Friday, August 17

\m/ Hare Krishna \m/.. and still a Naturalist!

Note: This is just a part of the experience I had, which I tried to put it as concisely as possible. Also, I haven't stopped reading scriptures after these incidents. In fact, they helped me to develop an eye on what's good interpretation of a scripture, and what's not.

I've been lot into reading from my childhood as far as I can remember. I used to read everything whatever I can understand from - books, newspapers, pamphlets, even the samosa and pakora wrappings (they used to be wrapped in old school textbook pages back then). This reading interest made me to wonder what's in the scriptures (of all religions I heard about). I never had a good source for Hindu scriptures, but I managed to read whatever I could find in my home and at relatives' and family-friends'. I even did one Bible study course from some Christian Evangelical Institute based in New Delhi to know what's in the Bible. Well, it proved to be futile as the course was too focused on appreciating Jesus as personal savior rather than discussing the scripture's content.

In the course of my inquisitiveness in religious scriptures, I used to go to Ramakrishna Math at Rajahmundry. They had lots (believe me, lots) of books, predominantly Sanskrit, English and Telugu versions of Hindu scriptures and some books on comparative religion. I never really realized earlier that there's such a huge amount of literature in Hinduism. I found the translations to be pretty straightforward and read some (minor puranas, not the huge ones like Mahabharata). The Math had some programs (reading programs, social programs) specifically aimed at teens and young people. They used to talk about meditation, importance of acquiring knowledge, etc., I was a teenager back then, and I didn't really find those to be intrusive or abhorring me to stop thinking or indoctrinating me to take their preaching for granted. May be since it was a youth program, they didn't do it - I'm not sure. I actually remember them advising to develop a scientific outlook and help the society with our knowledge. I'm giving them a benefit of doubt due to the following experience I had later in my life.

All went well and I landed in NIT Warangal after a few years. In my freshman year, a talk was conducted by VOICE (it was called BACE back then), a youth spiritual wing of ISKCON. The reason most of us attended it was that the speaker was an IIT alumnus (We NITians were always envious of IITians, you know). He was not a sanyasin, and was working in Motorola (We electronics folks actually cheered when he mentioned he's from the same background). The talk was mainly about nature of God, what Science can/cannot understand and God filling up the gaps of science. He showed us slides of religious quotes by scientists like Einstein, superposed on pictures of galaxies and stars. Finally, he ended up mentioning that it's Krishna that's the Godhead or whatever the hell it is, and He's the way to salvation. It reminded me of that course I took which used to rant and rant until I purged my intestines that Jesus is the only way to salvation. Itch towards comparative religion, eh? Well, I felt a twitch in my stomach here too

In the Q&A session that followed, I asked him why we should brand this 'God' with a name called Krishna, when we can say God is an abstract sense of some entity that's guiding the universe. He didn't answer my question, but simply said that I should start coming to VOICE sessions as I'm inquisitive and I would eventually figure out the answer myself. I was like 'what the hell', and everyone looked at me as if they are wondering why I ask questions all the time. I even heard later that some actually placed a bet if I would ask a question or not :-)

Now, there are certain ways in which VOICE operates as I observed :
  • They don't publicly preach in the way other religious missionaries do. You actually have to make time and go to their sessions
  • They neither publicly invite people to all sessions, nor announce their schedule. They notice those who ask questions or who seem interested and send their student members to their rooms and give books and info on upcoming sessions
  • The food they serve in the VOICE hostels is ultra-hyper-super-delicious (Uncle Mess is no match)
  • They don't give anything for free, which is a really good practice. They charge, however nominal it might be, for the food (10 bucks), or books (10 for small ones, 20 for big ones), or merchandize (10 typically)
  • They have weekly sessions, typically on Saturdays, by a sanyasin who tours these premier colleges to give talks.
  • When they don't know the answer to a question, they reply saying, "You start chanting, you'll figure out the answer yourself" and offer the tulasi-bead mala for 10 bucks

Naturally, I got a knock-knock on my door one Saturday morning (when I was still in bed), and one soft-spoken fellow (I think he's a senior year guy) came in and gave me 2 books to read and an invitation to the evening session. He was very persuasive, those were the days of my poverty and so I borrowed money from my roommate and paid for them. He greeted 'Hare Krishna' and left. I read them and found them lame. No offense, but one was on science and it was pretty twisted. Believe me, I had a good 'eye' to read scientific material back then as I've been busting pseudoscience in my own way since school days. As it follows, I didn't bother to attend the session.

