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…
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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.

 

Make Planet Earth Great Again…

As the world observes yet another global environment day, the events in the background paint a mixed picture. There is America opting to exit from the Paris Accord on climate change mitigation, signed in the year 2015 by 194 countries committing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and restricting the rise in global average temperature to below 2 deg C above pre-industrial levels. The previous US administration had played a major role in facilitating the historical accord by committing to overdue emission cuts. Yet the gentleman now at the helm in America attributes his decision to ‘the unfairness’ of the deal, the special treatment for India and China. Regrettable a response and the height of irresponsibility one would think, coming from a country that presently is the second highest polluter, just a tad below China. The following table puts the figures in perspective:

Country CO2 emissions (kt) in 2015  % CO2 emissions by country Emission per capita (t) in 2015
 World 36,061,710 100%
 China 10,641,789 29.51% 7.7
 United States 5,172,338 14.34% 16.1
 European Union 3,469,671 9.62% 6.9
 India 2,454,968 6.81% 1.9
 Russia 1,760,895 4.88% 12.3
 Japan 1,252,890 3.47% 9.9
 Germany 777,905 2.16% 9.6
 Iran 633,750 1.76% 8.0
 South Korea 617,285 1.71% 12.3
 Canada 555,401 1.54% 15.5
 Saudi Arabia 505,565 1.40% 16.0
 Brazil 486,229 1.35% 2.3
 Mexico 472,018 1.31% 3.7
 Australia 446,348 1.24% 18.6
 South Africa 417,161 1.16% 7.7
 United Kingdom 398,524 1.11% 6.2
 Turkey 357,157 0.99% 4.5
 Italy 352,886 0.98% 5.9
 France 327,787 0.91% 5.1
 Poland 294,879 0.82% 7.6
 Thailand 279,253 0.77% 4.1
 Taiwan 279,174 0.77% 11.9
 Kazakhstan 267,978 0.74% 15.2
 Spain 262,683 0.73% 5.7
 Malaysia 245,371 0.68% 8.1
 Ukraine 228,688 0.63% 5.1
 Egypt 226,985 0.63% 2.5
 Vietnam 206,028 0.57% 2.2
 United Arab Emirates 199,253 0.55% 21.8
 Argentina 191,199 0.53% 4.4
 Venezuela 178,568 0.50% 5.7
 Netherlands 165,317 0.46% 7.8
 Iraq 160,623 0.45% 4.4
 Algeria 147,692 0.41% 3.7
 Czech Republic 111,092 0.31% 10.5
 Uzbekistan 109,845 0.30% 3.7
 Belgium 97,002 0.27% 8.6
 Kuwait 95,013 0.26% 24.4
 Turkmenistan 94,236 0.26% 17.5
 Qatar 88,825 0.25% 39.7
 Oman 78,446 0.22% 17.5
  Azerbaijan 38.000 0.30% 3.9

 (Statistics courtesy Google)

It must be noted that per capita emission is more important than percentage of emission as it is an index of the living standards of people. A higher per capita emission would point to higher consumption of amenities and utilities arising obviously from superior lifestyles. Whereas the (UK included) 28 member European Union with a population of 510 million, and America with a population of 326 million account for per capita emission that respectively equates to nearly four times and eight times more than India with a population of 1.34 billion, it is explicitly clear as to who the world’s biggest polluters are.

So was the previous US administration extending any special concession to India and China? Saner thinking would point to clarity that prevailed earlier in due recognition of economic and social development achieved by Americas and Europe through enormous consumption of earth’s resources and burning of fossil fuels the process entailed, a situation still largely continuing, and the consequent imperative of curtailing emission levels whilst prudently allowing populous and developing countries (read India and China) to viably pursue the path of progress using low cost energy such as coal and oil. While it is incumbent on developed economies (read USA and EU) to curtail carbon emission by migrating to cleaner forms of energy, it is certainly not fair to insist that developing countries also adopt the same path, as the sudden switch to clean energy requires huge investment which is not immediately feasible for many of the developing economies. Hence the Paris Accord is not a concession to India and China, it only accommodates a sense of fair play and the polluter-pays-principle while insisting all signatory countries to commit to stipulated emission controls, without legal binding.

