Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Sabari's Lesson For Sabarimala

The temple of the bachelor-god Ayyappa at Sabarimala in Kerala has courted controversy recently, but the issue is a longstanding one, and not something unique to Sabarimala either.

[Sabarimala means Sabari's hill. The word 'mala' is a Dravidian one that means mountain or hill. It is not to be confused with the Sanskrit word 'maala' meaning garland.]

The basic issue is that orthodox Hinduism considers menstruating women to be ritually unclean, and therefore they are not permitted to perform religious rites or visit temples when they have their periods. The Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala goes even further in its restrictions. No female between the ages of puberty and menopause is permitted to visit the temple. In other words, the very capability for menstruation is a disqualification for entry.

In our modern world increasingly informed by egalitarian feminist sentiment, it's only a matter of time before such restrictions begin to be challenged, and a chance remark by a temple priest (perhaps quoted out of context) has ignited a furore.

In the social media age, the appropriate hashtag #HappyToBleed has begun to trend. This campaign is to challenge menstrual taboos in general, not just to seek entry for women into the Sabarimala temple.

In the face of such opposition, the head priest at the Ayyappa temple has dug in his heels and stated the bleeding obvious, that he will safeguard the "purity" of the temple even if he has to resign.

However, it's time to ask some fundamental questions.

One does not need to ask the most fundamental question, i.e., why do people feel the need to worship or go to a temple in the first place? Let us accept that that's a bridge too far for many.

If we accept that people have a need for religious expression, then the next question would be whether it is fair to prevent some from exercising that right merely because of some aspect of nature that they cannot control. If a divine Being created human beings, with all of our bodily functions, why would that Being find these functions suddenly objectionable when these humans try to offer worship?

Indeed, there is evidence in Hindu scripture itself that the divine is not so pedantic.

In the Ramayana, the exiled prince Rama (who was an avatar of the god Vishnu), came upon an old woman called Sabari (also spelt Shabari) during his wanderings. Sabari offered him some fruits that she had collected, but she only wanted him to eat the sweetest ones. So she bit into each fruit first to taste it, threw away those that weren't sweet, and only offered Rama the ones that were. Rama's brother Lakshmana was horrified, because of the cultural taboo relating to another's saliva. But the divine Rama looked beyond matters of hygiene to recognise the devotion and love of the old woman. He accepted and ate the nominally defiled fruits without a murmur.

Rama accepting fruits from Shabari that she had tasted first.
Moral: God cares more about devotion than about bodily fluids.

The lesson from the parable of Sabari is clear. God cares more about devotion than about bodily fluids. If the custodians of Hindu temples everywhere (including the temple at the hill ironically named after the old woman) learn that lesson, the practice of the religion would align better with its spirit.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Movie Reviews (Inside Out, Fantastic Four, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, It's Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, Gentle)

I watched 5 movies on the 14 hour flight back from Dubai to Sydney, having slept throughout the 6 hour flight from London to Dubai.

Inside Out:

For an animated film, this is surprisingly deep in the seriousness of its content. While I'm no psychologist, I was impressed by its analysis of human behaviour and the functioning of the brain. The story is that of a hitherto happy young girl of 11 who is suddenly uprooted from familiar and pleasant surroundings and thrust into a markedly less pleasant world, with traumatic results. The five emotions in her brain, normally dominated by Joy, develop new dynamics when Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust also get a chance to exercise their influence.

The main takeaways for me from this movie are an improved appreciation of the so-called "negative" emotions. Sadness, for example, is useful to analyse problems and also to prompt connections with other people, Fear is useful to protect oneself from danger, and Disgust is also useful in preventing oneself from eating poisonous substances. One needs a healthy balance between all of them.

The best scene in the movie is the family dinnertime conversation between the three main characters. This is picked apart in fine detail using the mechanism of the five personified emotions within each character's brain.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

Fantastic Four:

Compared to the 2005 and 2007 versions of the franchise, the 2015 movie failed to impress. I thought the characters were much better developed in the older series. Ioan Gruffud as Reed Richards, Jessica Alba as Sue Storm, Chris Evans as Johnny Storm and Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm were much truer to their comic book versions (and much more engaging as characters) than Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael Jordan and Jamie Bell in the 2015 version. Even the special effects, which one would expect to have improved in a decade, are not as good.

The 2015 film does attempt a change to reflect diversity. Johnny Storm and his father Dr. Franklin Storm are now played by black characters, while Sue Storm, still Caucasian, requires a change of background to become the elder Franklin's adopted daughter. While I favour diversity on screen to mirror society, I'm also a purist and therefore not sure whether tampering with the origins of comic book legends is such a good idea.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan:

They say people tend to cry more when watching movies on planes, and I was fully prepared to use this as an excuse when watching Bajrangi Bhaijaan, but thankfully, the much-anticipated need for tissues did not arise. Perhaps the combination of humorous scenes and some over-the-top situations made it far lighter. The film is a bold attempt at confronting both religious prejudice and ultra-nationalist sentiment within India, and it does succeed to a great extent. However, don't expect me to develop the warm-and-fuzzies for the Pakistani military and the ISI as a result of this film. Also, my negative feelings towards Salman Khan the actor prevented me from warming sufficiently to his character. You can't run over homeless people and ask your driver to take the rap in real-life, while posing as a sincere and devout person for the movies.

