J A T A Y U…

A giant eagle is soaring several thousand feet up the sky on one of its routine flights, settling down to a glide to conserve energy and occasionally flapping its ageing wings to maintain altitude. The creatures and materials in the distant earth below are not as defined as it used to be to its once sharp eyes some twenty summers ago. Yet there is nothing like a daily relish of uncluttered wide open skies, reliving memories of more zestful flights of bygone years that opened up skyscapes of shifting hues and new vistas of freedom. The reverie is broken, all of a sudden, by an unusual object, sighted across the horizon, making a fast approach towards its trajectory. As it advances closer, the shape gains in clarity. It is the Pushpak Viman, the celestial aircraft bedecked with flowers, constructed by Vishvakarma, the divine architect, to serve as aerial vehicle of the gods. As the eagle is within striking distance of the Pushpak, it is able to hear a woman crying out for help, struggling to extricate herself from the hydra-headed demon Ravan. The demon is speeding away, abducting the woman, identified as Rama’s wife Sita. The eagle intercepts the aerial vehicle and assails Ravan with its talons in a valiant attempt to rescue Sita from the demon’s clutches but is unfortunately vanquished by the mighty foe who chops off one of its wings in the mid-air combat. The heavily bleeding bird flutters down, eventually falling on a hilltop awaiting its end. As it lay dying, Rama passes by, in search of his wife. The grievously injured bird, before dying, communicates to Rama about Sita being taken by Ravan who was heading to his kingdom in Lanka (present-day Sri Lanka).

The narrative heretofore is an episode from the Indian epic Ramayana and the giant eagle is Jatayu, a friend of Rama. The epic is etched deeply in the minds of a great majority of Indians through stories spelt out by family elders, depictions in performing art forms such as Kathakali, and television serials. An infuriatingly cold, precise, ratiocinating engine of a brain fuelled by a wholly egocentric passion may vainly try to aver that aerial vehicles originated out of early twentieth century development of the Wright Flyer and subsequent refinements thereof and, hence, the aircraft in the story a figment of someone’s imagination. Delving deeper, however, even the sceptic is bound to warm up to the realization that universe in its entirety cannot be divined merely through rationale but by combining rationale with devotion. As when gazing at the flamboyance of a flower; while rationale understands what the flower is, devotion occurs in appreciation of the flower and sense of wonderment at its beauty. Rationale operates in the realm of reality whereas devotion is the quintessence of mythos arising from early history, often progressing through fantasy, and transcending limits of the known. Hence myth is more overpowering than reality. Lauri Honko, the Finnish folklorist, puts it comprehensively when he says, “Myth is a story of the gods, a religious account of the beginning of the world, the creation, the fundamental events, the exemplary deeds of the gods as a result of which the world, nature and culture were created together with all parts thereof and given their order, which still obtains. A myth expresses and confirms society’s religious values and norms, it provides a pattern of behavior to be imitated, testifies to the efficacy of ritual with its practical ends and establishes the sanctity of cult”. Similar to literary cycle emerging from Matters of Britain, France and Rome, Jatayu wings its way into eastern cosmology from the Matter of Bharat Varsha, and symbolizes an era when humans and animals cared for one another and subsisted in perfect harmony with nature.

The hilly region, comprising the rocks on which the injured Jatayu fell, came to be known as Jatayumangalam, meaning the ‘auspicious place of Jatayu’. Jatayumangalam in due course corrupted to Chadayamangalam, as the place is known at present. Located in the southern Indian state of Kerala, around 38 kms away from Kollam city, it is reachable in about four hours drive from my home in Kochi. The tranquil beauty of the region inspired Rajiv Anchal, a famed sculptor and art director, into conceiving a giant sculpture of Jatayu atop the hill. The execution of the project took him ten years, to erect the sculpture on the hill crest at an altitude of 1200 feet. Linked to the highway by exquisitely laid out roads, signage, parking lots, helipad, food courts, amusement centre, it is connected by a cableway offering panoramic views as the cable car winds its way up the hill elevating visitors to the marvelous work of art.  In artistically recreating an episode from the celebrated epic, the complex, sprawled end-to-end over twenty six hectares, has transformed a rugged country side into a spectacular feast for the eyes, capturing minds with an intense resonance of avian chivalry that met with a fatal end while trying to protect a woman’s honour, an event reverberating through corridors of history and lore. Lying flat on its back with wings spread across 150 feet, while stretching 200 feet from tail-feathers to head, and talons rising 70 feet into the air (see pics featured here), the Jatayu of the epic towers over the verdant expanses of Chadayamangalam, making it the world’s largest sculpture of a bird.

view of helipad from cable car

Eagle occupies a significant place in the world’s mythologies. In the Rigveda, Garuda (Sanskrit, meaning a giant eagle like bird) is a divine eagle, hailed as a personification of valour, one who is fast, capable of shape-shifting into any form to enter anywhere. Garuda is the vehicle of Vishnu, who has made him into an iconic symbol of king’s duty and power, an insignia of royalty and dharma. Referred to as Garula in Pali, it is the golden winged bird in Buddhist texts, often shown as sitting and listening to the sermons of Buddha. Garuda is the national emblem of Thailand and Indonesia. In Greek mythology, Aetos Dios was a giant golden eagle which served as personal messenger of Zeus. Once a king named Periphas it was, whose virtuous rule was so celebrated that he was honoured like a god. Zeus, in anger, arising probably out of jealousy, smote him with a thunderbolt, but Apollo intervened and transformed the king into an eagle and set him beside the throne of Zeus, who later sent the eagle to carry the handsome youth Ganymedes to heaven to serve as cupbearer of the gods

Viewing works of art is often thought of as an indoor experience, shuffling through museums and galleries to immerse in the beauty of paintings and sculpture. Yet Jatayu Earth Centre, as the site is described, is an affirmation that some of the best art must have an outdoor setting, blending seamlessly with nature. The allure of art and scenic environment is a delectable combination enabling viewers to mill the grounds and fan out to individual spaces spending time in quiet contemplation, to eventually return with mental images framed in sepia brown and lush green tones of Chadayamangalam.   

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The Height of Unity…

close-up view at the museum

“Rise above sectional interests and private ambitions…Pass from matter to spirit. Matter is diversity; spirit is light, life and unity”, was the clarion call of poet, philosopher, academic and politician Muhammad Iqbal, widely known as Allama Iqbal, from an undivided India of the first half of twentieth century. Further, as if caught up in a fervour of patriotism and anti-colonial ire, he went on to wax poetical with, “Sāre jahāṉ se acchā, Hindositāṉ hamārā / Ham bulbuleṉ haiṉ is kī, yih gulsitāṉ hamārā / G̱ẖurbat meṉ hoṉ agar ham, rahtā hai dil wat̤an meṉ / Samjho wuhīṉ hameṉ bhī dil ho jahāṉ hamārā / Parbat wuh sab se ūṉchā, hamsāyah āsmāṉ kā / Wuh santarī hamārā, wuh pāsbāṉ hamārā / Godī meṉ kheltī haiṉ is kī hazāroṉ nadiyāṉ / Guls̱ẖan hai jin ke dam se ras̱ẖk-i janāṉ hamārā / Ai āb-i rūd-i Gangā! wuh din haiṉ yād tujh ko? / Utrā tire[5] kināre jab kārwāṉ hamārā / Maẕhab nahīṉ sikhātā āpas meṉ bair rakhnā / Hindī haiṉ ham, wat̤an hai Hindositāṉ hamāra…..”, roughly translating to: “Better than the entire world, is our India, / We are its nightingales, and it is our garden abode / If we are in an alien place, the heart remains in the homeland, / Know us to be only there where our heart is. / That tallest mountain, that shade-sharer of the sky, / It is our sentry, it is our watchman / In its lap where frolic thousands of rivers, / Whose vitality makes our garden the envy of Paradise. / O the flowing waters of the Ganges, do you remember that day / When our caravan first disembarked on your waterfront? / Religion does not teach us to bear animosity among ourselves / We are of Hind, our homeland is Hindustan…” Such an outpouring of patriotism notwithstanding, it would appear ironic that it was the selfsame Iqbal who played an influential role in sowing the seeds of partition, leading to violent secession that forced millions of people to embark on separate ways, carving out regions to eventually constitute new identity.

