

The answer is, of course, that a sense of peace and contentment that one feels during spiritual practices is a temporary respite from the stresses of life.  That state is sought by those in whom the stresses of life have become overwhelming.  They will be helped by a calming practice, but the aim of life is not to be calm, it is to live and achieve whatever is important to you.  To seek to only be calm as one's goal is to misunderstand life massively.

And even the nirvana-dwelling gurus do things which are of course driven by circumstances and their desires.  They build ashrams, build followings, teach others, advertise about their workshops on social media, etc.  For a normal enough individual, meditation or a calming practice offers a way to recuperate from those stresses.  At least for that hour of meditation, those stresses seem non-existent.  But those stresses still exist, and have to be handled with intelligence.  If you are responsible for a surgical operation on your next patient, by all means do so in a calm and collected manner, but that calm is a means, not an end.  The end is the success of the surgical operation.

For spiritualists, the calm is the end, and all experiencing of life is the means.

But it is actually quite simple to be eternally calm. If you ever wish for that, the national suicide hotline number, at least in USA, is 1-800-273-8255.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Working Class

It is a curious phrase, the "working class".  It means "the social group consisting of people who are employed for wages, especially in manual or industrial work."

If they are the working class, what are the knowledge workers?  And what about the Dilbert-esque managers of the knowledge workers?

Being one of the latter, I often wonder that despite the appearance of work, what we do merely re-arranges bits inside of a computer.  We manipulate information.  That information then eventually impacts something in the "real world" and transforms matter.

A programmer working for AirBnB helps create an app.  That app enables people to search for guest-rooms.  They use that app to book a particular room.  The app notifies the host.  The payment is made electronically.  The bank balance of the host increases while that of the guest decreases.  Eventually the guest travels and stays in that room.  In this way there is still some material "happening" in the end.

Consider a project manager for the Times of India website.  The reporter talks to real people, uses various online data resources, investigates, and writes a news report on a computer.  Say the report is about a government department's nepotistic hiring practices. The end result of the reporter's work is new forms of "information".  The project manager directs his staff to post the new information on the ToI website.  Once posted, it is available to read for anyone anywhere in the world with internet access.  After having ingested that new information, the reader talks about it to his friends, who then decide to picket the local government office.

A real "event" leading to another real event, mediated by information and information workers.


Information or Knowledge workers procure, manipulate or disseminate information.  In some cases their counter-party is a human being, but in many cases it is a machine.  For example, software programmers or systems administrators inform a computer on what it should do. 

The "working class" manipulates tangible matter.  They cook food, they drive trains, they make roads and build buildings, they repair machinery, they carry loads, ...

The social interaction between so-called working class and the knowledge workers is becoming rare.  Of course there is functional interaction.  You give your order to the waiter, and the waiter might be using the bank's call center to inquire about his recent paycheck.  But socially, these two categories of people rarely mix with each other.

I think that is a shame.

Charles Murray, in his marvelous, landmark book "Coming Apart", discusses just this phenomenon.  How the tastes, preferences, cultural pillars and much else between these two classes has become segregated and disjoint.

The cover page shows a glass full of champagne at the top, and a crumpled empty can of beer at the bottom.

An excerpt:
Many of the members of the new upper class are balkanized. Furthermore, their ignorance about other Americans is more problematic than the ignorance of other Americans about them. It is not a problem if truck drivers cannot empathize with the priorities of Yale professors. It is a problem if Yale professors, or producers of network news programs, or CEOs of great corporations, or presidential advisers cannot empathize with the priorities of truck drivers. It is inevitable that people have large areas of ignorance about how others live, but that makes it all the more important that the members of the new upper class be aware of the breadth and depth of their ignorance.

I highly recommend that you not just "empathize" or warmly smile at the next working class individual that you come across, but develop a deeper bond with some of them.

Invite your maid to dinner at your table, go have a drink with your driver, go and take your daughter to the birthday party of your mechanic's son, not as an act of condescending generosity, but something born out of genuine interest and affection for those individuals. 