Still, when judged on its own merits, Bajrangi Bhaijaan is a pretty decent film.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

It's Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong:

I saw this movie on the way to Europe from Dubai, and I mentioned in my previous review that I wouldn't mind watching it again. Well, I made good on that by watching it again on the return journey. I have nothing to add to my previous review except to stand by it. It's certainly worth a watch.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.


I try to watch at least one example of "world cinema", i.e., neither Hollywood nor Bollywood, during every flight, and this time I chose a Vietnamese film ("Gentle"), mainly because it was just 84 minutes long. I found out during the final credits that this film has been loosely based on the Dostoevsky story "A Gentle Creature". The movie deals with the feelings of isolation and the tragic suicide of an emotionally delicate young woman who is married to a well-meaning but excessively formal and distant husband. Set as a series of flashbacks after the suicide, it has the depressing sense of hopelessness of an unpreventable train wreck. This kind of movie is definitely not my cup of tea, and I only watched it because it was short and I had not read the depressing storyline beforehand.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Movie Reviews (Mr Holmes, Ant-Man, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, Minions, It's Already Tomorrow In Hong Kong)

I saw 5 movies on the flight from Sydney to Zurich, 3 on the 14 hour flight from Sydney to Dubai, and 2 on the 7 hour flight from Dubai to Zurich.

Mr Holmes:

This Ian McKellan-starrer starts with a very interesting premise. Sherlock Holmes is old, living alone in the country with a housekeeper and her young son, and is losing his memory, so much so that he cannot even remember why he retired 30 years earlier. He's vaguely aware that a case that was documented as a success by Doctor Watson was in fact no such thing. Holmes is aware that his conclusion in that case was wrong, and that is why he retired. He did not trust himself after making such a serious mistake. Now in his old age, unable to remember the facts of the case clearly, he struggles to go back and right his wrongs.

The acting (by all characters) is superb, but the pace is a bit slow, and crucially, the resolution of the case isn't very satisfying, although the scene of Holmes's Japanese-style closure is quite touching.

3 stars out of 5.


This was a thoroughly enjoyable and riveting movie from start to finish. It has everything one expects to see in a modern superhero movie - a flawed protagonist who nevertheless has the audience's sympathy, some family drama, cool super powers and special effects, plenty of action and suspense, lots of humour and a mean villain.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy:

This Bollywood murder mystery set in Calcutta during the Second World War starts off very promisingly. Of course, I have no idea what wartime Calcutta looked like, but the period setting seemed quite authentic to me, including a logo on a saucer that depicted the borders of undivided India.

However, it ended very disappointingly. There were too many twists in the tale, and it went from being intriguing to contrived in a very short space of time. Also, while a corpse or two comes with the territory, this murder mystery was much more gory than required.

2.5 stars out of 5.


After Despicable Me (1 & 2), I can only say this was disappointing. Some of the gags were funny, including some subtle digs at the English habit of drinking tea (even during a police car chase), but it didn't quite hit the mark.

3 stars out of 5, and I'm being generous here.

It's Already Tomorrow In Hong Kong:

This was one of the most watchable "chick flicks" I've seen in a long time. It's quite a short movie (72 minutes), but very engrossing. The two main characters are a Chinese-American girl (who speaks no Chinese) visiting Hong Kong, and an expat white American guy she runs into who has been in Hong Kong for over 10 years and can even speak some Cantonese. It's an utterly believable depiction of how two people (who may or may not be in relationships with other people - I'm not telling) can gradually find themselves slipping into a relationship themselves. The characters, the settings and the conversations are extremely natural and credible, also very funny in places ("So a Chinese person in the US is an immigrant, but an American person in China is an expat?"). It's quite a masterpiece of social commentary, and I could definitely watch this movie again. It's that well done.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Thoughts About Identity

I came across this picture on Facebook today and it made me think about my consciousness of my own identity.

Sami Ahmad Khan has stated poetically what I have unconsciously felt for a long time. 