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Into such a cauldron of conflicting politics, struggle for freedom and subsequently the herculean task of stabilizing a free country’s governance, stepped in the man of clear vision and iron will proclaiming that “The main task before India today is to consolidate herself into a well-knit and united power”. He was none other than Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, who played a stellar role in the country’s struggle for independence and went on to become a founding father of the Republic of India, steer the nation and guide its political integration as the first Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister of India. Fondly called Sardar, meaning “chief” in Hindi,, he led the challenge of forging a united India, successfully integrating those British colonial provinces, that had been “allocated” to India, into the newly independent nation. Besides those provinces under direct British rule, around 565 self-governing princely states had been released from British suzerainty by the Indian Independence Act of 1947. Through tact and coercion, Patel managed to secure every princely state to accede to India because his commitment to national integration was total and uncompromising. These efforts earned him the sobriquets, ‘Iron Man of India’ and the ‘Bismarck of India’.

For having established the all-India services system comprising, inter alia, the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service, he is remembered as the patron saint of India’s civil servants. Describing the all-India services as the country’s “Steel Frame” in his address to the probationers of these services, he urged them to be guided by the spirit of service in day-to-day administration, maintaining utmost impartiality and incorruptibility, which is as relevant today as it was then. “A civil servant cannot afford to, and must not, take part in politics. Nor must he involve himself in communal wrangles. To depart from the path of rectitude in either of these respects is to debase public service and to lower its dignity,” he had cautioned them on 21st April 1947. He, more than anyone else in post-independence India, realized the crucial role that civil services play in administering a country, in not merely maintaining law and order, but running the institutions that provide the cementing factor to a society. He, more than any other contemporary of his, was aware of the imperative of a stable administrative structure as the linchpin of a functioning polity. The present-day all-India administrative services owe their origin to the man’s sagacity. Speaking at the Constituent Assembly discussing the role of All-India Services, Patel observed, “There is no alternative to this administrative system… The Union will go, you will not have a united India if you do not have good All-India Service which has the independence to speak out its mind, which has sense of security that you will stand by your work… If you do not adopt this course, then do not follow the present Constitution. Substitute something else… these people are the instrument. Remove them and I see nothing but a picture of chaos all over the country”..

Given the background constituted by pre-cited profile of a man who gave it his all to forge a united India, it can be opined that the foremost attributes, in the context of countries as in individuals, are unity and integrity. A robust unity that sustains for all times, as “unity to be real must stand the severest strain without breaking”, which Hermann Hesse described as wisdom when he propounded that “wisdom is nothing but a preparation of the soul, a capacity, a secret art of thinking, feeling and breathing thoughts of unity at every moment of life”. Almost in metaphysical concord, is Paramahansa Yogananda’s statement that “The physical ego, the active consciousness in man, should uplift its body-identified self into unity with the soul, its true nature; it should not allow itself to remain mired in the lowly delusive strata of the senses and material entanglement”. Similar unity ought to inform nation states as enunciated by Yemi Osinbajo, “The most successful of the nations of the world are those who do not fall into the lure of secession but who, through thick and thin, forge unity in diversity”. Almost in consonance are  the words of Lal Bahadur Shastri, “Our country has often stood like a solid rock in the face of common danger, and there is deep underlying unity which runs like a golden thread through all our seeming diversity”. In this regard, it is relevant to also quote Klaus Martin Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, “Europe has grown to 27 member states, encompassing an amazing diversity and richness. Some argue this is part of the problem. Europe is simply too big and culturally disparate to be managed properly. But look to India for an example of how social unity can be forged within a culturally, linguistically, and ethnically complex nation”.

The lives of Mohammed Iqbal and Vallabh Bhai Patel ran contemporaneously with Patel outliving Iqbal by a little more than a decade. The former was a poet-politician and the latter a statesman. Probably it was nature’s way of ensuring that forces of secession were deftly countered by impulses of unity and nation building.

Seven decades after his passing away in 1950, the country erects a befitting monument in honour of the man who epitomized unity, Vallabh Bhai Patel. Hailed as the Statue of Unity, the structure stands tall at a net height of 597 feet (or 182 metres, conforming to 182 seats in the Legislative Assembly of the Indian state of Gujarat), Set on a base of 190 feet, it soars upwards into the sky attaining an inclusive height of 797 feet making it . in both net and gross height, the tallest statue in the world, taller than China’s Spring Temple Buddha, the Statue of Liberty in New York, and the Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square. Located in a river island on Narmada facing the Sardar Sarovar Dam at Kevadiya colony, 100 kms south east of Vadodara in Patel’s home state of Gujarat, the monument was inaugurated on 31st October 2018. The other attributes of the structure, which I visited on 31st March 2019, are that it can withstand winds of up to 180 kmph and earthquakes measuring 6.5 on the Richter scale occurring at a depth of 10 kms and within a radius of 12 kms of the statue. The statue is divided into zones of which three are accessible to visitors. The first zone contains a memorial garden and museum. An adjoining audio-visual gallery features a short presentation on Patel and the tribal culture of the region. The concrete towers forming the legs of the statue are equipped with two lifts each of which can speed up 26 visitors in around thirty seconds to the viewing gallery in the third zone where at a time 200 people can enjoy the aerial view from its height of 153 metres. Relishing overview of surrounding landscape in the company of family friends, it was also for me a fusion of moments giving definition to new associations and relationships.

Sculpted by Ram Sutar, the statue is a marvelous work of art. The cost of USD 420 Mn has attracted criticism from a few sections of people slamming it as wasteful expenditure. The fitting answer to it is already visible in the pace of development of the entire area surrounding the monument and its beneficial impact on lives of people. Inspiring awe and a profound sense of the country’s history, the place is visited by several thousands of people every day. The ensuing financial returns will not only offset the project cost over a period of time but it will also have a multiplier effect in terms of boost to tourism and accelerated development. Towering amidst enormous diversity of people and cultures not only in India but also around the world, the iconic figure of Vallabh Bhai Patel serves as a colossal symbol of the strands of unity binding large nation states and larger conglomerations of smaller nations.

On the New Year…

Most of us may presently be looking forward to making new beginnings, as this is the time when new goals are set and resolutions framed to eat healthier, exercise daily, change dysfunctional habits, augment assets, improve relationships and take good care of ourselves. Soon as decisions are made, the endeavour is to translate it into action. Some meet with success and others fail. A good number of those who fail keep trying, with a few of them becoming disillusioned in the process. It is widely believed that high achievers are a happy lot, yet the truth often is that most of them struggle with emptiness and meaninglessness, with the realization that despite setting and accomplishing many goals, something big is missing from their life. It is probably because their most coveted goals lack a deeper vision, based on incomplete self-knowledge and social conditioning. The overwhelming feeling may be that nothing has changed and, perhaps, nothing will change. A deeper reflection leads one to the comprehension that life is too big and the goals are too small to yield any significant transformation in one’s life as well as the lives of those around.

If there is an alternative, it may perhaps be for one to let go of a narrow outlook to envision the bigger landscape. Sufi mystic Rumi believed that there is an undiscovered deeper knowledge within us holding the key to bliss: “There are two kinds of intelligence: one acquired, as a child in school memorizes facts and concepts…..collecting information from the traditional sciences as well as new sciences…. There is another kind of tablet, one already completed and preserved inside you. This other intelligence does not turn yellow or stagnate. It’s fluid, and it doesn’t move from outside to inside through conduits of plumbing-learning. This second knowing is a fountainhead from within you, moving out”.