The White House Rose Garden tirade of the present occupant against the Paris Pact has, therefore, no basis in fact. India did not make its participation contingent on receiving billions of dollars in aid from developed countries, other than insisting on realistic timeframes and targets based on judicious assessment of various constraints and compulsions of developing economies. Total foreign aid to India in the year 2015 was a meagre usd 3.1 billion, of which American contribution amounted to just about usd 100 million, which is being whittled down to usd 34 million. Interestingly, India buys Californian almonds worth usd 100 million every year, in addition to armaments equating to billions of dollars in value. India today is more of an aid donor than aid recipient and offers ample opportunities for investments with availability of qualified and skilled manpower, and demographic dividend quantifying to 650 million people below 25 years of age, apart from being a huge domestic market for consumer and capital goods. No other country holds similar advantages. The other hyperbolized US claim is that the Green Climate Fund (GCF) is of usd 100 billion whereas the actual corpus is only usd 10.3 billion. All contributions to GCF are voluntary, thus it obligates neither US nor any other country for finances. The gentleman in the White House is reportedly contemplating on giving his consent to renegotiate for a re-entry into Paris Deal, but the reality is terms of the agreement signed by 194 countries around the world cannot now be renegotiated. Does anyone want to waste time talking to a gentleman who does not believe in documented scientific data, who does not believe that Arctic ice sheets are melting, summers are getting harsher and winters more extreme?

There is no truth in either India or China planning massive investments in coal based energy plants as several major cities in both countries are reeling under high pollution levels and perforce need to migrate to clean energy. Despite its developmental challenges, India is rapidly increasing its renewable energy capacity. The goal is to achieve a forty percent reduction in emissions in planned forward time horizons. While Kochi, my home city, already boasts of the first fully solar-power operated international airport anywhere in the world, my home state of Kerala with a population of about 33 million is commemorating world environment day by planting 10 million saplings, thereby committing every third person in the state to becoming part of the Green Kerala Initiative. Including Kerala, many states in India are planning the gradual shift to electric vehicles to replace diesel run vehicles in public transport services.

On the macro front, the US exit may well catalyze a new EU-Asia axis to pursue emission targets set forth in the Paris Accord. It is not also as if all states in America are united behind the exit. Atlanta recently became the 27th city in the US to pledge going totally green, committing to transition all its buildings to clean energy sources by year 2025 and 100 percent renewable energy by year 2035. It means that even if US administration is not in the Paris agreement, individual states and cities in the US may remain supportive of the deal. The other encouraging trend is the price of solar and wind energy equipments are declining, giving further traction to enterprises of countries driving the shift to clean energy. The recent study by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) corroborates that climate protection and sustainable development can go hand-in-hand. The report estimates that on an average usd 6.3 trillion of investment in infrastructure is required annually between year 2016 and 2030 to meet development needs worldwide, with an additional usd 600 billion a year over the same period to make these investments climate-compatible, a relatively small increase considering the short and long term gains in terms of productivity, growth and well-being.

With global response strengthening against the threat of environment deterioration, the momentum is bound to swing towards safer and sustainable practices whereby coal and oil interests are destined to find themselves out of sync. It may as well be a human response to a long overdue love and compassion to earth, with an abiding concern for future generations. The compelling necessity is to work towards abundance and rejuvenation epitomized in the seed dissolving into the womb of mother earth to spring forth as flowering plants and fruiting trees with a profusion of seeds to drive home the message of giving, and multiplying unconditionally, a gesture that humans have hitherto been gleefully exploiting without limit. The question is if it can at this late stage be reciprocated in some measure by the world coming together to make planet earth great again? Or, will it continue in mindless greed, and insanity as reflected in the words of Hubert Reeves: “Man is the most insane of species. He worships an invisible god and destroys a visible Nature. Unaware that this Nature he is destroying is this god he is worshiping”.

