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The Decline of the Rest.

200px-decline_of_the_west_1922Oswald Spengler published the first volume of his two-volume life’s work, The Decline of the West, in 1918. Seventy-four years later, speaking at the Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro in 1992, 41st US President George HW Bush, a decent man, declared, “The American way of life is not up for negotiation. Period.” This pre-emptive declaration by the leader of the world’s most powerful nation essentially castrated the noble intentions of the summit, to limit humankind’s exploitation of the earth’s resources to sustainable levels. The result of the Rio summit was Agenda 21, a non-binding, voluntarily implemented action plan for the 21st century. This was the paltry outcome of a nine-day meeting representing 172 countries attended by 116 heads of state, 2400 NGOs and 17,000 other representatives of indigenous peoples and ordinary ‘you and me’ types.

Twenty-one years after the US President’s declaration in Rio, the WWF designated the 20th of August 2013 as “Earth Overshoot Day;” the day that humanity has used as much renewable natural resources as the planet can regenerate in one year. In 2016, Earth Overshoot Day is estimated to have fallen on August 8th, after which date we’re drawing down the planet’s renewable resources for the rest of the year. Pity the poor planet! The American way of life is still not up for negotiation, and the rest of the world is rushing to catch up. If ever populous countries like China and India get there, the planet will be sucked dry and we’ll all have to follow Elon Musk to Mars! So are we condemned to a two-track planet where some countries (or some sections of society within countries) corner material resources and the rest go a-begging? This is the scenario being projected by right wing demagogues worldwide and this is the reason for their recent successes at the ballot box.

Economists and philosophers have tried to redefine human well-being to reflect planetary limits, most notably in recent years by Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity without Growth, which acknowledges that the current definition of economic success is fundamentally flawed. Prosperous societies today increasingly recognize that increased material wealth does not increase well-being. However, most people the world over, regardless of their economic condition, still aspire to some version of the American way of life. This  aspiration is reflected in the respect automatically accorded to wealthy people in the world today. A look at the Who’s Who of practically any country includes the names of its wealthiest citizens, together with lists of eminent physicians, lawyers, sportspeople and so on.

Gandhi pithily articulated this state of affairs decades ago when he said: The world has enough for every man’s need but not for every man’s greed. For each according to her needs would be the ideal but, as always, messy reality intervenes. One man’s need is another man’s greed. So it is that millions of well-meaning, virtuous, affluent people the world over would never dream of giving up hard-won creature comforts for the sake of other planetary denizens who are less well off. The spiral of technology has historically been to continuously improve human life, and to continuously create problems at the same time. These problems in turn needed infusions of new technology to solve its problems. So right now, the choices seem to be to outer-planetary colonization, or to invest in defences (gated communities, wealthy enclaves, security guards, border walls) to hold on to material gains. Technology offers a third alternative. The idea of a sharing economy has recently gained a lot of traction. Who needs ownership when mobility and services are seamlessly available? Indeed, ownership becomes a bit of a burden in comparison to the convenience of superb services available on demand with little or no delay.

A gated community safely behind bars

A gated community safely behind bars

Even if all this is achieved, humankind’s basic inner restlessness will ensure that we keep wanting more and better, with one eye on the people next door. Global contentment is a moving target. Enter mystic and philosopher Sadhguru and his lectures on inner engineering. His most memorable anecdote in the video (begins at minute 16) is a reminder that all is not lost in the midst of this doom and gloom if we can take the time to laugh at ourselves and the posturings that have brought us to this point.

Sadhguru, irreverent teacher

Sadhguru, irreverent mystic

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South Indian Temples as Guardians of Nature

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.

Prosopis spicigera, Shami tree, ayurvedic treatment for intestinal parasitic worms...

Prosopis spicigera, Shami tree, ayurvedic treatment for intestinal parasitic worms…

Aerva Lanatea, used to treat kidney stones, Alzheimer, etc.

Aerva Lanatea, used to treat kidney stones, Alzheimer, etc.

Thillai Chidambaram temple. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Thillai Chidambaram temple. Image courtesy Wikipedia

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 Politics of Inclusion

If one reads the newspapers in Europe these days, it’s easy to imagine a world going unbalanced. Political chaos in Britain; the shock of Trump’s rise to political prominence in the US; the continued slaughter in Syria; the failed coup in Turkey; honor killings of women in the Middle East and South Asia; young girls kidnapped in the hundreds by a sinister cultish organization in Nigeria with hate and abhorrence of non-religious learning as its primary motivation; China flexing its military muscle in the South China Sea…the list goes on. The underlying cause of each of these symptoms is one and the same, the quest for economic power. In itself harmless, economic power, the accumulation of wealth, is such a basic human instinct that it was unquestioned long before Adam Smith came along to make it intellectually respectable.