Anyone aspiring to move forward may, therefore, stop chasing particular and transitory goals, substituting it with comprehensive vision capable of refining and guiding life. The strongest, highest, perfect and most evolved version of oneself may be visualized in combination with an ideal life to open up a pathway to changes to be wrought in the present. As such awareness becomes keener, the more resolute will be the urge to sculpt the body, heart and mind to move closer to the ideal. In other words, one calls upon the highest ideal within, to shape oneself to perfection and transform into a new being through patience, perseverance and practice. Goals set around grand visions lend it the right direction and movement.

The structural connect to goals is through discipline. A discipline is a path for acquiring certain skills or learning. As with any discipline, from playing the violin to acoustics engineering, some people have an innate gift; but anyone can develop proficiency through practice. To practice a discipline is to be a lifelong learner. You never ‘arrive’; you spend your life mastering disciplines. You can never say you are enlightened. The more you learn, the more acutely you become aware of your ignorance and deficiencies. Thus a corporation cannot be excellent in the sense of having arrived at a permanent excellence; it is always in the state of practicing the disciplines of achieving higher product qualities, of creating better values for the customer or, conversely, sliding down the slope towards mediocrity.

Humans think in terms of anthropocentrism, seeing humans at the centre of activities. From the systems perspective, the human actor is part of the feedback process, not standing apart from it. This provides a profound shift in awareness. It allows us to see how we are continually influenced by and influencing our reality. Such shift in awareness is ardently advocated by ecologists in their exhortations that we see ourselves as part of nature, as recognized by many of the world’s great philosophical systems. For example, the Bhagavad Gita’s chastisement: “All actions are wrought by the qualities of nature only. The self, deluded by egoism, thinketh: ‘I am the doer”

The proposed shift in awareness progresses one to the realization that having more or doing more is not always better, even though the mind keeps chattering that when the whole world is chasing success, we might turn loser by being content with having less or doing less. According to Taoist sage Chuang Tzu, “Be all that heaven gave you, but act as though you have received nothing. Be empty, that is all”. He admonishes us to be full and empty at the same time by aligning ourselves with the universal life force. The way of the Tao does not demand undoing development, retiring from life and living as a hermit in the mountains. The only prescription is to de-clutter and simplify life, releasing mental conditioning that clouds thinking, becoming aware of the imperative to consume only in accordance with need, work only as much as one comfortably can and be content with whatever is ordained by the universe. The ensuing freedom to be is healing, unifying and enlightening, leading to a oneness with the universal life force. The vital life energy then flows smoothly within, conveying perfect physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.

In this connection, it is interesting to examine the theory of karma, meaning ‘action’, the moral law of cause and effect governing the future. The sum of a person’s actions in the present and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences. Karma is an energy created by willful action, through thoughts, words and deeds. The loop of karma binds us all and we remain entangled in it. How to stay away from getting trapped in the loop? Can a person circumvent the karmic loop by not doing anything at all? The reality is that avoidance or non-involvement is a huge multiplier of karma. Performing good or bad deeds has less to do with acquisition of karma than the   confused intentions and desires preceding within the person that triggers everything that follows. It is as if one is coated by a glue that attracts the karmic dust. Over a period of time, the cumulative outcome is a mountain of karma that is bound to leave the person perplexed as to how to eliminate it. The solution is to remove the adhesive that binds, for the karmic mountain to crumble. It is attained, not through avoidance of action, but through conscious involvement; human desire can be limited or boundless. One sees the end of karmic path by rising above likes and dislikes, greed and possessiveness. If one’s desires, through dispassionate involvement and unwavering focus, are expansive and all-embracing, the bondage of karma withers away. The Akashi mudra practice in the yogic tradition entails focusing on nothing at all; it is simply an unwavering focus on empty space. The premise is that liberation does not depend on the object of your focus, but the focus itself. Since life itself is a process without an established purpose, it is only in absolute involvement in the process that its inherent value may unravel itself. Hence process is all, and the goal just a consequence.

On a personal note, the past year has been replete with travails as I was wrecked for several months together by health issues. It initially manifested as sleeplessness in the night and, if that was not bad enough, stretched to gnawing pain in the calf muscles on both legs. Exacerbating the situation further, there was burning sensation while urinating. I went around consulting doctors as an in and out patient in as many as four hospitals, shunting from a sleep clinic, to neurologist, urologist, back to neurologist and psychiatrist across a period four to five months. All kinds of tests and several rounds of medication were not leading to any relief till at last a neurologist, after doing an NCS and blood test, correctly diagnosed the problem as acute deficiency of sodium and Vitamin D. Following appropriate medication, I am more or less okay now. The only remaining concern is my dependence on sleeping pills to get the much needed sleep during night. I have to come out of this protocol with gradual reduction in dosage spread over, hopefully, another few months. In the last year, therefore, I have keenly realized the value of good health and, through several weeks of deprivation, how relaxing an experience and precious a blessing is a good night’s sleep. I wonder whether William Wordsworth experienced something similar when he wrote: “A flock of sheep that / leisurely pass by, / One after one; the sound / of rain, and bees / Murmuring; the fall of rivers, winds and seas, / Smooth fields, white sheets of water, and pure sky; / I have thought of all by turns. / and yet to lie Sleepless! / and soon the small birds’ melodies / Must hear, first uttered from my orchard trees; / And the first cuckoo’s melancholy cry. / Even thus last night, and two nights more, I lay, / And could not win thee, / Sleep! by any stealth: / So do not let me wear tonight away:/ Without Thee what is all the morning’s wealth?/ Come, blessed barrier between day and day, / Dear mother of fresh thoughts and joyous health”. Clearly, the worst thing in the world is to try to sleep and not succeeding at it, lying awake all night while rest of the world slumbers in silence, wailing with Shakespeare, “O sleep, O gentle sleep, / Nature’s soft nurse, / how have I frighted thee, / That thou no more wilt / weigh my eyelids down / And steep my sense in forgetfulness?”.

In the ever expanding space-time continuum, how significant can yet another year be, particularly one in the Gregorian calendar whose beginning is as arbitrary as that of any of the numerous other calendars that mark time in different cultures around the world? The whirligig of time moves on, throwing up positives and negatives. The past year was catastrophic in a larger perspective as well since it witnessed the worst deluge in my home state of Kerala in nearly a hundred years. Hundreds of people lost lives, while thousands rendered homeless are still limping back to normality. The people united in the face of calamity and mounted rescue efforts and support for the needy, transcending barriers of religion and social status. A few months after the event and moving on to 2019, the country in particular and the world in general appear to be riven by differences of religion and hyper nationalism bordering on xenophobia. A truly religious mind is a deeply scientific mind that is constantly inquiring and discovering, not ensnared by established theories, formulae, dogmas or beliefs. It is a mind that is extraordinarily passionate in quest of truth; it is free, and being free it is incapable of accumulating knowledge and beliefs. It refuses to accumulate knowledge because knowledge belongs to the past and the past is a calcification of truth and often is no longer the truth. A calcified truth becomes a belief and therefore false. Truth can only reside in the living present, to appreciate which one needs to cultivate a mind that is forever young and learning. While there may not be any meaning to life, life can be made meaningful by the intention to be most useful or beneficial to oneself and others, by seeking what is real and true right now. Forgetting the pains of the past year, let us look ahead optimistically at 2019, making it another millennial milestone in our lives. Happy New Year…

Vishu 2018…

In Johannesburg, another autumnal day, 15th April 2018, dawned like any other, wrapped in a chilly 12 deg C. Yet, suddenly from an overcast sky, the sun emerged, sending out golden rays as a radiant reminder of Vishu in the warm summer of my home state of Kerala in India, where people usher in the new year with predawn visions of prosperity as symbolised in the bounties of nature by way of assortment of fruits, new linen, gold and silver, neatly arrayed,
together with an icon of Krishna in a brass vessel known as uruli.

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My mind harked back to the celebratory aspect of Vishu during my school days over half a century ago. The festival follows the solar cycle of the lunisolar as the first day of month called Medam, invariably falling in the middle of April as per the Gregorian calendar, on or about 14th / 15th April every year.

