Coming to Gita

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I have been brought up a Hindu, by a devout mother who adores Krishna and cares for him almost as her third child. So, Gita is not an alien text to me. I have heard its basic tenets a few times, I have seen some gatherings of elderly women weep over the message of divine devotion, I have oscillated between feeling the same surge of emotion and rolling my eyes at the overwhelmed group . But I know the messages only partially and superficially – in punchlines and not as embodied knowledge. When I began to transition into adolescence, like most young people, I violently threw the cloak of tradition and religion, afraid that it will consume me into a mass which I was not ready to become.

After wrapping life around myself in my own fashion for many years, I no longer feel threatened by a prescribed way of life. I feel strong enough to examine it with my own sight. Yet, I am not ready to dive into the literal translation of Gita, because I lack the context to interpret a text written many hundreds of years ago.

On the lookout for a starting point, three months ago, I found a copy of Devdutt Pattanaik’s “My Gita” on an airport bookstore, and I decided to start there. Pattanaik is not a renowned   expert on Hinduism or the Gita. He is often criticised for being ubiquitous, a false marketeer, biased Shaivate, inaccurate and more. But his Gita is well laid out, thematically presented, and draws comparisons between Hinduism and other religions, which may be difficult to find in traditional Hindu texts. For a person like me, the starting point in understanding Gita needs to look from outside-in, zoom in from what I see around me and crystallise the differences.

So ‘My Gita’ worked for me – even though I am cautious to not take it as the whole truth. I think of it has a starting point from where I can work my way into Gita in particular and Hinduism in general. The introduction helped me to re-affirm some of my earlier understanding and expand on a few concepts of Hindu believes, such as:

The concept of “iti” – as things are, and the acceptance of iti. There is a reality which encompasses violence, conflicts, desires and Hinduism advices to accept and acknowledge it, instead of negating and denying it.

Hinduism as a householder’s religion: One of the fundamental differences between Hinduism and Buddhism is the monastic nature of Buddhism, where a believer renounces and withdraws from the world, whereas Hindu tradition encourages people to engage with society and carry out responsibilities as per your current role.  Buddhism professes killing self-desire, while Hinduism talks about the ultimate desire to unite with Brahma.

Darshan or observation (versus judgement): Hindu mythology does not have a judgement day – instead one is encouraged to observe actions and understand/empathise with the fear underlying those actions. Judgement creates walls, whereas the world of observation is fluid and more empathetic.

Dehi or Atman (immortal resident within the body or deha): Gita talks about body and its immortal residents as two distinct entities. It is the deha which is entrapped in fear, and rebirth allows the immortal soul to escape the cycle of fear. However, stripped of the body, the soul immediately looks for a new body and perpetuates the cycle of rebirth. Through observation, dehi can go beyond the entrapments of body. Devotion to God can help the atman

The concepts don’t end here, but I am struggling to synthesize everything in one post (and one sitting). I will likely return to these concepts again in another post.

It is not difficult to see that all of the above concepts have a lot in common with popular axioms of letting go, not judging, accepting things; axioms that transcend beyond Hindu beliefs to charismatic speeches, psychological assistance, self-help guides and even pixar movies. It is sound advice, but it puts all action in the hands of the ‘actor’, which causes significant anxiety. It does not seem like Gita is ready to prescribe me a way of life, and is instead telling me that there is no script and I need to form my own. And shouldn’t this scare me?

Shifting Sands

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Traveling through the primal lands of Western Australia where I didn’t expect to find much except desolation, I strangely came upon a site which linked directly to the title of this blog. The Shifting Sands themselves – in a pristine white, so soft to the touch. Their charm was enhanced against the backdrop of a beautiful Australian sky – stark blue streaked with a dreamy white. The wind softly carried the sand, just enough to keep the edges of the sand dunes blurry and illusive. Continue reading