You will find, as I often find, that their lives have much to teach you.  And that sharing in their experiencing of life will give you an unimaginably different perspective on your own life, and on the world in general.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Pleasure of the Tangible

No matter how smart we are, there are certain perceptual biases which affect us.  Something not being "real" makes us treat it in a more casual, flippant manner.

Casinos know this.  So they give you plastic chips to gamble with.  It has long been known that people gamble more recklessly with plastic chips than with real currency or coins.

It is also generally accepted that people are apt to spend more if they use plastic money: debit or credit cards.  Despite the convenience of these cards, many prefer to use cash.  They are, perhaps by experience, apprehensive that they will overspend with a card.

Taking a leap of thought, it occurred to me that I do not enjoy downloaded music or virtual books as much as I enjoyed playing a cassette tape or reading the musty, browned pages of a printed book.  My local library offers an almost unlimited selection of all the magazines delivered to my e-book-reader, but I have no interest.  I have more books than I can count in electronic form on my Kindle or on my computer, but they sit there, in their digital form, unread.

Any song or piece of music or film that we can think of is instantly available to us via the internet.  But I can't remember too many films, available via streaming, that I have enjoyed re-watching.  The streaming providers encourage you to "binge watch" instead of "depth watch": To watch something and to reflect on it and to discuss it.  No sir, just move on to the next episode.  Whereas I distinctly remember almost running to ruin the VHS tapes that we possessed during the non-internet years.

Of course one might be tempted to think that even books and recorded music must have felt "virtual" to those who were used to scrolls, hand-written texts, and only live music.  Is it just nostalgia, or is there something to the fact that the more easily accessible and "portable" something becomes, its artistic value becomes less in some far depth of our consciousness?  I don't think just calling someone Luddite settles it.

Can ease of access lead to a perceived diminution in value, and thereby a lowering of enjoyment?  I do think so.

Imagine you have been looking for a book.  It is out of print.  You find a used-books-store and are delighted at finding a 1967 print of that very book.  You snuggle in bed and lovingly turn each page, smelling the decades-old pages, enjoying the dated type of the letters, and taking care not to damage the binding as you turn the pages.

Compare that experience with the book being instantly delivered to your kindle.  You have it, and you will be mighty pleased to have it, but you have spent almost no effort in getting it into your hands.  If in future the books can be streamed directly to your brain, it will be even more convenient, and the actual content even less valued.

There are people who collect vinyl records to this day.  They say that the fidelity is better, but I think a deeper reason is the tangibility of it.  You show the large cover to your friends, you take out the big black disc and see and hear the pin of the player scratch its outer diameter as the music begins.

It is also true that in the age of CDs and cassettes, one listened to all the songs in an album, and not just a chart topper.  Not any more.  This is the age of the "single".  Who even knows the names of recently released albums anymore?  Everybody only knows the names of individual songs.

Consider a "digital" magazine or newspaper versus its print counterpart.  Can you not honestly say that no matter how nice the resolution of your tablet, there is a distinct pleasure of reading the broadsheet or turning the pages of the magazine and reading every little word on the page?

As more and more of our world gets mediated by the black mirrored devices, is it not true that the depth of engagement is lessening?  Of course there are other factors too.  Distraction, for example.  But that is also a consequence of the easy access.  There is too much available too easily for us to remain focused on something for a while.

As an experiment, browse to a web page or a news article and turn off the internet on your phone or computer.  Even though there are links on that page, you cannot navigate to them.  There is no choice - and in quite a few cases this lack of choice is a good thing - but for you to pay more attention to the content at hand.

This is even more true with a book or a cassette or vinyl record.  There is no easy way to "skip" to a different track when you are temporarily bored.  And so you listen to all the songs, turn by turn.

A core insight is: Depth of one's relationship with anything or anyone is contingent on there being periods of non-stimulation.  Or in other words, on Patience.  Convenience makes patience unnecessary, and that can also be a curse.

Subscribe to the 5G service soon to be available on your cellular network at your peril.

Monday, April 08, 2019

The Decline and Fall of India

India, my motherland, is a country in terminal decline.