Vishu literally means equal, and in the festival context it connotes the completion of spring equinox. Vishu signifies the sun’s transit into the Meda Raasi or the first solar month. That is the reason why it is considered as the beginning of the year, a day in which the duration of day and night is equal (equinox).

The festival is notable for its gaiety and is marked by family time, preparing colourful, auspicious items and viewing these as the first thing on the Vishu day, seeking to view, inter alia, golden blossoms of the Indian laburnum or Cassia fistula, locally known as Kani Konna, and receiving money or silver items as handout from elders (Vishukkaineetam). The day also attracts merriment of fireworks in the presence of children, wearing new clothes and eating a special vegetarian lunch known as Sadhya.

In accordance with tradition, the first sight people see upon waking up on Vishu day is arranged, by the lady of the house, the previous night itself so that the setting serves as the initial auspicious vision for all family members in the early hours of the morning. Parents cover children’s eyes and lead them to the pooja room where the Kani is arranged. After looking at own reflection in the valkannadi (traditional mirror made of metal), one then admires the image of Krishna, to remind oneself that divinity exists within everyone and that each one must show love and respect equally to everyone else.

Intaking the symbols of prosperity –  rice, vegetables, fruits, sacred texts, jewellery, coins etc – is believed to usher in a prosperous new year. The belief is that these auspicious sights will continue throughout the year.

Kanikkonna flowers (Cassia fistula) blossom during Vishu and is used to decorate the Kani. Lighted brass lamps and an adorned statue of Krishna are central elements of Vishu Kani. The Malayalam word kani literally means “that which is seen first”. The belief is that one’s future is a function of what one experiences, that the new year will be better if one views symbols of prosperity as the first thing on Vishu.

I vividly reminisce my late mother on her feet at pre-dawn hours, going to each member of the family one by one, blindfolding and waking each one up, walking them to the front of the setting. She then releases the blindfold so one can see the symbolic setting, and then greet others and radiate the blissfulness of another new year.

The mixing of sweet, salty, sour and bitter flavors for the Vishu meal is similar to the traditional festive recipes, that combine different flavours, as a symbolic reminder that one must expect all types of experiences in the coming new year, that no event or episode is wholly sweet or bitter, and to make the most from life’s transitory events and experiences.

Flash forward to the reality of our ongoing three-month sojourn in Jo’burg. It has not been possible to recreate the spirit of Vishu in all its ritualistic perfection here. The highlight of our visit this time around is certainly seeing Dev, our grandson, born on 14th July 2015, presently as a bubbly and chirpy kid of a little under three years of age. He has been, since last year, going to the pre-school class at the nearby German school, formally known as the Deutshe International School Johannesburg (DSJ), a renowned institution over a century old and cited as the best run German school outside Germany, in which as many as 1100 students of 35 different nationalities seek school education in cordial cosmopolitanism. I have temporarily taken upon, from his parents, the delightful task of driving him to school every morning and picking him back in the afternoon as he is still too young for the school bus permissible for kids from 1st standard onwards, which is another few years away as class one follows four years of pre-school, and two years of lower and upper kindergarten, unlike in India where the entire process speeds ahead by an year.

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The Vishu day was hence expediently chosen to conduct Vidyarambham, initiation into learning. Dev was ritually initiated into the world of Akshara (Sanskrit, loosely translated as ‘letters’), through a simple ceremony with him seated in front of a lighted oil lamp, with his parents alphabetically guiding his index finger on a platter of rice grains, scripting Hari, Sri, Ga, Na, Pa, Tha, Ye, Na, Mah. Akshara means that which is present everywhere, denoting Brahman, or that which is imperishable. The infinitely expanding field of knowledge is similarly appreciated to be beyond destruction. Submitting the index finger to the deemed guru’s guidance in the ceremony is an expression of relinquishing the ego. When knowledge dawns, humility follows. A truly knowledgeable person will be humble. Seeing the divine in everyone, he will respect everyone. While knowledge is considered to be divine, ego is a human creation.

 

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The chant, Om Hari Sri Ganapataye Namah, symbolizes all 50 alphabets in Sanskrit treated as the embodiment of nadarupini, the goddess of sound. In the mantra, Hari represents Vishnu, Sri represents Lakshmi and Saraswati. And Ganapati represents Om—the primal sound. In essence, the mantra is a complete form of worship.

As the ceremony began, I chanted the prayer, which is an invocation to goddess Saraswati, the epitome of all forms of knowledge, including knowledge of the performing arts. The Shloka is as follows:

Sarasvati namastubhyam
Varade kamarupini
Vidyarambham Karishyami
Siddhir Bhavatu Me Sada

Translated as, O Goddess Saraswathi; salutations to you, the giver of boons, the one who fulfills desires. I shall begin my studies. May there always be accomplishment for me.

And so the day went, with Vishu also serving as an occasion for Dev’s ceremonial initiation into learning. At DSJ, he is positioned for an year-to-year progression to complete high school studies, by way of clearing the German Abitur in class 12. German being the medium of instruction and English figuring in as a second language, he is mostly bound to be cut off from his linguistic and cultural moorings. By first week of June 2018, my wife and I will be returning to India, and, in a few years, celebrations linked to Indian culture will fade away from his memory, to be, hopefully, replaced by newer interests and excitingly rewarding pursuits spread across hitherto unseen horizons. Well, these are  hopes and expectations, not a prophetic glance into futurity, foretelling what will be. As the song goes, Que sera sera…

The Waste Land…

“Thank God men cannot as yet fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth”, pondered Henry David Thoreau couple of centuries earlier, obviously consoling himself, at the same time bemoaning, the rapidly accelerating imprint of industrialization and burgeoning levels of pollution.

Mankind has since been not only flying high up the skies and between far-flung lands but the Elon Musk among them is also eyeing possibilities of colonizing outer space through inter-planetary travels, probably compelled by need to seek an exit option from steadily mounting volumes of inorganic waste and filth threatening to devour life on earth, as startlingly exposed by a recent spectacle, which may be an alarmingly recurring event at various regions around the world, of a dead elephant floating across the Pamba River. The post-mortem report attributed the death to indigestion caused by ingestion of plastic along with food as evidenced by significant traces of plastic found in the pachyderm’s alimentary canal. Located in the south Indian state of Kerala, Pamba is the third longest river in the state. The hill shrine of Sabarimala, to where there is heavy influx of pilgrims, is located at the banks of the river. The area surrounding the hill shrine is densely forested and teeming with wild life. Fortunately, the peak flow of pilgrims happens mostly during a sixty day period stretching from mid November to mid January every year. The numbers of pilgrims, however, keep rising every season disturbing the wild animals and polluting the environment with empty food cans, plastic bottles and other debris readily picked up by wild animals for traces of food. Forest conservators and veterinarians inspecting elephant trails post the pilgrim season discovered to their horror pieces of plastic, toffee-wrappers and more from samples of elephant dung drawn from sites alongside trails. The elephants, it is inferred, cannot distinguish between plastic and foodstuffs, tempted as they appear to be by the sugary and tangy taste of food residues inside left-over cans and bottles,

How to diverge from the disastrous path to which humanity seems to be headed? “If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production” was how in the last century folk singer Pete Seeger  envisioned the eco system to be sustained for the future. The spectre of countries submerging under mountains of plastic and life altogether extinguishing may no longer be in the realm of fantasy. It is extremely difficult to move around towns and cities in India, where management of waste is one of the worst anywhere in the world, without encountering humungous quantities of rubbish piled up. There is garbage billowing out of fields in the villages, on the forest floor, and in the beaches, where one’s toes are tickled by strands of plastic. Not too late in the day is the governmental mission of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or Clean India Mission, a campaign aiming to clean up the streets, water bodies and environs of the country’s urban and rural areas. Not too late in the day too is the central government’s project to clean the Ganga that provides water to forty percent of the country’s population, and for a phased conversion of public transport from diesel to electric vehicles. Yet there is little determination to promptly implement relative policies or follow through on performance targets. Also, the government machinery is too often seen as buckling under pressure of vested interests and lacking in political will to mete out deterrent punishments to offenders.