Bhumika…

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The occasion of Earth Day of April 22nd this year preceded a day that communicated to me at different levels. Coincidentally, as it since dawned on me, I receive a call from my sister, persuasively requesting my attendance at the annual puja in ancestral temple at my maternal village where I was born over sixty-two summers ago. The place known as Aroor, though still a village, is presently designated as a census town. Even as it still is technically part of neighbouring Alapuzha district, Aroor is considered to be a suburb, located just about seventeen kilometers away, serving as a two-way entrance from southern side to my home city of Kochi. The name ‘Aroor’ takes its origin from the phrase Arayarude Oor, meaning the place of fishermen, later shortened to Arayaroor, eventually contracting to Aroor. True to its origins, the region continues to support a thriving fishing industry by virtue of its proximity to the fishing harbour, seaport of Kochi, and Vembanad lake, a part of the state of Kerala’s one of many enchanting backwaters. The eco-system enables prawn and shrimp farming to be an alternative to low-lying paddy fields, having interlocked water system connected to the backwaters. The abundance of marine wealth and logistical advantages facilitate growing exports of seafood, processed by womenfolk at numerous units and shipped out in refrigerated freight containers that are a common present-day sight on the surrounding roads.

As requested, I drive to Aroor and present myself at my maternal uncle’s house in the morning of 23rd April. The place was a regular inclusion in my school years’ itinerary during summer vacations every year. In those halcyon days, the attraction of Aroor was that it afforded a refreshing change of scene from hustle of town life and rigours of school routine, to the rustic charms of a village, amidst kids of same age group comprising mostly children of relatives staying within walking distances of my maternal grandparents’ house. Calling it a house would be an understatement as it was a mansion sprawled across a huge acreage supporting a large assortment of trees such as mango, jackfruit, sapodilla, gooseberry, cashew, in addition to several ponds and a water canal with a liberal sprinkling of hyacinths; behind these and near to the hedges lay, spread out at various sides of the huge estate, three Sarpa Kavus environed by groves and lush vegetation. It had the aura of a feudal ancestry tracing back to over four centuries. A typical day’s routine of those summers consisted of being up in the morning, gorging on breakfast and rushing out into the open to join the gang of waiting kids, and thereafter participating in a medley of games ranging from marbles and hide-and-seek to a kind of village cricket called kutteem-kolum, or gilli-danda as it is known in other parts of India. The gaming monotony is relieved by climbing fruiting trees towards noontime for thrills offered by aerial view of surroundings whilst greedily plucking and biting into succulent mangoes and cashew-apples, and after being so refreshed, form teams and play a brisk game of football before climaxing with a plunge into the pond for a vigourous swim and splashing around in the water along with other kids. The evenings meant joining the elderly ladies and gents of the house to visit the three sarpa kavus to light oil lamps in worship of the nagadevatas, thence to the ancestral temple for another round of worship in front of lighted oil lamps. Those were days without electricity, thus night-times in households would see lanterns and lamps lit on kerosene. Can you imagine hot summer nights sans electric fans and air-conditioners? That was the reality in this village where people, after downing lantern-wicks to dim the lights, retired for the night by working up a breeze using hand-held fans called visharee to gradually slide into a restorative eight-hour shut-eye.

