There are so many different kinds of palm trees that it’s difficult to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys in the palm tree story. By bad guys, I mean only one, the oil palm. Oil palm plantations have been blamed for extensive tropical deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as for habitat loss of critically endangered species like the Orang Utan and the Sumatran Tiger. Blame the producers by all means, but don’t forget to blame the consumers as well. And that means us, the consumers of so many products that have palm oil as an ingredient. These include soaps, washing powder, cooking oil, butter substitutes, pastry dough, many baked goods, and most recently, biodiesel. Anyway, this posting is in praise of the lesser known palmyra palm, one of more than three hundred varieties of palm tree. Here’s a useful website with illustrations of 30 varieties.
The palmyra palm tree and its delicious fruit remain relatively unknown worldwide despite its wide use in southeast Asia, especially in India and Cambodia. In India, it is the state tree of Tamil Nad. Palmyra jaggery is a recommended sweetener in Ayurvedic medicine. Modern tests show it has a low glycemic index of 40 (as opposed to 100 for refined white sugar) in addition to containing a range of B-complex vitamins. There are over 800 listed uses for the palmyra tree. Every part of the tree can be used for a range of foods, timber and household products. Palm tree kernels, pictured above, are like large, sweet water chestnuts and very refreshing summer snacks, rich in minerals. In addition, its leaves can be used as thatch, to weave baskets or mats. Centuries ago, palm leaves were used to write on. The wood provides excellent construction material.
Most people, myself included, think of coconuts or dates when palm trees are mentioned. The palmyra palm is a neglected cousin that is just as useful and deserves to be more widely known.
If we look at development work as the business of changing attitudes, then attitudes to learning must change a great deal in almost every continent in the world today (with the possible exception of Antarctica). One has only to read the newspapers of any country in the world to hear of growing xenophobia, widespread fearmongering, environmental destruction and climate catastrophes. The American psychiatrist Karl Menninger often said: Attitudes are more important than facts. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung said the same thing in different words. It depends on how we look at things and not how they are in themselves. The Indian philosopher and mystic, Sri Aurobindo said: What is of first importance is not the religious or non-religious character of the work done, but the inner attitude in which it is done.
My wife and I chose to begin our (self) development work in a tiny village near Chennai in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. We were there to learn and not to teach. My wife, who has worked as a teacher in international schools around the world all her professional life, began her interaction by learning a few Tamil words and phrases from village children who had expected her to spout knowledge and teach them English or mathematics. To their delight, they became teachers themselves from the very first day. They planted saplings, choosing the trees they wanted to have growing in the compound. They planted the ubiquitous banyan tree, in whose shade a few decades hence, generations of school children might seek shelter. They planted the arasu maram, the tree of kings it’s called in Tamil, under whose pointed leaves a latter-day Gautama Buddha might find enlightenment. At the end of the day’s lessons, instead of guiding us to the bus-stop, they showed us around their village and introduced us to their parents. We learned a lot throughout our five-week involvement here, and came to know a number of interesting local people. A politician, who I might have once dismissed as a party hack; this one might be key to helping the seven thousand people who live in his rural community preserve the intact ecosystem that exists in the area. A real estate developer, a truly modest man, who is interested in promoting rural youth education. He puts his money where his mouth is, by sharing a couple of acres of land to the project and getting sponsors for some of the forthcoming school building constructions. The entire venture is the brainchild of a retired college professor, an eminent Tamil scholar, who has already helped hundreds of, and several generations of, disadvantaged urban school kids in Chennai (Madras) by setting up five after-school learning centers at various points in the city. This venture with four acres of land around a container, is his first rural learning center. We are honored to be a part of this enterprise and look forward to spending several months a year here. On this initial visit, we commute every day from the city to the village by motor-bike. On our next visit, we hope to stay in a small thatch-roofed hut right next to the school.
On day one of the school, activities were inaugurated by planting trees. We learned so much from the villagers. We started by weeding the grounds. A creeper growing wild at the foot of the palmyra tree (Borassus flabellifer: more on that in a subsequent post) is about to be ripped out of the earth as a weed. Renuka stops me. This is a medicinal plant, she says, and tells me the name in Tamil. It’s leaves can be ground into a paste and used for arthritis or bodily aches and pains.