Clearly, an effective solution to a problem of gigantic proportions cannot work without efforts on war footing from all stakeholders, of which the statutory agencies are just one. Additionally there is the general public or the consumers of goods and services, and the producers or the industry churning out goods and services to cater to the need and, nay. greed of people. When we think of waste stream management, we often think compartmentally of downstream or upstream solutions. Citizens must consume less with focus on eco-friendly products. Waste must be segregated at source and organic waste to be compulsorily composted at source. Going upstream, producers have to mandatorily switch to reusable packing like glass bottles replacing plastic. For far too long, private enterprises have been allowed to appropriate profits arising from an expanding economy and socialize the cost of coping with the waste generated. The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid in the form of mass production of FMCGs and ensuing profits has apparently been realized by many well established companies but the people at the bottom of the pyramid have been left in the lurch to grapple with detritus of that fortune.

It is high time for industry to take its social responsibility with greater seriousness as otherwise things are bound to spiral out of control. With India going digital, there is a massive and potentially hazardous e-waste generation. Even though recycling helps to harvest valuable metals from e-waste, it does not solve the problem as the residual waste is highly toxic if it is allowed to leach into the ground and water bodies. E-commerce, the other sunrise sector in India, is expected to register quantum leaps in volumes, set to grow from current usd 16 Bn to usd 200 Bn by 2026. The generation of huge amount of plastic and other packing materials that the sector is set to consume may further exacerbate an already worsening scenario. Imagine a geometrically scaling up situation with increasing consumption of a growing population; every available stretch of land and water will see rising levels of styrofoam, plastic, cardboard and metal resulting in endangered public health and environmental hazards. Global production of plastic has gone up from 1.5 million metric tons (MMT) a year in 1950 to 300 MMT per annum at present, and only 14% of such plastic is recycled. In India, more than 15000 tonnes of plastic is generated every day, a third of which remains uncollected; where the missing plastic ends up is anyone’s guess.

The only real solution is for the corporate sector to join hands with governments as producer-regulator, to control and enforce strict norms on the consumer. The need is to shift to a production and consumption protocol that is smart, innovative, and sustainable based on efficiencies across the entire life cycle of the product. The shift must focus on reducing, if not eliminating, the use of plastics, particularly single-use, wherever practical, contributing to reduction and conversion of waste to energy through aerobic and anaerobic digestion. The “clean and green Madukkarai” is an illustrative example of corporate social responsibility under the laudable initiative of ACC, the largest cement company in India, partnering in the management and recycling of waste in Madukkarai, a south Indian city suburb; the place is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s largest largest recycling initiative. With the help of around 50 women, who are now called ‘Green Friends’, and a simple, scalable model, it is leading the way for efficient waste management. Next, the focus must be on redesigning products and developing alternatives. Recycling and recovery of plastics for reuse by the industry and as raw material in sectors such as construction will considerably reduce plastic waste.

Sooner or later, we will have to recognize that the Earth has rights, too, to live without pollution. What mankind must know is that human beings cannot live without Mother Earth, but the planet can live without humans. One of my early glimpses of an urbanizing society, sadly seeing increasing realization in the present and boding ill for the future, was the modernizing Eliotian world-view where civilization has been reduced to a ‘waste land’, with the land losing its fertility and ability to bring forth life, with even the living apparently suffering from some kind of spiritual wound. But how can we fix such societies? By regaining spiritual and psychological enlightenment and making peace with our demons. There is a need for deep self-realization, that we have an organic relationship with nature, duly acknowledging that human beings have an eloquent bond with all of creation. Rumi’s verse gives it lyrical expression: “Be like the sun for grace and mercy. / Be like the night to cover others’ faults. / Be like running water for generosity. / Be like death for rage and anger. / Be like the Earth for modesty. / Appear as you are. / Be as you appear”.

Journey To Truth…

Over the years, I am, I think, experiencing a transformation from an unquestioning belief about the nature of reality, acquired through systematic process of conditioning and informing by culture and religion, to a stage of rationalist delving into the underlying essence that appears to be too dynamic, like a shifting target receding into the distance, eluding all attempts at grasping it. It is no more believing but seeking, a persistent search for truth, to un-conceal that which is buried below several layers of gross edicts, ritual and dogma. The question, “What is truth?” has reverberated down through history. Probably, India is the only country that carries the dictum, satyam-eva jayate, in Sanskrit, meaning “Truth alone triumphs.”, a mantra from the Mundaka Upanishad. Following the country’s independence, it was adopted as the national motto of India in 1949 and inscribed in script at the base of the national emblem

The pursuit of truth is interestingly captured in an ancient Indian parable that has since been put to rhyme by an American poet, John Godfrey Saxe: “It was six men of Indostan, to learning much inclined, / Who went to see the Elephant (Though all of them were blind) / That each by observation might satisfy his mind”. In the story, each of the six visually challenged travelers takes hold of different parts of the elephant and then describes to the others what he has discovered. The poem concludes: “…And so these men of Indostan, disputed loud and long, / Each in his own opinion, exceeding stiff and strong, / Though each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong”. Though each one was describing the truth, the description fell short of the whole truth.

We look at the story from a perspective distance and smile with a degree of condescension, equipped with the knowledge of what an elephant looks like. That someone could make a judgment based on one aspect of truth and apply it to the whole seems absurd or even unbelievable. On deeper thought, can we not, however, recognize ourselves in these six blind men, pleading guilty of the same pattern of thought at many stages in our lives? The world is often seen “through a glass, darkly” and, yet, it appears to be part of human nature to make assumptions and frame observations on incomplete and misleading inputs. Inadequate sensory perceptions and life experiences can lead to limited access and overreaching misinterpretations. Can a person with a limited touch of truth turn that into the one and only version of all reality?

Here I am reminded of a story about a couple who had been married for sixty years. With not many tiffs during their time, their days together apparently fleeted by in happiness and contentment. They shared everything and had no secrets between them, except one. The wife had a box that she kept atop a sideboard, and she told her husband when they were married, that he should never look into the box for the contents. After long years elapsed, the moment came when the husband took the box down and asked if he could finally know what it contained. With wife’s consent, he opened it to discover two doilies and dollars 25000/-. Upon asking his wife as to what it meant, she responded, “When we were married, my mother told me that whenever I was angry with you or whenever you said or acted in a manner I did not like, I should knit a small doily and then talk things through with you”. The husband was moved to tears, marvelling that during sixty years of marriage he had only upset his wife enough for her to knit only two doilies. Feeling highly elated, he took his wife’s hand and said, “That explains the doilies, but what about the $ 25000/-?” His wife smiled sweetly and added, “That is the money I got from selling all the doilies I’ve knitted over the years”.

Not only does the story point to an amicable way of dealing with marital discord but it is also illustrative of the folly of jumping to conclusions aided by insufficient information. So often the truths we tell ourselves are merely fragments of truth and sometimes they are not really the truth at all.

What then is truth?. Is it something that appears in tiny and tantalizing nuggets to the persevering mind to merely relegate it to an unending quest likely to be riddled with frustration? Is it really possible to know the truth? And how should we react to things that contradict truths learnt previously? Some of the greatest thinkers have attempted to answer these questions. The elusive nature of truth has been a favourite theme of renowned poets and storytellers. The intriguing aspect of truth is brought forth in Shakespearean tragedies where the plot often turns on a misunderstanding of an important truth.

Part of the problem in the search for truth is the failure of human wisdom going by the many examples of things that mankind once inferred to be true but were since proven false, ranging from the flatness of the earth, to cerulean blueness of the sky, to numerous planets in their designated orbits, and to most elements constituting the universe still shrouded in mystery. The problem of the origin of man was almost exclusively a theological one until the end of the nineteenth century. Since then, surprisingly, the problem has entered a new phase, the phase of positive science. Human paleontology and prehistory have discovered a series of impressive facts whose volume and quality must be considered transcendental, since these scientific facts lead to the idea that the origin of man is evolutional: the human phylum has its evolutionary origin in other animal phyla; and within the human phylum, humanity has adopted genetically and evolutionally distinct forms until it has arrived at present-day man, the only one until now with which philosophy and theology have concerned themselves.

