Who And When..?

“If not us, who? And if not now, when?” is a spur to quick action in the now, without waiting for a prod, and is frequently used as clarion call to take up cudgels against social injustice. Dithering makes one, by implication, part of the problem. Although this rousing articulation or differing versions thereof have been made popular by several political figures, its origins lie in Hillel the Elder, a first-century BCE Jewish leader, who reportedly stated, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being for my own self, what am I? And if not now, when?”, as more of a commentary on self-advocacy than social activism. Since Hillel’s utterance, variations of it have been used not just in politics, but in arts and literature as well.

The telling observation strikes us once again in the context of the passing of a titan like Mikhail Gorbachev who went about his task with an ‘íf not me, who and if not now, when’ zeal. When the world was still mired in insanity inherent in history’s reiteration of similar events irrationally aimed at expectations of different results, leadership set against societal currents and principles not standing firm like rocks, Gorby, as he was fondly called, stepped in with refreshingly powerful dynamics that promptly dismantled the monstrous edifices of yesteryears and restructured them with new-age constructs that reflected emerging aspirations of openness and freedom, an initiative famously encapsulated in perestroika and glasnost, two Russian words that since gained entry to the global political lexicon. Though in power for less than seven years, Gorbachev unleashed a breathtaking series of changes resulting in the collapse of the authoritarian Soviet state that was otherwise on the road to penury and implosion; further leading to the liberation of East European countries from Russian domination, also culminating in tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and the cessation of decades of East-West nuclear confrontation. A rare statesman who was driven by the belief that yesterdays’ problematic enormity only served to remind of today’s reformative inadequacy, he had the prescience to predict that a different future was possible and the courage to risk his entire career to achieve it. The result was a safer world and greater freedom for millions of people.

Raisa and Mikhail in their younger years...

During my student days, the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) held a great deal of fascination, projected as it was as a welfare state and a beacon of socialism. Sprawled over 22.4 mn sq kms, USSR, headed by the Russian republic, was a mammoth geographical entity eulogized by left liberals as a land of milk and honey. It spanned most of Eurasia, accounting for almost the size of entire North American continent. The romance of the flagship communist state that began in 1922 petered out by1991; by Boxing Day 1991, USSR had fully disintegrated, with its constituents becoming separate sovereign states.

Gorbachev envisaged an end to conflicts and the arms race, aiming for an open socialist society with ex-Soviet and Warsaw Pact countries free of Stalinism in its various formats. He was the kind of Soviet leader the world had never seen. He was young, relaxed. He tried utmost and his efforts were crowned by the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990; though determined to build better relations with the West and to reinvigorate the stagnant Soviet economy, he did not quite succeed in his endeavour. By the time he left office, the Soviet Union no longer existed. “What happened to the USSR was my drama,” he later narrated to a journalist, “And a drama for everyone who lived in the Soviet Union. A split in society and a struggle in a country like ours, overflowing with weapons, including nuclear ones, could have left so many people dead and caused such destruction. I could not let that happen just to cling on to power. Stepping down was my victory.”

Many Russians were critical of his governance and blamed him for the unintended collapse of the USSR, caused by events spiralling beyond his control. Recalling his early days in power, Gorby once recounted to an interviewer: “When I became General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, I travelled to towns and cities across the country to meet people. There was one thing everyone talked about. They said to me: ‘Mikhail Sergeyevich, whatever problems we have, whatever food shortages, don’t worry. We’ll have enough food. We’ll grow it. We’ll manage. Just make sure there’s no war’”.

It was a very different Gorbachev that the same interviewer encountered in 2019. There was a sadness in him not seen before. It was as if he sensed that his achievements were being rolled back; that Russia was re-embracing authoritarianism and East-West confrontation was returning. To the query at this juncture whether freedom was under threat in Russia, Gorbachev claimed that the process that was set in motion had not attained completion as yet, and that there were still some people for whom freedom was an annoyance as they did not feel good with it. When asked if he meant Vladimir Putin, Mikhail Gorbachev’s tacit response was to leave it to the questioner to guess the answer. It was customary for Gorbachev to end his interviews musically, with him moving over to his piano to play and croon some of his favourite songs in Russian. The lyrics of one of these songs are tinged with irony: “Between the past and the future is the blink of an eye, and that instant is what we call life.” The Soviet Union passed in the blink of an eye. What are 70 years as a timescale compared to the centuries of Roman and Ottoman empires?

On Gorbachev’s 90th birthday in March 2021, President Putin praised him as “one of the most outstanding statesmen of modern times who made a considerable impact on the history of our nation and the world”. On his passing, António Guterres, general secretary of the United Nations, said Gorbachev was a “one-of-a kind statesman who changed the course of history”.

At inflection points in history some leaders rise, others falter. Mikhail Gorbachev rose to make our world safer. He, too, was imperfect. But he had a vision for stability over chaos and ultimately freedom over repression.

In cinema there is no God, only Godard: Celebrated film-maker and the eternal god of cinema exited from the scene at his Lake Geneva home on 13th September 2022. “When you are still with dolly shots and close-ups, we are with the protesting workers and students”, raged Godard while urging the organizers to suspend Cannes Film Festival in 1968 as a mark of solidarity with the agitators. Not just political films but cinema itself needed to become politics, according to Godard. Holding a hand-held camera, he was in the midst of agitating students and workers in France. He believed that “Photography is truth, cinema is truth 24 frames per second”. Even at the age of ninety, he was active directing the 3-D film entitled ‘Image Book’. Indeed, his was a life that fathomed the artistic depths of cinema. There have been more radical filmmakers before, during and since Jean-Luc Godard made his great body of cinema. But no one has been arguably so revolutionary, in the sense of dramatically changing the language of celluloid art. A pivotal member of La Nouvelle Vague, or ‘New Wave’ cinema, which Francois Truffaut aptly described to be not a movement but ‘a quality’, Godard’s first feature film, the 1960 ‘A Bout de Souffle’ (Out of Breath) – better known in the anglophonic world as Breathless – was itself a manifesto of this ‘quality’, with its jump cuts, elliptical narratives and organic dissolves. In films like the 1963 Le Mépris  (Contempt), the 1965 Pierrot le Fou (Pierrot the Fool), the 1968 documentary-cum-feature 1+1, and the 1987 experimental King Lear, Godard, with his scorn for the ‘thick’ plot line, showed the true value of not just moving pictures but moving situations. 

Jean-Luc Godard..

In cinema, Godard depicted that an art form can be seen as an arch-rival to life, with controlled distillation of dialogues, meshing and unmeshing of characters, and a sensory collation-collision where beginning, middle and end need not follow the dogma of that order. As he had once said when responding to violence portrayed in his films, ‘It is not blood, it is red’, a nuance that eluded most viewers in his time, and would have certainly eluded even more people today. Along with many of the celluloid masters such as Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, David Lean, Alfred Hitchcock, Chaplin, Federico Fellini, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Andrei Tarkovsky, Richard Attenborough and Roman Polanski, Godard was the light of truth passing through films to project memorable works of cinematic art.  

The King leaves the Court, long live Federerism: A few countries may want to consider the recently concluded seventy years’ reign of a 96 year old as a measure of the end of an era. Not so the world of sport and its legions of admirers. For them the departure of tennis’ monarch from the far more crowded courts signals the glorious end of the Federerian Age. The numerous accolades and trophies may bear testimony to his many achievements. But they simply do not do justice to what the 41 year old Swiss has been capable of in a career spanning a near quarter century that came into the limelight when Roger Federer won his first Wimbledon Grand Slam at 21 years of age. The languid grace in his movements across the court, fluid serving and volleying, and his silky backhand together with a formidable forehand, perfectly balanced overhead shots, exquisite slice and drop shots will forever be etched in collective memory as feats of supernatural beauty. On the lawn, he was the grass whisperer, not using power or strength as much as deftness, a genius for the right touch of racquet to ball to achieve high precision placements in unexpected reaches of the court, leaving opponents stranded. Watching him play was akin to viewing a scintillatingly choreographed ballet on stage, all glide and flow, seamless, seemingly effortless movements culminating in tennis wins of spectacular artistry. Roger’s final hanging up of his racquet means heartbreak for the world of  tennis, of no longer being able to see one of the greatest athletes of the modern era ply his glorious art and precision trade. Game, set, match, tennis, Roger Federer…!

With Gorbachev, Godard and Federer becoming part of a glowing historical narrative, the vacant space in the domains of politics, cinema and sports is awaiting greater statesmanship, creative flair and dynamism, driven by the missionary spirit, in the manner of the late Russian leader, and beauty, inherent in a game of tennis as played by Federer and Dostoevsky’s illumining ‘beauty’ that ‘will save the world’.

Katrathu Kai Mann Alavu…

Katrathu Kai Mann Alavu, Kallathathu Ulagalavu” goes the lyric of an old song in Tamil, inspired by a poem written by Avvaiyar, a poetess of the Tamil Sangam (assemblies of scholars and poets dating back to over 2000 BCE). Translated, it means “What is learnt amounts to a mere fistful of sand, and what is yet to be learnt is the size of the world”. Put differently, known is a drop, unknown is an ocean.

Philosophically, we have transitioned through several stages of thought, each defined in terms of “ages” as in ancient era, medieval era, age of renaissance, the reformation, age of reason or enlightenment during the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, age of revolution, and the age of scientific discovery that runs often parallel with other eras. According to theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, scientific advancement is “enabled by discoveries in three fundamental areas: the DNA theory of life, the atomic theory of matter, and computer technology, which demonstrates that the working of the mind are based on logic and electrical circuits”. The next era in the scientific domain, he says, is mastering these three.

But there is much more to life and living than scientific theories, logic and electrical circuits, regardless of their inevitability in the new age of discovery. Dividing lines are now fluid, and if this is the case in the physical sciences, so it is in the domain of metaphysics. No philosophy is watertight; belief, faith and hope coexist with cynicism, non-belief and atavism. The same individual becomes believer, devotee and skeptic almost concurrently. It is all part of human evolution and evolvement, when learning and unlearning happen simultaneously, unveiling new vistas of understanding. What matters is that human intellect is whirring and churning, figuring out ways to navigate the universe and our consciousness. For a fulfilling and happy life, the four wheels of our personality – physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual –  are required to be well balanced and aligned. In fact, like the two rear wheels of a tractor – the size of the intellectual and spiritual wheels should be much larger, as they constitute invisible, critical factors that drive our destiny.

“Know in thyself and All one self-same soul; banish the dream that sunders part from whole”. That consciousness which was behind the youth we once were, may also be behind the mind of every animal and person existing in space and time. Will kind people be rewarded for their good deeds? Will the wicked be punished? Yes, according to a new interpretation of recent experiments; there is a direct and proportional price to pay for any act of cruelty or injustice.
Science suggests that there are consequences to our actions that transcend our ordinary, classical way of thinking. Emerson, it turns out, was right: “Every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong redressed, in silence and certainty.”

Experiments from 1997 to 2007 have shown that this is indeed the case. It seems bizarre that a frog in the rain forest or a dolphin in the ocean should be directly connected to us. But the double-slit experiment (in modern physics, the double-slit experiment is a demonstration that light and matter can display characteristics of both classically defined waves and particles) and other studies have repeatedly shown that a single particle can be in more than one place at the same time. See the loon in the pond or the dandelion in the field. How deceptive is the space that separates them and makes them appear to be isolated. They are the subjects of the same reality that interested physicist John Stewart Bell, who proposed the experiment that answered the question of whether what happens locally is affected by nonlocal events.  

In a further progression, physicist Nicolas Gisin sent entangled particles zooming along optical fibers until they were seven miles apart and, yet, the communication between them happened instantaneously. Today no one doubts the connectedness between bits of light or matter, or even entire clusters of atoms. They are intimately linked in a manner suggesting there is no space between them, and no time influencing their behavior. Everything that is experienced is a whirl of information occurring in one’s head; according to Biocentrism, space and time are simply the mind’s tools for putting it all together. However solid and real the walls of space and time have come to look, there is a part of us that is no more human than it is animal. As parts of such a whole there is perfect justice. The bird and the prey are one. “Non-separability,” said French physicist Bernard d’ Espagnat, “is now one of the most certain general concepts in physics.”