Right from my childhood, I have at various times been conscious of being a Tamilian in Karnataka, a brahmin in Tamil Nadu, a South Indian in Bombay, Ahmedabad and Kanpur, as well as a Hindu and an Indian in the UAE and Australia. Throughout my life, I have always had the slightly uncomfortable sense of belonging to a minority and of having to keep my head down to avoid drawing attention to my minority identity. On occasion, in each of these environments, I have had to endure my community being slandered in my presence while feeling powerless to speak up.
I have also briefly been in a place where "my kind" was in the majority (CMC Ltd, Madras), and I hated it. The conformity that was implicitly demanded offended my sensibilities. In my own mind, I have a complex and hybrid identity that refuses to be slotted into any box.
I therefore believe that Utopia is a place where *everyone* is in a minority. This isn't unachievable. My first place of work (CMC Ltd, Bombay) was almost exactly such a place. No linguistic/regional group dominated, not even Maharashtrians. There were almost as many women as men in all roles including management (My first two bosses were women). And while it was majority Hindu, there were quite a few Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians, Jains and Sikhs in the office to prevent that from becoming a stifling cultural presence.
Hopefully, sharing my background will allow people to understand where I come from whenever I wade into the culture wars as a "liberal".

Friday, 16 October 2015

Is "Rabid Atheism" As Bad As Rabid Religiosity?

I posted on Facebook in response to a news item that Sylvester Stallone had sent his family to Haridwar in India to perform a "shradh" (Hindu funeral rites) for his son Sage, in the hope that his son's soul would attain peace.

I posted that in order to comment on the human need for comfort in times of grieving, which a purely rational way of thinking (which is what atheism is) cannot provide, even though it is probably the truth.

I said,

Atheism is too bracing a truth to offer needed comfort to grieving people. That explains why religion continues to have such a hold on humanity. The Hindu ceremony is no more valid than a Christian funeral service, because there really is nothing after death. But I do understand why Stallone would seek out ways to find comfort.

In response, I received the following comment:

How do you know there's nothing after death? Have you been there and back? Rabid atheism is as stupid as rabid religiosity. I would leave individual souls to seek out their own truth, whatever that turns out to be.

Let me answer this in two parts.

First, atheism is not a belief. It is the refusal to believe in ideas that have no evidence to back them up. Perhaps the term "atheism" is too emotive for many people. Let's just call it rationalism then, with no loss of accuracy.

Do you believe that after you shut down your computer, Windows (or whatever your operating system is) continues to run somewhere "up there"? You surely know that an operating system, although an intangible thing ("software"), only runs when electricity flows through the hardware circuits of your computer. When the computer is down, the operating system simply cannot be running.

This isn't a far-fetched analogy for human consciousness. Functional MRI has mapped the exact regions of the brain that are responsible for our thoughts and feelings. One area of the brain "lights up" when we are trying to solve a mathematical problem, another part lights up when we are trying to remember the words to a song, yet another lights up when we are being creative. Similarly, different parts of the brain are active when we have different feelings, such as happiness, sorrow, and anger.

Research has also shown that the brain consumes energy when experiencing thoughts and feelings. It is very like a computer that requires energy to process information. In fact, it's an exact analogue.

Now, if all thoughts and feelings are, as proven by scientific investigation, the result of activity in brain cells, doesn't it logically follow that when brain cells decompose and die, they will no longer be capable of sustaining thoughts and feelings?

Isn't it therefore highly unlikely that there is no such thing as a thinking, feeling, disembodied soul? Just because the belief in a soul is widespread, it does not mean it is true. On the contrary, it simply means the majority of humanity is not thinking logically. This may be a hard idea to accept, but as the saying goes, truth is sometimes bitter.

Second, here's why rationalists can't simply "leave individual souls to seek out their own truth".

Implicit in the question is the argument that beliefs, however irrational, are benign personal affairs that should be no one else's business.

Indeed, personal beliefs are every individual's own business, except when they manifest themselves as impositions on other people.

This is exactly what religious beliefs do. They don't remain benign, personal beliefs for long.

"My religion tells me that women should cover themselves from head to toe. So I will force women to cover themselves from head to toe even if they don't want to."

"My religion says apostasy is a crime punishable by death. So if someone from my faith says they no longer believe,  they must be killed."

"My religion says this path is the only way for your soul to be saved. So because I love you and want your soul to be saved, I will disparage your faith and try to convert you to mine."

"My religion says the cow is holy and eating its meat is a sin. So I am justified in lynching you because I think you may have eaten a cow's meat."

This is why rationalists cannot sit back and let people maintain their irrational beliefs. Because sooner or later, those "personal" beliefs start to affect the lives of other people who do not share them, and who have a right not to share them.

So no, there is no such thing as "rabid atheism". Uncompromising adherence to logic is not rabidity.

And no, atheism is nowhere near as bad as religiosity.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Three Levels Of Failure Of The Indian Polity

The Dadri lynching incident and its sorry aftermath have exposed the failure of the Indian polity at three different levels, although this may not be obvious to a casual observer.

