Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Three PR Failures Of The Hindu Right

The BJP's General Secretary and RSS ideologue Ram Madhav recently appeared on Al Jazeera's Head to Head program, to face a tough interviewer and a fairly hostile guest panel and audience. His performance, which can be seen below, was nothing short of dismal, with a couple of needless gaffes thrown in.

It couldn't just be biased editing - the BJP spokesman was on the ropes or on the mat most of the time

While readers of this blog may watch the video themselves to draw their own conclusions, my analysis of Ram Madhav's failure is as follows.

1. On the topic of the interview itself, "Is Modi's India flirting with fascism?", he had the difficult job of convincing the audience that the situation on the ground was no worse than in the past, and that there was no climate of intolerance as the government's critics have often alleged.

2. On India-Pakistan relations, especially Kashmir, he had to sell non-Indians on the legitimacy of the decades-long Indian diplomatic position.

3. On the RSS/BJP's ideology, he had to make the case for "Hindu nationalism", explain what his organisation means by exhorting religious minorities to be "culturally Hindu", and to clarify related concepts such as "Akhand Bharat" (an "undivided India" that includes Pakistan and Bangladesh, on which I have written before), which could otherwise be construed as military expansionism.

At the end of the interview, it can be safely surmised that he utterly failed to communicate his party's point of view and to convince his audience on these three points. The angry buzz of right-wing sympathisers on social media, blaming everyone but him on the debacle (and indeed, blaming him only for being "too soft"), confirms my assessment that he got a shellacking.

What would I have done in his place?

On the first point, I believe there is little he could have done except engage in whataboutery. There is indisputable evidence that intolerance of criticism of the ruling party and its ideology has reached new depths. It would be dishonest of me to even attempt to formulate an argument for him to use, since I believe the allegation is spot-on.

On Kashmir, Ram Madhav had a wonderful opportunity to explain India's diplomatic stand, because a liberal audience such as the one he had is inherently favourable to an inclusive, as opposed to a parochial, philosophy. Madhav should have taken a step back from the Kashmir dispute to discuss its roots in the partition of British India into India and Pakistan.

He should have asked for a voice vote from the audience between Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy of a secular state where all citizens would be treated equally regardless of religion, and MA Jinnah's Two-Nation Theory, under which Hindus were deemed incapable of living together with Muslims under a fair dispensation, and hence required to yield the Muslims their own state.

He should have pointed out how these two diametrically opposed philosophies predictably played out in real-life, since Pakistan's religious minorities decreased from about 23% of the population at independence to about 2% today, and the Muslim population in India increased from 10% in the 1951 census to 14% today.

Having won the voice vote, he should have proceeded to show how Pakistan's claim to Kashmir rested entirely on this parochial Two-Nation Theory, and was thus morally inferior to India's more enlightened and inclusive position.

Further, he should have pointed out that Pakistan made the first, pre-emptive and aggressive move in invading Kashmir in 1948 to take it by force, and that the line of control today dates back to when and where India stopped that aggression.

He should have ended with the hardline position that Pakistan has proven it cannot look after its minorities, and hence all of Kashmir should be with India.

On the Hindutva ideology, Ram Madhav would have faced a trickier challenge, since the Sangh's ideology is self-contradictory. It is true that there is an inherent liberalism of thought within the mainstream Hindu religion with regard to various schools of philosophy, yet the RSS itself has sought to make Hinduism less freewheeling and more rigidly doctrinaire in an effort to coalesce political support for itself. Nevertheless, if Madhav had downplayed the more recent Hindutva philosophy espoused by the RSS, and fallen back on the original pluralistic worldview of the religion that it claims to represent, he could have scored a few points.

From my own discussions with more moderate sympathisers of the Hindu Right, I can attempt to formulate a hypothetical line of argument for Ram Madhav, even if I don't agree with it myself.

The argument is that there are three broad approaches to religious belief:

The first is what can loosely be called the "Abrahamic philosophy" represented by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Although the three religions have irreconcilable differences among themselves, what they have in common is the exclusivist attitude that their view alone is the right one, and all others are wrong. Others must convert to their doctrine in order to be saved in a spiritual sense.

The second is what can be called "Western secularism", which operates by denying religion any legitimacy in the public sphere. Religion is deemed to be a private matter, which must not influence public policy. The state and church must remain separate, and the state must treat all citizens equally, regardless of the faith they may profess.

The third approach is the "Hindu" one, which neither denies the legitimacy of religious belief in the public sphere, nor claims exclusive validity for its own brand. This can be seen as positive rather than negative when contrasted with Western secularism, since it affirms rather than denies what is dear to a majority of the world's people. It is also inclusive in contrast to the Abrahamic religions, since it respects the beliefs of every individual as true and as a valid path to "the truth" and to their spiritual salvation.