In my senior year, I got a knock-knock again, and this time it was a semaphore year fellow. He tried to give me 2 books (one of which I've already read) and the invitation. He tried to be persuasive, but you know, I was the senior and I didn't buy the books and even gave him a review of the one I read. His face had gone pale, and I accepted the invitation for dinner. Well, I had actually started some theology study a few days before, and was interested to listen to the discourse.

I came to know that a couple of my classmates were also attending the session, and I joined them. The VOICE hostel in Warangal was outside the campus, unlike some IITs where they typically have a block inside the campus. They combined 2 four-room rented portions of a house and were using it for some 10-15 students as hostel, which was pretty decent (way better than our hostel). In the portion where the session is held, there was a verandah, followed by a big room with floor mattresses, a cushion for the speaker, a book-stand in front of it, and a large beautiful idol of Krishna to a corner painted in white, decorated with peacock feathers, a wig, clothes, with some fruits, milk and cooked food offered as prasad at its feet. The speaker, a young-looking sanyasin (they look much younger than they actually are, presumably due to their dietary practices, life-style, thin-frame and also partly due to the head-shaving), who was another IIT alumnus, has come already and they started Harekrishna bhajan swaying their hands in air, with one fellow giving rhythm on a dolak and another giving taal

The bhajan was followed by dinner, and then began the discourse in which the speaker looked up 1 verse from the Gita and gave a 20 minute speech on it. He was saying all-obvious stuff like we cannot understand the world with our senses (of course we can't, that's why telescopes, microscopes, spectroscopes and other stuff are invented), we need to control our senses (yes, or else we might end up as rapists, murderers or criminals), etc., He also mentioned how our ancestors (the Aryan ancestors) lived in great times and we are in an age of sin and so need to seek Krishna for salvation.

Well, it was never my intention to attack him, as it was pointless and uncalled for, so I politely asked him a few questions when he was alone after the session was finished and everyone left. I was interested to know what status ISKCON gives to Adi Sankaracharya and Advaitha (I was born in a Shaivaite Brahmin family, so I was interested). I also asked him whether we (I used a generic 'we') need to rely on archeological evidence and data to map history, whether ISKCON uses it to analyze Hindu scriptures and if Vedas were there before Aryan invasion, and some other related questions. He was pointing to me that we need to trust our scriptures no matter what academia says, as scientific knowledge changes and the scriptures don't change. I didn't want to debate him in any way possible, so I came out

I attended some later sessions also, primarily for the food (I'm shameless, you know). He never really went beyond 1 verse of Gita and always picked out the lamest ones. I regularly asked him dharmic queries from puranas (no mocking, I really like mythologies) and ISKCON's positions on various issues. One thing I liked in him was that he was very open and honest while answering and I could see that he was being sincere in his answers and opinions, however irrational they might be. Once, I asked him how he can simply reject evidence without any reason and at the same time rely on an out-dated, unedited set of books for no reason; He simply smiled saying I would know once I start chanting Hare Krishna and realize the truth for myself. Another time, he asked me to consider joining ISKCON as I'm inquisitive, analytical and would really be a good teacher; I smiled and thanked him for the offer, and said I have duties of looking after parents, etc., (I'm not bragging, I really said it)

I can say that he kinda liked me for my honesty in inquiry, politeness in refuting his arguments from authority, and not trashing away scriptural answers but actually pointing out the flaws in them and asking open-ended questions. I never really told him that I'm more of a critical thinker and that I would prefer evidence and uncertainty to faith towards scriptures

Summarizing my visits, what I understood was that in ISKCON, there is a lot of preaching compared to the actual reading of scripture, and that it is an evangelical organization to its core. They target premier colleges and try to indoctrinate the students asking them not to accept Science as it's limited (as if a set of books written 4500 yrs back is infinite and absolute), stop thinking Rationally (because then people start asking questions like me), accept their preaching at face-value (or ask only those questions that actually add to the indoctrination). Their USPs are no rituals (compare offering food at feet of an idol, chanting Hare Krishna and a mahanivedana ritual), no complicated sanskrit verses to recite, easy-to-follow religious lifestyle and IIT-branded preachers for students. At one stage (very initial, not even deeper stages), they suggest people to become monks and join their crusade, and it helps a lot if they have premier college degrees and have quit a 6-digit salary job to join the organization

However, it is always saddening to see elite-educated people leaving rationality behind, training themselves to getting indoctrinated, and joining these kind of organizations thinking they could seek truth in these practices

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Tuesday, May 1

On Love - Its forms, history and present

An excerpt from AC Grayling's book 'The Meaning of Things'. Very interesting analysis of Love in human society over a period of time:

It is no surprise that the feast dedicated to amorousness, St Valentine's Day, anticipates the onset of spring by a few weeks, as if to help rouse human sensibilities from their winter hibernation. Romance perfumes the air in spring, flowers appear for the express purpose of being bunched into lovers' tributes; chocolate manufacturers count their profits. Yet despite appearances, the kinds of love that are most significant to us are not those that fill novels and cinema screens. They are instead those we have for family, friends and comrades; for these are the loves that endure through the greater part of our lives, and give us our sense of self-worth, our stability, and the framework for our other relationships.