A number of saplings were taken to the empty site that had been marked out with a wire fence and stone posts. A container stood there, the first class-room. Fees should be modest and affordable, but the school should not be free. The people in the village tend to be cynical, and rightly so, about free gifts. They’ve been receiving freebies from politicians for a couple of generations; politicians who tend to look at them as vote banks. So it was decided to charge the students a fee of 50 rupees per month for the privilege of attending (around 75 Eurocents, yes cents, per month at today’s exchange rates). That’s all it costs to educate a child. That, and an enormous amount of goodwill. And goodwill there is aplenty. We have more than a dozen willing volunteer helpers. There’s Chakkaravarthy, who’s given up his job as an engineer at a multinational to become a technical help to the school and several other ventures started by his uncle. There’s Sukumar, who has been working with disadvantaged children for over a decade. He comes alive when he is with the kids, and never gets tired of interacting with them. Looking at him, one sees a picture of the right man in the right place doing what he loves. And what of us? We are on a steep learning curve, and the children have much to teach us. And the more they teach, the more they will learn.
The school is just a container, but learning is happening all the same. The Global Partnership for Education estimates that it costs on average US$ 1.18 per day to educate a child in low and middle income developing countries. This is a small sum, but multiplied by millions of children, several billions are needed annually. Unfortunately, influential people lobby their governments for fighter planes so they can bomb the hell out of their enemies from a safe altitude. Each of these warplanes costs more than the entire school education of several million children. Fortunately now, this village model shows that learning can take place even without a schoolroom and with far less than surmised by the Global Partnership for Education.
If a modern urbanite, Indian or foreign, were to visit the village today, they might see an ‘underdeveloped’ community. Access roads are poor, electricity is intermittent, and the children learn by rote in public schools staffed by teachers who insist on mindless discipline to the detriment of knowledge acquisition. What we see here is something quite different. We see children hungry to learn, living in a vibrant ecosystem that is intact and flourishing. This is rich farmland. Judging by the abundant birdlife (black drongos, Alexandrine parakeets, green parrots, greater coucal, hoopoes, bulbuls, swifts, spoonbills, several varieties of water birds, mynahs, weaver birds, francolin and several others), nature and man coexist comfortably here. Presumably there are poisonous snakes, scorpions, centipedes and rats in this paradise although we did not see any on our visit. We look forward to spending a lot more time in this village ‘undeveloping ourselves’ before we begin to teach. Or perhaps we have nothing to teach and everything to learn; about how not to confuse development with economic advancement. I fear the world has suffered enough from the latter.
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The grand epic of the Mahabharata tells of the war between two clans, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The many stories in the book of tales, which are told in some 100,000 stanzas of classical Sanskrit verse are together 12 times the length of the entire Bible. I have read several different English translations of this stupendous work. Despite the sometimes stilted language of the translations I read, the sublime poetry and wisdom of this work invariably shine through. I have searched for years for the perfect translation, and found it at last on the internet. The tale in its entirety is so complex, with a huge cast of characters and so many different sub-plots, that I thought it impossible to ever write a summary that does justice to the tale. Until this discovery on the internet of a synopsis written by someone (or a collective) calling themselves Wm. Blake Fabricators. A Google search led me to someone called Richard Blumberg who is apparently based in Cincinnati. Kudos to Richard Blumberg, then, for writing the most readable and comprehensive synopsis of this monumental work; a synopsis that effortlessly conveys the essence of the stories in fluid prose. I have reproduced the Introduction from the website below, and copied the links to synopses of the other six major episodes, with an Afterword and a Bibliography. I’m convinced that readers of this page, and followers of this blog, will not regret the 20 minutes they might spend following the links below to read the rest of this fascinating story.
It has been called the national epic of India, and it is that, in very much the same sense that the Iliad is the national epic of Classical Greece. The Mahabharata is the story of a great war that ended one age and began another. The story has been passed down to us in a classical canon of Sanskrit verses some 100,000 stanzas long; that’s about 12 times the length of the Western Bible. The best scholarly evidence indicates that the earliest layers of the epic were composed between 2500 and 3000 years ago. The text had reached pretty much its present form by about 300-400 C.E.
Mahabharata has also been called the Hindu bible. It is important at the outset to recognize that epic and bible are both Eurocentric terms. The former implies the kind of single-minded focus on the hero and his deeds that characterizes the stories that we Europeans learned as epics in our schooling. And the latter term implies a certain iconic status for the book in its society; our bible is not something we know so much as it is something we swear on. None of that is particularly true for the Mahabharata, although it is not completely false either. It just misses the point.
Epic and bible together imply an absolute division between the sacred and the profane – one pure fable and the other Holy Truth – that simply doesn’t exist in the Hindu vision. Our Eurocentric minds, trained in a Jahwist tradition of good and evil, true and false, demand that the story go into one slot or the other, and if it is too big, then we will reduce it to fit. The Hindu mind, I think, rather than force the story into any single category, conceives a story big enough to encompass all categories.
