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On Wrestlers and Faceless Women

I saw a Hindi movie called Daangal a few days ago. A true story of amateur wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat in Haryana who raised six girls (four daughters and two nieces whom he adopted on the death of his brother) to be world-class wrestlers who have won many international championships. From a social standpoint, the most remarkable thing is that Haryana is the state with among the worst male/female sex ratios in the country (in 2011, 877 females for every 1000 males). This negative sex ratio is a reliable indicator of low status of women in a society. One can only imagine the real-life battles the Phogat girls faced, in overcoming traditional rural prejudices, cutting their hair, uncovering their faces, competing in early tournaments with boys, finally winning respect by beating many of their male peers and winning championships.

Even though some of the details in the film are untrue, or exaggerated for dramatic effect, there is no disputing that the greatest victory of these young women may not be counted in medals won in the wrestling arena, but in society as a whole. Changes in a society happen in a thousand unexpected ways. Their victories on the floor of the wrestling arena may be reflected in unrelated events in a community. One such example appeared as a feature recently in a Sunday newspaper. In this story, Mahima Jain tells of three women fighting the ghunghat (face veil) in Haryana’s patriarchal stronghold of Faridabad. They wish to show no disrespect to their elders, but also wish to be free of the restriction imposed by the veil. One of them is an educated woman who works in the city with head uncovered all day and sees no reason to cover her face as soon as she returns to her village home.

This news story shows that gender discrimination does not stop with rural, uneducated women, but also affects intelligent, articulate women with advanced educational degrees. As Hans Rosling powerfully shows through statistics in the video posted on this blog earlier in January (Reading the Tea Leaves: a primer for 2017), true development happens in a nation when gender discrimination has been largely overcome. By this definition, there are very few truly developed nations in the world; merely rich ones, poor ones and increasingly, widening gaps within societies between rich and poor.

One amusing and unexpected similarity between the real-life female wrestlers and their film counterparts: the professional wrestlers look just as elegant and sophisticated as the actors who play them in the movie. Check out the photos below without reading the captions first and see if you can tell who’s who.

publicity photo from the film

publicity photo from the film

3 of the 6 girls with their parents. Image courtesy thebetterindia

3 of the 6 girls with their parents. Image courtesy thebetterindia

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Out of Africa and from the Middle East

Food for thought for those in many countries around the world who wish to permanently stop immigration of ‘foreigners.’

When the first migrants left Africa 75,000 years ago for the Cradle of Civilization — modern Iraq and Kuwait — Stoneking and his team estimate there were fewer than 100 people. They suggest there were just 15 men and 26 women. They also point to a Bering Strait crossing, from Asia to North America, around 15,000 years ago, as is commonly accepted.

Source: M. Stoneking, et al. Human paternal and maternal demographic histories: insights from high-resolution Y chromosome and mtDNA sequences. Investigative Genetics. 2014.

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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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