Regardless of the factual merits of the above argument, it will undoubtedly appeal to many. This is the argument Ram Madhav should have used to justify his organisation's socio-religious position.

Flowing from this, he could have argued that an Indian belonging to a minority religion could be deemed to be "culturally Hindu" if they merely accorded others the respect that they expected for themselves. In other words, if they shed the intolerant and exclusivist aspect of their own religion's doctrine and adopted the Hindu approach of mutual respect, then they would be "culturally Hindu". I have no doubt that Madhav would have won over a sizeable proportion of his audience with that argument.

Further, he could have used this to explain Akhand Bharat (undivided India). He did do a half-decent job of explaining it in any case, by saying it was to be a voluntary coming together of the peoples of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh at some point in the future, but it could have been an even more powerful argument had he linked it to the "Hindu" philosophy of mutual respect.

[As an atheist, I personally favour Western secularism, since I don't believe religion has any validity in either the public or private spheres, but we are talking here about what Ram Madhav could have said, not what I believe.]

To sum up, I think the Hindutva organisations need to do a much better job of explaining themselves to a worldwide audience, because they are losing the PR war pretty badly. To a large extent, they do deserve it, because their philosophy is intolerant, and their stormtroopers (both the street goons and the online trolls) have cemented that reputation. However, some of their main ideological opponents, i.e., Islamists and fundamentalist Christians, are no saints either. These latter groups deserve to face a strong intellectual challenge to their intolerance, and this is possible from a position that is rooted in the broader Hindu tradition (See Lisa Miller's Newsweek article "We are all Hindus now").

Unfortunately for the Hindu Right, the BJP/RSS is probably the last entity that can lay claim to that tolerant philosophy. Someone else needs to make that argument. Ram Madhav's comprehensive humiliation before an international audience should have made that amply clear.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

The Agnostic Argument - 10 (Is Faith "Religion" Or Just Superstition?)

I saw this witty riposte to an anti-atheist question, and posted it on Facebook:

In response, one of my friends wrote:

Disagree with the false equivalence.

Those who do believe in God do not deny science. In fact many scientists themselves were deeply religious. So there is no case for someone believing in God to deny themselves the benefit.

Quite different from the point being made that atheists should not avail religious holidays because it certainly is the case they do not believe in God.

Of course the reason I feel it is perfectly acceptable to enjoy the religious holidays is because they are an entitlement earned by working for x number of days for a company and not a reward for one's religiosity.

I shot off an immediate rejoinder quibbling that those who believed in a concept like "god" without proof could not really be said to be practising science, but my friend's comment did make me think a bit more about the relationship between scientists (i.e., those who could be thought of as practising science) and their faith, if such faith exists.

Specifically, the claim that "many scientists themselves were (are) deeply religious", made me think about ISRO's (the Indian Space Research Organisation's) former chairman K Radhakrishnan, and how he took a replica of the GSLV (Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle) rocket and Mangalyaan (the Mars probe) to the Tirumala temple to be "blessed". As one who believes it was the meticulous research and calculations of the ISRO team that were responsible for the success of these projects, I was offended by the eminent scientist's genuflection towards religion.

ISRO Chairman Dr K Radhakrishnan praying at Tirumala with a replica of the GSLV rocket and the Mangalyaan Mars probe

I could not visualise the head of NASA or the European Space Agency (ESA) taking a replica of one of their spacecraft to a church to be blessed, and I could not help wondering why an Indian (Hindu) scientist would think nothing of doing this sort of thing.

My conclusion is that people (even the educated ones) from less advanced countries have more recently been at the mercy of forces of nature than people from advanced countries. Death, disease, destitution and other major misfortune are part of virtually every family's not-too distant history. (My own extended family, over just the last three generations, has had many examples of needless tragedy caused by forces of nature.) This leads to higher levels of fatalism and superstitious belief. These attitudes of fatalism and superstition are wrongly and charitably labelled "religion".

To be sure, sudden catastrophes, both lethal and economically crippling, overtake people in advanced countries as well, but these can generally be traced quite readily to human agency. Traffic accidents, homicide and drug overdoses are the major causes of untimely death in advanced countries. Retrenchments/layoffs and marriage breakups are the major non-lethal yet potentially catastrophic events in the lives of people. Yet if we think about it, all of these events can be readily traced back to human agency.

In advanced countries, natural disasters do not claim as many lives. Deaths due to disease or animal attacks are similarly rare. Droughts or floods do not cause the same scale of economic havoc. In other words, people in advanced countries are less likely to be affected by "acts of God". The factors that impact on their lives tend to be obviously traceable to human activity and human will. No supernatural force need be invoked to explain any of them.

So I'm forced to the conclusion that the wider prevalence of what we think of as "religion" in less advanced countries is probably the result of a sense of helplessness in the face of an amorphous, abstract and malevolent Nature, which has to be propitiated and appeased if people have to be spared its wrath.