The Mahabharata itself says it quite positively.
What is found herein may also be found in other sources,
What is not found herein does not matter.
The Mahabharata contains virtually all the lore and legend of the Classical Hindu Tradition – which is also, in typical Hindu defiance of simple-minded historicity – very much a living tradition. Here are the great creation stories – Manu’s flood, the churning of the milk ocean, the descent of the Ganges. Here are the favorite myths and fairy tales. Here are the jokes. Here are the codes of law – moral, ethical, natural. One of the best things about the Mahabharata is its wonderful richness of episode and detail.
But Mahabharata is not a random collection of tales, like the Medieval gestes (to further prove the habit of thinking Eurocentrically). Every digressive bit of the Mahabharata is there to shed light on a central story. The core event of that story is the great battle that was fought on the field of Kurukshetra between the five sons of King Pandu and their allies on the one side and the hundred sons of King Dhritarashtra, with their allies, on the other side. The battle was the culmination of a long history of struggle and diplomatic maneuvering, and it involved virtually every tribal king and every powerful city-state in Central and Northern India at the time.
It was a tragic war, that pitted brothers against brothers, sons against fathers and uncles, brave noble men against brave noble men. And it was devastating. Nearly all of the best men died in the long battle. The Pandavas, the sons of King Pandu, survived, but there was no victory, for the war had destroyed the world that they knew, and the emptiness of what they had won colored the rest of their lives.
Now to say that the Mahabharata is the story of a great battle is to say that Hamlet is the story of an unsuccessful usurpation, or that Moby Dick is the story of a whale hunt. Hindu cosmology is sweeping, and the story of the Mahabharata war has cosmological significance, in that it marks the end of one yuga and the beginning of another. There are four yugas in every great cycle of existence, each one diminished from the one before. The yuga that ended with the Mahabharata war was the dvapara yuga – the age of heros, during which noble values still prevailed and men remained faithful to the principles and tasks of their castes. The age that follows the battle is the Kali yuga, the last age of the world; in it, all values are reduced, law becomes fragmented and powerless, and evil gains sway. We live in the Kali yuga.
The breadth of its vision is one of the things that makes the Mahabharata the best story I know. But there are other reasons. Mahabharata has a riveting plot and a compelling dramatic structure. Its characters are complex and real, with depth of personality that is unmatched in any other epical or biblical story I have heard. Finally, I have found the Mahabharata to be full of wisdom.
In the next few minutes, I am going to try to give you a sense of how the Mahabharata story goes.
Since the story has cosmic significance, its ultimate beginnings are lost in the mists of time and the minds of unknowable immensities; a wealth of family histories, myths, and fables lead up to the events that I will tell you about. I will jump into the story at a point where the succession to the kingship had come into question.
I was talking to the knowledgeable Tamil Professor about the preservation of traditional knowledge of medicinal plants in south India in general and Tamil Nad in particular. One reason, he explains to me, is that temples have traditionally been the protectors and benefactors of trees in a locality. Every temple has a “Sthala Vriksham” or sacred plant for that temple. A recently published book (in Tamil) gives the local name, the botanical name, and the medicinal value, of nearly 60 temple plants in the state. For example, Patala – Stereospermum sauvealens, also known as Rose Flower Fragrant in English, Padari in Tamil and Podal, Parul, Padala… in various Indian languages is used to treat snake and scorpion bites and also neurological and hepatological conditions. Local names of other sacred plants are Poolai (Aerva Lenatea, or mountain knotgrass), Vanni (Prosopis spicigera, a plant of the pea family that is related to honey mesquite), Thillai (Excoecaria Agallocha, a mangrove species). Mangroves of Excoecaria Agallocha surround the ancient Thillai Chidambaram temple in Tamil Nadu.
As someone who is allergic to the shrill lessons preached by adherents of some religions, it is very refreshing, in this ecologically endangered world, to see the practical and common-sense benefits of devotion.
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The wedding was in Kerala, a state in India whose advertising blurb labels it “God’s Own Country.” Argentinians and Brazilians also make rival claims to have been similarly favoured by the Creator, while each runs the others’ country down “Yeah, God gave your country everything, but then he created you people to compensate!” In the case of Kerala, the affable people of neighbouring Tamil Nadu harbor no such pretensions, laughingly noting that several million people from Kerala prefer to live with them rather than in their own home state. The wedding eve reception and reception were at holiday resorts at Kumarakom.