What we should question, however, is the tendency of modern societies to equate development with wealth, and economic poverty with under-development. There will be conflict in the world as long as wealth accumulation is equated with development. No one wants to be under-developed, so development currently means increased exploitation of the world’s resources. Ultimately, it is the scramble for the world’s resources that fuels all the conflicts and emigrations we observe today. Interestingly, many of those people, mostly politically right-wing, who rage against immigrants these days invoke a past society free of injustice and racially pure. They forget, or are unaware that, for a species that genetically differs from a chimpanzee by only 1.3% of its genes, talk of racial purity is an absurd notion, absurd to the point of imbecility.

The politics of inclusion that most people yearn for, but don’t know how to create, actually begins with us. The process of inclusion begins with us, one person at a time. Perhaps that is why the process is so daunting, since we have to change ourselves first, before we begin to find the politics of inclusion that the majority of the world seems to be longing for. Check out this link to hear what geneticist David Suzuki has to say about modern economic thought

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Dam(n)ed Words

“In the beginning was the word,” the book of St. John begins, in the King James version. “And the word was with God and the word was God.”

An overflow of words. Image: courtesy youtube.com

An overflow of words. Image: courtesy youtube.com

In the Katha Upanishad (approximately 5th century BCE), OM is related to the first primeval sound and the creation of the Universe, in an eerie echo of modern physics and the sounds that presumably accompanied the Big Bang. However, this analogy cannot be drawn too far, since the word OM has multiple meanings and interpretations in the Upanishads and in Buddhist belief. The Huffington Post says “Om is also considered the mother of the bija, or “seed” mantras — short, potent sounds that correlate to each chakra and fuel longer chants (like, say, Om Namah Shivaya). Depending on who you talk to, it relates to either the third eye or the crown chakra, connecting us to the Divine. No wonder it is core to some Buddhist systems and other Indian religions. Some say it’s even among the sounds recorded in deep space — on NASA’s website, Earth itself sounds a bit om-y.”

Coming to the present day, which is our primary concern here, Lucia Graves writes in the Guardian (July 13th, 2016) “It used to be that you had to read between the lines to determine that Donald Trump was stoking racial resentments. And it used to be that the subjects of his racial animus were mostly immigrants. But now, increasingly, he’s casting a wider net and amping up his rhetoric.” Also in the Guardian of the same date, another headline says, “Labour’s Luciana Burger receives death threats telling her to ‘watch her back.'” Because she’s Jewish. Chilling news, seven decades after the horrors of the Shoah!

In Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, the language of intolerance has grown more strident in recent years, often drowning the voice of reason. The Islam of the Sufis seems to be disappearing from public discourse, and the all-embracing tolerance of Hinduism seems to be hardening at its edges. In the Middle East, the intolerant rhetoric of various groups has led to spectacular and bloody breakdown of civil society in the region.

The world as we know it began with words. Even so, the unraveling of our world and civilization as we know it, also begins with words. It begins with the language of the bigot, the language of the nationalist, the language of the religious fanatic speaking on behalf of God (presumption or megalomania?), the language of the intolerant, the language of politicians looking to increase their grip on power. In politics today, the language of intolerance seems to be gaining ground, becoming socially acceptable. Socially acceptable? That means us. That we accept it. Unless we emphatically refute it at every encounter. By casting votes, by speaking up, by voting with our feet. The last case scenario is, sadly, what prompts the widespread immigration we see today.

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The White Temple – Ajarn Chalermchai’s Dream

Fifteen kilometers southwest of Chiang Rai stands a surreal, snowy white temple. It is known as the Wat at Rong Khun, but tourists simply call it the white temple and flock there in the thousands.  Entrance is free, from around 9 to 5 every day, and tourists arrive in groups, large and small, or privately in a taxi, as we did.  Apart from its natural beauty spots, half of the most important tourist sites in Thailand are palaces and temples, or Wats. Some of the beautiful palaces have Wats attached to them, and some of the Wats look like beautiful palaces. So much so that a friend warned me, it’s easy to have your fill and get wat-ed out. So I was reluctant to make a detour to see another temple, but we heard so much about it that we decided to go.