Biocentrism states that there is no independent external universe outside of biological existence. Part of what it sees as evidence of this is that there are over a couple of hundred physical parameters within the universe so exact that it is seen as more probable that they are that way in order to allow for existence of life and consciousness, rather than occurring at random. Biocentrism claims that allowing the observer into the equation opens new approaches to understanding cognition. Through this, biocentrism purports to offer a way to unify the laws of the universe. This is in tune with most ancient wisdom traditions of the world which says that consciousness conceives, governs, and becomes a physical world. It is the ground of our Being in which both subjective and objective reality come into existence.

Big Blackfoot River, Montana

Our individual separateness is an illusion as scientifically inferred and philosophically posited. Imagination is reality itself in another world. We bring it down to this world the way we bring down fruits from a tree. To use the words of Norman Maclean’s autobiographical novella (themed on the unity between humans and the environment), “……Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” The import is that first, as the twilight deepens, everything in the canyon disappears into the gloom (“all existence fades”) until the only things that the fisherman can sense are himself and the river (which he can hear). Eventually, “all things merge into one” (that is, into darkness), and a river runs through the darkness. Second, the fisherman becomes so deeply absorbed in his activity that he loses all awareness of anything other than himself and the river, and by the phrase “all things merge into one” indicating that in his mind, there is no distinction between himself and the canyon and the activity of fishing. Hence when “the river runs through it”, it runs (metaphorically) though the fisherman as well as (literally) through the canyon. On one level, a river represents the natural world. On another level, the arc of a river flowing through the rocks and canyons of Montana symbolizes the arc of a human life.

Fly fishing at the River. Fisherman casting his line on a summer day.

If sensation is raw stimulus, perception is refined sensation, conception is orderly perception, science is systematized knowledge, wisdom is highly organised life: each is a greater degree of order, and sequence, and unity; such orderliness does not arise from the things themselves; for they are known by us only by sensations that come through a thousand channels at once in disorderly multitude; “Perceptions without conceptions”, says Kant, “are blind”. If perceptions wove themselves automatically into ordered thought, if mind were not an active effort hammering out order from chaos, how could the same experience leave one man mediocre, and in a more active and tireless soul be raised to the light of wisdom and the beautiful logic of truth?

There is nothing like inherent order in the external world. The thought that knows the world is itself an ordering, the first stage in classification of experience which finally turns out as science and philosophy. All science, even the most rigorous mathematics, is relative in its truth. The external world is known to us only as sensation; and the mind is a positive agent, selecting and reconstructing experience as it arrives. Modern physics has come to the same conclusion on the relativity theory, that absolute space and absolute time have no existence, but time and space exist only as far as things or events fill them; that is, they are forms of perceptions. It is the same with social mores and morals. These too are not absolute and, as haphazard constructs for group survival, are subject to change, varying with the nature and circumstances of societies. Will Durant sums it up well when he says, “The function of the mind, and the task of philosophy, is to discover the unity that lies potential in diversity; the task of ethics is to unify character and conduct; and the task of politics is to unify individuals into a state. The task of religion is to reach and feel that Absolute in which all opposites are resolved into unity, that great sum of being in which matter and mind, subject and object, good and evil, are one.”

Looking at the compass, ship and lighthouse as metaphors relevant to the figurative true north, which is one’s inner sense, or calling, of what is sought to be accomplished in life, it is a combination of values, beliefs, and purpose. North represents a moment of serious contemplation where the lessons we have learned truly integrate. We become shining lights, beaming with spirituality and well-being. As the orienting point derived from one’s most deeply held beliefs, values and principles, true north is the internal compass enabling discovery of who we are at the core. Shaped by experiences, we are influenced by life’s pain points such as personal illness, death of a loved one, or discrimination. By reflecting deeply on these events, we can understand ourselves and the values we hold most dear, and if these lead us on to stepping outside of ourselves to put our shoulders to the wheel of societal progress, we may be on the most fulfilling path to true north.

The business of life is the most important task on which we should all focus as life was given to us with a supreme purpose. We were given a capital investment of time in a human body so that we could make use of it to first recognize our true essence and to then return to our Source.
“Let knowledge grow from more to more, / But more of reverence in us dwell; / That mind and soul, according well, / May make one music as before, / But vaster.” – Tennyson (In Memoriam). The poet expresses the hope that knowledge will grow from more to more, but this should also be accompanied by a reverence for that which we cannot know. “And when we look at what is taking place in the world we begin to understand”, as profoundly stated by Jiddu Krishnamurti, “that there is no outer and inner process; there is only one unitary process, it is a whole, total movement, the inner movement expressing itself as the outer and the outer reacting again on the inner”, to make the whole clearer.

Let me here digress to a pertinent story: during the course of a management seminar, a former bureaucratic top brass shared an experience he had while travelling with his wife through a north Indian village. While en route, they saw a large mango plantation filled with sparrow / weaver bird nests. Attracted, the wife expressed her desire to carry home two of those nests. The accompanying security escort called a young boy who was grazing cows nearby and asked him to bring down two nests, offering to pay him for the service. When the boy refused, the bureaucrat raised the monetary reward to a tempting level. The boy politely declined the offer and said, “sahib, I will not do it for whatever you will give. Inside these nests are baby sparrows. If I give those nests to you, in the evening, when the mother sparrow returns with food for the babies and does not find them there, she will cry. I do not have the heart to see that.” The dignitary and his wife were taken aback and felt dwarfed, later recounting that his high office melted away in front of that little boy, feeling as small as a mustard seed. Upon returning home, the incident continued to haunt them with guilt for several days.

Weaver bird at its nest..

Education, position or social status is never a yardstick for the measure of humanity. May it not be forgotten that knowledge is to know and understand the beauty of nature. Nothing is achieved by gathering a lot of information as long as it does not get transformed into wisdom. And wisdom is useless if it is not applied in daily life.

Flight to beyond…!

There is more to life than dreamed of in our science and philosophy, literature and arts, all limited by the reach of human faculties and sense perceptions. John Haldane, British-born geneticist and evolutionary biologist, once said “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” Biocentrism suggests space and time are not the only tools that can be used to construct reality. Although our destiny is to live and die in the everyday world of up and down, these algorithms could be changed so that instead of time being linear, it becomes three-dimensional-like space, enabling a walk through time in the same manner of a perambulation through space, releasing life from its corporeal cage. Indeed, human destiny probably lies in realities existing outside of known universe; affording new wings, perhaps, to transcend mortality towards an ineffable flight through space-time, and beyond.

The Dogs Of War…

“Cry ‘Havoc’, and let slip the dogs of war; / That this foul deed shall smell above the earth / With carrion men, groaning for burial”, are the words of Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The word ‘havoc’ was a military command to soldiery during medieval times to break into violent action, plunder and pillage the enemy positions. Dogs, trained for warfare, were a significant part of the battles of yore. The ‘dogs of war’ as a figurative expression refers to the wild pack of soldiers ‘let slip’ by wartime breakdown of civilized conduct under the commander’s orders to wreak havoc. Drawing on the same expression here is to dwell on plight of animals in war torn countries.

As I write this, the Russia-Ukraine War is continuing into its 57th day without respite. India was initially trapped, with thousands of its medical students helplessly stuck in Ukraine. As the country was suddenly seized of their predicament and need for prompt evacuation, two students refusing to move away from war zone without their pet dogs attracted a lot of attention of animal lovers. Arya Aldrin and Rishab Kaushik, both, refused to abandon their pets and they were, amidst furore raised by animal rights activists in India, eventually facilitated to carry these creatures with them. This is commendable, and one hopes the canines have longer and happier lives in India than they might have had in a devastated Ukraine.

Arya Aldrin with her Zaira, Siberian husky from Ukraine

Rishab Kaushik with his Maliboo, from Ukraine

Wooden house in Kieve forest, Ukraine
Sofiyivska Square in Kieve, Ukraine

The story sharpens the focus on risk exposure of non-human animals in conflict locations, like the controversial airlift from Afghanistan of dogs from a shelter run by Pen Farthing, an ex-British Royal Marines commando, or any number of stories of service dogs from Iraq being taken home by their handlers. People often ask why animals should be prioritized when so many humans are in greater desperation. While some of these instances can be questioned, like Farthing’s alleged use of political connections to evacuate his animals while humans were left behind, the idea of always putting humans first is debatable. 

Suffering has no boundaries, and animals never choose to be in such situations. Andrew Tyler, director of Animal Aid, points out that animals are victims of war in many different ways. Some are collateral damage, like camels and horses abandoned in the first Gulf War, to die of hunger and thirst. Some are deliberate targets, like the zoo inmates in the former Yugoslavia who became targets for bored soldiers in the wars that followed the state’s collapse. There are deserted animals, a category likely to be high in Ukraine with its farms full of livestock. 

There are animals in the frontline, ranging from cavalry horses and bomb-detection dogs, to truly horrific stories, like the ‘tank-dogs’ trained by the soviets in WW II. As described by Dr John Sorenson, “dogs were first trained to seek and expect to receive food underneath military vehicles. Then they were deliberately starved and, loaded with explosives, let loose during combat. Seeking food, the dogs ran towards German tanks ..” This was not just callous, but also pointless, since German snipers quickly learned to target any dog. 

Animals are also used in weapons research, which is often held, as with medical vivisection, as justified by larger ends. But this again ignores how cruelly pointless such research can be, like an American experiment in the 1990s when, as journalist and peace activist Colman McCarthy writes, “some 700 cats were locked in vises and shot in the head”. The reason for the USD 2 Mn funded project was to find information to treat brain injuries, but as McCarthy notes “the main finding for the army was that when shot in the head cats feel pain”(!!!).  Additionally, wars expose the faults in our wider relationship with animals. Stories of devotion, like these dogs brought back from conflict, can be contrasted with the British Pet Massacre in 1939, as the nation prepared for war. A committee created to co-ordinate responses to air raids suggested sending pets to the countryside but “if you cannot place them in the care of neighbours, it really is kindest to have them destroyed”. Panicking pet owners thronged and, in barely a week,750,000 pets were killed. 

Remembering how animals suffer in war does not have to diminish the human cost. It simply amplifies the horror of what is happening in Ukraine, to be reminded how, for every dog brought to safety, many more animals are tragically left in the lurch as conflict continues unabated. It underlines the criminal callousness of perpetrators involved in the deadly power game. Animal suffering must be added to devastation suffered by humans. Ironically, Ukraine also provides an indirect example of one real way in which animals can benefit from human failings. The area around the collapsed nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, which was at the centre of hostilities early in the conflict, has been abandoned due to high levels of radioactivity. It has since rewilded, becoming a sanctuary to flora and fauna. This has been observed in other places where, more directly due to war, land has been abandoned by humans. In the demilitarized zones between north and South Korea, the two parts of Cyprus, and the Golan Heights, which are contested by Israel and Syria, nature has reclaimed what humans cannot. Perhaps the truth that animal lovers struggle to accept is that ultimate hope for animals lies in humans being eliminated from their lives, even if it has to come through horrors of war. 

The clouds of war emanating from the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and consequent trends portend a dark future for global security. The war is feeding a global conflict between Russia and the west, but with a potential to engulf others. Along with Belarus, Russia, with an annual defence budget of about usd 80 Bn, is pitted against the US, NATO, EU and the US allies in Asia – Japan, South Korea, Australia, with a combined military budget of well over a trillion dollars. While Russia is fighting with dated military weapons, headed by a spirited President and a largely pliant population, Ukraine is fighting back with weapons that are pouring in from the NATO states. The stage has been set for a major escalation. Western sanctions have been immediate, comprehensive, and pulverizing, with more in reserve, in particular in the energy sector. These are non-military weapons of the 21st C, of disruptive potential, perhaps more lethal than traditional weapons of war. 