With the passage of years, transformative changes swept the village. Joint families and properties underwent divisions with people going their separate ways and properties changing hands through succession and sale to third parties. Relatively smaller, electrified houses with latest amenities replaced old structures. The mansion that once nestled in the huge estate of my maternal grandparents is today just a hazy memory. Gone are the ponds, the canal and the sacred groves teeming with lush trees and water bodies. Antiquated constructions were demolished and the land levelled and cleared by new investors for laying out newly designed structures. As if like a pendulum, my mind swings to the present moment at the sign of commencement of the puja at the ancestral temple that now also houses the nagadevatas displaced from the three sarpa kavus. The presiding deity is one of the familiars believed to be dedicated to protect the families of extant and later generations. At one side of the temple, old ladies from nearby households huddled around a lighted oil lamp singing hymns in praise of Krishna and Rama which gradually tapers off as the the priest begins the aarti (the ritual of offering oil and ghee-lit lamps to the deity, derived from Sanskrit araatrika, meaning dispelling raatri or darkness with lighted lamps) to accompaniment of chiming bells. The air becomes sanctified by the sound of bells and aroma of lighted incense and camphor. I stood there maintaining a physical presence while my gaze drifted to nearby expanse of vacant land that was once adorned with the grand mansion surrounded by water bodies and sarpa kavus. A steady wind kept blowing my way, apparently parading images of childhood days spent here. The ancient portraits of great grand-sires on wood panelled walls, and visuals of many old relatives on faded tapestries glided before me in a surreal collage.

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Family Temple – view 1

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Family Temple – view 2

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Serpent Gods

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The family estate where the ancestral house was situated

While the past ushers in a sense of nostalgia, I have reached a stage where I do not have any obsessive attachment to people, places or properties. I value the experience of being in a continual transit, where one must necessarily keep moving on from the old to revel in the new, to keep dying in grossness to constantly renew into refined and subtler experiences, and, in so doing, transcend to higher levels of consciousness. Krishna sums it up beautifully in the Gita, “Whatever happened, happened for good. / Whatever is happening, is happening for good. / Whatever will happen, that will be for good as well. / What have you lost? Why are you crying? / What did you bring with you, which you have lost? / What did you produce, which was destroyed? / Whatever was received, was received from here. / Whatever was given, was given here / You brought nothing when you were born / You are taking nothing with you when you die / Whatever is yours today was somebody else’s yesterday and will pass on to someone else tomorrow. / Change is the law of the universe”.

The concept of a creator-god is a matter of belief. The entire body of Vedic texts exhorts one to become a seeker of truth, and not a blind believer. The universe is not creatio ex deo, or creation out of the being of some god, but creatio ex materia, or creation out of pre-existing, eternal matter. The only other thing that is eternal is Dharma, the order that sustains the cosmos in its profoundly deep and infinitely wide connection. Hence the worship of serpents and other orderly manifestations of nature is essentially in deference to life force and an all-embodying pantheistic consciousness where god, if at all there is one, is the final result of the initial cause of the cosmic process. To elaborate further on Sarpa Kavu, or sacred grove of the serpent, it is a typically well-preserved abundance of trees and bushes seen in Kerala state of south India. These pristine groves usually have representations of several Naga Devatas, or serpent gods, which were worshipped by ancient tharavads or joint family households, as part of nagaradhana (snake worship) prevalent primarily among Nair community of Kerala during past centuries. Stories about nagas are still part of contemporary culture in predominantly Hindu regions of Asia, specifically India, Nepal, and the island of Bali. In India, nagas are believed to be nature spirits protecting springs, wells and rivers; they bring rain, and thus fertility, but are also thought to precipitate disasters in the form of floods, drought and disease. As snakes capable of assuming human form, nagas are malevolent to humans when they are ill treated; due to their association with and guardianship of water bodies like rivers, lakes, seas and wells, they are susceptible to mankind’s abuse of the environment. According to legend, Kerala was reclaimed from the Arabian Sea by Parasurama, an avatar of Vishnu, and donated to Brahmins in recompense for the sin of having slaughtered numerous kshatriya dynasties. The densely forested land was teeming with snakes and wildlife. To make it livable for the Brahmins, Parasurama requested Shiva for a solution and his advice was for the Brahmins to start worshipping Ananta, the king of snakes. Thus began the tradition of snake worship in various parts of Kerala. Aside from its mythology and tradition, Sarpa Kavu contributes to soil and water conservation besides preserving biological wealth. The ponds and streams adjoining the groves are perennial sources of water, also doubling up as a resource for birds and animals to quench their thirst during scorching summers. Sacred groves enrich the soil through its rich litter composition and the nutrient contents thus generated are not only recycled within the grove but also find their way into adjoining agro-eco systems.