The three levels are:

1. The principle of a secular state
2. A law-abiding citizenry
3. The machinery of law enforcement

To expand,

A secular state would not have laws restricting what citizens may do based on respecting religious sentiment. In the recent Indian context, a ban on cow slaughter on religious grounds is incompatible with the principle of a secular state (although such bans may be possible to justify on other grounds, such as cruelty to animals).

The ban on cow slaughter on grounds of Hindu religious sentiment is therefore the first failure.

Even with a ban imposed on religious grounds, a tragedy such as the Dadri lynching need not have occurred if the citizenry had been law-abiding and not susceptible to inflammatory sentiments whipped up by mischievous demagogues. A complaint could have been made to the police, who could have investigated to determine if the ban had in fact been violated. If it had, the person or persons concerned could have been charged and brought before a court, which may have found them guilty and sentenced them to appropriate punishment under the law.

The mob lynching of Mohamed Akhlaq was therefore the second failure.

Given that a mob lynching took place, the correct thing for the police to have done was arrest those involved without delay. The correct thing for government functionaries to have done was condemn vigilante justice and support the police in bringing the culprits to book.

The actions of police in sending meat for forensic analysis (implying that the presence or absence of beef had a bearing on the severity of the crime), and those of ruling party and government functionaries all the way up to the prime minister (who failed to call out the actual crime and instead made all kinds of excuses and worse), were therefore the third failure.

The first step to correcting a problem is analysis. It is clear that India needs to introspect and determine whether it wants to be a secular state with a law abiding citizenry and impartial, competent law enforcement.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Thoughts On The Origins Of The Patriarchy And Its Unfairness - To Both Sexes

I recently read an interesting review of the movie "Parched", and posted about it on Facebook.

The post elicited an interesting response from a male friend, who seemed a bit uncomfortable about some of the bold statements in it. He expressed reservations about what he called the "feminist agenda". When I countered that the so-called "feminist agenda" was about nothing more than equal treatment of the two sexes (which is hardly sinister), he made a couple of statements.

"If equal treatment was warranted then nature would have made us all [the] same."

"Men and Women are not sub-groups. They together make humankind. No matter how much we try both these pillars will remain different and that's what nature intended."

I realise I may not be doing justice to his views based on two statements lifted from a conversation, but I would like to share what I posted in response to them:

This is going to take a while to explain but it may be worth it, so I request your patience.

Most of us have grown up in patriarchal societies, and so the value systems of such societies may feel "natural" to us, while challenges to such value systems may feel "unnatural". But what are patriarchal societies and why have they come about?

There are sociological theories about this that stem from a fundamental difference between the sexes, not so much physiological but the relative difficulty of establishing paternity as opposed to maternity.

The mother-child relationship is readily recognised, because a woman's pregnancy and childbirth are events that are not easily hidden. In contrast, the father-child relationship is not readily recognisable, because conception is a very private affair! It is the desire to establish paternity beyond doubt that has led to severe restrictions being placed on women. To put it bluntly, women's eggs may only be fertilised under controlled conditions that establish paternity. That is the real reason why women are not allowed freedom of movement, freedom to mingle with members of the opposite sex, or in general, sexual freedom.

Further, this patriarchal system institutes severe punishment for those women who slip past these restrictions and attempt to have their eggs fertilised outside of the controlled conditions prescribed for them (i.e., marriage). That's why we have shaming of women in extramarital or premarital relationships, poor treatment of "illegitimate" children, and extreme punishments like "honour killing". (Indeed, in matriarchal societies, there is no such thing as an illegitimate child, because every child has a mother!)

Knowing this history, we can understand both why patriarchy does what it does, and why it is a highly unfair system. It is born out of the insecurity of men to establish paternity. Restricting the freedoms of one half of humanity is too high a price to pay to satisfy that insecurity. It is far better to educate men to overcome their insecurity over paternity than to continue to restrict women's freedom, which includes their sexual freedom.

It is not as if the patriarchy benefits men uniformly, either. While men do get a better deal than women overall, the patriarchy also unfairly constrains what men may or may not do. This is why many men consider it unacceptable to cry, and why we have such an epidemic of unreported male depression in society. This is also why less evolved societies look down on stay-at-home dads, whereas men and women should be free to decide the roles that are appropriate for their families.

So I really do not see anything sinister in the "feminist agenda". In fact, I embrace it wholeheartedly, because the patriarchy is an unfair system that disadvantages all of us. You are right that men and women are built differently, but we can see how an unfair system has developed because of this difference. It takes a very minor change to get rid of this system, and it pertains to how men deal with their insecurities about the need to establish paternity and the need to control women's sexuality. This is an individual conflict every man must resolve within himself.
This was based on what I remembered reading a long time ago on the patriarchy stemming from the need to establish paternity, so I searched for references and finally found this.


I think this is an important set of ideas for everyone to understand, especially men. The patriarchy disadvantages us all (women more than men, certainly), so the sooner it is dismantled, the better it will be for society.