A continued military stalemate in Ukraine will bog down Russia, the US and NATO in Central Europe, also opening a black hole of power and influence over the Eurasian continent. The last time such a power vacuum existed – in the 13th C – it was filled by galloping hordes of Genghis Khan, sweeping across the steppes of Central Asia up to the gates of Vienna. What a tragedy it would then be if, in their headlong and escalating confrontation over Ukraine, the US through its misplaced geopolitical priorities and Russia, through its missteps of aggression, hand over to China the keys to the vast Eurasian continent…!

The baneful impact stretches from geopolitical to economical. It is almost a truism that every dominant fiat currency will rise, and then sink into oblivion. For thousands of years, powerful and prosperous nations have used their finances recklessly, to wage ruinous wars and fund profligate public projects. In each era – ancient Egypt, classical Greece, imperial Rome and Britain – economic prosperity was first weakened by currency debasement, and then drowned in a rising tide of inflation. Will the dollar’s destiny be any different? 

Rome’s problem lay in trying to manage an increasingly unruly empire through the force of its legions. As the empire grew, so did its reliance on mercenaries, who needed to be paid in full and promptly at that. Even during Pax Romana of 27 AD – 180 AD, when war booty and tribute were plentiful, the amount of silver in the denarius was slowly reduced – from 4.5 grams to less than 3 grams – to meet the needs of sundry public works and other extravagance. 

A little over a century later, Roman coins were silver-plated at best, allowing for the production of sufficient currency to pay soldiers’ salaries and bonuses, so that they could afford the inflated prices of food, most notably wheat, whose price had increased three hundred fold in a century, an untenable situation that continued till 400 AD, when Rome failed to pay their Visigoth mercenaries, resulting in the sack of Rome and its eventual downfall. 

The British empire’s economy depended on managing a massive trading monopoly, supplied by goods sourced cheaply in its colonies. As Britain grew more prosperous, the pound, pegged to the gold standard, became the world’s undisputed reserve currency. But to protect its trading privileges, Britain was willing to wage expensive wars in any part of the globe. WW I proved to be its undoing, with its debt rising from 30% of GDP in 1914 to over 650 % of GDP in 1919. War financing and inflationary pressures severely weakened the pound vis-a-vis other currencies, depreciating @ of about 3% every year, further exacerbated by the Great Depression. Finally, after WW II, the pound officially surrendered its primacy to the dollar. 

But by 1971, the dollar had reached a similar pass. A mere 27 years after the introduction and proliferation of the Bretton Woods system – by which the US enjoyed the privileged position of issuing dollars as a reserve currency to other nations in lieu of their gold, pegged at USD 35 per ounce – mounting public debt and the almost entirely credit-sponsored war in Vietnam sounded the death knell for this last vestige of the gold standard. The downside of the system was that gold and dollars were interchangeable. Finding that the US had only USD 11 Bn in gold to back nearly USD 24 Bn in debt, Richard Nixon officially declared in August 1971 that the US would no longer redeem gold for dollars. The matter may well have ended there. The dollar was devalued by more than 10%, OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) raised the price of petroleum four times in 1973 alone, and embargoed the US in response to their backing of Israel in the Yom Kippur War. The dollar’s supremacy was seriously in doubt, and a multipolar world was suddenly a distinct possibility. 

Instead, in a master stroke, the US signed a pact with Saudi Arabia in 1974 that guaranteed the latter continuous purchase of oil along with military support and protection, in exchange for the Saudis mandating the dollar as the official tender for petroleum purchase. These dollars would naturally be ploughed back into US treasuries, thereby financing US debt. The rest of OPEC followed suit a year later and the US dollar became the almighty petrodollar. Consequently, the US, over the last five decades, has been able to wage war at will, fund public spending, fuel consumption and enable gigantic individual fortunes on cheap credit. Unlike the nations of yesteryear, whose debts were severely constrained by the gold or silver they were able to access, the US simply printed dollars to buy oil or pay back debt, thereby exacting a seigniorage on its creditors with a licence not seen even in medieval Europe.

But the catch appears to be just around the corner. Most nations stockpile dollar reserves for energy security. If energy purchases are also permitted substantially in another currency or commodity, the pressure to maintain petrodollar reserves will diminish. As demand for dollar shrinks, America’s debt-fuelled holiday will be severely constrained by devaluation and inflation. 

As in 1974, the world today is at a tipping point. The war in Ukraine, triggering sanctions of crippling intensity, is forcing a defiant Russia to hard sell oil and gas outside the petrodollar system. If it takes off and gains critical mass with other non-OPEC energy rich countries joining the bandwagon, the pressure will be on OPEC to relax insistence on the greenback. The currency’s hegemony may well begin to set despite US efforts to resist with might and main, which may not be all that bad because independence from the petrodollar will drive more political and economic equality in countries wallowing in dollar-denominated debt, help to unseat dollar-sponsored tyrants, deter the US from waging war directly or by proxy, and ensure that a basket of currencies, or some equivalent, regulates credit access and debt obligations. Posterity may well be grateful if the final outcome is a more harmonious and salutary world order. 

War and violence are external manifestations of the violence within human minds. It is part of the human mind just as peace and happiness are also part of it. All wars are nothing but the mind’s craving to express its inner violence. The mind has a primitive, undeveloped or under-evolved aspect. Seeking right way to outgrow this aspect of the mind may be the ideal approach to tackle conflicts and escalations thereof. 

Pertinent here is the observation of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in outer space, a Russian born and brought up in erstwhile Soviet Union, who, with his family and his entire village had suffered the Nazi invasion. He had this to say when he looked at planet earth from his Vostok-1 capsule in 1961: “Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it”. He was barely twenty seven years old when he made the comment. His eyes not only saw what was before him, but also experienced the expansiveness of being human. 

Although Gagarin’s remark came from a pioneering experience as the first entity to step outside the planet and take a cosmic view, many cosmonauts after him have had the same feeling, of the need to see the bigger picture, where geographical boundaries and other barriers melt away to reveal a composite whole. Naval aviator and NASA astronaut Edgar Mitchell theorized that there is a spectrum of consciousness available to human beings. At one end is material consciousness and at the other end is what we call ‘field’ consciousness, where a person is at one with the universe, perceiving immensity of it all. Just by looking at our planet on the way back, Mitchell said that he saw or felt a field consciousness state. Political heavyweights in global leadership positions busy heaping violence with neo-colonial aggression and imperialistic designs on countries must be made to experience the state of field consciousness. 

Learning lessons from history and the current situation ought to steer all countries towards peace and equity. The path to growth and prosperity is through greater enterprise and innovation, industry and interconnectedness of people and nation states because no populace can have everything within their resources or their country borders. Life in its totality is precious, all of plant, animal and human. Let the part not be sundered from the whole. The words of Fyodor Dostoevsky ring in prophetically, “Mankind in its entirety has always yearned to arrange things so that they must be universal. There have been many great nations with great histories, but the higher these nations stood, the unhappier they were, for they were more strongly aware than others of the need for a universal union of mankind. Great conquerors, Tamerlanes and Genghis Khans, swept over the earth like a whirlwind, yearning to conquer the cosmos, but they, too, expressed, albeit unconsciously, the same great need of mankind for universal and general union.”

Diary Of A Pilgrimage…

Rooted in Latin peregrines, meaning ‘one from abroad’ or ‘one who has come from afar’, the pilgrim describes a journeyer to a holy place. The concept of pilgrim and pilgrimage may refer to the experience of worldly life or to the inner path of the spiritual aspirant from wretchedness to a state of beatitude. Yet, all pilgrimages need not be belief-driven; it can be actuated by challenges and rewards, fun and inspiration, delving within and cerebrating for new insights. The Sanskrit word for ‘pilgrimage centre’ is tirtha, literally a river ford or crossing place; ford is associated with pilgrimage sites not simply because many are on riverbanks but because they are metaphorically places for transition, either to the other side of particular worldly troubles or beyond the endless cycle of birth and death.

Pilgrimage destinations in India may be holy cities (Varanasi, Badrinath, Kedarnath); rivers (the Ganges, the Yamuna, the Mandakini); mountains (several Himalayan peaks are sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists); caves (such as the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia); temples; festivals, such as the peripatetic Kumbh Mela, celebrated at intervals of twelve years, which witnesses the world’s largest public gathering; or the tombs and dwelling places of saints (Kalady, Alandi, Shirdi,). A modern phenomenon is the cultural pilgrimage which is a journey having both personal and secular dimensions. Destinations attracting such pilgrims include historic sites of national or cultural importance: an artist’s home, the location of a pivotal event or an iconic destination.An example might be a soccer enthusiast visiting the Pele Museum at Santos, Brazil. Cultural pilgrims gather to locales such as Auschwitz concentration camp, Jallianwala Bagh, Gettysburg Battlefield, Stratford-upon-Avon and the Lake District in UK, or the Ernest Hemingway House in Florida; they may also travel on religious pilgrimage routes, such as Lumbini in Nepal, the Way of St James in Spain, with the perspective of making it a historic or architectural tour rather than – or as well as – a religious experience. Secular pilgrims of left liberal orientation may be attracted to sites in Moscow and Beijing featuring the Mausoleums of Lenin and Mao Zedong, and the Karl Marx House at Trier. The lines separating religious, cultural or political pilgrimage and tourism are mostly blurred, not necessarily always clear or rigid. Journeys, largely on foot, to places where one hopes to find spiritual and / or personal salvation also fall under the definition of pilgrimage. In the words of adventurer-author Jon Krakuer in his book Into the Wild, Christopher Mcandless was ‘a pilgrim perhaps’ to Alaska in search of spiritual bliss.

My long cherished desire it was to undertake a personal journey to the Himalayas to behold the Mt Kailas and soak in the divinity surrounding the abode of Shiva and Parvati, and the magical aura of Manasarover, a fresh water lake nestling at an altitude of over fifteen thousand feet. Such aspirations, regrettably, had to be moderated given my not so robust health and fitness which precluded journeys that involved long trekking and climbing, with exposure to high altitudes and inclement weather. Choosing to confine mostly to the plains, I opted to explore, during mid 2019, the architectural marvel of a few of the towering temples in Tamil Nadu, neighbouring my home state of Kerala.

The first place on my itinerary was Srirangam (meaning the island of Ranga or Lord Vishnu). .“A grove where bees hum”, sang the Alvars (Tamil poet-saints who were devotees of Vishnu); an island encircled by the rivers, Kavery and its distributary Kollidam, is the sacred spot where Lord Ranganatha is reclining atop the coiled bed of Adi-Sesha, the primordial serpent (serpents represent fertility or a creative life force; as snakes shed their skin through sloughing, they are symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing; the ouroboros symbolize eternity and continual renewal of life).

Constructed in Dravidian architectural style, the Ranganatha Temple in Srirangam, Tiruchirappalli is the world’s largest functioning temple consisting of 81 shrines, 21 towers and 39 pavillions sprawled over 155 acres – the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia is the world’s largest religious architecture but it is not operational as a place of worship and exists only as a relic of history luring tourists from around the world.

Ranganatha temple towers

Ranganatha temple inner view..

According to legend surrounding Srirangam, Rama performed aradhana (puja) on Vishnu’s idol. As a reward, he gave the idol to his ally VIbishana (brother of Ravana in the epic Ramayana) to take back with him to Lanka subject to not allowing the idol to be placed on any spot en route as it possessed the proclivity to entrench itself permanently even if temporarily kept anywhere. Vibishana took this idol and while travelling towards Lanka, came upon the banks of the river Kaveri. As an utsava was in progress and wanting to take a dip in the Kaveri, he had no option but to seek someone’s assistance to temporarily hold the idol. When the festivity got over and he was finished with his ablutions, the idol could not be taken as the person with whom it was entrusted had placed the idol at the river bank. After several failed attempts to remove it from the spot, it was deemed as the Lord’s wish to remain in the same place (Srirangam). Upon Vibishana’s persistent prayer, Vishnu in the manifestation of Ranganatha extended his grace to Vibishana by always facing South (the direction of Lanka, home to Vibishana). And that is how the deity remained configured, in a reclining posture facing South. Over time, the area around the idol of Ranganatha turned into a dense forest due to lack of habitation. The idol was serendipitously discovered by a Chola king while chasing a parrot. He went on to build a grand temple at the site and named it the Ranganganatha Temple in Srirangam.  