Sounds from a window

For slightly over two weeks, I have been hearing a man’s voice from my bathroom window. It comes from some floor below, and is desperate. For the first few days, all I heard was his pleas to open the door – presumably to his family. At first, I thought I had imagined it. I was alone at home for a few days, and in such times the senses become extra-perceptive to imagined danger.
However, after a while, I could also hear the sounds of pounding on the door. It was certain that the man was caught in a room for more than a few days. I tried to imagine what could have happened. Was he accidentally locked inside the house? But then why did he call out to his family if he knew they were not there? Why does he not phone someone? Perhaps some kids from his family play a prank on him repeatedly and lock him in his room. But how could he fall for it over and over again unless he was very old and the kids very cruel? Of course, amidst all this – there was the most dominant explanation that the family had deliberately locked him in. And if so, there could be only one reason for it – mental instability. If that was true, was it not unsafe to have a potential lunatic living in the building where I spend a lot of time alone in my apartment?
No matter which scenario I expected, there was no excuse for my inaction. Upon confirming with my husband that it was not just me hearing those voices, we notified the guard. His response was equally inactive – he gave us his cell number and asked to be called when we heard the voice again. I have to admit that I did hear these voices again a couple of times, but it happened in the mornings when I was usually running for work, and I did not bother to call the guard. I was more and more convinced that the man hadn’t got accidentally stuck in, and that to me diminished the emergency of the situation.
However today, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, when the pleas rose again – we called the building supervisor, who seemed as disinterested as the guard. He showed surprise, made some right sounds, and asked us to call the guard on duty. When we spoke with the guard, this one more knowledgeable than the other one – he confirmed what I had suspected all along. Just in the flat below mine, a family had moved in with a mentally unstable old man. This man sometimes ran down, shouted at people, picked up sticks and threatened to beat people up. The guards particularly had had a rough time with him. To avoid this, the family often locked him up in a room.
Of course to hear all this was not pleasant. I felt a strong anger at the family who had decided to bring a madman amongst us. They could never be the right judge of how dangerous this man could get. There would be a high probability that they did not even take him for an examination regularly. Perhaps not in many years. I was also mad at the building society for allowing such a man to live in the building without properly warning the residents. When I rented the place, I had to register myself in the police station and get a clean chit before shifting in. I thought of all my single friends who have the hardest time finding a place in the city which finds their single-dom too risky, and yet doesn’t seem to mind madness. Isn’t it illegal to keep such a man in a residential building without professional supervision? Is he not supposed to be in a medical asylum?
Apparently not. I still do not know whether there are laws in India pertaining to the mentally ill and the risk they pose to society. What I do know is that keeping these patients at home, often unsupervised, is a regular phenomenon. One of my uncles was a mental patient and he spent far fewer days in the hospital than he ought to have. Another cousin of my grandfather too was ‘a bit off’ as we called him, but the family’s response to him was mostly to ignore him while the kids tried to remain as far away from him as possible. I still remember with dread the few times when these people would visit our place and I would be too scared to open my mouth.
Despite of familiar experiences, or may be because of them, the danger of this man living downstairs feels real. Though I am not worried about him getting homicidal and running after people with an axe (God forbid) – I shudder to imagine running into him in a small space like a lift. Or open the door sometime to him without knowing.
Sometimes, the ‘chalta hai’ spirit of the city wears me down to no extent. Especially when I realize that I am becoming a compatible specimen.

Fear & Debates

Last week’s ordeal of Mumbai has made fear very real. Suddenly, dates like December 6 have come alive again. I am traveling tomorrow – and with all the threats about possible air strikes, I am quite apprehensive. How does one deal with such things – give in to the fear and cancel plans? Or travel when security is at its tightest and no one is caught napping in a surprise attack.

Few days ago, after the attacks, I , like everyone else (because after such an event, there is nothing else that you can talk about) got into a long debate with a friend over terrorism. Amongst other things, he said that terrorism is also a war, except that the players change the rules to suit their strengths. They cannot play by the rules because the stronger forces will always make rules that will make it difficult for the weaker to win. To further his argument, if anyone needs a way of revolting against the wrongs done to him, since he cannot win this war with direct combat, nor with peaceful demonstrations, terrorism is a natural reaction, something that is justified in his belief system.
The horrifying thing is, that unless directly affected by terrorism, a lot of the fair and ‘just’ educated people will find this argument logical and the cause of the terrorist explainable. But is logical necessarily correct? If social consciousness separates man from animal, then there should be an objective way of differentiating right and wrong, attacking defenseless human beings falling on the clear wrong end. If a section finds itself weak enough to engage in direct combat, it should either submit to subjugation or collect forces to become strong enough for direct combat.
In the last few terror strikes, no agenda has been communicated along with the attack. Even after the collision of WTC, no party or community came out and made demands or even clarified the reason for violence apart from the proclaimed hatred for the West. If the war is towards a specific purpose or to correct some injustice, at the least a declaration of the purpose should be made.
It can be argued that it is futile to make a peaceful protest: the Dalai Lama has done so for many years and got nowhere. But where has the jihadi protest gone? Have them making the world a scary place to live in fetched the fundamentalists anything? (Unless spreading fear was their goal and not a means, in which case theirs is not a war)
All such debates are futile – we can argue and counter-argue and run in loops, that does nothing to abate the fear. Only momentarily makes you think of something other than the risk. To copy from the Economist, it is like eating kulfi in front of the Taj.