The pollution levels are reaching record levels, with absolutely no sign of there being any concerted effort at controlling or reversing it.  Indian's soil, water, air, its rivers, its beaches, its cities and towns, are all polluted to an absolutely alarming degree.  The non-profit NGOs and the courts are fighting a losing battle trying to clean the country up - a losing battle because the sources of the pollution are unchecked.  India generates most of its electricity from coal/thermal power.  Its industries are under little regulation for their effluent discharge.  The cities have no garbage or sewerage treatment systems to speak of.  Most of India's commercial vehicles are rickety diesel-powered fume monsters.  Of the top ten most polluted cities of the world, seven are in India.

India is the world's most densely populated country, and soon to be the most populous country.

India's governments are dysfunctional to a large degree.  Public services for education, healthcare and law enforcement are now mostly employment schemes for people working there, and offer little benefit to their customers.  Especially the police and the courts are clogged to their gills with pending disputes.  The police routinely tortures suspects, and human rights abuses by it are legion.

There is a certain level till which the inhabitants of a region want to improve their lot and seek to fix their environment.  That level is based on perceptions of lawlessness, the effort required to effect any change, and the anecdotal risks of going against a corrupt and powerful mafia.  Beyond that certain level, people just give up.  It is beyond dispute that most of India's educated and elite are either seeking a safe, privileged cocoon within India or are desperate to immigrate to a foreign country.  The cost of being safe in India is becoming prohibitive.  Everybody cannot afford private guards all the time.  As soon as you venture out on the chaotic roads, use public transport, or need to work with public servants, the chaos, danger and dysfunction hits you hard.

Each day on an average, ten people die on Mumbai's suburban train system.  I read The Tribune, a newspaper of my region (the North-West India).  Every day there are at least a dozen deaths in Punjab and Haryana on their roads, with likely hundreds suffering non-fatal injuries.

The problems have reached a scale that is probably too massive for remediation.

I believe the decline in hope, if not the decline itself, started during the regime of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.  Civil liberties were clamped down, the media became a lackey of the state, and people lost whatever little faith they had in democracy and the courts.  Since then, the situation has remained more or less the same.  There are still draconian laws comparable to the Emergency.  Numerous acts allowing the state to imprison people without a trial, harsh powers given to the police, a lack of accountability for the government, the paralyzed courts, and the corrupt industry-politician nexus continue unabated.

The wealth boom during the last decade or two has been primarily driven by multinationals using Indian middle class as their outsourced labor.  If you discount people employed, directly or indirectly, by foreign multinational corporations, and the flow of wealth from NRIs, there is not much to speak about India's increasing GDP.  The services sector is now almost two thirds of India's GDP.  Either this sector is serving foreign organizations (which I call the primary services sector), or it is serving the many layers of India's populace who are richer because of the primary services sector.  I am only too happy to be proved wrong.

Despite my best efforts, I cannot but be pessimistic about India.  Yes, there will be success stories of a few individuals, but the stories of suffering will far, far outnumber them for the foreseeable future.

And as India loses its best and its brightest, who migrate to foreign lands, there is no way it will become better managed or better planned.

The advice is often given to grumpy non-resident-Indians like me that we should come back and fix India.  The reason many don't come back, despite there being in them a sadness at this state of affairs, is because the personal cost to them is going to be too huge.  They have achieved some measure of dignity, prosperity and self-reliance for themselves and their families, and they are unwilling to be thrust again into a war-zone-like situation.  Is it still permissible for them to talk about the suffering of their motherland?  Of course.  They did not create that suffering, and they are not responsible for fixing it.  The pollution of our lands and rivers was not our doing.  We paid taxes to a government who was supposed to take care of it for us.  But in the absence of any accountability, we were looted, our homes razed to the ground.  Is it fair to ask the victims to band together and rebuild their house, while the looters are only too ready to loot them again?

If you are a reader of this blog, you are most likely privilged enough to be all right for their rest of your lives, even if you live in India.  But you are the .1%.

I am afraid for the country of my birth.  Much suffering ails it, and far more, I fear, is imminent in the next few decades.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

The Man before God-man

Spiritual teachers are human beings before they are gods or god-men.

Their journey from birth to becoming revered teachers should be of great interest to anyone interested in their teachings.  A spiritual seeker has to frequently answer this question: “How come you became interested in all this?  Didn’t you want to be rich, have a family, or have a pleasant life?”  In case of spiritual teachers, however, we are not very curious.  We perhaps assume that they were somehow born different and were chosen by a “higher power” to become spiritual teachers.