Romantic love, by contrast, is an episodic, usually short-lived, and often scorchingly vivid turbulence in our emotional histories. To judge by the attention it receives - not least in poetry and song, our parliaments for discussing the heart's essentials - it is one of life's profoundest experiences. Yet paradoxically, the official line is that apart from a few experimental feints in early adulthood, love's true heights should only be experienced once, with lifelong bonding as the appropriate outcome. Anyone who claims to fall in love frequently is deemed irresponsible, and with some justification: for it is such a time-consuming, exhausting, ecstatic, painful transforming business that it requires a long recovery - in some cases, indeed, whole lifetimes.

Sober folk claim that falling romantically in love is not a good way to get to know someone, for Stendhal’s reason that we cloak the beloved in layers of crystal, and see a vision rather than a person for the whole period of our entrancement. On this view it is a delusional state, and the fact that it is short-lived is therefore good. Others think that romantic love is the only thing that allows us to burn through the layers that conventionally insulate people from one another, baring the soul of each to each, and making true communication possible – the kind that speaks the language of intimacy, not in words but in pleasures and desires.

This is far from the only difference of opinion about romantic love. Another debate rages over the question whether a propensity for romance is an essential human trait, or whether it is a social and historical construction, present in some periods and societies but absent from others. As this crucial question shows, romantic love is a scarcely understood phenomenon, not least because in modern times we have conflated it with features and expectations drawn from other kinds of love, which latter we have ceased to reflect upon as if their naturalness exempted them from consideration.

The Greeks had different words for love’s different manifestations. They spoke of agape, altruistic love (in Latin caritas, which gives us – but with what a cold ring – our word ‘charity’). They spoke of ludus, the playful affection of children and of casual lovers, and pragma, the understanding that exists between a long-established married couple. They spoke of storge, the love that grows between siblings or comrades-in-arms who have been through much together, and of mania, which is obsession. And they allied the latter with eros or sexual passion. They thought that love in all its forms was divinely inspired, in the case of the last by Aphrodite. But divine inspiration was not always welcome; manic eroticism, they said, was often inflicted as a punishment by the gods, and its unreasoning and distracting character interfered with what they most valued, namely intellect and courage. Both Plato and his pupil Aristotle, in their different ways, therefore placed friendship at the summit of emotional life, and consigned the love that craves bodily expression to a lower plane. For many Greeks ataraxia, which means ‘peace of mind’, was a great good that was always under threat from sexual love and its obsessions and jealousies, and that is why Sophocles applauded old age for releasing mankind from what he called the ‘tyranny’ of sexual desire.

In making these distinctions the Greeks showed an alertness to the fact that close relationships subserve a variety of ends. People need emotional satisfactions of many kinds, but chiefly those that stem from giving and receiving companionship, affection, and the affirmations of being liked and approved. People might occasionally enjoy solitude, but never loneliness; they need to feel connected and valued. All of the six loves of the Greeks are connections, and all but mania bring a sense of self-worth. In the Greek ideal, the best and strongest emotional bonds are those of friendship between equals. Romantic and erotic passion might be felt by a man for a boy or (not quite as acceptably) a woman, but this was a distraction, and too much of it was regarded as weakness.

The downgrading of relations with women had a long and unhappy influence in the West. In the Christian era – despite what is suggested by the medieval side-show of ‘courtly love’ as celebrated by troubadours – most marriages were economic and practical arrangements, with disparity in age, education and status making companionate marriage rare. It remained so until recent times: Thomas Hardy remarked that the reason men and women were unable to establish a genuine camaraderie even in his own day was that they associated with each other only in their pleasures, never in their labours.

In saying this, Hardy presaged a new ideal of love as a combination of romance and comradeship. This is something really new in Western civilisation. Both romance and friendship have always been ideals, but quite separately; and romance has taken very different forms at different times in history. Romantic-companionate love as we now view it received its definitive statement very recently indeed – in fact, at the hands of Hollywood in its golden age, between the 1930s and 1950s, in thousands of films of every genre. Of course, progress towards the acculturation of its ideals and norms had already begun in nineteenth-century literature, which established the now-familiar pattern: a couple fall romantically in love, and therefore commit themselves to an open-ended venture of exclusive cohabitation (marriage, or in more recent times its surrogates), with children in the garden and roses round the door. The standard denouement for a Victorian three-volume novel is the engagement of the hero and heroine in the last chapter. In Jane Austen earlier in the century, this terminus is reached by more reflective and sober means; not with high passion, not even with palpitations and breathlessness, save for a faint simulacrum of these in an early phase of each novel’s development, to show that Elizabeth is not indifferent to Darcy, say, or Fanny to Thomas. The courtship of Emma and Mr Knightley is quintessential Austen: a matter of mind and morals, of character and decision.

