Monday, September 30, 2019

What makes Gandhi a Mahatma

The 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi is round the corner. Gandhi was undoubtedly one of the greatest souls that ever walked on the earth. Albert Einstein was of the opinion that “Gandhi’s views were the most enlightened of all the political men in our time.” Indeed Gandhi was an enlightened man.
What made Gandhi an enlightened soul, a Mahatma, was the universalism of his vision. His vision embraced everyone and everything. It was not restricted by language, religion, nationality, or any such narrow human constructs.
Gandhi would never accept the kind of narrow nationalism that is being peddled in India today by the dominant political party that has vowed to rewrite the country’s history. In its narrow meaning, nationalism seeks to glorify one’s nation at the cost of certain sections of population. Gandhi would not accept such nationalism though he wouldn’t deny the need of self-sacrifice for the sake of the nation. Self-sacrifice, not sacrifice of other people. The individual may have to sacrifice himself for his family. The individual may have to die for his nation too. Gandhi died for his nation. But he would not sacrifice others for the sake of the nation. “It is not nationalism that is evil,” Gandhi wrote in Young India on 18 June 1925, “it is the narrowness, selfishness, exclusiveness which is the bane of modern nations which is evil.”
Inclusiveness was an integral part of Gandhi’s vision. That is why the partition of India into two countries in the name of religion agonised him interminably. He would have nothing to do with any kind of exclusivism.
Gandhi’s words, “The chief value of Hinduism lies in holding the actual belief that all life is one, i.e., all life coming from one universal source, call it Allah, God or Parameshwara” (Harijan, Dec 1936), reveal his concept of religion. Religion is a means of connecting the individual soul with the cosmic soul. Religion is a means of discovering the divine within you and in other creatures. Everyone, irrespective of which god he prays to or whether he doesn’t pray at all, everyone is a spark of the divine, according to Gandhi. You can’t be religious and hateful of some people at the same time. If your religion makes you hate anyone, it’s not religion.
Gandhi would never impose anything like religion, language, culture, or food habits on anyone. Instead he would inspire people with his vision, his life.
The question today is whether anyone is looking for inspiration.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

At the threshold of beauty

With my Remington Rand in 1996 or so
A Remington Rand portable typewriter was my beloved companion for over a decade of my youth which was mostly wasted in the flighty hills of Shillong. Since I have already told the story of the waste in my memoir, Autumn Shadows, I shall not repeat it here. I sold the typewriter a day before I left Shillong without dreams. I sold it with the same self-loathing that Salinger’s Holden Caulfield had when he sold his typewriter just before running away from his school.
Delhi gave me dreams again, however. One of the first things I did in Delhi, as soon as I had enough money, was to buy a desktop computer. That was in 2001. One of the first poems I typed on it was about the WTC meltdown. The Gujarat riots would rattle my nerves a few months later.
My desktop which had a storage space of just 20 GB, much less than a common smartphone today, was meant to motivate me to continue writing which I used to do with my Remington Rand. The computer gave me a new life. I started blogging as soon as it arrived. I used to write for two local newspapers in Shillong and the typewriter was primarily meant for that. Writing kept me alive and kicking.
The Remington looked far cuter than my desktop which occupied an elephantine space. But typing on that cute little thing was a rather hard job. You needed to bang on the keys with all the strength you had. If an error occurred, you would spend minutes applying the Kores whitener and typing over it after waiting for the liquid to dry. One good thing is that the typewriter perfected my acquaintance with the keypad so much so that today my fingers fly on the gentle keypad of my laptop which occupies much less space than the Remington.
The desktop brought out the writer in me once again.  I started blogging. My first blog was The Way at Times blogs. It has now disappeared from the infinite spaces of virtual reality. When Times failed to give me readers, I migrated to Sulekha. Right wing fanatics didn’t let me write much there and I switched over to Wordpress which was eventually hacked and I found my place at Blogspot.
Thanks to my readers for this rank

I cannot live without reading and writing. Literature is the essence of life for me. Literature takes one to the threshold of the beauty of existence. I read great writers. I try my best to write good stuff like them. But I’m aware of my limitations. Nevertheless, I’m happy I have reached the threshold of beauty. I live there, at the threshold of beauty. I will enter it one day, I know. I will disappear into that seductive world of ethereal beauty one day. I’m waiting. Waiting in the autumn of a time that began with the Remington typewriter and has arrived at the current HP laptop.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Media in a dystopia