Moving on to the next site, a steep climb of steps cut into a hill took me to Ucchi Pillayar Temple dedicated to lord Ganesha, on top of Rockfort. The temple stands 83 metres tall perched on the hill. The smooth rock was first cut by the Pallavas and the entire structure was subsequently completed by the Nayaks under the Vijayanagar Empire. The temple has a mystical aura with its awe-inspiring rock architecture. Although it is much smaller as compared to Ranganatha temple, the elevated site provides a stunning view of the city of Tiruchirapalli, the island of Srirangam, and the rivers Kaveri and Kollidam.

“Rockfort Temple in Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu, South India.”

The ancient lore pertaining to Rock Fort temple is interestingly linked with Ranganatha Temple.  Vibishana, though he supported Rama, was basically an Asura, hence the Devas (who were arch rivals of Asuras as per Hindu mythology) wanted to stop an Asura from taking Lord’s supreme form to his Kingdom. They enlist the help of the ‘remover of obstacles’ and God of learning, Lord Ganesha. Vibishana, while returning back to his Kingdom, passes by Kaveri river, and wanted to take his bath in the river and do his daily rituals. However, he is in a dilemma as the deity, once kept on the ground, can never be removed. Vibishana tries to find someone to temporarily hold the deity. Ganesha, disguised as a cowherd, volunteers to hold the idol on the pretext of assisting Vibishina. As soon as Vibishana is fully immersed in water, Ganesha places the idol firmly on the Kaveri river bank. On seeing this, an enraged Vibishana chases the cowherd who scoots away and climbs over the nearby hill. Vibishana finally gets hold of the cowherd and smacks him on the forehead whereupon Ganesha reveals his true identity. Vibishana promptly seeks forgiveness and the Lord’s blessing; extending benediction, Ganesha asserts that the idol is destined to remain in Srirangam and waves Vibishana off to Lanka. 

From Tiruchirapalli, my itinerary took me to the Nataraja Temple at Chidambaram. Dedicated to Nataraja, meaning ‘king of dance’ or the cosmic dancer’, one of the forms of lord Shiva, the temple has ancient roots tracing it to the period when the present city of Chidambaram was a town known as Thillai. Chidambaram, as the city and temple are named now, literally means “atmosphere of wisdom” or “clothed in thought”; the temple architecture symbolizes the connection between arts and spirituality, creative activity and the divine. The temple wall carvings display all the 108 karanas (karanas is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘doings’ or ‘transitions’ or brief ‘movement phrases’ synchronizing specific leg, hip, body, and arm movements accompanied by hasta mudras or hand signs in Bharatanatyam as described in Natya Sastra) from the Natya Sastra by Bharata Muni, and these postures are foundational to Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance.

View of Chidambaram Temple..

Carvings and sculptures adorning Chidambaram temple walls
Nataraja, the Dancing Shiva.. (brass sculpture displayed in my home).

Built in the 10th century when Chidambaram was the capital of the Chola dynasty, and spread over an area of forty acres, it is one of the oldest surviving and active temple complexes in South India. After its tenth century consecration by Cholas who considered Nataraja as their family deity, the temple has been serially damaged by colonial marauders and Semitic philistines, and restored through the second millennium. Most of the temple’s surviving plan, architecture and structure are from the late 12th and early 13th centuries, with later additions in similar style. Shiva  is presented as the Nataraja, performing the Ananda Tandava (“Dance of Delight”) in the Pon Ambalam or ‘golden hall’ of the shrine.

The sanctum of the temple set inside the innermost prakara (courtyard) is unusual as it does not have a Shivalinga, rather it has the Chit Sabha (consciousness gathering, also called chit ambalam or space of consciousness) with a silver sculpture of Nataraja, the temple’s principal icon. This introspective empty space is curtained off, defined in temple texts as the rahasya (secret). It consists of two layers, one red, the other black. George Michell, an architectural historian specializing in South Asian structures, cites it as a Hindu symbolism of “enlightenment inside, illusion outside”. The Chidambaram Rahasya is the “formless” representation of Shiva as the metaphysical Brahman in Vedas, sometimes explained as akasha linga, same as the omnipresent Self (Atman). The silver sculpture of Nataraja in ananda thandava (dance of bliss) aspect brings home a world of meanings:

  • The demon under Nataraja’s feet signifies the trampling of ignorance.
  • The fire in His hand (power of destruction) means He is the destroyer of evil.
  • The raised hand (Abhaya or Pataka mudra) signifies that He is the savior of all life forms.
  • The arc of fire called Thiruvashi or Prabhavati signifies the cosmos and the perpetual motion of the earth.
  • The drum in His hand signifies the origin of life forms.
  • The lotus pedestal signifies Aum, the sound of the universe.
  • His right eye, left eye and third eye signify the sun, moon and fire/knowledge, respectively.
  • His right earring (makara kundalam) and left earring (sthri kundalam) signify the union of man and woman (man on the right, and woman on the left).
  • The crescent moon in His hair signifies benevolence and beauty.
  • The flowing of river Ganges through His matted hair signifies eternity of life.
  • The dreading of His locks and drape signify the momentum of His dance.

The symbolism of Nataraja is the oneness of religion, art and science. In the Divine’s endless dance of creation, preservation, destruction and paired graces is hidden a deep understanding of our universe filled with the resonance of Aum Namah Sivaya. Nataraja has four arms. The upper right hand holds the drum from which creation springs forth.  The lower right hand is raised in blessing, betokening preservation.  The upper left hand holds a flame, which is destruction, the dissolution of form.  The right leg, representing obscuring grace, stands upon Apasmarapurusha, a soul temporarily earth-bound by its own sloth, confusion and forgetfulness.  The uplifted left leg is revealing grace, which releases the mature soul from bondage.  The lower left hand gestures toward that holy foot in assurance that Shiva’s grace is the refuge for everyone, the way to liberation.  The circle of fire represents the cosmos and especially consciousness.  The all-devouring form looming above is Mahakala, “Great Time.”  The cobra around his waist is kundalini shakti, the soul-impelling cosmic power resident within all. Nataraja’s dance is not just a symbol but the reality within every being, at the atomic level, this very moment.  The Agamas (tradition, received or ritual knowledge considered to have been revealed by a personal divinity) proclaim, “The birth of the world, its maintenance, its destruction, the soul’s obscuration and liberation are the five acts of His dance,” denoted by the five syllabic chant Na/ mah/ Si/ va/ ya. As Heinrich Zimmer puts it, “His gestures wild and full of grace, precipitate the cosmic illusion; his flying arms and legs and the swaying of his torso produce – indeed, they are – the continuous creation-destruction of the universe, death exactly balancing birth, annihilation the end of every coming-forth”. The dance of Shiva is the dancing universe; the ceaseless flow of energy going through an infinite variety of patterns that melt into one another. Every particle from its sub-atomic level not only performs an energy dance, but also is an energy dance; a pulsating process of creation and destruction.

Dance and performance arts are not unique to Shiva in Hindu texts. Other deities too, including Vishnu, Durga (including Lakshmi and Saraswathi), Krishna, Ganesha, Kartikeya, are envisioned as practitioners and purveyors of knowledge and all art forms, amongst other things. However, with Shiva the idea is most evolved. Among Tamil Nadu’s innumerable temples,  Chidambaram occupies a unique place as the home of Nataraja, the dancer form of Shiva. This is now one of the most celebrated images of any Hindu deity, renowned throughout India and around the world. The prominence of dance as a motif at Chidambaram underscores the iconography of Nataraja and the architectural configuration of the temple itself. It is the interrelationship of legend, history, art, and architecture at Chidambaram that interestingly engages the keen visitor.

The Vedas are dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. Its time scales are in sync with modern scientific cosmology, with its cycles running from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long. There is the deep and appealing notion that the universe is but the dream of the god who, after a Brahma years, dissolves himself into a dreamless sleep. The universe dissolves with him – until, after another Brahma century, he stirs, recomposes himself and begins again to dream the great cosmic dream. Carl Sagan says: “The most elegant and sublime of these is a representation of the creation of the universe at the beginning of each cosmic cycle, a motif known as the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva. The god in this manifestation is Nataraja, the Dance King. In his upper right hand is a drum whose sound is the sound of creation. In the upper left hand is a tongue of flame, a reminder that the universe, now newly created, with billions of years from now will be utterly destroyed. These profound and lovely images are, I like to imagine, a kind of premonition of modern astronomical ideas.”

From Chidambaram, my journey stretched onwards to Thanjavur to behold another marvel, a monarch’s devotional fervour and orison captured in granite. Upon approaching Thanjavur, my gaze is irresistibly drawn to a colossal, elegantly ornamented temple tower presiding over the city’s skyline and soaring upwards. Built by Rajaraja I in 1010 CE, the Brihadisvara temple, as it is known, is a masterpiece of Chola architecture, an icon of its art, history and culture, and prominently listed among UNESCO’s world heritage sites. The fascinating structure is a palimpsest of the multicultural histories of more than a thousand years of worship and artistic endeavour, conveyed to the visitor across time through inscriptions, ritual traditions, sacred hymns and stories, and processions of images of gods and saints, as well as through painting, sculpture, poetry, music, dance and drama. A monument of superlatives in every respect combining grandeur of size and scale, mathematical and geometric precision, and innovative symmetries of proportion that draw on and transcend the prescriptions of Shaiva Agama texts provide the temple its distinctive ambience. In referring to the presiding deity as ‘Brihadisvara’, or the ‘great lord’, it is clear that Rajraja, an ardent devotee of Shiva, aspired to the grandest visualization of the infinite within human finitude.

Brihadeeswara Temple Tower..

Another view of Brihadeesvara Temple..

The abiding impression at the end of such tours is that Hindu temples are symmetry-driven structures, with many variations, on a square grid of padas (Block-like projections at intervals along the gala recess — ‘gala’ in Vastu shastra, the ancient manual on architecture, means ‘a wide recess’ — depicting perfect geometric shapes such as circles and squares, designed around the belief that all things are one, everything is connected. A temple “replicates again and again the Hindu belief of the parts mirroring, and at the same time being, the universal whole” like an “organism of repeating cells”. The pilgrim is welcomed through mathematically structured spaces, a network of art, pillars with carvings and statues that display and celebrate the four important and necessary precepts of human life — the pursuit of artha (prosperity, wealth), the pursuit of kama (desire), the pursuit of dharma (virtues, ethical life) and the pursuit of moksha (liberation, self-realisation). Though there are millions of deities, the focus is on the Supreme Principle, the sacred Universal, one without form, which is present everywhere, connecting and being the essence of all things. These sacred spaces are designed to purify minds, prompt reflection and accelerate inner realization.

Journeying To The Great Beyond…

Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, Louisiana, USA..

To say that life is full of stress and strain may be to state the obvious. What makes us stressful is our concern for the external world, urging us to act based on our material identities. In turn this creates expectations, competition and control, leading to stress. And that is how life plays out for most people, a narrative punctuated by hard toil, struggles, serial failures and occasional triumphs. The sagely advice point to monitoring our consciousness as an efficacious stress-buster, by choosing to operate without the mantle of identity-linked ego, of being a spouse, parent, teacher, technocrat, entrepreneur, administrator and the like; through a soul-centricity that radiates qualities of the soul even if situations go wrong. We are the actors, or souls, performing every scene combining our physicality and mental attributes on the world stage. If every actor’s true nature of peace, purity, joy and love are given full play, every role becomes a pleasure – effortless and free of stress.

The vast majority, still uninitiated in such spiritual subtleties, continue their lives in close identity with their roles and, hence, stresses and hardships are mostly fellow travellers in the hurly-burly of quotidian routine.  