It's not surprising to me that 93% of the scientists who belong to the US National Academy of Sciences self-identify as atheists or agnostics. They are the elite even among scientists, and their families have probably been insulated for generations from forces of nature. It's small wonder that they are not tormented by the same background fear that haunts those much less fortunate.

In conclusion, I don't believe it's fair to defend religious faith by pointing to scientists who are believers. There is a larger sociological influence on such believers than their scientific training, and this is what accounts for their belief in spite of their training. In any case, such belief is not a positive, "spiritual" quality but a manifestation of collective subconscious fear. As the world develops and begins to insulate more of its people from the vagaries of nature ("acts of God"), I have no doubt that superstitious beliefs (wrongly called religion) will recede. Those trained in science will always remain in the vanguard of scientific thinking, and those from societies that are less threatened by the forces of nature will remain freer from superstitious fears. As both scientific thinking and social progress spread throughout the world, atheism will gradually replace religion.

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 (believed to be 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 some crockery 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.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

How Conscience Made A Vegetarian Eat Beef

I had beef for lunch today.

This may not sound like a big deal to most people, but to me, it has been a very, very big deal.

You see, I have been a lifelong vegetarian. Meat of any kind has been alien to my diet.

So why did I eat meat today? And why did I choose beef of all things?

To answer that question, we need to dig a little into culture, and into what we ultimately hold most sacred.

I was born in India to a Hindu family. To Hindus, cows are sacred animals. Killing a cow is widely considered a sin, although there are many Hindus today who do eat beef.

My family belongs to the brahmin caste, which has a tradition of strict vegetarianism. Even eggs are considered taboo by most brahmins. Thanks to my upbringing, I have always been vegetarian. Call it cultural conditioning.

(For the record, I am against the caste system and I do NOT identify myself as a brahmin. I only bring up that historical fact because it is relevant. I want to illustrate the weight of tradition that I defied today, and why I did so.)

The May 2014 election in India brought to power a right-wing Hindu party (the BJP) that seeks to assert the Hindu nature of Indian society. This militant brand of political Hinduism is called Hindutva (just as Islamism is the militant political flavour of Islam). One of the explicit planks of Hindutva is a ban on cow slaughter. The state government of Maharashtra has since banned the sale and consumption of beef throughout the state. Other BJP-ruled states have begun to make moves in the same direction. In general, these pro-cow measures also have a covert anti-Muslim agenda, since Islam, unlike Hinduism, has no injunctions against the killing of cows.

Two days ago, on the outskirts of the national capital New Delhi, a Hindu mob gathered at a temple to a rallying call that claimed that a certain Muslim family had killed a cow and had stored its meat for food. The mob descended on the family dwelling, dragged out a 50 year old man and his 22 year old son, and beat them brutally. The older man died and the son was admitted to hospital in a critical condition. All this for the "crime" of eating beef. The gruesome incident is reported here, here and here.

In an ostensibly secular democracy, a twisted political version of Hinduism has taken hold of a large enough group of people that those who are going about their business eating the food they have always eaten are now in danger of losing their lives.

This incident has outraged me. It has outraged me so much that I have to do more than just write words against it. It finally occurred to me this morning what I needed to do.

As soon as I had the idea that I would have to symbolically eat beef, I at once knew both that it was the right thing to do, and that it would be one of the hardest things I have ever done. I confess I suffered trepidation as lunchtime approached, but I stayed firm. I reminded myself that courage is not the absence of fear but the quality of marching on in spite of fear.

I hunted about in the food court for a shop that sold beef. I then realised how unfamiliar this exercise was for me! Finally, I found a shop that sold beef baguettes, and I bought one.

 A single beef baguette, cut in half

I sat down at a secluded table and prepared to eat. I will not pretend that this was easy. I was afraid I might throw up at the first bite. Indeed, there were three or four moments when I almost gagged, but I fought the instinct and continued until I finished. My burning anger kept me going.

The first half being eaten... 

...and the second

And that was that. I was born Hindu and have been a lifelong vegetarian. But today, for the first time in my life, I ate beef. I may never eat beef again in my life, but it was terribly important to me that I do it at least once. My conscience demanded it. A secular democracy where people can do whatever they please as long as they don't harm others - that is something that is extremely sacred to me. It is my sacred cow, one might say.

I ate beef today in order to make a statement, and the statement is simply this:


Update: Less than an hour after my lunch, I saw the following regional Australian newspaper lying on a desk in my office (I work for a media company). It seems to support my theory that the entire universe is a simulation running on a computer somewhere, and that its operating system employs "locality of reference" to reuse recent patterns rather than create all-new ones.

A sports team called the Binalong Brahmans seems to have won a championship. What a name, and what a headline!