Shooting at the icon


These are days of shock and horror. Not just for those of us who reside in the city which has seen incredible mayhem in the last 50 hours, but for the entire nation, even the world. How different it is to drop a bomb and run away, even blow up as a human bomb in a flash. But to enter a city, to fill it with terror and then seize its softest points at gunpoint and engage in a long, endless battle without a thought of leaving it alive, is unprecedented and terrifying beyond belief. The key to winning a battle lies in the belief that the opponent will make an effort to save his life, but how much more difficult is this battle when the other wastes no thought to life – someone else’s or his own. The Joker is always the most dangerous enemy.

Is it at all relevant that it has happened to India? Or that Pakistani nationals planned and perpetrated it? Perhaps, to a degree it is. But neither is the target limited to India, nor is the perpetrator confined to our neighbor. It is a war on all progress, made by all detractors of progress. Would engaging in a communal violence, which seems a possibility, or engaging in a war with Pakistan solve or eradicate any of it? No. Did American bombing of the wastelands of Afghanistan solve anything? No. If America has not seen a major terror attack since 9/11, it is more for its efforts to secure itself than its eradication of a country miles away. To save ourselves from terrorism, we need to wear a protective cover, for we cannot intercept every bullet.

The country we love to hate, and where perhaps a lot of this attack was seeded, is a country itself in deep trouble. We put their officials and leaders on hot seat and hurl accusations. But to lead a country full of fundamentalists and steer it towards open mindedness and progress, is a task for generations. Yes, they could come down with an iron fist on all these fundamentalist organizations like the Lashkar-e-Toiba. But in all likelihood, that will draw these organizations into greater focus, generate for them sympathies in the name of religion. Which will perhaps all end in the massacres of those who uphold something other than fundamentalism in the country. Can India take over this country and eradicate the communalistic sentiment? If not, what will be achieved by this war or by freezing any peace talks? Almost everyone who planted a bomb on our trains was an Indian – does it mean that we wage a war on ourselves? What about the Indian National who funded this operation? Or the people living in UK for years?

How much power do our leaders have when they try to fight internal fundamentalism of a different nature? The Nucleur treaty was opposed, without reason or rationale, and the Government had to be a mute witness. It does not mean that the very sensitive and progressive Manmohan Singh stands by those ghosts of ideas. But what good would it be for the country to dissolve yet another government and see another, equally fragmented mixture come up. The issue was tackled, slowly, but to effect. Tact remains the ultimate resort of a government which is not autocratic. And we may like to remember that before breaking off the resemblance of ties with a neighbour.

The fingers should not point towards a country. Yes, the country and its community needs to set its house straight, and not at this painfully slow rate. It is not the world that is marginalizing them, but they themselves. But that aside – even our country needs to set its security straight. Yes ours is a country of a billion people, and it is much more difficult to control it. But to let the planning of an operation of this scale go ahead without information is unbelievable. After knowing that sea route was used for transport of RDX for earlier bombings, a sleeping coast guard is unpardonable. Where is the department of Homeland security, which should have been formed after Dec 1991, then 1993, then 2002, 2003, 2006? To blame governments, demand resignations are simply political ploys that should be shunned by any self-respecting citizen. Which of the many governments that have held the centre been able to save anyone from threats?
What is the solution? A very involved intelligence. A crack team that can handle such situations in a short span of time. Securing of major buildings with escape routes – these are some of the obvious answers, the low-hanging fruits. In the longer run, the election commission could ensure that there be no political party that can campaign on the basis of divisive politics, or woo ‘votebanks’. It should be made unconstitutional to do so. Moving to a bi-party systems, where the governments can take more firm decisions and be responsible for them, in stead of engaging in compromise politics. And education, education and more education that can guide those misguided towards truth and justice in stead of letting them waste themselves in the name of religious warfare. May be these are idealistic thoughts, and some problems cannot be solved. But to continuosly brave those problems and putting up the resilient Mumbaikar spirit is not a plus but hopeless foolishness.