The undeniable somatic evolution, however, leaves untouched another fact that must be kept in mind and integrated with evolution if we are to explain the phenomenon of humanity completely: the essential irreducibility of the intellective dimension of man to all his sensory animal dimensions. An animal, being merely sentient, always and only reacts to stimuli. There can be, and there are, complexes of stimuli structured as units, often endowed with the character of a sign, and an animal selects from them according to their attunement with the tonic states it feels. Still, it is always a case of mere stimuli. In contrast to this, man with his intelligence, responds to realities. Intelligence is, not the capacity for abstract thought, but the capacity that man has to perceive things and deal with them as realities. Between mere stimulus and reality there is not a difference in degree but in essence. What we are accustomed to call, improperly, “animal intelligence” is the refinement of the animal’s capacity to move among stimuli in a very diversified and fruitful way, but always on the level of giving an adequate response to the situation with which the stimuli present it; and this is why it is not, properly speaking, intelligence. In contrast, man does not always respond to things as stimuli, he also responds to them as realities. The richness of man’s response is of an order essentially distinct from that of an animal’s. This is why his life transcends animal life, and the evolutional lines of man and animal are radically distinct ones which follow divergent directions. An animal, for example, may be completely classified; man cannot. For psycho-biological reasons, man is the only animal that is adaptable to all climates of the universe, that tolerates the most diverse diets. But this is not all. Man is the only animal that is not imprisoned in a specifically determined medium but is constitutively open to the undefined horizon of the real world. Thus, he constructs artifacts he has no need of in the present situation against the time when he might have need of them. He handles things as realities. In a word, while the animal only “settles” his life, man “projects” his life. This is why man’s industry is not found to be fixed or to be mere repetition; rather it denotes an innovation, the product of an invention, of a forward-moving, progressive creation.

The truths people cling to, define the quality of societies as well as individual characters. Where such truths are based on incomplete and inaccurate data, they mostly end up serving selfish ends. Part of the reason for poor judgment arises from human tendency to blur the line between belief and truth, as, too often, belief is confused with truth, thinking that just because something makes sense or is expedient, it must be true. There is also the other extreme of truth not being accepted or rejected because it would require one to change or admit that one was in the wrong. Truth is mostly rejected when it is not in consonance with previous experiences. Another dimension of truth is that it exists beyond belief. What is true is truth, even if no one believes it, and there is such a thing as absolute truth, unassailable, unchangeable truth.  It is different from belief and hope. It is not dependent upon public opinion or popularity. Polls cannot sway it; not even the authority of celebrity endorsement can change it. Over the centuries, many wise men and women—through logic, reason, scientific inquiry, and, yes, through inspiration and intuition—have discovered truth. These discoveries have enriched mankind, improved lives, and inspired joy, wonder, and awe. Even so, the things we once thought we knew are continually being enhanced, modified, or even contradicted by enterprising scholars who seek to understand truth. Such studies can be summarized under different, clarifying heads:

Absolute Truth or Inflexible Reality:
“Absolute truth” is defined as inflexible reality: fixed, invariable, unalterable facts. For example, it is a fixed, invariable, unalterable fact that there are absolutely no square circles and there are absolutely no round squares. In the Vedas, Truth is defined as “unchangeable”, “that which has no distortion”, “that which is beyond distinctions of time, space, and person”, “that which pervades the universe in all its constancy”.

Absolute Truth versus Relativism:
While absolute truth is a logical necessity, there are some religious orientations (atheistic humanists, for example) who argue against the existence of absolute truth. Humanism’s exclusion of God necessitates moral relativism. Humanist John Dewey, co-author and signer of the Humanist Manifesto1, declared, “There is no God and there is no soul. Hence, there are no needs for the props of traditional religion. With dogma and creed excluded, then immutable truth is also dead and buried. There is no room for fixed, natural law or moral absolutes.” Humanists believe one should do, as one feels is right.

Absolute Truth – A Logical Necessity:
It is not possible to logically argue against the existence of absolute truth. To argue against something is to establish that a truth exists. Absolute truth cannot be argued against unless an absolute truth is the basis of one’s argument. Consider a few of the classic arguments and declarations made by those who seek to argue against the existence of absolute truth…

“There are no absolutes.” First of all, the relativist is declaring there are absolutely no absolutes. That itself is an absolute statement which is logically contradictory. If the statement is true, there is, in fact, an absolute – in saying that ‘there are absolutely no absolutes’..

“Truth is relative.” Again, this is an absolute statement implying truth is absolutely relative. Besides positing an absolute, it supposes the statement to be true and “truth is relative.” Everything including that statement would be relative. If a statement is relative, it is not always true. If “truth is relative” is not always true, sometimes truth is not relative. This means there are absolutes, which means the above statement is false. When you follow the logic, relativist arguments will always contradict themselves.

“Who knows what the truth is, right?” In the same sentence the speaker declares that no one knows what the truth is, then he turns around and asks those who are listening to affirm the truth of his statement.

“No one knows what the truth is.” The speaker obviously believes his statement is true.

There are philosophers who actually spend countless hours toiling over voluminous writings on the “meaninglessness” of everything. We can assume they think the text is meaningful! Then there are those philosophy teachers who state, “No one’s opinion is superior to anyone else’s. There is no hierarchy of truth or values. Anyone’s viewpoint is just as valid as anyone else’s viewpoint. We all have our own truth.” Then they turn around and grade the papers!

Absolute Truth – Morality:
Morality is a facet of absolute truth. Thus, relativists often declare, “It’s wrong for you to impose your morals on me.” Or, as, in a particular context, my managing director’s advice (during my career years) “not to categorize people and events in black and white terms, but in relative shades of grey”. By declaring something is wrong, however, the relativist is contradicting himself by imposing his morals upon the other.

One might hear, “There is no right, there is no wrong!” If so, it encourages the query whether that statement is right or wrong?

If a relativist is caught in the act of doing something he knows is absolutely wrong, and someone tries to point it out to them, he may respond in anger, “Truth is relative! There’s no right and there’s no wrong! We should be able to do whatever we want!” If that is a true statement and there is no right and there is no wrong, and everyone should be able to do whatever they want, then why are people becoming angry? What basis do they have for their anger? No one can be appalled by an injustice, or anything else for that matter, unless an absolute has somehow been violated.

Relativists often argue, “Everybody can believe whatever they want!” It makes us wonder, why are they arguing? We find it amusing that relativists are the ones who want to argue about relativism.

If one attempts to tell a relativist the difference between right and wrong, one will no doubt hear, “None of that is true! We make our own reality!” If that’s true, and we all create our own reality, then our statement of moral accountability is merely a figment of the relativist’s imagination. If a relativist has a problem with a statement of absolute morality, the relativist should take the issue up with himself. In defining truth, it is first helpful to note what truth is not:

• Truth is not simply whatever works. This is the philosophy of pragmatism – an ends-vs.-means-type approach. In reality, lies can appear to “work,” but they are still lies and not the truth.
• Truth is not simply what is coherent or understandable. A group of people can get together and form a conspiracy based on a set of falsehoods where they all agree to tell the same false story, but it does not make their presentation true.
• Truth is not what makes people feel good. Unfortunately, bad news can be true.
• Truth is not what the majority says is true. Fifty-one percent of a group can reach a wrong conclusion.
• Truth is not what is comprehensive. A lengthy, detailed presentation can still result in a false conclusion.
• Truth is not defined by what is intended. Good intentions can still be wrong.
• Truth is not how we know; truth is what we know.
• Truth is not simply what is believed. A lie believed is still a lie.
• Truth is not what is publicly proved. A truth can be privately known (for example, the location of a buried treasure).