The next half century will bring more change than the previous three centuries. The statement is not as hyperbolic as it sounds because we are already crossing a crucial threshold that was previously unthinkable. Technology is no longer simply changing our environment; that is, what is around or outside us, or the hardware we use. No more is it just a tool. Technology is well on its way to becoming a creative force, and a thinking machine, as well. It is now gearing up to get inside us, thereby changing who we are and rapidly redefining what it means to be human, in ways transcending the limitations of humanity. If intelligent machines are to perform our routine work for us, we will have to train them, teach them, connect them to us – in effect making digital copies of ourselves, cloning our knowledge in the cloud. This will alter us; and it will alter our view of what we are and what we could be, as well as what the machines are. And this is only the first step… The world is becoming hyper-connected, automated and uber-smart – for everyone’s benefit. A significant number of the over seven billion constituting global population stays ‘connected’, with each one seeing a smorgasbord of information and content all the time. We interact with platforms via augmented reality, virtual reality, holographic screens, or via intelligent digital assistants. Our digital egos are moving to the cloud and are developing a life of its own.

Such leaps in technology are bound to create its own paradigm shifts in human values and cultures. What was considered kosher a couple of decades ago may either no longer be so or may need to be revisited in light of today’s compulsions. The spectre of an aging population in my native state looms large, given the reality of globalization drawing young people far away from their home provinces and countries, leaving nearly empty nests of aging couples left to fend for themselves in their twilight years. State welfare measures cover merely microscopic numbers, comprising politicos and those in government service; vast sections of people are outside its ambit. Even if the monetary aspect is supported by resources of respective families, caretakers or hospices are woefully short of demand in sharp contrast to ready availability of such facilities in Europe, Canada, Australia, NZ and elsewhere.

What then is the way forward? One of the finest thoughts of the 20thC that opened the floodgates of possibilities and probabilities is that of French social philosopher and anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. ‘The scientific mind does not so much provide the right answers as ask the right questions’. In fact, the entire history of human intelligence is more to do with dwelling upon questions rather than their answers. ‘A question gives direction. An answer closes it’, said Socrates more than three thousand years ago. The right question is like a rough stone. It has so many possibilities, so many forms unrevealed in it. The Buddha’s penetrating query ‘Why there is so much pain and suffering in this world?’, gave a new direction to mankind. The Japanese adage, ‘A man is known by his questions and not by his answers’, is germane to all ages and eras. A question gives a semblance of idea about the person’s perceptions and discernment. An answer has the base of the question but a question has no prior base. Upanishadic and Greek philosophy are questions leading to further quests and contemplations because the moment one gets the answer, one stops to enquire further. The Buddha says in Dhammapad, “Stop expecting answers. Look at your own question. It has the answer concealed in it. Your question itself is an answer, provided you ask an intelligent one”.

In the same vein, let us revert to the question of those steadily burgeoning numbers of aging citizens, increasingly isolated by the dynamics of contemporary living. What next? Do they continue to drift towards twilight years, with steadily deteriorating mobility and other functional impairments? What about terminal illnesses that drag on for years with shattering impact on the quality of days and nights remaining on life’s calendar? Bereft of all hope, is there any meaning in a person who is terminally ill struggling till the very end for natural ebbing away of life? Is there any obligation to somehow muddle through waning faculties and heavily compromised dignity, awaiting Nature’s guillotine? Can societies everywhere not migrate out of religious claptrap to embrace voluntary euthanasia as a much longed for and dignified departure to the unknown? Our sense of rationale must not be blinkered by faith and bound by dogma. Robert Barron puts it with clinical objectivity: “Faith is not infra-rational, meaning ‘below reason.’ That’s credulity, that’s superstition, that’s accepting things on no evidence, that’s childish…. Authentic faith never involves a sacrificium intellectus, as the medievals said, a ‘sacrifice of the intellect.’ In fact, that’s a sign that your faith is inauthentic. If you feel obligated to leave your mind aside to have faith, it’s not real faith. Real faith is not infra-rational, it’s supra-rational, it’s beyond reason, but inclusive of it…There may be darkness on the far side of reason, but never on the near side. There’s never a suspending of one’s critical faculties. Authentic faith awakens the mind.” Sri Aurobindo expatiates it further: “Reason is not the supreme light, but yet is it always a necessary light-bringer and until it has been given its rights and allowed to judge and purify our first infra-rational instincts, impulses, rash fervours, crude beliefs and blind prejudgments, we are not altogether ready for the full unveiling of a greater inner luminary. Science is a right knowledge, in the end only of processes, but still the knowledge of processes too is part of a total wisdom and essential to a wide and clear approach towards the deeper Truth behind. If it has laboured mainly in the physical field, if it has limited itself and bordered or over-shadowed its light with a certain cloud of wilful ignorance, still one had to begin this method somewhere and the physical field is the first, the nearest, the easiest for the kind and manner of inquiry undertaken. It is regrettable if ignorance becomes dogmatic and denies what it has refused to examine, but still no permanent harm need have been done if this willed self-limitation is compelled to disappear when the occasion of its utility is exhausted. Now that we have founded rigorously our knowledge of the physical, we can go forward with a much firmer step to a more open, secure and luminous repossession of mental and psychic knowledge. Even spiritual truths are likely to gain from it, not a loftier or more penetrating view but an ampler light and fuller self-expression.”

Enter “Sarco pod”, the euthanasia device consisting of a 3D-printed detachable capsule mounted on a stand containing a canister of liquid nitrogen which when inspired puts the person to permanent sleep. Unlike the asphyxiation with accompanying panic and struggle triggered by carbon dioxide fumes, medically known as the hypercapnic alarm response, nitrogen is harmless in the additional sense of facilitating painless and quick transition to unconsciousness. The Sarco was invented by euthanasia campaigner Philip Nitschke in 2017, and usage of the device is reportedly legal in Switzerland and Spain. Akin to stepping into a space capsule, the device with its liquid nitrogen, soon as activated, causes rapid loss of oxygen in the receiver’s body resulting in unconsciousness and death.

If the device spurs more interest in voluntary euthanasia, there is no need to be on edge as it may be a sign that one of the harsh realities of our times is getting addressed. Nonetheless, balance is the key. Holding off technological advances just to feel the way we used to feel before is not progressive thought. To reiterate, we all should be able to appreciate the need to be scientifically and technologically advanced. We cannot be primitive again just to discover the thrill of making fire from flint stones! While staying connected with our natural selves, it is essential that we, the creators of technology, do not lose ourselves into it so much that we forget what we were originally. And that responsibility lies solely with us. In a materialistic world, the most precious commodities are not objects, but emotional states. We don’t dream of owning more possessions, but of becoming calmer, less anxious, and more fulfilled. Wherever we are, the divinely supreme is. In order to realise it, we have to return what we have borrowed from the world: darkness, ignorance, bondage, limitation, imperfection and death. We borrowed these things because we felt that they would help us considerably, but now we have come to realize that they are real encumbrances, and hence these things must be jettisoned, and the things we eternally have in the innermost recesses of our being – peace, light, bliss, truth -, we have to increase. The things that we eternally are, we have to claim and offer to the world at large. Doing this will lead us to the knowledge of the who and where of divinity, which is essentially self-realisation, meaning the attainment of divine Oneness, or self-discovery in the highest sense of the term.

The Many Layers of Grief…

The leaves sway and rustle in joyous abandon in the embrace of the wind fully cognizant that in the march of time and seasons, it will be dislodged by the same wind blowing it off the tree. In almost similar vein, grief, alleviated by occasional spells of happiness, pervades life, holding in thrall and captive every one of us; no matter how hard we try to escape its clutches, it latches on to us and mostly squeezes out our sense of well being. Several factors bear on how long we grieve. Traumatic events that occurred in the shuffle of childhood can be triggered to rise up like old ghosts from the past to send us reeling under the intensity of multiple losses combined into one large ball of heart-wrenching pain, reducing a person to a shell of his usual self. What cannot be fixed is eventually accepted. It alters us, changing our being and world view. The grief does not fade away; it lives within us, mostly as a regulatory reminder of our lives and priorities.

Is grief self-centred? A good number of people lament, grieve, mourn, and wail in keening, ululating cries reminiscent of ritual expressions of sorrow in ancient Greece when loved ones made their inevitable exit; Greece is not alone as the situation is more or less the same straddling cultures and geographies. I have observed similar grief cutting across communities in the country-sides of not-too-distant feudal times and semi-urban regions of India; some people are inconsolable, especially during the current pandemic with mounting death tolls and families and friends losing their kin in quick succession. Overcrowded crematoriums and burial grounds strike hard the stark reality that death knows no boundaries. When Henry David Thoreau used “u-lu-lu” to imitate the cry of screech owls and mourning women in that particular passage from Walden, he was probably re-enacting the etymology of ululate, which descends from Latin verb ululare, carrying the same meaning as ululate, with its likely origination in the echoes of the rhythmic wailing sound associated with it.

Why do people grieve? What makes for sadness? Is it because the person we love is not physically with us, departed too soon and with unfulfilled dreams, leaving behind a young family, or because one could not spend the last moments together, medical help reached a trifle too late, many things were left unsaid or unfinished…or all of these?

What grief looks or feels like is known to all, but not the different layers of grief which pour out according to situations and circumstances through which the events of life play out. At times, one may even be unaware of grieving or even experiencing a loss that deserves to be grieved. Grief is a person’s reaction to relationship losses in life in the form of death, loss of physical or cognitive abilities or things as mundane as home or livelihood. In addition to its emotional outpourings, grief expresses itself in physical, behavioural, social and cognitive ways:

For family caregivers, grieving can start long before the person being cared for actually passes way. Anticipatory grief often starts when the person being cared for is diagnosed to be in advanced stage of a disease to be followed by steady deterioration into the inevitable. Feelings are related to the loss of hope and expectations around the life that may soon be extinguishing. It can be difficult to converse with others about anticipatory grief because the person you care for is still alive and you may have feelings of guilt or confusion as to why you are beset with this kind of grief.

There really are no set guidelines to define normal grief in terms of timelines or severity; normal grief is a predictable response to an unfortunate event that arises concurrently with an ability to move towards acceptance of the loss. With this comes a gradual decrease in the intensity of emotions. Those who experience normal grief are able to continue to function in their quotidian activities.

Delayed grief is when reactions and emotions relating to a negative event are postponed to a later time, to be triggered by another major life event or even something that seems unrelated. Responses of the person concerned can be in a greater intensity than that warranted by the current situation without the realization that delayed grief is the underlying reason for the emotional outburst.

Normal grief that assumes severity over the long term causing significant impairment to day-to-day functioning is described as complicated grief. The trigger to it has been attributed to the personality of the affected, his relationship to and factors surrounding the loss or death in terms of its suddenness, violence and multiplicity. Warning signs of a person experiencing traumatic grief include self-destructive behavior, low self-esteem, violent outbursts or radical lifestyle changes.

A loss that is felt keenly by an individual need not always be appreciated by others. Such instances give rise to what is termed as disenfranchised grief; examples are loss of a pet, colleague, or a person’s gradual decline in physical or cognitive abilities. The person is physically present but significantly absent in other ways.

Feelings of hopelessness, sense of disbelief in the reality of a loss or avoidance of situations serving as reminders of loss, or loss of meaning and value in belief systems build up to chronic grief which, at times, is experienced as intrusive thoughts exacerbating into severe clinical depression and substance abuse.

Continual losses occurring over short time spans are experienced as cumulative grief which can be stressful because of its frequency that precludes sufficient space to grieve a particular loss before experiencing the next. Physical symptoms or other negative traits that are out of character are manifestations of masked grief. A person experiencing masked grief is unable to recognize the linkage of these symptoms to a specific loss. Extremes of guilt or anger, noticeable changes in behavior, hostility towards a particular person and other asocial traits are manifestations of distorted grief.