Bernhard

The Paper cuts blog from NY Times talks about a Panel discussion on the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard. I have read only one book from Bernhard and was immediately struck by the geriatric leanings that Dale Peck mentions in the discussion. I loved the passage quoted by him from Concrete:

Even early in my life there were times when I had no one – I at least knew that I had no one, though others were always asserting that I did have someone. They said, You do have someone, whereas I knew for certain that I not only had no one, but – what was perhaps the crucial and most annihilating thought – needed no one. I imagined I needed no one, and this is what I still imagine to this day. I needed no one, and so I had no one. But naturally we do need someone, otherwise we inevitably become what I have become: tiresome, unbearable, sick – impossible, in the profoundest sense of the word. I always believed that I could get on with my intellectual work if only I were completely alone, with no one else around. This proved to be mistaken, but it is equally mistaken to say that we actually need someone. We need someone for our work, and we also need no one. Sometimes we need someone, sometimes no one, and sometimes we need someone and no one. In the last few days I have once more become aware of this totally absurd fact: we never know at any time whether we need someone or no one, or whether we need someone and at the same time no one, and because we never ever know what we really need we are unhappy, and hence unable to start on our intellectual work when we wish and when it seems right.

Apology

The first day I landed in Sydney was the illustrious, much emphasized and much talked about “Sorry Day”, an event that was omnipresent in all forms of media that I happened to get exposed to. The day when the state offered a former apology to the indigenous people of Australia for the misconduct towards them in general and a state policy in particular. This was a policy which allowed the state to forcefully separate indigenous children (now known as the Stolen Generations) from their parents and put them in various institutions, orphanages, etc. Australians went to the Parliament to hear this apology, children voiced concerns against such a ghastly act, and in general there was a general pool of emotion.

New as I am to my knowledge of Australia outside of their cricket, I was a little shocked to hear that this policy had been in use till as recently as 1970. But I was even more surprised that an answer to such a glaring and blatant injustice was merely a delayed apology, over which an entire nation was going hysterical. Is there really an expectation that the people stolen from their mothers, who never found a home since, will be moved to tears at this state apology and not hold any resentment anymore? Is an apology strong enough to do that?

I am not undermining the value of apology as a concept – it is the first step to setting things right often enough. But there is a context for everything. I can understand an apology for misconduct in general, but can you simply apologize for a holocaust and expect the victims to respond? And that when simply apologizing took so much deliberation, so many years of planning?
May be it helps someone, somehow – and may be the government will try to set things right. But imagine if someone stole you from your parents and twenty years later came back and said sorry. Would you refrain from punching his head for that word?

Indian tour of Australia

I realize that I am in severe danger of being called a negativist if I go through with this post. After all, this blog hardly put in a word of cheer when the Indian team completely bulldozed over Pakistan and defeated them after many (20 was it?) years in an ODI series and razed them again in a closely fought test. To be fair, I was too busy enjoying and celebrating the victory to write about it. This time, au contraire, I am following the India Australian series more out of compulsion rather than any interest. No, my interest in cricket has not suddenly waned – it is just that Australia has attained the kind of supremacy that in a test series, where real cricketing mettle is tested, when Indian players get down on the field against them – they are really hoping for a draw at the best. You can almost see the defeat in their faces – especially Ganguli’s (I apologize in advance to the whole of Bengal who may want to eat me alive after reading this – but really, I think he needs a regular supply of anti-constipative pills so he can offer the Indian cricket fans a slightly encouraging smile!)
This series, is getting attention for all the wrong reasons – except one right one – that of Tendulkar finally crossing over that 90-something barrier – and in style, finishing unbeaten at 154. It had become disheartening to see him trip over at 95,97 even 99 so many times, and I hope this victory makes him more confident going forward. That India lost even after such a feat is a severe disappointment, and though much of it is being blamed on Umpire-errors, I guess there is no escaping the fact that the team got lost in the blame game and played poorly compared to their opponents.