The entrance to the temple over a small bridge

The entrance to the temple over a small bridge

To begin with, the parking lot itself was dauntingly huge for such a small village so close to the Thai-Myanmar border. There were large groups of mostly Chinese and Thai tourists at the temple; smaller groups from a smattering of nearby Asian countries and a few Europeans. Picking up a free brochure available in several languages, one learns that the temple is a work in progress begun 16 years ago, that it was conceived and built by Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat, an artist who was born in Chiang Rai. “I want to be good and valuable to my country. I want to create arts in my own style and to develop Thai Buddhist arts to be developed internationally. I want people of all nations to come and admire my works, like when they want to visit the Taj Mahal or Angkor Wat.”20160525_104934

shapes reminiscent of mudras...

shapes reminiscent of mudras…

The art and architecture of the temple certainly is distinctly Thai. One sees shapes reminiscent of mudras made by the flowing hand movements of a Thai dancer. Chalermchai says he takes themes from ancient Thai murals, trying to create a modern synthesis that is recognizably and uniquely Thai. If the number of visitors is taken as a measure, then his ambition has certainly been realized. Within the temple are modern murals that face a statue of the Lord Buddha. “I want people to feel peace and happiness and to envision the kindness of the Lord Buddha to all beings,” says Chalermchai. “The mural shows the final conflict of the Lord Buddha’s own demon before he received enlightenment and freedom from immoral thoughts.” When asked about the images of George Bush and bin Laden in the demon’s eyes, the artist replies. “I want everyone to know that our world is being destroyed by those who crave to build weapons that kill. They segregate and therefore cannot find peace….”

Chalermchai expects to complete the temple in 90 years.He begins each day at 2 a.m. with an hour of meditation, then creates and sculpts. An artist whose wealth stems from the roughly 200 artworks he produced every year, he now devotes most of his time to the completion of the temple and currently produces around ten paintings a year. The entire site is kept spotlessly clean and supervised by zealous volunteers who ensure that tourists are modestly attired before they enter the temple. The toilets are guarded by a bronze hermaphrodite keeper.

The hermaphrodite custodian of the toilet, front...

The bronze hermaphrodite custodian of the toilet, front…

...and rear

…and rear

Concluding with the artist’s own words: “I want to discipline the mind to train me toward being a good person with clear thinking, speaking well and doing good deeds. We are all human and I want to give goodness to people. If we have love and forgiveness in our hearts, it will come out naturally. You need to practice patience before you can control your own mind.”

...I want to give goodness to people.

…I want to give goodness to people.


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Books are Bad for You.

I can imagine a conversation with friends who think it’s crazy to say that books are bad for your health. What a self-destructive statement for a writer to make; a writer whose three books have recently received more than a dozen positive reviews (see author page on Amazon) But it’s true. In different parts of the world, at different times, books have proved harmful to their authors, as well as to their owners and readers. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum was published in 1559 by the Pope and listed books deemed heretical, blasphemous or simply lascivious and were therefore banned. Various editions of the Index were published in later years. The 20th and the last edition was published as late as 1948 and it was only abolished in 1966 by Pope Paul VI. Probably the most famous victim of the Index was Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600 although admittedly, to the Inquisition, his principal crimes were not his writings but his heretical skepticism of many Catholic beliefs including the Virgin Mary and the trinity.

Closer to our time, in the 20th century, the list of books banned by Nazi Germany in the 1930s was long and included the literature of Marxism, Communism, pacifism, democratic writings and, of course, works by Jewish authors. During the cultural revolution in China between 1966 and 1976 a man who later became my close personal friend was sentenced to years in  labor camp simply for being a mathematician with a small private library of books. His principal crime perhaps was to know more than the young Red Guards who conducted his trial, spat at him and made him walk around for months with a dunce cap on his head.

Even these relatively recent incidents of the 20th century seem to have faded from a public mind that is drowning in information but starved of meaning. Precisely the reason why much of the world is reacting with demonstrations of outrage (rightly so) at the murders of 12 journalists in Paris while largely ignoring (sadly so) the massacre of 2000 people in Baga village in Nigeria where more than a million people have been internally displaced by Boko Haram’s violence.

Boko Haram can be most literally translated as “books are bad for you,” where Boko means books, literature, the printed word, the world of ideas; and Haram means impure or unclean. Boko Haram’s primitive ideology thrives in the absence of the world’s collective outrage that would force local leaders to take more forceful action to stop this cancer from spreading. This is a cancer that can unleash a civil war and spread to several neighbouring countries; Cameroon, Chad and Niger. This is no longer only a Nigerian problem. In the age of globalisation, this is a problem for the world.