Intensification of normal grief responses may worsen with the elapse of time; described as exaggerated grief, an abnormality dilating into suicidal tendencies, drug abuse, abnormal fears, nightmares and even the emergence of underlying psychiatric disorders. Lack of an outward expression of sorrow is a typical example of inhibited grief, where there is a conscious effort to bottle up sentiments and keep things private. Unbridled stoicism can have its own negative fallout. Another variant of inhibited grief is called absent grief, when a person shows either nil or only few signs of distress over the death of a loved one. It is an impaired response resulting from complete shock, denial or avoidance of emotional turmoil of the loss. A person experiencing absent grief for an extended period of time is a cause for concern.

Mourning and grieving is related to the one still alive; celebration and fond remembrance of the just departed are related to those who are no more. The difference between grief and celebration is the difference between selfishness and unconditional love. We are sad and even angry because we are deprived of the presence of a dear one. But the one who is gone is liberated from all these emotions and conflicts. How often we hear someone say “I miss my mother / father / spouse who was so caring, sacrificing and considerate, worked tirelessly, made my life comfortable…”, and so on. All of this is indicative of self-deprivation felt by the bereaved when their companions or friends leave them ‘in the lurch’. Self-centred grief is like mourning for oneself. At one’s loss. It is not about the departed, as such exits are pegs to hang one’s grief on. Unconditional love would express itself in gratitude, fond remembrance and celebration of a life well lived. Chiming appropriate response to the passing away of a completely successful life or even a complete life is not by chanting dirges but by ringing merry peals.

Living in peace and harmony with people is among the most difficult tasks. It is, perhaps, easier to live with birds and animals. Why is living with people a problem? We know that fire is hot and accept it as a property of fire. If we are burnt by exposure to fire, the fire is not blamed. Again, if we are admiring a beautiful full moon and someone else starts to appreciate it too, we do not say, “why are you looking at my moon? you have no right to view it!” There is no sense of ownership, no possessiveness; there is acceptance without any projection of likes and dislikes. The Gita says that a wise person moves everywhere with love and affection. Like the wind blowing freely, he does not get attached to anything. He accepts all, without being affected by the deportment of people and configuration of circumstances. “Such a man of wisdom lives with his senses under control, free from personal likes and dislikes, and therefore, enjoys every object, place, situation and person”. As Joshua L. Liebman expressed it eloquently, “The melody that the loved one played upon the piano of your life will never be played quite that way again, but we must not close the keyboard and allow the instrument to gather dust. We must seek out other artists of the spirit, new friends who gradually will help us to find the road to life again, who will walk the road with us.”

The message is that one should accept things as they are. If a change is necessary, try to make that change, but do not insist on it. When one is living with people, it may not be possible to have no expectations at all, so one should have expectations that are reasonable. What is required is love and affection in conjunction with freedom and space. Loving someone should not mean confining the person in one’s love. Is it possible to love without attachment? The sagely answer is yes. By all means love, but never be possessive of what or whom you love. Being possessive brings in the feeling of ‘this is mine’ when in actuality nothing or no one is ours. We are all here on a spiritual journey. Along the way we find several co-travellers who become part of our lives but they too have their destination. There is a hierarchy of love. Right on top are parents, spouse, children, siblings, other families and friends. Love stops here and further down the line it becomes ‘like’. The sages exhort us to love all as if our own. Universal love is not easy to follow but worth trying. For peace and happiness, it is necessary to live in love. Love flourishes through giving and forgiving. Hence develop love, immerse in love as love is the basis of everything. It should not be confined to people or things we perceive as ours. As the Hebrew proverb goes, say not in grief ‘she is no more’, but live in thankfulness that she was. Every beginning must have an ending; let us make our peace with it and all will be well.

Incredible India@75…

Time is once again projecting the luminance of another 15th August, the significance being that at this time around it is not just another day commemorative of India’s freedom from colonial hegemony but it also marks the 75th anniversary of that midnight hour in August 1947 when the spirit of a nation, brutally shackled for long, extricated itself towards life and freedom. Prior to the colonial invasions, the huge Indian subcontinent was a cluster of around six hundred kingdoms, mostly prosperous but politically weak, warring as they were among themselves with each trying to expand influence and widen territories. Divided against itself, the entire region became easy prey to external aggression; the imperial powers from outside exploited the situation; a few centuries of colonial rule left the country bereft of its wealth and in dire straits in all respects. 

Photo by Studio Art Smile on Pexels.com

Born eight years later in 1955, I belong to the country’s post independence generation. A few years forward, I was into school from the early 1960s onwards. The day used to be celebrated at the school by hoisting the national flag, parades of senior students duly inspected by the Principal, followed by distribution of sweets. My turn to participate in the parade came several years later. Into senior classes, I was part of the parade line up in 1969. Being short of frame, I was among the front row and readily visible to the Principal who paced up to me in the course of inspecting the parade; and he asked me in a whispering tone, “how many years since India became independent?” Slightly nervous, I blurted out the figure of twenty two. Upon which, much to my relief, he graciously added, “remember we are celebrating the country’s 23rd Independence Day”, and peeled away.
At the national level, there was the customary speech by the then prime minister, enumerating the challenges and opportunities before the nation and governmental plans to lead the country on the path of progress.

Another milestone event in this context was in 1972, which was the silver jubilee year of Indian independence. I was an undergraduate in a college in Madras (now Chennai). The entire nation was ceremonially spruced up and illuminated in splendour befitting the silver August 15, with people all agog in the spirit of jubilation and festivities. For me, away from home in a distant place for the first time, it heralded a special feeling of liberation tempered by a greater sense of responsibility. Poised at that juncture, was the spirit of a young nation together with a teenager, with challenges to tackle and goals to be realised. Years rolled by, and another couple of decades and more slid by to take the nation to its golden jubilee year of 1996. By this time, I was steeped in my career years and stationed out of the country. As an expatriate, I missed the pomp and glory of India’s 50th Independence Day celebrations. Catching up on some of the excitement on TV was the only consolation.

The tone and tenor of the national day celebrations appear, of late, to be undergoing subtle changes. Until not too recent years, a significant number of people who lived through India’s freedom struggle, and the heady days of Mahatma Gandhi and other stalwarts, were still around in public life and other spheres of activity to convey a continuum of the emotions and throes of a nascent country and her fledgling years under a still inchoate democracy. These served as a beacon light illumining the path of others taking over the reins of government. For the past seven years, the country’s leadership predominantly consists of people of post 1947 vintage. As time passes, there will inevitably be no Indians around to present a direct connect to the year 1947, making it a challenge to preserve the relevance of 15th August for future generations. Retaining it as a solemn event of the state with hardly any people’s participation will serve little purpose.

The seventy fifth anniversary of independence, today, may be the ideal time to initiate the process to make it a truly people’s celebration. It may be an occasion to take stock of achievements and failures, and reevaluating the way forward. We have held together as a rambunctious democracy; yet, is the system actually facilitating progress at the desired pace? Or is it that the framework of democracy is in the hands of corrupt practitioners? And is the country suffering from a surfeit of democracy with endless discussions, stonewalling and dissent? True, the country has made fairly impressive strides over the last seven decades in poverty alleviation, attaining food security through higher agricultural production, development of industries and services, education and health care. Still, looming ahead is a vast distance that needs to be travelled, given the size of the country and the huge multitude of its people. Goals are to be broadened to accommodate newer economic and social vision to allow for nurturing young and aspirational India’s innovativeness, flair and talent through quality education and healthcare, building resilience with better preparedness for threats from vagaries of climate, natural disasters and pandemics; reforms in the agro sector to mandate farming practices that are environmentally sustainable and in consonance with requirements of changing dietary habits and lifestyles; comprehensive social security and insurance reaching out to all vulnerable sections of society. The potential of 1.38 Bn Indians points to a booming economy of USD 20 Tn GDP as compared to where it stands at the moment.

While pandemic concerns may be a dampener to celebrations this year, 15th August may well be programmed as a day when official spaces are made open to the public, a day when people are encouraged to wear miniature models of the national flag on their sleeves, promote neighbourhood camaraderie and merriment. The great diversity of India must be subsumed by the greater fervour of patriotism, resonating in the words of the poet “Bharatam ennu ketaal abhimaana pooritham aakanam antharangam”, meaning “the very name Bharat (India’s original name in Sanskrit, meaning the land of Bharata) must fill one’s inner self with pride”. Patriotism is not an exclusionary sentiment that sets up one’s own country and jettisons the rest. Patriotic zeal is an abiding love for the country into which one is born irrespective of its deficiencies and reflected in the act of courage and valour towards one’s country in times of war; it is upholding a sense of attachment to homeland and respecting the rights of other nationalities. It is defensive in nature, both militarily and culturally, in sharp contrast to nationalism and various shades thereof, which is inseparable from the desire for power. India’s ethos is based on Dharma, or the order that sustains. Further amplified as Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, meaning ‘the world is one family’, a Sanskrit phrase occurring at beginning of a verse in the Upanishad exhorting humankind to live in the consciousness of oneness, as an extended family drawing on shared resources, sans discrimination and affording equal opportunities. India’s integrity, despite its diversity and heterogeneity, is also a major inspiration for the countries of the EU, apart from their strategic interests, to stay together.

Across the next twenty five years, when the nation would be heading to its 100 year anniversary, India must metamorphose into an economic powerhouse of the 21st C and, more importantly, a happier and secure place for its citizens.  The future generations of Indians must continue to joyously connect with the occasion and pride themselves on the glory of India as amply testified by Mark Twain,”India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grandmother of tradition. Our most valuable and most artistic materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only!”, and Romain Rolland, “If there is one place on the face of earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India”, and Will Durant, “India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages: she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother, through the Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother, through the village community, of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all”. Vande Mataram, Jai Hind…

Regretful or Angsty?

Life is a mix with ominous overtones in these uncertain times. Up till couple of years ago, it was a mix of weal and woe mingled with opportunities for progress. Alas, in the muddled state of now, life is an almost clueless groping around, besieged as the world is by the enigmatic nature of the mix, laden with dreadful events setting off regrets and angst in grim patterns, leaving many deeply regretful of missed opportunities, follies and foibles, and angsty of looming uncertainties. A few others are grateful for life’s blessings, without being regretful about failed ventures. Regret may appear to be a natural emotion to some, but to others it is equally facile not to grieve over past or present adversities. Regret can also be a negative emotion, dissipating mental and physical energies.

The only difference between regret and fearful anxiety is that the former is in the context of past and the latter in the context of future. Regret may be a disappointment with a particular action or outcome even when a person’s efforts are based on his or her best construal in each situation. Given that related problems can spiral out of control due to its unpredictable dimension, they do not justify a person’s undue concern over an unfavorable outcome. Fretting or regretting, therefore, is against the immanent and inviolable laws of the universe operationalized by Infinity. Regret differs from remorse, which is a feeling of penance for moral transgressions. It positions the transgressor on a corrective course. In the overall scheme of things, the rough edges of negative events can effectively smoothen if these are deemed for ultimate betterment. Learning from mistakes and moving on, in a spirit of no regrets and forward-looking optimism, must be the way to go.

The general belief depicts gods as creators; but it is we who create our gods. We sense our purest qualities but are unable to accept them as ‘ self.’ We initially view them outside us, and call these our gods. At a deeper level, it is the vision of Self. Our highest ideas of the Self that we are unable to claim within us, we project as gods. Seers, who were able to visualize these highest potentials, expounded them in forms and names. Accordingly in Eastern traditions, auspiciousness, god-speed, life force and formless infinity are portrayed as Shiva, abundance as Lakshmi, and wisdom as Saraswati. And to further enumerate these qualities or essences – as each is made up of innumerable facets, these were anthropomorphized – stories and mythologies were woven around them as personalizing or humanizing an abstract quality led to easier comprehension. The crux is that divine qualities are attainable to those who are able to realize the higher potential within.