Image from The Hindu

Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World shows how a utopian vision of an inferior leader can create a dystopia. An all-powerful state which controls the behaviours and actions of its people in order to preserve its own stability and power ends up becoming a terrible dystopia. Technology is used and misused by the government to exercise its absolute powers over the citizens who are apparently happy. They fail to understand that they are nothing more than puppets dangling from strings stretched by their government. They live without dignity, morals, values and emotions.
History is divided as After Ford (AF) and Before Ford in that dystopia. Similarly in India today, history is being divided as After Modi and Before Modi. India won’t ever be the same anymore. Furthermore, India is divided right now into people who are with Modi or against him. So is the case with the media too.
The number of people questioning Modi and his politics is dwindling as more and more such people have been persecuted in various ways. Some have their offices raided by the Enforcement Directorate or Income Tax officials. Some have cases fabricated against them. Some have even been killed.
Most media houses in India seem to be either singing alleluia to Modi or avoiding reporting anything against him. A few still dare to question him.  A few months ago, an editorial in the Afternoon wrote that the “mainstream media houses are hell-bent on proving (that) Modi is the only appropriate Prime Minister of India and (that) there is no other choice.”
The Indian State under Modi’s leadership has gone far out of the way to use all sorts of propaganda machinery to project Modi as the Messiah of the country. A lot of money is spent on the process. A lot of the media has been bought up for the purpose. Those who refused to sell out themselves are being intimidated in various ways.
In Huxley’s dystopia, “One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.” In Modi’s India, the conditioning is going on, and it is almost universal in the country.  Like in Huxley’s Brave New World, in contemporary India too, “Most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution.” In the end, as Huxley wrote, people “will lay their freedom at (the government’s) feet and say, ‘make us your slaves but feed us’.”
Unfortunately, much of the Indian media too has already been enslaved. There is little hope left for the nation except that dystopias don’t have longevity.

PS. Written for Indispire Edition 293: #News

Sunday, September 22, 2019

One nation, one religion, one language

Source: Here

A weekly Christian newspaper reaches my home every Sunday. It's not free, of course. I conceded to the request of an acquaintance and paid the annual subscription. The paper usually goes directly to the newspaper stack unread. Today as I was about to shelve it, a report caught my eyes. 

The front page report was about a Catholic priest who was arrested in Jharkhand on charges of forced conversions and encroachment of tribal lands. The report also mentions the earlier arrest of a Missionaries of Charity [Mother Teresa's congregation] nun for allegedly selling the child of a young unwed mother. Arrests of Christian missionaries on fabricated charges are becoming a routine affair in many North Indian states, adds the report. 

Religion doesn't interest me at all and I usually don't care about such affairs. I don't think converting anyone from his/her religion is necessary in order to do charitable services. However, if anyone wishes to adopt another religion, he should have the liberty to do so. Who else but the individual concerned has the right to decide which god he will worship? What has the government or judiciary got to do with that?

I don't accept the argument that the Christian missionaries are involved in rampant conversions. If it were so, why doesn't the Christian population in the country increase? The percentage of Christians in India was 2.3 in the 1951 census, and it was again the same figure of 2.3 in 2011 census. 

Someone once told me that many of the converts are "crypto-Christians" [they don't declare their religion openly]. Given the duplicity that is inherent in the Indian DNA, this may not be a far-fetched claim. If the claim is true, what it means is that such people accept a different religion just for the material benefits it brings them. The religion matters little to them; what really matter are the material benefits. Then the solution to the problem is quite simple: give them the material benefits through government policies and projects. Enable them to live dignified lives and they won't change their religions. Why don't the governments do that? 

The governments seem to be more interested in oppressing certain people, instead. Look at Modi's Kashmir and Yogi's UP, for example. 80,000 troops of soldiers have been keeping the people of Kashmir under virtual lockup from 1 August. The roads are blocked, telephones are dead, shops remain closed, and newspapers have shut down. "The state has gone back by 30 years," as a resident told a reporter of the Caravan magazine. 

The Frontline quotes Akhilesh Yadav that "no section of the population (in Yogi's UP) is safe from the marauding Sangh Parivar-driven vandals." Fear is the dominant emotion in the state. Anyone can be lynched with impunity, any woman can be raped and/or killed, anything can happen to anyone. 