In a tradition rooted in several ancient cultures around the world, snakes were seen as entities of strength, fertility, and renewal, and worshipped as gods to seek blessings. Snakes symbolized the umbilical cord, integrating humans to Bhumika, or Gaia, or mother earth. The base of the human spine is the seat of primal energy, referred to as kundalini, visualized as a coiled serpent. Serpents are deemed to be potent guardians of temples and other sacred spaces, a connection grounded in the observation that, when threatened, snakes such as cobra and viper hold and ferociously defend their space by attacking the invader. Serpents have a revered place in Vedic and Buddhist scriptures, manifesting as Ananta, the coiled bed of Vishnu sprawled on the ocean of bliss, as Kaliya afloat in the Yamuna river on whose hoods a benevolent Krishna danced and played on his flute to symbolize a world of meanings, and as Macalinda who appeared from beneath the earth to protect a meditating Buddha from the elements. In other words, the serpent is a metaphor of communion between humans and nature as opposed to the hostile and scary view of snakes in western culture mostly drawn from Semitic religions.

Be it preservation of sacred groves, serpent worship, conservation of water bodies, according due sanctity to ancient rivers such as Ganga, Yamuna, Kaveri, and lakes Manasarovar and Pampa Sarovar, and hills of Sabari and Tirupathi, and peaks such as Mount Kailash, the real significance behind it all is the keen perception that we are not different from the earth. If these wondrous manifestations of nature are in danger, so are we. Days and nights happen only because of earth’s revolution. We are extracts from earth, having come out transitorily from earth’s womb, to be sucked back into it in due timescales. Humans celebrating the Earth Day is ironic and audacious at the same time. What is desirable is to think and act like the earth because that is what humans ultimately are, existing only as a minutest part sustained by deep connections to everything else in the cosmos. Spirituality and environmental conservation, therefore, are not disparate goals; they are exactly the same whereby one ascends the sublime peaks of spirituality by bringing to bear the highest environmental consciousness in everyday life, as reflected in the pangs of concern in the words of Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “What would the world be, once bereft / Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left, / O let them be left, wildness and wet; / Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet”.

On Friends and Friendship…

One of the sound bites echoing through corridors of my mind is the saying that a friend in need is a friend in deed. It broadly manifests as childhood friends, school friends, amiable neighbourhoods, college friends, career friends, best friends, boyfriends and girlfriends. Being part of an eco system of relatives and absolutes, acquaintances and strangers, friends and foes and many other dualities, I have, probably like others of my age, been through a string of school and college reunions over the last couple of years. It was a really pleasant experience catching up with old friends, many of them mellowed in their features and deportment and a few still retaining vestiges of their old selves and unrefined attitudes akin to unchanging stripes of leopards.

We spend entire lives building relationships. From preschool, where we all learn that “it takes a friend to make a friend,” through adulthood, where we mingle at coffee houses, bars and around water coolers, we crave closeness with other human beings.

We just need to know that someone out there connects with us.

Whether we have a small group of close friends or an expanded group of personable entities, each of our friendships brings something new to our lives, inspiring us to see the world in novel ways, giving us a reliable shoulder to lean on, and an enthusiastic cheerleader to root us on.

Friendships come in all sorts of forms: serious ones, like the college friend you discuss politics and social issues with, silly ones, like the boisterous squad you eagerly play Holi with, chill ones, like your wine and Netflix buddies. Some friendships just keep growing, turning out into rewarding relationships that add to joie de vivre.

Every friendship offers something totally unique — and irreplaceable. Every friendship ultimately contributes to making who we are.

This is why we spend so much time cultivating these equations and learning how to be a good friend. This is why we show up in reunions after separations, at graduations, at weddings, and at funerals. This is why, near or far, our friends hold a special place forever in our hearts.