Our purest visions of Self become our gods, so we project the source outside as our goal. The gods are not stagnant, but are expanding every moment through us, their extended selves. Perfection is a dynamic state of being and not end of the road as often held out to be. As our current self thus taps into our ever expanding gods or higher potential, there is always more to attain. We contribute to our god selves and vice versa, and so the cycle goes on, also leading to a continually refined perspective on Nature, with the realization that excessive consumption of natural resources is headed towards cataclysmic ends. The way to resolve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not by shunning technology like neo-Luddites, but by breaking down the barriers of dualistic thinking that prevent a real understanding of what technology is – not an exploitation of nature, but the fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both. The world is first improved in one’s own heart, head and hands, and then worked outwards from there. Nature is a part of the divine, it is its expression. Before the divine can be brought into people’s lives, they must bring nature into their lives, not otherwise. The reverence for Nature ultimately transforms itself into a prayer to the divine, into the realization of consciousness. What is consciousness? Consciousness is the One without a second; the Source of everything, totality of manifestation, and everything therein, is Consciousness Itself. All there is, is Consciousness, not aware of Itself in Its noumenal subjectivity, but perceived by Itself as phenomenal manifestation in Its objective expression. What we really and truly are, is Consciousness Itself, the formless Brahman.

Whether the manifested universe exists or not, Consciousness is there as the subjective Absolute. Hence the appearance of the universe exists in infinite Consciousness, just as the notion of distance or emptiness exists in space. Consciousness cannot but be immanent in everything that appears to exist. Yet, no phenomenal manifestation can have any kind of relationship with Consciousness because a relationship can exist only between two entities. It is in this sense that Consciousness is transcendental to the manifested universe. What appears within Consciousness as its own reflection – the manifestation of the universe – is not separate or different from Consciousness. While the shadow, by itself, has no existence and is, therefore, unreal, the shadow is not different from the substance when seen together. Max Planck nails it precisely when he says that “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness”.

It is well known that the human brain has two sides, the left, consisting of the analytical and logical mind, and the right, representing one’s creative and artistic responses. It also delves deep into inner space and spirit. Modern education has aimed more at material and physical comfort with less emphasis on moral and spiritual well-being. As a result, societal development is lopsided; human mindset has turned materialistic, people have become self-centric rather than soul-centric. Wanton materialistic and sense-centric indulgence has led to spread of gross body consciousness, vices, vulgarity and crimes against vulnerable sections of society. True liberation can be attained through spiritual empowerment, which is key to all kinds of outer empowerments, whether socio-economic or political. It calls for consciousness training and transformation through awakening of one’s innate qualities and inner powers. In fact, spiritual qualities of peace, love, truth, cooperation, transparency and trustworthiness constitute the mother-power of salutary nurturing and transformation, of people and negativities. Happiness is everyone’s principal aim. Even countries have embraced the idea. The US constitution makes the ‘pursuit of happiness’ an inalienable right. In various forms, South Korea, Japan and Brazil also have happiness in their charters. Bhutan has a gross national happiness index. The UN celebrates World Happiness Day on 20th March every year.

But what exactly is happiness? Perhaps the best account of happiness is from Greek traditions. It falls into two broad buckets: one that focuses on pleasure, propagated by Epicurus; the other on virtue, advocated by Epictetus. Happiness can be defined in many ways. Hedonic happiness is achieved through experiences of pleasure and enjoyment, while eudaimonic happiness is achieved through pursuit of virtue, excellence and greater purpose. Both kinds of happiness contribute to overall wellness in different ways. Chasing one to the exclusion of the other, however, will not make for a complete life. It is up to each one to find the delicate balance of pleasure and virtue. Shawn Achor, whose TED talk on happiness is among the most viewed, has a simple premise. People think that happiness is a result of success. But neuroscience research shows that the reverse is actually true. His view is not about denial of problems, but a view about the power of human agency to overcome challenges. His research shows that career success is 25% predicted by IQ, the rest by a person’s optimism levels, social support and the ability to see stress as a challenge instead of as a threat. The bottom-line is that the external world can only predict 10% of people’s long-term happiness. The remaining 90% is determined by how the brain processes the world. Indeed, happiness comes from within.

Robert Biswas-Diener in his research, the AIM Model of Happiness, sifts out three factors: attention, interpretation and memory. What we pay attention to is what dominates our mind. So, to be happy, one should not underestimate the small, good things that happen every day. The world is a laboratory for interpretation, and objective responses will trump emotional ones in providing happiness. Memories are to be used as assets. Investing in experiences and savouring them can pay big dividends. Money’s contribution to happiness reaches the point of marginal returns quickly. Not having money reduces happiness, but having more money does not necessarily increase happiness. Social scientist Arthur C Brooks has three formulae for happiness. One, subjective well-being is a sum of genes, circumstances and habits. He focuses on habits since genetic dispositions are predetermined, and the effect of circumstances are transitory because of psychological homeostasis, an evolutionary trait that enables people to quickly get used to both good and bad circumstances.

For analyzing habits, Brooks provides another valuable equation: habits are a sum of faith, family, friends and work. Here, faith refers not to religion per se, but to a mental and emotional framework through which one can contemplate life’s deeper questions. The importance of friends and family is demonstrated in another classic study initiated at Harvard in 1938, which tracked the lives of 724 men. The first group comprised Harvard sophomores, and the second was a group of boys from one of Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods. The results were profound: more socially connected people were happier, with happiness not driven by numerical strength of connections but depth of relationships. The study showed that people who reported being the happiest in their 80s were those who were most satisfied with their relationships at 50.

Looking at work, Brooks finds the centrality of productive human endeavour in creating a sense of purpose leading to happiness. Brooks’ third equation: satisfaction is what you have divided by what you want. His emphasis is on the denominator, eerily similar to the Vedic philosophy of controlling one’s wants and stepping down from the hedonic treadmill. Being happy often means looking beyond imperfections and stepping on the escalators of gratitude, kindness and a smiling disposition that cultivates intention without attachment, focused more on intrinsic than extrinsic goals. Pertinent here is also Dale Carnegie’s idea of living in ‘day-tight compartments’ to complement long term ambitions. Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance but to do what lies clearly at hand. Saddled with too many tasks, we become frozen in fear and move around in circles, like deer caught in front of vehicle headlights, as we try to think our way out of problems; we get into an anxiety mindset and find ourselves living in the future instead of doing the needed duly focused on the now. Anxiety sets in and suddenly, everything seems so much worse than it actually is. Living with this constant baseline level of anxiety is the reason why we struggle to achieve what we want to. The solution is mindfulness and living for the day as a habit. The concept of day-tight compartment is best explained using ship as an analogy; like large, long-voyaging vessels equipped with water-tight compartments efficiently serving multiple functions in accordance with the mariner’s command, our own voyage must navigate towards successful living by compartmentalizing each day to maximize it to its fullest potential before congruently flowing through to the next, maintaining a course that greatly reduces regret by obviating errors of omission and commission, and angst by trimming down room for negative outcomes.

Still unclear, the niggling thought may be, …but focused only on today, how do I work towards future goals? Dr William Osler, celebrated as the father of modern medicine, was a prolific achiever in his field; he accomplished the feat not by eschewing goals, but by redefining it across available timescales and utilizing each day to inch closer towards targets. By setting goals and utilizing each day-tight compartment to hyper-focus on every single task that speeds one closer to goals, a person transitions from a life of endless distraction and worry to one lived calmly, mindfully and productively.

And the future? Is it possible to know what tomorrow will bring? There are three known possibilities. The first thing is that tomorrow is going to be different from today. It is naive to think otherwise. The second is that tomorrow is not only going to be different from today, it is also bound to be different from what is expected. That is the very nature of life. And most importantly the third, a person makes his own tomorrow by what he does today. Through regular mulling over the course of action, the cosmic energy signals will keep becoming stronger pointing to the right path. Hence, instead of choosing to drift with worldly currents, the aspiration must be to catch higher tides of awareness to avoid getting mired in shallows of mechanical living.

Awareness. If we are constantly aware, life is always interesting, for everything inspires us. Awareness is not alertness. Alertness requires effort and has an element of stress. Awareness is stress-free alertness. When we are in this relaxed state, zeal and interest are spontaneous. From Interest arises memory and dedication. No task is to be executed mechanically. Even the mundane act of stirring a spoon of sugar into a cup of tea is to be practised with complete awareness as it always leads to a deep sense of joy and connect with the Source. “Lord, we are rivers running to Thy sea, / Our waves and ripples all derived from Thee, / A nothing we should have, a nothing be / Except for Thee” (Christina Rossetti). “Just as the flowing rivers disappear in the ocean casting off name and shape, even so the knower, freed from name and shape, attains to the divine person, higher than the high” (Mundaka Upanishad). Here, ‘the higher than the high’ is the unmanifested. The souls attain universality of spirit, a-visesatma-bhavam. Eckhart says, ‘And here one cannot speak about the soul any more, for she has lost her name yonder in the oneness of divine essence. There she is no more called soul; she is called immeasurable being’, attaining, according to Vedas, equality of nature and not identity of being.

Offices, Homes and Leisure Spaces…

The C-19 juggernaut is rolling on relentlessly, mutating even more powerfully as vaccines work to build resistance to hamper and neutralize its course. Globally, countries are struggling to cope, by being forced into multiple lockdowns to protect their citizens, causing massive disruptions to work life as we know it – attending offices nestled in brick-and-mortar constructions became impossible. Yet, the rapidity with which the world responded – America saw work from home (WFH) employees growing from under 7% of its workforce to over 45% in mid-2020 – has been amazing. India’s IT industry in particular, and various state governments have also cited the value of WFH together with a permanent hybrid model where people would work partly from office and home (WFO&H) even after the end of the pandemic. Offering huge comparative advantage, both WFH and WFO&H drive inclusive growth, better participation from all parts of the country and enable greater number of women who would have flexibility to work from home.

Being at home working is not a new thing. Scientific inventions and books that revolutionized the world did not emerge from factories; it sprang from the home toils of great minds and geniuses. Fast forward to present times, digital technology empowered the transition to dynamic working, or staying connected and working on the move, multiplying benefits and growth. Employees appreciate its flexibility – a study found 88% Indian employees prefer work from home – and companies are able to observe rise in productivity. The acceptance of remote work by several companies globally is one of the blessings of an otherwise incredibly hard time. The model, adapted in stress and swiftness, has in fact worked out so well that, according to the finding of World Economic Forum, post-pandemic too employers are ready to give ‘work from anywhere’ (WFA) options to at least 44% of employees.

‘Work from anywhere’ now applies across industries, from tech to banking, finance, and even industrial companies handling manufacturing or supply chain management. Corporations leading the change will be pioneers – they will be magnets for talent because remote work enables a company to attract the best minds, oriented to growth and trended towards the future of work.

Such dynamic working is the next logical step in a globalized world, its flexibility easing international collaborations and expanding global talent pools. The greatest benefit for the employee is the control it provides over time, a temporal flexibility arising out of the elimination of the daily stressful commute and rigid work hours in offices as compared to WFH / WFA-enabled flexible work timings based out of convenient residential or resort spaces located away from the din and clutter of urban sprawls. For women, WFA provides added fillip to managing their careers and home lives. For a company, remote working facilitates global hiring of talent without the need to open subsidiaries in different geographies. For managers, the new system necessitates behavioural changes. Subordinates may have to be measured not by the duration of hours worked, but by the quantum of work and quality of output. Also, with remote work people may be in different time zones and, therefore, a lot of work will have to be done asynchronously, on accessible platforms like Slack channels or shared Google docs. Remote work is also an equalizer, contoured not by our location but by internet quality. Most remarkably, work from anywhere has the power to reshape old understandings of work, employees and companies now connecting in meetings of the mind and fusions of creativity, rather than the previous approach of physical attendance, hierarchical communication and regimented hours spent within office buildings. Additionally, WFA is blurring the line between work and leisure by setting the trend captured by the portmanteau term ‘workation’, the novel concept of working vacation, combining clearly planned business with curated recreational activities.