The Greek word for “truth” is aletheia, which literally means to “un-conceal”, “disclose” or “hiding nothing.” It conveys the thought that truth is always there, always open and available for all to see, with nothing being hidden or obscured. The Hebrew word for “truth” is emeth, which means “firmness,” “constancy”, “veracity”. Truth is presented as “Satya” in Sanskrit. It also refers, in Indian tradition, to virtue, of being truthful in one’s thought, speech and action. In Yoga, satya is the virtuous restraint from falsehood and distortion of reality in one’s expressions and actions, being true and consistent with reality in one’s thought, speech and action. Such definitions imply an everlasting substance and entity that can be relied upon.
From a philosophical perspective, there are three simple ways to define truth:

1. Truth is that which corresponds to reality.
2. Truth is that which matches its object.
3. Truth is simply telling it like it is.

First, truth corresponds to reality or “what is.” It is real. Truth is also correspondent in nature. In other words, it matches its object and is known by its referent. For example, a professor facing a class may say, “Now the only exit to this room is on the right.” For the class that may be facing the teacher, the exit door may be on their left, but it’s absolutely true that the door, for the professor, is on the right.

Truth also matches its object. It may be absolutely true that a certain person may need so many milligrams of a certain medication, but another person may need more or less of the same medication to produce the desired effect. This is not relative truth, but just an example of how truth must match its object. It would be wrong (and potentially dangerous) for a patient to request that their doctor give them an inappropriate amount of a particular medication, or to say that any medicine for their specific ailment will do.

In short, truth is simply telling it like it is; it is the way things really are, and any other viewpoint is wrong. A foundational principle of philosophy is being able to discern between truth and error, or as Thomas Aquinas observed, “It is the task of the philosopher to make distinctions.”

Aquinas’ words are not very popular today. Making distinctions seems to be out of fashion in a postmodern era of relativism. It is acceptable today to say, “This is true,” as long as it is not followed by, “and therefore that is false.” This is especially observable in matters of faith and religion where every belief system is supposed to be on equal footing where truth is concerned.

There are a number of philosophies and worldviews that challenge the concept of truth, yet, when each is critically examined it turns out to be self-defeating in nature.
The disciples of postmodernism simply affirm no particular truth. The patron saint of postmodernism—Frederick Nietzsche—described truth like: “What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms … truths are illusions … coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.” Ironically, although the postmodernist holds coins in his hand that are now “mere metal,” he affirms at least one absolute truth: the truth that no truth should be affirmed. Like the other worldviews, postmodernism is self-defeating and cannot stand up under its own claim.

A popular worldview is pluralism, which says that all truth claims are equally valid. Of course, this is impossible. Can two claims – one that says a woman is now pregnant and another that says she is not now pregnant – both be true at the same time? Pluralism unravels at the feet of the law of non-contradiction, which says that something cannot be both “A” and “Non-A” at the same time and in the same sense. As one philosopher opined, anyone who believes that the law of non-contradiction is not true (and, by default, pluralism is true) should be beaten and burned until they admit that to be beaten and burned is not the same thing as to not be beaten and burned. Also, note that pluralism says that it is true and anything opposed to it is false, which is a claim that denies its own foundational tenet.

The spirit behind pluralism is an open-armed attitude of tolerance. However, pluralism confuses the idea of everyone having equal value with every truth claim being equally valid. More simply, all people may be equal, but not all truth claims are. Pluralism fails to understand the difference between opinion and truth, a distinction Mortimer Adler notes: “Pluralism is desirable and tolerable only in those areas that are matters of taste rather than matters of truth.”  In order to understand absolute or universal truth, we must begin by defining truth. Truth, according to the dictionary, is “conformity to fact or actuality; a statement proven to be or accepted as true.” Some people would say that there is no true reality, only perceptions and opinions. Others would argue that there must be some absolute reality or truth.

One view says that there are no absolutes that define reality. Those who hold this view believe everything is relative to something else, and thus there can be no actual reality. Because of that, there are ultimately no moral absolutes, no authority for deciding if an action is positive or negative, right or wrong. This view leads to “situational ethics,” the belief that what is right or wrong is relative to the situation. There is no right or wrong; therefore, whatever feels or seems right at the time and in that situation is right. Of course, situational ethics leads to a subjective, “whatever feels good” mentality and lifestyle, which has a devastating effect on society and individuals. This is postmodernism, creating, if it can be so described, a post-truth society that regards all values, beliefs, lifestyles, and truth claims as equally valid.

The other view holds that there are indeed absolute realities and standards that define what is true and what is not. Therefore, actions can be determined to be either right or wrong by how they measure up to those absolute standards. If there are no absolutes, no reality, chaos ensues. Take the law of gravity, for instance. If it were not an absolute, we could not be certain we could stand or sit in one place until we decided to move. Or if two plus two did not always equal four, the effects on civilization would be disastrous. Laws of science and physics would be irrelevant, and commerce would be impossible. What a mess that would be! Thankfully, two plus two does equal four. There is absolute truth, and it can be found and understood.

To make the statement that there is no absolute truth is illogical. Yet, today, many people are embracing a cultural relativism that denies any type of absolute truth. A good question to ask people who say, “There is no absolute truth” is this: “Are you absolutely sure of that?” If they say “yes,” they have made an absolute statement—which itself implies the existence of absolutes..
We all know there is absolute truth. It seems the more we argue against it, the more we prove its existence. Reality is absolute whether one feels like being cogent or not. Philosophically, relativism is contradictory. Practically, relativism is anarchy. The world is filled with absolute truth.

A relativist maintains that everyone should be able to believe and do whatever he wants. Of course, this view is emotionally satisfying, until that person comes home to find his house has been robbed, or someone seeks to hurt him, or someone cuts the line in front of him. No relativist will come home to find his house robbed and say, “Oh, how wonderful that the burglar was able to fulfill his view of reality by robbing my house. Who am I to impose my view of right and wrong on this wonderful burglar?” Quite the contrary, the relativist will feel violated just like anyone else. And then, of course, it’s okay for him to be a relativist, as long as the “system” acts in an absolutist way by protecting his “inalienable rights.”

Meaning of Life? – This has been the ultimate question since the beginning of mankind. It seems inherent in our nature to ask questions such as “Where did we come from? How did I get here? What is my purpose on earth? Where do I go when I die? What’s the meaning of all this? The answer to this question cannot come from human intelligence or reason, but only from an unrelenting pursuit of the Absolute Truth that pervades and transcends the material world. As we see in today’s naturalistic society, once we remove such pursuit from the equation, we only have materialism to engage our thinking. Or else, we really do have a transcendent purpose, and really do have meaning for our lives. Not only do we find day-to-day significance in our lives, but an ultimate significance in the form of a cherished hope to ascend to progressively higher states of awareness. Based on the Absolute Truth, we remove the moral relativism that pervades today’s society, and we replace it with a standard of absolute right and wrong, which also lends significance to our day-to-day choices. We can choose to live a meaningless life or a life with absolute and eternal purpose. Some people would say there is no true reality, only perceptions and opinions. Others would argue there must be some absolute reality or truth. What matters is to stop taking sides as believer of one or the other, and transform into a seeker. As yet another year recedes into history, it may yet be that ultimate truth resides in the Absolute, Relative, or Plurality or even way above known fields in finer material nature or subtler realms of the spiritual. It is, nonetheless, important to journey on in questing continuity. As Mark Twain quipped, “truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t”.

Humans and Apps In A Sea of Whales…

‘For the times, they are a-changin….’, goes the refrain of one of Bob Dylan’s fascinating ballads. Dylan never fails to enchant, with his genius as a lyricist and counterculture musician; he also remained unfailing in his capacity to shake the audience up with his songs. The climatic shake-up came just last year from the Nobel Committee who decided to award him with the Nobel Prize for Literature, rattling the global literati, who would have wished for one of the celebrated litterateurs to be so honoured, instead of heaping another encomium on an already acclaimed musician burdened by the weight of Grammy, Academy Award, Golden Globe, numerous Halls of Fame citations,  and the Pulitzer Prize among several others in a glorious, over five decades old, musical journey. Be that as it may, the momentous task confronting us all even after well over half a century, from the year the song was first released, is the challenge of coping with change itself.