We all know a true friend is hard to find. So when you do find one, hang on tight. It also does not hurt to let your best friends know every now and then just how much they mean to you.

But like all cherished values, even friendship has undergone a steady transformation over the years. In the corporate world, where I spent all my career years, there are mostly no friendships anymore as it is purveyed in the form of contacts and networking. You become a resource to the management and your success and efficacy is measured by the extent of your network. That said, there is an element of truth in such an assessment because of the fact that networking is a force-multiplier, by way of enhancing value of a resource to an organization and the efficacy it provides in the everyday business of life.

Who is a real friend, is a question often doing the rounds and eliciting widely different answers, ranging  from proverbial friend in need is a friend in deed to a varying verbiage of  similarity that the human mind is capable of conceiving. The legendary pugilist Mohamed Ali observed that “Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.” Shakespeare captures another facet in stating that “A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.” Albert Camus exhorted, “Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” Another perception of friendship is embedded in the feeling about some people arriving and making such a beautiful impact on your life that you can barely remember what life was like without them. Friendship impresses a life even more deeply than love. Love risks degenerating into obsession, friendship is never anything but sharing. Helen Keller, who found light in darkness, enthused “I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.” Henry David Thoreau chips in expansively to affirm that “Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.”

One of the challenges of modern times may be the almost endless circumstances and situations parading before our mundane lives for the eventual, though not always, zooming in on a person conforming to the definition of a true friend. The journey of such a discovery is often frustrating because a real friend is a rarity. A close and objective analysis would reveal the aspect of underlying greed and selfishness in the statement that a friend in need is a friend in deed, which is neither love nor friendship because the self-serving motive is to use the other as a means. Here it needs to be understood that no human being is a means, every woman or man is an end unto herself or himself.

The real question is whether one is capable of extending a friendly hand to another who may come his or her way, as exemplified by Portia stepping in appropriately with her courtroom eloquence to save Antonio from the clutches of a spiteful Shylock in the Bard’s drama which still keeps playing through varying shades of character and nuances of situations in life’s grand theatre. No need to keep sifting through life’s situations or looking out to discover that rare entity that one can call a friend who may turn out to be a disappointment or not appear at all. In comparison, even maritime explorers of yore out in the turbulent seas to discover new lands had a greater chance of success going by huge number of countries that  since attained cartographic definition. Hence, instead of worrying about who is a real friend, the question is am I friendly to people? While human love is characterized by a degree of consummating lust and possession, friendship takes love to a higher and more refined plane where it is devoid of the grossness of desire, possessiveness and exploitation. It is not needing or avariciously tapping the potential of the other but only privileging, by kind sharing that rains down from generosity of spirit. You have an abundance of material riches and countless other graces you would wish to share. And whosoever is ready to share your joy with you, dance to the rhythm and sing the song of your life, you become grateful to him for being afforded the opportunity of giving. As a true friend, there is no expectation from your side to make him feel grateful and obliged to you. A genuine friend always feels grateful to those who enable him to exercise the virtue of friendship by being recipients of his munificence..

Creating friendships with the motive of using people goes against the canon of true friendship even though it exactly is how friendships manifest in the highly manipulative and competitive world we are in. If you have anything in plenty, share it, and whomsoever is a beneficiary is your friend. There is no obligation on that friend to either reciprocate the gesture or to come to your aid in a time of distress. If it happens, well and good; but if it does not, it is still deemed to be perfectly okay as it is totally up to the other person whose actions should not be your concern. It is not for me to feel that my friend was nowhere in the scene in a time of need.

The focus ought to be on one’s own self, on draining out negativities of greed, anger, hatred, envy and arrogance, and ushering in freshness and spontaneity, thus forming the wellsprings of  care, affection, sensitivity, love and compassion. What we call love has grosser dimensions of biology but friendship is animated by the subtler and elevated aspects of life and informed by the finest spirit of humanism. So while one may only fall in love, one rises in friendship.