Monday, 13 July 2015

The Plagiarism Charge Against Rajiv Malhotra Proves He Hit A Raw Nerve - A Short History

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when the Empire struck back. Rajiv Malhotra, the newly discovered intellectual maven of the Hindu Right, has been accused of plagiarism. If anything, I believe Malhotra is guilty of sloppy attribution, not of plagiarism. His critics are probably trying to get him on a technicality, and I expect the controversy will blow over fairly soon. The more important issues with Malhotra's work relate to its content, and the sooner the world begins to focus on that, the better.

For years now, Malhotra has been attacking the Western academic establishment, indeed the whole of Western civilisation, for its insidious and centuries-long suppression of native cultures. Claiming to speak on behalf of the Indic civilisation, Malhotra has written many books and articles, in the process spawning a movement that is part revolutionary, part native pride, part revisionist and part self-help. There is no doubt his contributions have inspired many educated Indians, especially Hindus.

I have great admiration for Malhotra as a thought leader, although I do not agree with everything he says. He has drawn attention to some fascinating aspects of cultural interaction that I had been unconscious of, but he also strikes me as going overboard with some of his conspiracy theories.

As an example, he makes the brilliant point that mutual respect is preferable to the patronising concept of "tolerance". In the process, he exposes the arrogance inherent in the Abrahamic religions, which makes it impossible for a true adherent of those religions to genuinely respect an adherent of a different faith. The Huffington Post article where he argues this point will remain a classic.

As a second example, he has drawn attention to how contributions of one culture are appropriated by another, a process he calls "digestion". When a tiger eats a deer, it is not a benign meeting of cultures that influence each other. Nothing of the deer remains, except what the tiger rejects. What is eaten then strengthens the tiger. This is what happens to native cultures when conquered by a stronger foreign one. The foreign culture imbibes whatever it finds useful, and the rest goes into a museum.

A well-known social phenomenon is the "Pizza effect", where native people accept elements of their own culture only when they come back to them as something foreign, or from a "superior" culture. Pizzas were originally only eaten by poor people in Italy, but when American pizza companies opened outlets in Italy, affluent Italians began to find it socially acceptable to eat pizza. The same happens to many Indians who only accept aspects of Indian culture when they come back to them with Western packaging.

As a third example of cultural interaction, Malhotra talks about a "U-Turn Theory", which is related to both "digestion" and the "Pizza effect". Here, native people receive what they think are aspects of a foreign culture, but these are nothing but their own artifacts that have been stripped of all traces of their origin and packaged in the trappings of the foreign culture. It is a tragedy when civilisations disown important elements of their own culture, only to accept them in an unrecognisable alien form. "Cultural genocide" is perhaps too strong a term for it, but it is nevertheless worthy of condemnation.

Particular examples of how Western culture has appropriated Eastern science come from the world of psychology, and Malhotra provides the following examples:

  1. Howard Gardner took Sri Aurobindo's "Planes and Parts of Being" along with the Rasas of NatyaShastra and turned them into "Multiple Intelligences"
  2. Herbert Benson took Maharshi Mahesh Yogi's Transcendental Meditation and turned it into "Relaxation Response"
  3. Jon Kabat-Zinn took Buddhist Vipassana and turned it into "Mindfulness Meditation"
  4. Steven LaBerge took Yoga Nidra and turned it into "Lucid Dreaming"

In spite of his spirited defence of Indic culture, Malhotra is not a cringe-inducing fruitcake like Dinanath Batra, whose idea of Indian history involves flying vimanas and nuclear weapons used in the Mahabharata war. I particularly like Malhotra's no-nonsense approach when he talks about the greatness of the Indic civilisation. He is disdainful of the claims that there were aircraft and nuclear weapons in ancient India. "Show me a runway or a crash site", he says, "show me radioactivity." His Infinity Foundation has produced many books detailing historically factual Indian innovations in various technical fields. Similarly, he is derisive of vacuous claims that Hinduism is "a way of life", which he likens to an equally meaningless claim that a car is a collection of atoms. 

Where Malhotra gets into controversial territory is when he discusses Western conspiracies to "break India". I will discuss this in greater detail shortly, but I believe it is his conflation of the very different ideas of "India" and of "Hinduism" that are responsible for his peculiar viewpoint. I am particularly sensitive to this distinction, since I am simultaneously a social liberal and a hawk on Indian foreign policy. I agree with him that India needs a geopolitical "grand narrative" to give it a sense of identity and direction. I further agree with him that this grand narrative has to have a civilisational basis, i.e., in the Indic civilisation. Where I have trouble agreeing with him is when this Indic civilisational identity is conflated with a Hindu religious/philosophical identity. Such a conflation would needlessly alienate millions of patriotic Indians on the basis of a perceived philosophical divide. It would weaken, not strengthen, the Indian nation-state. I have a competing model of the Indic civilisation that I believe is more inclusive and positive.