Not so by the time of Hardy. Love here takes the form either of mania or mature sexual passion. In Hardy’s prophecy of the newly emerging pattern, romance is not an end in itself but a step towards love of the other kinds – it becomes the porch to friendship, comradeship, the equal or near-equal partnership in life’s adventure. ‘When I look up, there you’ll be, and when you look up, there I’ll be,’ says Gabriel Oak when he has gained Bathsheba at last, in a summary that would have curdled the passion of a medieval troubadour for whom romance was all in all, and domesticity its nemesis.

In opposition to the view that romantic love was invented by the troubadours, some argue that it is a universal phenomenon. To claim this is to take sides in the debate between ‘essentialists’ and ‘constructionists’. The former claim that romantic love is one of the four great, intrinsic, inescapable upheavals which define the human condition (the others are: being born, having children, and dying). The latter claim that although loving, in all its variety of objects and modes, is one of the central human emotions, how it is expressed is an historically determined matter. Both are right; for people have always fallen in love – which is to say become infatuated, desirous, obsessed in some degree; usually enough to lose sleep and to forget mundane tasks – but the expression of that state, the other forms of love it has been allied to, and the expectations nurtured by the parties to it, have been very variously conceived.

A Greek of classical antiquity might become passionate about a boy, but sex was not the only point, for the lover’s task was to educate his beloved in military and political ways, and help him in the early part of his career. In the love stories told by Plutarch the point was to illustrate the destructiveness of sexual mania – showing, for example, how the girl Aristocleia, and in another tale the boy Actaeon, were physically torn apart by competing suitors trying to snatch them away. Shakespeare’s lovers are also sexually manic; they can scarcely restrain themselves before a priest is found. Fielding and Richardson divide between them the uproarious tumble in the hay and the unremittingly threatened rape. Only with the increased education of women does the idea of a companionable love-life after erotic mania – indeed, initiated by it – come into focus, bringing other models to mind. Some are, once again, drawn from our earliest literature, as with Hector bidding his last farewell to Andromache – a scene touchingly drawn by Homer, who says the hero had to remove his helmet because its nodding plumes frightened his small son in Andromache’s arms. Another example is the marriage of Penelope and Odysseus, the pattern of sustained fidelity. Modern sensibility took these comradely marriages and added them to romantic infatuation as its proper sequel, and a kind of emotional economy was born: the passion, the friendship, the companionship, the partnership, the nurturing and the needing, that were once offered by different relationships, could now come in a single handy package marked Spouse.

But the modern combination of romance and comradeship which has thus become our ideal often proves an unstable mixture. The obsessive character of romantic and erotic love cannot be understood without reference to sex, nor sex without reference to gender. Sex is about physical urges and action, gender is about social and psychological categories; their failure to pair neatly is a fruitful source of trouble. Companionate love does not exclude sexual love, but its premises and aims are very different. It is about the shared project of what is in effect a small business – which is what a home, a household, is – purchasing and budgeting and managing other (usually small) people, and transporting and storing things, saving and spending, and dealing with problems, like illnesses and burst pipes. Gender differences, shaped and enhanced by social pressures, were thought to provide an apt division of labour for these tasks: the husband goes out to work, the wife tends the children and home. But that division, and even the gender differences themselves, have in recent years been bitterly questioned, the more so because – against feminist hopes and principles – science seems to suggest that in the competition between nature and nurture the former has an insistent and irreducible role in determining sexual behaviour and gender characteristics. Irenic feminists say that this does not imply strict determinism: as rational beings we can adjust biology in the direction of justice, as we do when we control our aggression and selfishness. But others accuse science of bias, saying that it tries to conceal behind statistics an historical conspiracy against women. There is a measure of truth on both sides.