If they were indeed born different, then an account of their early lives must have enough incidents to arouse interest.  And if their journey was somehow directed by their early lives towards spirituality, then we must examine those factors and make sense of their later lives.

There is universal agreement among psychologists that what we experience during infancy, childhood and young adulthood has a great bearing on our adult lives.  The way our parents related to us, how we approached education and socializing, our friends and relatives, the cultural norms in our home and in our community, all shape our attitudes, philosophy and values later in life.

If we consider spiritual teachers to be subject to the same processes of psychological development as any other human being (which I believe we should), then their early lives have a great deal to tell us.  It might be that we are able to understand their teachings with greater insight.  We might be able to see where they are “coming from”.  We might be able to make sense of their apparent strangeness.

Social psychologists often consider religious belief as a provider of emotional and communal strength.  In modern times, while religion is increasingly seen as pedantic, conservative and mythological, people still need a way to pacify themselves and feel at peace.  As the force of religious teachings decreases or becomes more distant, spiritual teachers and their teachings often provide a more intimate and individual belief system that can comfort an individual.  It should be interesting to dig deep into the circumstances that led the spiritual teachers to develop an individual and superficially unique philosophy.

A spiritual teacher usually has uncommon charisma or a novel way of expressing spiritual beliefs.  Usually both.  An examination of their lives might uncover at what age and how that charisma or novelty became apparent.  It therefore might demystify the origins of the teacher’s spirituality.

A demystification obviously has the danger of diminishing reverence towards a belief or an individual.  But I consider the heightened understanding and insight to be far more important than reverence.  Of course, devotees will disagree.  But such is the nature of devotion, and one should accept the risk of one's writings being trashed by the acolytes.

In many cases, only scant detail might be available about the spiritual teacher’s early life.  But still, something is better than nothing.

Thursday, April 04, 2019

A Nazm by Zahid

फिर से मौसम बहारों का आने को है
फिर से रंगे ज़माना बदल जायेगा

The season of blossoming is again at hand
Again the world will be of a different color

अबकी बज़्मे चराग़ाँ सजा लेंगे हम
ये भी अरमान दिल का निकल जायेगा
(बज़्मे चराग़ाँ = lamps during the rendezvous)

Again I shall light lamps for the rendezvous
And again my heart's desire will find its way

आप करदें जो मुझ पे निगाहें करम
मेरी उल्फत का रह जायेगा कुछ भरम
(उल्फत = love)

If only you could glance at me
The illusion of my passion might remain

यूं फ़साना तो मेरा रहेगा यही
सिर्फ़ उनवान उसका बदल जायेगा
(फ़साना = story, उनवान = title, of the story)

My story though might remain the same
But its title at least shall be rewritten

फीकी फीकी सी क्यूँ शाम-ऐ-मएखाना है
लुत्फ़े साकी भी कम खाली पैमाना है
(शाम-ऐ-मएखाना = evening at the tavern, लुत्फ़े साकी = the joy of seeing the bartender)

This evening at the tavern is so listless
The joy of seeing the bartender is as empty as my cup of wine

अपनी नज़रों से ही कुछ पिला दी जिए
रंग महफिल का ख़ुद ही बदल जायेगा

If you can but quench me with your look
The whole evening will be transformed

मेरे मिटने का उनको ज़रा गम नहीं,
जुल्फ भी उनकी ऐ दोस्त बरहम नहीं
(बरहम = messy)

She is not at all moved by my destruction
Even her hair has stayed in form, my friend

अपने होने न होने से होता है क्या
काम दुनिया का यु ही तो चल जायेगा

What does it matter if I exist or not
The world shall continue as it is

आपने दिल जो ज़ाहिद का तोडा तो क्या
आपने उसकी दुनिया को छोड़ा तो क्या

You did break Zahid's heart, but so what
You did leave his world, but so what

आप इतने तो आख़िर परेशान न हों
वो संभलते संभलते संभल जायेगा

There is no need to be vexed
Stumbling, he will find his way again