Needless to say, Malhotra's conflation of Hindu-ness and Indian-ness appeals greatly to the Hindu right, who have made this their foundational ideological plank. Hence, although Malhotra is too erudite and sophisticated to be associated with the jingoistic saffron movement (he has often referred to himself as a "non-Hindutva Hindu"), he has been co-opted by the more literate section of the movement which has been hungering for a respectable ideological basis for its collective insecurities.

Apart from the danger of his brand of civilisational identity alienating religious minorities, Rajiv Malhotra's major intellectual failing is, ironically, the very same difference anxiety that he accuses others of. He correctly demolishes the notion of universalism as nothing but "Western universalism", under which genuine cultural difference is downplayed. When recounting a discussion with former BBC India correspondent Mark Tully, Malhotra says Tully asked him why he was so focused on difference and why he could not instead talk about the ways in which people were the same. Malhotra's riposte made a very important point. He asked Tully, "By 'the same', do you mean that you will become the same as me, or that I should become the same as you?"

That telling question is the petard by which Malhotra himself should be hoisted.

Rajiv Malhotra is guilty of "Hindu universalism" just as surely as many liberal, secular people are guilty of Western universalism. In "Being Different", he claims to have isolated the core characteristics that unite the various sampradayas (schools of philosophical thought) of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism (the "Dharmic" religions), and that simultaneously distinguish them from non-Dharmic philosophies. In doing so, he claims to speak for all the adherents of the "Dharmic" religions, but he emphatically does not.

As just one example, his thesis in the Chapter on "Inherent Unity" in "Being Different", expanded into an entire book in "Indra's Net" describes just one branch of Hindu philosophy - Advaita Vedanta or Monism. This view is absolutely irreconcilable with Dvaita Vedanta or Dualism. Malhotra does not, indeed cannot, speak for both Advaita and Dvaita at the same time because the differences between them are so fundamental. There is no overarching "Dharmic" philosophy that reconciles these two viewpoints. Indeed, it could be argued that in a theological sense, Dvaita Vedanta has more in common with Abrahamic religions than with Advaita Vedanta (because of their views on the relationship between God and Man, or between Creator and Creation), even if Dvaita and Advaita have both evolved cheek-by-jowl in the Indian spiritual milieu. This is a point no one from the neo-Hindu movement will acknowledge. That's why I use the term "Hindu universalism". Malhotra imposes an Advaita Vedanta view on all the philosophies that he calls "Dharmic", whether or not it fits.

Why does he do this in spite of asserting that the Dharmic philosophy has an "Open Architecture" that accommodates diversity? I believe it's because he suffers from the all too common human failing of "privilege-blindness". In his case, that privilege-blindness comes from being an upper-caste, North Indian Hindu male. He simply cannot see some differences where they exist, and it is up to the minority viewpoints to speak up and make themselves heard when they are incorrectly represented.

I also suspect it is this privilege-blindness that causes him to deny an ethnic or cultural basis for the differences within Hindu society.

He is a strong opponent of the Aryan Invasion Theory, whereas recent genetic evidence reveals that Indians do have a mixture of two distinct racial groups. While it is not possible to call North Indians "Aryan" and South Indians "Dravidian", it is a genetic fact that North Indians have more "Aryan" genes than "Dravidian" ones, and South Indians have the ratio reversed. There is thus a genetic basis for South Indians to be considered distinct from North Indians, but Malhotra (just like many others of the Hindutva movement) absolutely denies the distinction. As a South Indian, I am tempted to ask Malhotra, "By 'the same', do you mean that you will become the same as me, or that I should become the same as you?" (With the emphasis that many in the neo-Hindu movement place on the Hindi language, I believe I can guess the answer to that question.)

This difference anxiety also causes him to deny, against all evidence, that the caste system in Hinduism was oppressive and permitted no mobility. His attitude sits well with the Hindutva ideology, since that movement is also made up of privilege-blind, upper-caste North Indian Hindu males.

For example, when Indologist Wendy Doniger analyses Hinduism from a feminist and subaltern perspective, she filters out the brahmin male narrative and looks at what remains. It's not a pretty sight, and the fact that an outsider has dared to do this has outraged the privilege-blind, Malhotra included. This is why he has launched an all-out war against Doniger and other Western scholars whom he deems to be insufficiently reverent towards Hindu traditions. His RISA-leela article on and the book "Invading the Sacred" that he sponsored, are powerful volleys against unflattering Western studies of Hinduism. Some of his points are well made, but his outrage seems to be more about the fact that the dominant narrative of a privileged group within the Hindu fold has been challenged by "outsiders". He believes that control of the narrative on Hinduism should remain with cultural insiders rather than with outsiders.

I don't believe in privileging either "insiders" or "outsiders". Anyone should be able to contribute a perspective without being denigrated, and while believing Hindus should be able to rebut views of their religion that they disagree with (without resorting to threats), critics should also be allowed to present their views (no matter how offensive they may be to believers).