On one crucial point, gender determinism has seemed to some men to explain a major source of trouble in monogamy. It is, they claim, that heterosexual relationships have always been shaped in the interests of women, who control and ration the amount of sex in them. If this is true, it would be natural enough; women have to be mindful of the fact that, in the form of pregnancy and childbirth, their potential investment in sex is far greater than a man’s. Safe and effective contraception is a very recent amenity, and old habits and needs die hard. It is for this reason, perhaps, that prostitution has been such an effective and long-standing friend to marriage, despite the hypocrisy that has usually surrounded it. One measure of the generally unsuccessful nature of modern romantic-companionate love is the high rate at which the relationships based upon it fail. Divorce in the contemporary West runs at forty per cent – for unmarried couples the rate is higher – and many of the marriages that survive do so at a high cost of compromise by one or both partners. Blame is variously assigned, often to causes that come down to maleness. Some writers extrapolate from Freudian theory the view that men suffer a psychological ‘wound’ caused by separation from their mothers and their inability (in some writers, notably Sheila Sullivan in Falling in Love, their ‘humiliating inability’) to give birth and suckle. They claim that this alleged wound explains everything women deprecate in men, chief among them emotional immaturity, lack of communication about feelings, proneness to infidelity, latent or active misogyny, and – at the extreme – aggression. And they cite these, in turn, as what derails the project of equal romantic comradeship.

Even without its dubious Freudian underpinning, this is improbable stuff, and no man will recognise what has been called ‘the harsh anomie of masculine existence’ as accounting for his behaviour in relationships. The problem, far more plausibly, lies elsewhere: in society’s endeavours to manage, constrain, deny, re-route, prohibit, channel and manipulate sexual passion and romantic love. It is the dead hand of oppressive institutions – principally religions – which explains why love can be a problem: which it only is when rationed and starved, as it is in the ‘family values’ dispensation of monogamy and restrictive attitudes to sexual expression and variety. When rationed and starved, eros becomes destructive, prompting the moralisers, in their wisdom, to ration and starve it more. And thereby hangs many a long tale, as novels and films in their thousands show. If the modern experiment of romantic-companionate love is to succeed, it has to be freed from the institutional arrangements made centuries ago for a quite different kind of relationship – the practical-economic model of Christian monogamy – in which neither romance nor companionship was the most important thing.

It is both a pun and a truth to say that the subject of love has always been left to amateurs to explain. There is no science of love because it is too various and protean to fit a theory. People attempt love as climbers attempt Everest; they scramble along, and end by camping in the foothills, or half-way up, wherever their compromises leave them. Some get high enough to see the view, which we know is magnificent, for we have all glimpsed it in dreams. And that is what the feast of St Valentine is about: the dream of love. Life would be bitter indeed if the dream never became reality, or if the main experiences of love in our lives – storge, pragma, ludus, agape – were not enduring and stabilising enough to save us when the storms of eros and mania sweep over us – bringing bliss, and leaving havoc in their wake.

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Sunday, January 8

Consciousness raisers

An excerpt from one Richard Dawkins's book. Amazingly sarcastic but factual:

In a science-fiction starship, the astronauts were homesick: 'Just to think that it's springtime back on Earth!' You may not immediately see what's wrong with this, so deeply ingrained is the unconscious northern hemisphere chauvinism in those of us who live there, and even some who don't. 'Unconscious' is exactly right. That is where consciousness-raising comes in. It is for a deeper reason than gimmicky fun that, in Australia and New Zealand, you can buy maps of the world with the South Pole on top. What splendid consciousness-raisers those maps would be, pinned to the walls of our northern hemisphere classrooms. Day after day, the children would be reminded that 'north' is an arbitrary polarity which has no monopoly on 'up'. The map would intrigue them as well as raise their consciousness. They'd go home and tell their parents - and, by the way, giving children something with which to surprise their parents is one of the greatest gifts a teacher can bestow.

It was the feminists who raised my consciousness of the power of consciousness-raising. 'Herstory' is obviously ridiculous, if only because the 'his' in 'history' has no etymological connection with the masculine pronoun. It is as etymologically silly as the sacking, in 1999, of a Washington official whose use of 'niggardly' was held to give racial offence. But even daft examples like 'niggardly' or 'herstory' succeed in raising consciousness. Once we have smoothed our philological hackles and stopped laughing, herstory shows us history from a different point of view. Gendered pronouns notoriously are the front line of such consciousness-raising. He or she must ask himself or herself whether his or her sense of style could ever allow himself or herself to write like this. But if we can just get over the clunking infelicity of the language, it raises our consciousness to the sensitivities of half the human race. Man, mankind, the Rights of Man, all men are created equal, one man one vote - English too often seems to exclude woman. When I was young, it never occurred to me that women might feel slighted by a phrase like 'the future of man'. During the intervening decades, we have all had our consciousness raised. Even those who still use 'man' instead of 'human' do so with an air of self-conscious apology - or truculence, taking a stand for traditional language, even deliberately to rile feminists.

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