Here is a link to the website of the Quilliam Foundation, an organisation that exists to fight the battle of ideas that lies at the roots of modern religious extremism, which is a form of theocratic fascism. Listen also to an interview with Maajid Nawaz, the co-founder of Quilliam who, as a former radical Islamist, is eminently qualified to talk about the topic. For those who despair at the directions that religious fundamentalism is taking the world, listening to the talk will be 43 minutes well spent. Thanks to Larry Willmore for his Facebook post drawing my attention to the talk.

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I started off intending to write about the Austrian New Year’s Eve custom of Bleigiessen and learnt several things today. First, the posh name for the practice is molybdomancy: the art of divining the future from the shapes of molten metal that is quickly thrown into cold water. Second, this is not only an Austrian custom, but is widely practiced in Germany and in the Nordic countries as well. Apparently in Finland, the practice goes by the name of uudenvuodentina and is quite popular. According to this source, the practice originated in ancient Greece and later travelled to the Nordic and Central European countries where the custom is still followed today, although the results are interpreted more in a spirit of fun rather than being taken seriously. No wonder the word molybdomancy has been quite forgotten!

Originally made from tin, nowadays bleigiessen sets are sold in the streets in the week preceding New Year in small bags consisting of half a dozen pieces of tin or lead alloy mixed with cheaper metal. The pieces are molded into shapes associated with good luck; horseshoes, pigs, chimneysweeps, toadstools or 4-leaf clovers. I bought a bag for New Year’s Eve and settled down with six of my nearest and dearest to see what 2015 has in store for us.

What 2015 has in store for the family.

What 2015 has in store for the family.

As you can see, the results are outstanding! 2015 is going to be a wonderful year for the family; two of them will perform exceptional deeds, while the rest will be merely brilliant. I wish all my readers a similarly uplifting prognosis.


What 132 schoolchildren should teach us.

Two recent newspaper articles have been very troubling; one of them positively horrific. One hundred and forty-one people died, all but 9 of them children, in a Taliban attack on a school in Pakistan.

The picture below appeared on an online news site nearly two months ago. An Indian love story that could be the beginning of a fairy tale. She is 21, a Muslim, a student at a dental college. He is 24, an engineer, a non-practicing Hindu. They fell in love. Her parents had planned an arranged marriage for her. She did not want it. So Anshida secretly married the man she loved. And they lived happily ever after. Oops, no! Apparently there are enough people in her community willing to resort to violence in order to prevent inter-racial unions, and this couple has been forced to live under police protection ever since. Here is a link to an interview with the couple where Gautham says their only desire is to live in peace together and they might have to leave the country to do so.

Anshida and Gautham, in the Indian Express Nation online edition if November 12.

Anshida and Gautham, in the Indian Express Nation online edition of November 12, 2014.

Einstein was apparently once asked to explain how radio worked and famously used the example of a long cat. You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat.  You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles.  Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there.  The only difference is that there is no cat. The explanation is not so simplistic as it sounds, since nerve impulses are also electrical impulses of a different kind. Now what has this got to do with the persecution of a loving young couple (don’t tell me there’s something wrong with love) and murder of 132 schoolchildren by religious fanatics?

Growing up in the south of India, I experienced Islam as a very benevolent religion of deep faith anchored in tolerance as epitomised by the work of Rumi and Hafez. I saw the following quote taken from the wall of a recently demolished house.

Translation from the Persian of a framed script in a South Indian Muslim household, around 1914

Translation from the Persian of a framed script in a South Indian Muslim household, around 1914

When I came across the apocryphal tale of Einstein’s explanation of how radio works, I realised that Islamic fundamentalist theologians have taken a step backwards in the 20th century and invented a real cat to interpret the gap between scripture and practice. And indeed, it is a cat that squeals horribly. I much prefer the Einsteinian version of an imaginary cat. Counter-progressive theologians have not yet disputed the efficacy of radio transmission without cats. I long for them to do the same in the case of the transmission and observance of religious beliefs. It is to be hoped that the murder of 132 children moves at least some of them to re-examine the dead certainties of their religious beliefs.


The lake of deeds, and a dyslexic scholar

Ramcharitamanas (the lake of the deeds of Rama) is one of the greatest works of Hindu literature. Written by Goswami Tulsidas in the 17th century, it was written in Awadhi, a dialect of Hindi, and made the epic Ramayana, till then only read by the privileged few, (mostly upper castes) who knew Sanskrit, available to the common man. This widespread access to the Ramayana stories led to the birth of the tradition of Ramlila, the dramatic enactment of text, all over the north of India.