There is a branch of academia called Islamic Studies in Muslim countries, and it is only believing Muslims who are permitted to engage in this research. Needless to say, they may not challenge core tenets or beliefs of the faith, which leads one to question the credibility of the whole exercise. In much the same way, the Hindu right (of which Malhotra is one regardless of his protestations) howls whenever Hinduism is analysed with anything less than reverence, which prompts one to ask if Hinduism is also to be considered above criticism.

Wendy Doniger has written a response arguing why non-Hindus should be allowed to discuss Hinduism, and I agree with her. The last thing Hinduism Studies needs is an echo chamber, but the Hindu Right, led by its intellectual stalwarts like Rajiv Malhotra, are attempting to muzzle all irreverent views. This is a slippery slope, because its victims are not just Western scholars but Indian ones like AK Ramanujan, whose scholarly and fact-based work "300 Ramayanas", was withdrawn from study by Delhi University. The reason? Some of the lesser-known (yet authentically Indian) versions of the Ramayana contradicted the more orthodox versions, which then rendered them heretical and even blasphemous. The general strain of intolerance of critical viewpoints that Malhotra seems to approve of is paradoxically turning Hinduism into an Abrahamic religion with a single approved body of scripture, and hostility towards "heretics" and "blasphemy". Once again, there is the echo of Malhotra's famous question, "Should Abrahamic religions become the same as the Dharmic ones, or should the Dharmic religions become the same as the Abrahamic?" 

The anxiety to deny caste discrimination in Hinduism also leads Malhotra down the path of least resistance, as he points towards external forces attempting to break India (the Chinese supporting the Maoists, the Pakistanis and Saudis supporting the Islamists, and Christian missionaries/NGOs converting Hindus to Christianity). In his book, "Breaking India", he deals exclusively with the last of these threats. He is absolutely right that Christian missionary organisations have been operating on a war footing in South and East India, converting poor and disadvantaged Hindus to Christianity with a mix of deception, bribery and intimidation. While it is necessary to condemn and stop these activities, it is even more important to address the core reasons why Hindus may want to convert to other religions - the shocking caste-based discrimination that exists to this day. Indeed, the subtitle of "Breaking India" acknowledges the root of the problem - "Western Intervention in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines". It is the existence of faultlines in Hindu society that permits external forces to exploit them, yet eradicating caste is not the focus of either Malhotra or anyone else of the Hindu right. They will deny the fact of oppression and discrimination, and argue for the preservation of the status quo, all the while claiming to fight the evil missionaries trying to divide Hindu society and thus "break India".

In fact, Malhotra goes so far as to blame the British (especially Lord Risley, who conducted the 1901 census) for creating a caste-consciousness among Indian Hindus that did not exist earlier. On the contrary, genetic evidence tells us that strict endogamy (the cessation of interbreeding between castes) occurred 1900 years ago, long before Lord Risley and the British. Why does Malhotra point a finger at external parties when his focus should be where it belongs? I believe it is his privilege blindness that causes him to ignore the real rifts within Hindu society that can only be healed through an ideological overhaul. That's a far harder task than pointing the finger at external enemies, and Malhotra takes the easy way out. That's why I think he has disappointed as an intellectual thought leader. He has chosen expediency over truth.

It is perhaps in this context that we should see the latest charges of plagiarism that have been made against Malhotra. Malhotra's attacks against Western agencies have obviously not gone unnoticed.

Plagiarism is a very serious charge in academic circles and if proven, is sufficient to kill an author's career and reputation.

But how true is the charge? Malhotra's critics accuse him of lifting whole paragraphs from other authors without quotes and without specific attribution of each such quote. Malhotra replies that he has acknowledged the sources at the end of each chapter saying "This section draws heavily on author XYZ". To my mind, Malhotra's transgression, if any, is of the nature of a technicality and not the more serious intent to deceive or to pass off another's work as one's own. He may deserve a slap on the wrist to ensure that he is more meticulous in pointing out each instance when he quotes another author, but the charge of plagiarism seems overblown to me.

Malhotra has many critics, especially in the West. Rather than address his many theses point by point, in which exercise they will have to concede some points even as they score others, they seem to have chosen the nuclear option of destroying his credibility wholesale with the charge of plagiarism. It's a risky gambit, because if they can control the levers of power in the academic and publishing worlds, they may succeed in inflicting a lot of damage. Personally, I think they have overreached and this episode will only make him stronger.

I have mixed feelings about Malhotra's work. He has tackled the powerfully emotive area of cultural identity with some groundbreaking books and articles. There are areas where he absolutely hits the nail on the head, and yet others where he seems to overstate his case. His work is so vast and encompasses so many aspects that it is hard to do justice to it all. Nevertheless, the correct way to critique him is to engage with him point by point. Where he is right, the rest of the world will have to change. Indeed, the world is changing to accommodate minority viewpoints at a faster rate than ever before in history, so this is not an unreasonable demand.