On the one side, there is the ever growing Artificial Intelligence (AI), piling up at the rate of one smart machine upon another, and steadily progressing to, more ominously, spawn in bewildering numbers, sizes and varieties of smart machines. While the bad news is that these machines are programmed to dominate human lives consigning it to steadily rising levels of subjugation, the ugly news is that AI’s thrust into man-made structures to engulf areas of human endeavour is already on, with unnerving speed. A sampling of such an experience is when one tries to type in a simple message on the smart-phone; with only two alphabets keyed in, the smart-phone has identified the complete word which may not always be the one thought of by the individual; then it becomes a tussle to finally make the machine register the exact word that is planned to be conveyed. For the time being, the exercise may appear to be an amusing banter between us and the machine, with the machine doing our thinking, and accepting our input when it is failing at times. But as tasks attain complexity, process rigidities are bound to set in whereby machines may not be accommodative of any interference.

Driver-less vehicles are another example. It is known that these automated vehicles work according to algorithms. You get into a driver-less car to take a spin. Before entering, you want to switch on the engine to work the air-conditioner so the car interior is cool by the time you step in with your friend. But the moment the engine is switched on, a computer voice begins requesting you to wear the seat belt, and keeps repeating it with the tone becoming increasingly louder till you step in and comply with the orderly request. Fastening the seat belt is a safety imperative, which is required if you are driving the car or are a passenger in a moving car. But not when the car is stationery in a showroom and you are only inside it to initially see the sleek console and interior, and engage in a conversation with your friend who chaperoned to see the new car. Nonetheless, you need to act as programmed if it is a driver-less car.

The driver-less concept is not limited only to overland vehicles. It is extending to unmanned air-crafts and ocean vessels. American Bureau of Shipping, more popularly known in its abbreviation ABS, a leading provider of classification and technical services to the offshore and marine industries, joined the Unmanned Cargo Ship Development Alliance, to work with industry partners, classification societies, shipyards, equipment manufacturers and designers, to advance autonomous shipping. The design will incorporate features of independent decision making, autonomous navigation, environmental perception and remote control. In decades ahead, unmanned deep-sea cargo ships navigating the world’s ocean routes and ports may well become a reality.

Robots conspiring with the each other to exterminate, or, at least control, the human race are the stuff of celluloid blockbusters. Arnold Schwarzenegger made a fortune, after all, personifying the amorphous fear in many minds about the potential danger of AI. The notion of benign home appliances chatting with one another to ‘help’ their owners certainly does neither fill all humans with boundless gratitude, as the prospect of a machine-managed life eventually spiralling out of control (btw, my laptop insists on only one ‘L’ for ‘spiraling’ instead of two ‘Ls’ as in the British ‘spiralling’ which I am used to and exhibits its protest by persisting with underlining the double L’d word in red) would not seem unrealistic at all to the average technophobe, nor does scientists airily pooh-poohing the idea of inventions developing a mind of their own, quite literally, allay fears as long as Frankenstein’s monster remains a favourite trope.

Otherwise, what does one make out of the current spectre of teens and youngsters blindly falling prey to the Blue Whale travestying game rounds in many countries? Quiz most of the youngsters about the whale, and all that they may readily come up with is it is a marine mammal and the largest animal on earth. But further details like the many types of whales, specifics of size, weight, habitat etcetera may not find any recall. The actual blue whale is indeed the largest animal, larger than any of the dinosaurs, with the biggest recorded being a female in the Atlantic ocean which was 30.5 metres long, as long as a Boeing 737, with an estimated weight of 144 tonnes. The tongue of a blue whale can by itself weigh as much as an elephant, and capable of holding an entire football team thereon.

The other type, known as the Sperm whales, are champion divers capable of going up to 3 Kilometer depths and staying there for about couple of hours to feed mainly on squids found in deep waters. Its huge head, up to a third of its body, houses the heaviest brain in animal kingdom, weighing up to 9 kgs. Among the popular types are the sharks and dolphins, the Pacific Grey whale, Bowhead whale, having the longest lifespan going up to 200 years, and Beluga whale. Beluga whales are known as ‘canaries of the sea’ for their chirping sounds like little yellow birds. Sperm whales are the loudest, making sounds of over 230 decibels, with the blue whale following closely behind grunting at about 188 decibels (sounds over 120 decibels are harmful to human ears). The whales sing in warm waters while breeding and giving birth.

In sharp contrast, the Blue Whale lurking in cyber space started to show up in the media with a series of click-baiting stories on Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, describing the bizarre Blue Whale challenge as an on-line game preying on teenagers, with a moderator giving every participant a series of escalating challenges, culminating in the participant’s compelling urge to commit suicide. The British tabloids ran with it next, and soon, solicitous police departments were warning parents. From Brazil to India and most other countries around the world, the Blue Whale story has been heard all over. Amidst all the brouhaha, no one seems to have direct knowledge of the delinquent subculture floating such weird and nefarious games targeting a click-happy generation of teenagers everywhere, and spreading like a contagion, prompting saner elements to wonder as to the direction the world is hurtling towards.

The emerging situation is not amusing anymore. AI, it is reported, can now figure out when its interlocutor is being sarcastic. That AI can be smart was evident when two chat-bots created their own coded language that left humans fuming while guessing. Smarter machines end up making humans dumber. The multiplication table became a chore, if not entirely redundant, with the advent of the calculator. Phones that can store contact details by thousands have drained human memory of its earlier ability to recall numbers by the dozen. Doomsayers may be condoned for conjecturing that bots and robots would be ‘talking’ and plotting, even as their creators loftily decry the idea of ever being outwitted by mere machines. They would be chuckling at the supreme arrogance of flesh-and-blood mortals deeming their intelligence to be artificial, as there is nothing artificial about intelligence. Be it human or machine, intelligence is always real.

What then is the way forward? Is it desirable to dump machines and resume all over again based purely on human capabilities and capacities? Should planet earth, from its presently advanced state of machines and Apps self-destruct, regressing into humanoids, Neanderthals and apes, receding all the way to the primordial unicellular organism? The answer is an emphatic no to all these queries and, instead, embark on a continually progressive mission of embracing technology and progressively enhancing in intelligence, while keeping machines subservient and employing it exclusively to expedite the pace of development and social weal. Several years ago, a management school discussed a thesis submitted by one of the research students. It spoke of a value-based approach to measure economic development. Just as economic growth is necessary for human development, human development is critical to economic growth. Lack of wealth was not the barrier to overcoming world’s hunger, poverty and social ills.

Citing data from UN World and Human Development Reports 1998, it was indicated that in 1997, Europeans and Americans together spent more on cosmetics, perfumes and pet foods than it would have taken to provide reproductive health, basic health and nutrition for all people on the planet. And military spends on the same period was twenty times that. It was also pointed out that Kautilya’s  Arthashastra inspired the revival of many kingdoms after his reign. The healthiest state of affairs was one in which values higher than worldly possessions received honour and approval; maximum production was not the supreme objective of the economic organization; commerce or wealth creation was not an end in itself; and merchants and manufacturers carried out their activities in a trust for the society they lived in.

The word ‘economics’ comes from Greek, ‘oikonomos’, or ‘household management’. When we begin to manage our companies and our economies with the same character and interest as we would our households, it becomes easy to build the Gross National Character (GNC). Hence what is required is not mindlessly chase growth in Gross Domestic Product, familiarly known by its abbreviation GDP. The foremost requirement is for GNC. Character, wherefrom mental strength and superior emotional quotient are derived; edifying character, capable of resilience and fortitude, adding up to a country’s GNC that will surely deliver consistently higher GNH (Gross National Happiness) and, consequently, GDP.