Kumarakom is situated on the banks of Vembanad lake, apparently the longest lake in India, whose wetland system covers an area of two thousand square kilometers. Much of Kerala’s claim to God’s bounty comes from the backwaters, large estuarine stretches of brackish water that gives rise to a very rich ecosystem. Part of the lake holds the fresh water that drains into it from several rivers, and this fresh water section is separated from the brackish portion by mudflats. The lake is at the heart of ‘backwater tourism’ in the state, with hundreds of “kettuvallams,” floating homes on motorized traditional boats. The riverboat network spans 200 km from north to south and the lake teems with giant prawns and several other types of freshwater fish.
Meanwhile, the bride and groom were happily united at a church in neighboring Kottayam town. It was a glorious wedding with guests travelling from around the world to attend. The groom wore a kilt, befitting his antecedents, and the bride wore a matching tartan sari, designed by the groom’s mother. All in all, a fitting Kerala wedding for the 21st century. The wedding photos belong in a family album rather than this blog, so none appear here. But if you ever are invited to a wedding in Kerala, my advice to you is, go!
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“We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. [. . .] None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators.” Vaclav Havel, Living in Truth, 1986.
Truth is a shape-shifting commodity and there are multiple truths about everything, depending on one’s point of view. As the old saying goes, where you stand on an issue usually depends on where you sit. That’s one reason why democracy’s so dangerous. People who sit still in one space usually see only a single truth regardless of the facts that are thrown at them.
In 1967 a high school history class in California started an experiment to study the rise of Nazism. The teacher, Ron Jones, organized the experiment because his students could not conceive how intelligent, well-educated people in Germany could have blindly followed a demagogue like Hitler. The process was simple. The teacher imposed minor authoritarian controls that were agreed upon with the students. Sitting postures were regulated and drills regularly carried out where they would have to be sitting correctly within five seconds. The rules were progressively tightened. The teacher had to be formally addressed as Mr. Jones every time they spoke to him. On the second day, more formalities were introduced, and a motto had to be repeatedly chanted by pairs of students. On the third day a salute was developed. It involved bringing the right hand to cup the right shoulder. Students were ordered to use this salute with one another whenever they met, even outside class. Outsiders were no longer allowed to enter the classroom, unless they were introduced by a member and agreed to salute with the “wave” salute. By the fourth day, bullying began. The symptoms became so worrying that Jones decided to break it off on the fifth day, Friday. By this time, the students had become so self-identified with the masquerade that they were emotionally devastated when Ron Jones made the announcement to end the experiment. See the link here for a description of the experiment in Ron Jones’ own words, written in 1972.
Ron Jones’ Third Wave experiment was followed by the week-long Standford Prison Experiment in 1971. The results of this experiment were, if anything, even more horrendous and you can read a Wikipedia description here. As in the school experiment, with very few exceptions, all students complied to create coercive prison conditions with increasing enthusiasm. Their ingrained sense of ethics seemed to decrease in inverse proportion to their enthusiasm, i.e. the more enthusiastic they became about the experiment, the less they seemed to care about the ethicality of their actions. They quickly lost their moral compass.
Reading news reports about Donald Trump’s increasingly outrageous statements and the support that he still seems to have among the electorate, it seems to this observer that the US has embarked on a dangerous trajectory that eerily resembles the shenanigans of the Third Wave. The original Third Wave experiment ended in the classroom. This one could end with a man with no moral compass in command of the world’s largest military. This has repercussions far beyond the US electorate.
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Unlikely bedfellows. Stephen Hawking and the Union Bank of Switzerland. But the world is a strange place, and might benefit from this unexpected partnership. On the website “Unlimited” thinkers ask questions about some of the most pressing issues facing the world today. As Hawking says in his introductory video entitled “What is the most important question you have ever asked yourself?” in launching the website, he uses the redolent phrase “cathedral thinking” to denote the modern equivalent of the grand buildings constructed as part of humanity’s attempt to bridge heaven and earth. Just like children, we have to learn to share…
I highly recommend watching Hawking’s four-minute introductory video before deciding for yourself whether the other links, essays and presentations are worth watching. The essay on the changing concepts of personal wealth and experience were especially relevant to me, because it describes a transition I have been personally making for the last two decades, especially in the last five years, when I’m absolutely convinced that young people today need a wealth of ‘learning experiences’ much more than ‘things.’
Of course, as a website sponsored by the UBS, it is perhaps unsurprising that most of the initial questions are about the nature of wealth, but the questions and the answers are philosophic enough to interest a wide range of readers.
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