Having said that, Malhotra's more outlandish conspiracy theories need to be called out and ridiculed. His one-size-fits-all "Hindu Universalism" that stems from his own privilege blindness is in need of overhaul. And his call for an Indian "grand narrative" should be heeded, although formulated in a more socially inclusive way than he himself has done.

Friday, 10 July 2015

An Indian Contribution To Philosophy

Internet maven Kanishka Sinha has written up a whirlwind summary of all major Western philosophical thought, and has also tried to explain with a diagram how some representative schools of Eastern thought relate to this body of work. I think he has done a remarkable job of explaining the various ideas expounded by Western philosophers, and while I cannot claim to understand the Chinese philosophers with any authority, there are a couple of points I would like to make about Indian philosophy and some points of congruence and contrast with Western philosophy.

There are two irreconcilable viewpoints in Hindu religious thought, and they are Monism (Advaita) and Dualism (Dvaita). They deal with the relationship between a hypothetical Creator or Supreme Intelligence on the one side, and all of Creation, including human beings, on the other.

The Dualist or Dvaita philosophy maintains that the two are independent entities that can never be the same. The Creator can bring Creation into existence and will it out of existence, but Creation never becomes one with the Creator. The implication of this on religious belief is that the Bhakta (devotee) is forever distinct from Bhagwan (God). The Dvaita concept of moksha (liberation) is that the soul of the bhakta is no longer required to be reincarnated again and again but gets to remain in the company of Bhagwan, deriving bliss from being able to see and worship Bhagwan for all time. (As an atheist, I cannot think of a better description of hell, but hey, to each their own.)

The Monist or Advaita concept is the very opposite. Advaita avers that the distinction between Creator and Creation is illusory. All Creation is but a manifestation of a Supreme Intelligence (the Brahman). Indeed, it makes no sense to call this intelligence a "creator" if there is nothing that is created. Even the Hindu Trinity of Creator, Preserver and Destroyer are just less abstract personifications of the ineffable Brahman. Liberation or moksha in the Advaita philosophy comes about when an individual's soul realises its true nature as just a manifestation of the Brahman, and instantaneously becomes one with it. All of Creation vanishes, so to speak, since it is recognised to be entirely illusory.

Comparing and contrasting the Dvaita and Advaita schools of thought with Western philosophy, we can readily see the parallels between Dvaita and the Abrahamic religions. A Christian, for example, believes that when they go to heaven, they will be with Jesus Christ and God, but will not themselves become one with Jesus or God. This is the dualist vision of heaven, where they will enjoy the blissful privilege of being able to praise God forever.

The lucky ones get to enjoy the unending company of the two gents at the top, including the bad-tempered one (seated) who expects to be constantly praised. Settle in for an eternity of boredom, because the landscape looks pretty bleak.

We can readily see the parallels with Dvaita.

The lucky ones get to perch precariously on the snake and forever sing the praises of the reclining gent. The clothes are more colourful, but even they can get boring  pretty quickly when we're talking eternity. 

Advaita though, has no parallel in Western philosophy. The notion that everything that we can observe is not real but in fact illusory is quite an original idea! Postulating that a Supreme Intelligence has created this illusion for itself on a whim (leela) is another original idea.

That's the bit I think Kanishka should add to his philosophical roundup. Advaita is a unique philosophical idea that does not seem to exist anywhere in Western philosophy.

Friday, 26 June 2015

What Is It About Germans And Feelings?

Something that has always intrigued me is that we often have to use German words to describe certain emotions, such as Schadenfreude (SHA-den-FROI-duh, pleasure at someone else's misfortune), Wanderlust (VAAN-duhr-LOOST, a restless urge to travel), Heimweh (HYME-vey, homesickness), Weltschmerz (VELT-shmeyrts, world-weariness) and Weltanschauung (VELT-an-shaoo-oong, worldview or outlook on life).

Recently, I came across this "Dictionary of obscure sorrows", and was once again struck by how many of them were German words.

Click to expand.

I learned German for a few years, and although I'm not very fluent, I can understand the composition of these words. Let me analyse them for the benefit of non-German readers.

1. Sonder (ZONN-duhr): "Special", hence the recognition that everyone is special, not just you.

2. Mauerbauertraurigkeit (MOW-uhr-BOW-uhr-TROW-riH-kyte):
Mauer means "wall". It's related to the French mur, and the English "mural" for wall painting.
Bauer means "builder".
Traurigkeit means "sorrow", with the "-keit" ending corresponding to the English "-ness".
Hence, "Wall builder sorrow", or the desire to keep out even people we like.

3. Rückkehrunruhe (RÜCK-keyr-OON-roo-uh):
Rück means "rear", where the "ü" is pronounced by placing the lips in the position to say "u" and saying "ee" instead, just like the French "u".
Kehr means "traffic".
Rückkehr means "return".
Ruhe means peace, and Unruhe means disquiet or disturbance.
Hence, "Return disquiet" refers to the dismay at forgetting one's travels after returning home.