I suppose everyone will be cursing Bucknor – and he did become the doomsayer for the Indian team. But no one seems to be focusing on the India defeat apart from this ‘tragedy of errors’. The cherry that the media and the Indian fans and players seem to be running after is the story of Monkey God. Of course, it is an interesting story – surely more promising than the defeat at the hands of the ‘far superior’ team as Gavaskar calls them. I am sure our dear lord Hanuman will be deeply offended with this slur on his name and all the controversy surrounding it. All Indians seem to be surprised that this comment has been taken as a racist comment, when so much reverence is associated with monkeys in our culture. What I find more amusing is this precise argument – I am quite certain that there is little reverence Bhajji feels towards the Australian terror, and that he barely intended to use this phrase as one of praise. He of course used it in annoyance – something that he finds hard to check while in the ‘steam of the game’. With all his sixes and good bowling, he often displays lack of maturity, cursing incessantly his own team-mates for missing catches on his bowls, while himself showing less than glorious performance on the field. (Ouch! I began with not the least intention of criticizing him, specially after his stupendous 63 alongside the master)

So here is my note of solidarity and a correction for all the criticism that I may have offered to the men who are good in blue, but need to work harder in white:

There is no denying that the ICC is biased towards the Australian team and its players, may be for the simple virtue of their being an established and proven team. There are many moments when on the screen you can see the Australian lips move to words that we girls rarely hear but form the mainstream of engineering college lingo (No, that is not a sexist comment, any resemblance to the same is purely coincidental). I have hardly seen anyone raise fingers to that. And it makes me angry. I think it rather magnanimous of our team to be unhinged by such remarks and continue their play. A lot less can be said of players who curse more every moment with their eyes and then go complaining to the ICC at the slightest – what’s it called, slur…

Booker goes to ‘The Gathering’

Seems like it is the Europeans’ year – After British Doris Lessing won the Nobel for literature, the Booker goes to Ireland for Anne Enright’s The Gathering. According to the bets running prior to the announcement, Ms. Enright was far behind the two major contenders – Jones and Mcewan. But I suppose the Booker is following the dark horse tradition for a couple of years. Sometimes I wonder if Booker has become a way of promoting new and lesser known authors rather than rewarding a well-recieved book.
But of course, to make such statements without reading either name on the shortlist is downright bias.
A review of the novel by The Guardian can be found here.

The story of the headless chicken

Mike, the headless chicken would be very proud today – for simply the dropping of his name has tumbled a whole country into turmoil. Some name-dropping that is!
Well, I am not so much for current affairs, less so when comes to political affairs and agendas. But this one is too interesting to miss. When someone sitting in a foreign land, already having his hands full of an explosive deal, throws a ‘headless chicken’ remark to the media, it is bound to send ripples – even across the seven seas. But what is interesting to watch is how the remark really results into a scramble, creating its own reality, like the self-fulfilling prophecies of the yore. Hours within the comment is thrown, people begin to believe that it is thrown at them. The opposition takes offense, the left takes offense, and even the media takes offense – and all this when Mr. Sen had not pointed his finger at anyone, at best only at Rediff Media. It appears that deep down all of them suspect the worst of themselves! The current situation is remarkably like a pack of chicken, shrieking in confusion, running here and there.

Well perhaps they are not so headless, though. Opposition as well as the Left is always ambling for a cause to topple the Government – to snatch that second chance and to defile the ruling party with mis-governance. This thoughtless remark by an envoy gives them a great opportunity, especially when they have already been working hard on canceling the 123 deal. Our MPs, like everyone else, hate to go to work and keep looking for a day off. If you have ever watched the zero hour telecasts, you can simply see it in the attitude. It is like watching a pack of fighting children, hoping to finish the school hour in the ruckus and not having to sit in the class and study. A thoughtless remark make them their rainy day.

The media of course have a field day on such misgivings – they love to show themselves as the hurt party, braving all criticism in the face of bringing truth to the forefront. In saying that I am not criticizing them, well at least not too much. They do a good job of trying to highlight the irrationality and take the citizen on board. But often their highlighting crosses the bounds of responsible journalism. How much importance does one give to an irrational demand from an irrational segment of Governance? Running around about it too much, even though clearly discounting the merit of the protest is closer to exploiting the issue rather than sensible journalism. And if someone misfires a comment in an annoyed reaction to such running around, sensibility would suggest ignoring such a comment and not use it confound an already messed up situation at home. Is the media really responsible for telling the country that the country’s envoy was rude to them and give a chance to the destabilizers to have their song and dance? Yes Mr. Sen goofed up and he ought to face the music for that. Such irresponsible comments cannot be excused from a representative of the country – his role is tact and he failing to keep it up in an important time is sufficient to warrant an exit. But c’mon you newspapermen – are you doing your job well by fueling an irrelevant fire?