The flip side of WFH or WFA is the unhealthy overlap of home and office or work and leisure, resulting in a lack of respite from work pressures and consequent negative impact on health and wellness. Possibly there are other potential drawbacks too. It highlights the plight of those who do not have much flexibility, including frontline professionals and many in manufacturing and service industries. It accentuates the double shift women face, managing both official and domestic responsibilities. Such drawbacks could entrench inequalities. Instances like promotion biases against remote work, can, perhaps, be successfully navigated by managers drawing from increasing awareness and sensitivity. Technology will aid this journey, with futuristic innovations like hologram glasses, adding data to all that one sees, enhancing one’s view of the world with digitally created content and thereby improving the quality of work. Even the loneliness associated with working remotely may be addressed by augmented reality, bringing people virtually together. 

 Till previously, there was, apart from the physical, an invisible distance for everyone between office and home which enabled most people to mentally offload work pressure en route. Such an option is unavailable now and, hence, life is transforming into an added rat race from one stress to another. What is probably required to tackle the challenge is to instill greater systematization and discipline infusing consistently high energy levels into one’s day-to-day routine. At a glance, WFH and WFA are seen to facilitate higher productivity, lower establishment costs, near elimination of daily commute, substantially reduced fuel consumption and resultant traffic / pollution levels. Overall, a healthier lifestyle and salutary effects on environment. In spite of all such positives, it is doubtful whether the new high in productivity is sustainable over the long run.  After extended time at homes, the compelling urge is towards social mobility and togetherness instead of further prolonging an enforced squeeze from expansive gregariousness to constricted creatures milling around computer screens; the primitive man evolved from hunter gatherers living in caves, moving on to agricultural farms and thence to factories and offices. The pandemic appears to have reversed history by pushing humans back to caves, as peering into digital screens is akin to drudging inside virtual caverns.

Reflections Amidst Whispering Palms…

Annus horribilis 2020? It appears as such from most events and manifestations thus far. As customary around this time of the year, there is the relief of ending (of horrible times) and the hope of a bright new year. The worst is getting over, or so is the expectation, and the new is  around the corner. Most people are conditioned to participate in the recurring ritual at midnight of every 31st December accompanied by the countdown that wipes the slate clean for the all-new to set in. Alas, it is just another evanescent bubble far removed from truth. There will be a sure flip of date on the calendar but it makes no difference to Nature whether the calendar is Vikram Samvat, Roman, Gregorian or Lunar. Animals and birds are blissfully unaware of any change because there really is none and nothing is any different. The mountains stay as majestic, the rivers flow, the tides keep ebbing and flooding in and out; the stars maintain their celestial journey but here we earthlings are prancing about in a parody of some grotesque dance, singing lustily and tunelessly, though in muffled tones this time around, in keeping with the sombreness of 2020, also linked to the passing away of some highly regarded writers, musicians, environmentalists, political leaders and sportspersons. Problems and tragedies cannot be wished away by a mere shift in time. Solutions are, however, possible through paradigm shifts in mindsets by imbibing lessons of the passing year. Patience, empathy, minimalism, adaptability and sustainable living are the qualities needed to take us forward. Trying to ring in the new year without taking these attributes on board amounts to just another diddly squat, that’s it.

The fundamental human urge is invariably to become better than the present, and keep going further incrementally, if not in giant leaps. Essentially longing to expand limitlessly, in an endeavour to approach the infinite in instalments. The strained expression of human desire is described as ‘ambition’. Ambition is a fanciful idea of what one should become. Whereas ‘vision’ is a larger picture of what should happen to everything around oneself. If everyone moves from ambition to vision, then our collective genius will unlock itself to achieve seemingly impossible objectives. The words of David Bohm assume contextual relevance: “We are internally related to everything, not externally related….consciousness is an internal relationship to the whole, we take in the whole and we act towards the whole, and whatever we take in, determines basically what we are.”

Often blinded by orthodoxies and conditioning, we step on snakes, run into fire and allow needles to poke us. Snakes of attachments, fire of desires, and needles of jealousy and covetousness. They bite, burn and hurt. We call it suffering and we think that this is the way of life. We mistake our pain for our suffering. We have little control over the former but the latter is in our hands. We can take things in our stride or be tossed about in the tide. The choice is ours. Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Loss is unavoidable, grief is not. Death is certain. Life’s uncertainty, unpredictability, even irrationality make it worthwhile, a blessing. One can see its dimensions as appalling, boring and devious or as adventurous, beautiful and captivating. Up to us. Hearts filled with loving kindness, time enriched with noble actions, mind with good thoughts will eliminate suffering from life, like sadness from a heart that is content. Needles cannot prick one’s soul nor can fire burn it. And snakes, one may ask, what about the snakes of attachment? Well, an evolved person, at the spiritual heights of a Shiva, wraps them around his neck and yet remains unharmed.

Confined to home for most part of the year, we decided to move out to Kumarakom, a nearby lake resort, to enjoy the last weekend of December 2020. Uplifting it was, to spend time on the banks of the almost-sea like Vembanad lake and gratifying to lean on the bark of one or other of the many palm trees of its sylvan banks to absorb some of the equanimity and tranquillity that trees exude, as sentinels of wisdom, as it were, always unfazed, yet so giving, even as they soar skyward. Resting against the tree’s generous trunk is indeed very comforting. Probably this is what inspired sages to meditate beneath trees and attain enlightenment, facilitated in no small measure, perhaps, by the trees themselves. Both the Buddha and Mahavira are popularly depicted seated under a tree, radiating calm and wisdom, comforting all who came to them for succour. The concept is to just be in the forest, allowing the forest to caress and heal, as one opens up all the senses to receive its grace. Interestingly, scientists have found that spending time with trees boosts one’s immunity, via phytonicides – essential oils released by trees and plants to defend against insects, animals and decomposition – something we sorely need amidst contagions in no hurry to go away

Vembanad Lake...

Whispering Palms…

With an abundance of coconut palm trees dominating its landscape, the resort is appropriately named ‘Whispering Palms’. It is a whisper that is audible in the pervading silence. Silence does not mean the absence of sound. It has a sound, a resonance, or, rather, it has many undetectable sounds creating a symphony perceivable at subtler levels. In the desert, the silence is composed of the whispered sigh of sand caressed by the invisible hand of the wind. In the forest, it is the gossipy chatter of breeze-ruffled leaves, the deep exhalation of giant trees; at the banks of Vembanad, it is the lake’s soothing babble and, in distant counterpoint, the lone call of a water fowl. To such sounds of silence are added the undertones of our own breathing, the rhythm of heart beat and the tidal pulse of blood coursing within us in tune with undulating waters of the lake. There is something called Brownian motion, so named after Robert Brown, a 19th C Scottish scientist, who first noted it  as consisting of molecular interaction acting as a kind of background static, a faint buzz. The aria of birdsong and the scurry and scamper of squirrels added to the stillness of the surrounding, contributing to the sound of silence, a sound drowned in a raging tidal wave of cacophony as soon as one reverted to urban sprawls.

Life, surrounded by nature, can be awesome, instilling the feeling that we are a part of something greater than ourselves. Awe is triggered by wonder. Virginia Sturm, professor of neurology, University of California says, “It is such a simple thing to look around for small wonders while you exercise and there is no downside”. The good news is that awe can be cultivated in our daily lives. Consciously watching out for small wonders around us and invoking a spiritual perspective can inspire feelings of awe, a simple way to overcome worry and improve overall health. Looking at everything with fresh, childlike eyes can make us adept at discovering and amplifying awe.

The world is full of magical things, waiting for our senses to grow sharper. One may undertake awe excursions in nature and pay attention to everything around. Experiencing awe makes us more generous towards others, enhances creativity and moves us to do things for the greater good. It is found to increase feelings of connectedness, engender positivity and decrease attachment to materialism. According to Polish philosopher Henryk Skolimowski, “The first act of awe, when man was struck by the beauty or wonder of Nature, was the first spiritual experience”.

 Epicurus of Samos was a major philosopher during the Hellenistic period, who influenced many later thinkers like Karl Marx, Kant and Nietzsche. He founded The Garden, a place where his teachings were put into practice. Contrary to the then prevailing Greek culture, his radical equality enabled women and slaves to join his school. The misunderstanding of his philosophy which persists till today is that it is rampantly hedonistic and self-indulgently pleasure-seeking, exhorting people to “eat, drink and be merry, / for tomorrow we may die”.  In reality, his philosophy uses pleasure as the highest good, that which is valued for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else. He pointed out that one’s actions need to be directed towards attaining ataraxia, that is, deep calm and tranquillity. Ataraxia implies abstaining from unnecessary desires and remaining content with simple things and pursuing virtuous habits. Epicurus clarified all of the virtues as ultimately forms of prudence, and seeing what is in one’s best interest. The absence of prudence is when indulgence is equated with pleasure – such as excessive indulgence that ultimately offsets the initial pleasure and leads to pain. The key concern should be the weighing of pros and cons, of long and short term satisfaction as in the shreyas and preyas of the Upanishads, driving home the message of minimalism, empathy and sustainability.

A new year never fails to urge us to get on those weighing scales and make a solemn, earnest resolution to shed excess weight. Jog regularly, eat right, exercise, are all on the to-do list at least for a couple of weeks until it all gets forgotten in the hurly burly of life. But what of the weight, the burden, we have been heaping on planet Earth? Do we have any thoughts on shedding those mega pounds before we paint ourselves into a corner? According to scientists researching human impact on Earth, the mass of all human-created things including built-up infrastructure, vehicles and all manner of manufactured goods, now “exceeds the weight of all living things on the planet”. Not only that, using a combination of computational and experimental synthetic biology tools and satellite imagery, systems biologist Ron Milo of the Weizmann Institute of Science and his team in Israel approximate that “the amount of new material added every week equals the total weight of Earth’s nearly eight billion people”. And we thought it is only our homes that are overflowing with stuff. So, not only do we need to declutter our individual homes, we also must set about decluttering our collective abode, planet Earth!

Urban ecologist Timon McPhearson says that these study results ought to convince anyone that humans are indeed dominating the planet and not in pleasant ways. Since we are wielding such a huge influence on the planet, this age is being referred to as the Anthropocene Age. “Buildings and other infrastructure weigh more than the world’s trees and shrubs, and the mass of plastic is double that of all animals”, reports Science magazine.

While material transgressions have palpable outcomes, aberrations caused by extreme positions in thought and action may take time to reveal themselves. Buddha strongly advised the Middle Path that avoids both extreme asceticism and worldly overindulgence. Confucius pointed out that excess and deficiency are in fact one and the same thing, both straying away from the ideal of moderation. The Greeks promoted the Golden Mean, a philosophy that cautioned against both excess and deficiency. Al-Ghazali declared, “What is wanted is a balance between extravagance and miserliness through moderation, with the goal of distance between both extremes. As Krishna points out in the Gita, while overeating is gluttony, the one who refuses to eat is an egoist. The one who chooses moderation, a person of equanimity, finds the right balance. The Vedic culture had the required elasticity to embrace varied and newer dimensions into which our society grew in the march of time. The ideas enshrined in the Upanishads couched as discussions held by sages and their disciples in the forests along the banks of the Ganga, the way of life and the eternal values promoted therein, inspired in people an association with the mountains, trees, the silence and spirit of renunciation.

The Gita offers a practical handbook of instructions on how best to organise our ways of thinking, feeling and acting in everyday life and draw from ourselves a larger gush of productivity to enrich the external life around us and to emblazon the subjective life within us, unfolding a way of life whereby one is enabled to be socially more productive and individually more balanced and tranquil, pursuing life at peace with oneself. It has the right prescription for our sufferings – in the marketplace, in the squalor of slums or the luxury of drawing rooms, in the commune and the barracks. It serves us where we are; whoever we may be, whatever may be our challenges, irrespective of time and place, regardless of caste and creed. The more vigorous the wordly life, the greater the number and intensity of problems. Where there are no problems, there the life has decayed, and the community is dead. Life is a problem only at the realization of not knowing how to meet its challenges, despairing under the phobia of problems. Merely designating 2020 as annus horribilis and wishing it away as one of those horrible years without drawing the right lessons may be akin to a traveller shutting eyes to valuable signboards at her own peril. It must be treated as an year of learning and awareness going, hopefully, into making 2021 as annus mirabilis, a wonderful year.