4. Altschmerz (ALT-shmeyrts):
Alt means "old".
Schmerz means "pain".
Hence, "Old pain" means weariness of suffering through the same old issues you've always had.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Literary RDX - The Explosive Debut of Subcontinental Spy Fiction

The Cold War and the threat of nuclear armageddon inspired most of post-World War II spy fiction. English language readers generally heard the Western side of the story with British and American heroes, and I'm sure there were equally gripping novels available on the other side of the Iron Curtain featuring heroes with names ending in -sky or -vitch, as PG Wodehouse would have said.

Considering that the threat of nuclear war today arises mainly from the Indian subcontinent, it's surprising that we haven't so far seen much spy fiction set in this region.

That long drought may soon be coming to an end. Two recent debut novels by Indian authors, featuring heroes from the Indian spy agency RAW and their escapades in neighbouring Pakistan, provide some welcome analysis, however fictional, of the issues that bedevil the South Asian region.

Shatrujeet Nath's "The Karachi Deception" of 2013 was soon followed by Bilal Siddiqi's "The Bard of Blood" in early 2015

[I reviewed Shatrujeet Nath's second novel on this blog in January. This book is a work of mythological fiction - "The Guardians of the Halahala".]

Without giving away the details of either story, let me just say they deal with topics that should be very familiar to Indian and Pakistani readers.

The name Dawood Ibrahim is notorious throughout India. Ibrahim was a Mumbai-based don who fled the country when the heat on him began to increase. He is believed to have been responsible for the Mumbai blasts of 1993. He has been sighted in the UAE on occasion but is now believed to be hiding out in Pakistan.

In The Karachi Deception, Irshad Dilawar is the thinly-disguised equivalent of Dawood Ibrahim, and the story is of a group of RAW agents who are sent into Pakistan to eliminate him. Of course, nothing is ever straightforward in a good spy novel, and there are twists and turns galore.

The separatist movement in Pakistan's province of Balochistan is likewise well-known in the subcontinent. Pakistan has long accused India of providing support to Baloch separatists, a charge that India denies. However, given Pakistan's own barely secret support for separatism in the Indian state of Kashmir (and its equally stout denial), Indian citizens would not be surprised at (and may in fact welcome) their government's tit-for-tat involvement in Balochistan.

The Bard of Blood is largely woven around the Baloch separatist movement, although it involves characters from the larger AfPak region, such as Mullah Omar of the Afghan Taliban. Again, the story focuses on a group of RAW agents on a mission to Balochistan, and there is betrayal and intrigue here too. There is a scene featuring a meeting between the fictional Indian prime minister Shailendra Patel and Chinese president Zhou Bocheng in Ahmedabad, a sly reference to the actual meeting of Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping in the same city.

Both books weave historical and contemporary facts with fiction to create an engaging story. Needless to say, the villains in both novels are members of Pakistan's spy agency ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence).

It is important to note that Bilal Siddiqi, the author of The Bard of Blood, is just twenty years old! This novel is a terrific accomplishment for one so young.

Having said that, Shatrujeet Nath's is by far the more polished work. The sophistication of the plot, the quality of the language and the richness of the atmosphere evoked by The Karachi Deception are first rate. This is not to say that The Bard of Blood is amateurish. It is also a very readable novel, but there are definitely better books in the author's future. Siddiqi is a good twelve years younger than Nath was when he wrote his first book, so he can certainly look forward to producing more sophisticated writing as he matures.

One thing I must say, though. I am a strong believer in quality as evidenced by the little details. Sloppiness in English grammar and composition detracts greatly from the overall impression of a book's quality, and Bilal Siddiqi should definitely get himself a more conscientious editor. There were at least three glaring errors of language in his book (apart from the constant and erroneous reference to the Baloch people as "Balochis").

1. The description of Mullah Baradar on page 76 alternates between the past tense and the present tense. It should have been in the past tense throughout.

2. On page 130 appears the line "Sadiq and him never got along well." That should have read "Sadiq and he never got along well."

3. On page 151, there is a reference to the "draft itinerary" of an important meeting. That should of course have been "draft agenda".

I'm pedantic about English, so these kinds of mistakes can ruin a book for me. I hope Siddiqi fixes these errors in the next edition of the book, and ensures that such mistakes don't mar his future writing. Shatrujeet Nath's novel has a couple of typos in it, but fortunately nothing more egregious.

I did enjoy both books, and would recommend them to other fans of the spy genre as well as to those interested in South Asian politics. Here's looking forward to more subcontinental spy fiction from these and other authors. It would be good to see Sri Lanka, Burma, Nepal and China included in the ambit of future stories, since they no doubt play a role in real-life covert operations in the region.