Tulsidas lived during the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar (the great, 1556-1605) who was noted for his religious tolerance, emphasised by his promulgation of Din-i-Ilahi, a religion derived from a syncretic mix of Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity. To underline the point the Emperor took three principal wives from three religious faiths; Muslim, Hindu and Christian. Presumably due to Akbar’s religious tolerance, the enactment of Ramlila’s beloved text spread through Mughal lands and were adopted by the Phad singers and puppeteers of Rajasthan where they are still performed today (see my earlier post: Facebook for the Gods). Akbar was believed to be dyslexic, so he was read to every day, had a remarkable memory and loved to debate with scholars.

Written in seven kandas or cantos, Tulsidas equated his work with the seven steps leading into the holy waters of a Himalayan lake, Manasarovar. The lake lies on the Tibetan plateau and covers an area of 320 sq. km. The name comes from the Sanskrit words manas, mind, and sarovara, lake and refers to the belief that Lake Manasarovar was created in the mind of Lord Brahma before it was manifested on earth.

Lake Manasarovar. 4590 m.

Lake Manasarovar. Tibetan Plateau, 4590 m.

Akbar’s acceptance of different religious beliefs led Time magazine to note in 2011 “While the creed (i.e. :Din-i-Ilahi) no longer lingers, the ethos of pluralism and tolerance that defined Akbar’s age underlies the values of the modern republic of India.” Quite a tribute to a dyslexic scholar emperor who died four hundred years ago!

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Jesus on a Lotus, Whispers in Nandi’s Ears

Christianity came to India before it came to most of Europe. It was probably (and plausibly) brought by Thomas the Apostle in 52 AD, the name being derived from the Aramaic Toma, meaning twin. St. Ephrem the Syrian writes in the 4th century that the Apostle was put to death in India and that his remains were brought to Edessa (fairly close to Antioch – Antakya – in modern-day Turkey) by a devout merchant by the name of Khabin. British historian Vincent A. Smith (1848 – 1920) says, “It must be admitted that a personal visit of the Apostle Thomas to South India was easily feasible in the traditional belief that he came by way of Socotra, where an ancient Christian settlement undoubtedly existed. I am now satisfied that the Christian church of South India is extremely ancient.”

According to tradition, Thomas landed on the Malabar coast, where his skill as a carpenter won him the favour of the local king. He was allowed to preach the Gospel and convert believers to Christianity. Thereafter, he moved across southern India for the next 20 years before he was finally killed near the coastal city of Madras, present-day Chennai, in AD 72 apparently because a local king grew jealous of his increasing popularity. Marco Polo, writing in the 13th century, states that the apostle was accidentally killed by a bird hunter who was shooting at peacocks in Mylapore. More recent interpretation of inscriptions found on the Pehlvi cross, near present-day St. Thomas Mount, by the Portuguese in 1547, suggest that the legend of Thomas’ martyrdom was based on mis-translations of the middle Persian script. Whatever the truth of the Apostle’s death, at this point in time, the legend of his martyrdom has been firmly established to a degree that makes it a fact, and there is a basilica built on the site of the tomb at San Thome, one of only three in the world directly associated with the 12 Apostles. (The other two are St. Peter’s in Rome, and Santiago de Compostela in Spain, dedicated to James). Since India is a land of syncretism, the tomb and St. Thomas Mount have been a pilgrimage site for Christians, Hindus and Muslims since at least the 16th century. The Indian church has adapted in India and adopted some of this syncretism by introducing certain Hindu rites (such as the tying of the thali at weddings). Knowing this, one is not surprised to find that the image of Christ on the cross at the cathedral of San Thome is flanked by two peacocks and that his feet rest on a lotus.

lotus feet flanked by peacocks

lotus feet flanked by peacocks

The area around the San Thome basilica belonged to the ancient city of Mylapore, or the city of peacocks. A temple was built in the 7th century AD in Mylapore. According to legend, Shakthi, the divine embodiment of the female, worshipped Siva in the form of a peacock, giving its Tamil name (Mylai) to the city. The temple was built to commemorate this, and is dedicated to Siva.  Inside the temple is a statue of Nandi, the bull, which is Siva’s favourite mount, and also a gatekeeper to Siva and his consort Parvati. For this reason, it is believed that whispering one’s secret wishes in Nandi’s ear is as good as a direct request to Siva himself.

her word in God's ear...

her word in God’s ear…

the temple courtyard is a relaxed and friendly space

the temple courtyard is a relaxed and friendly space

and splashes of colour

and splashes of colour

Being a good tourist, and wishing to hedge my bets in the afterlife, I prayed at the lotus feet of Jesus and whispered my innermost wishes in Nandi’s ear. Choose the link to follow this blog for updates on how well this strategy works in the coming months…