That fear is permeating out of the state into other parts of the country. The arrests of missionaries are just the tip of the iceberg. Anyone can be labelled antinational or something like that and be arrested today. 

The greatest tragedy probably is that the majority of Indians seem to love all these. That is the biggest achievement of Modi. He has the support of the majority for perverting the national psyche. India is not one nation any more. The steamroller is moving on, however, and the ever-rising number of arrests is part of the game of One nation, one religion, one language

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Saturday, September 21, 2019

Taxes and Rules

“There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him,” said Robert A. Heinlein. All governments have taxed their citizens for everything from the needle in the haystack to the breasts that grew in the due course on a woman. I'm not exaggerating. India taxes sewing needles. The princely state of Travancore taxed the low caste women if they wanted to cover their breasts. 

If you want to buy a vehicle in India today, you'll end up paying more money than the price of the vehicle in the form of various taxes and fees. There's a tax on the vehicle (the highest slab in the country), on your use of the roads (which were constructed with your tax money in the first place), on insurance of all imaginable sorts, on your license, and what not. 

You pay all that and more, but the roads will continue to gape at you with their potholes that can kill you. Everything in this country seems to be designed to kill the citizens. But the government claims that it is looking after your welfare. Wow! That's great, isn't it? You have a government that cares so much about your welfare.

Now the government has multiplied by ten the fines for breaking certain traffic rules. You don't use a helmet while riding your bike. Okay, don't use, but pay Rs 1000 to the government. That's how the government cares for you. Your bike nosedives into one of those goddamn potholes and kills you. Well, the government has ensured that your insurance will take care of your postmortem and funeral expenditures. Of course, your corpse will get the amount after a deduction of Rs 1000 because you were not wearing the stipulated helmet. 

Some of these new rules are needed, of course. Too many children drive these days and hence regulations are required on that. There's much drunken driving and the fines are needed. It's a different matter that if you are a VIP like Sriram Venkitaraman you can get away with not only drunken driving but also murderous driving. That's India. The rules are for the common folks. The taxes too. 

I don't think that the hefty new fines are going to make India's roads any safer. What India needs is a culture that respects existing rules. What India needs is a culture that respects people. 

PS. Written for Indispire Edition 292 #trafficrules

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Thursday, September 19, 2019

Love: the ultimate meaning

'Eternal Love' by Carmen Guedez

Love is the ultimate assertion of life. Nothing says ‘yes’ to life more genially than love and nothing renders life more meaningful than a firm ‘yes’ to it. Love is a benign acceptance of the given reality. Once the reality is accepted, it can be transmuted too. Love is a miracle. It can change arid deserts into breath-taking oases. Love is the fairy kiss that transforms the monster into beauty.
Meaning of life is inextricably related to our attitudes. Meaning is an attitude to the given reality. Reality always demands a response from us. Within my given reality, I must take a stand. I have to live and act within the position I take. I can take the stand of the follower or the leader, optimist or pessimist, sceptic or cynic, whatever. Reality demands a stand.
My stand shapes and colours my experiences, behaviour and action. Those who reached the heights of understanding knew that love was the ultimate response to reality. Love is a divine response, so to say. The Buddha and the Christ, the Mahatma and all genuine teachers of mankind were motivated by the boundless love they bore in their hearts.
When you love someone, you accept that person as he or she is. Your love may transmute that person eventually. That’s also an important factor of love. Love transmutes. Love changes the hell into heaven, the monster into a saint, noise into music.
There is no greater melody than love. Beethoven and Mozart will give way to new geniuses. Shakespeare’s genius will be surpassed by other writers of similar calibre. The Taj Mahal’s resplendence will find its rival in better architecture. Michelangelo and Da Vinci will merge into the miasma of history. The Buddha and the Christ will continue to sway human imaginations. Love has no death.
Love gives you the deepest and the most meaningful relationship with the reality around you, however painful that reality is. Love enables you to listen to the muffled voices of that reality. The breadth of your experience is infinitely multiplied by your empathy with others. Love enables you to suffer with the suffering and rejoice with the joyful, as John Powell said. It gives you a new life every springtime. It makes you feel the impact of the great mysteries of life: birth, growth, suffering and death. Your heart skips along with young lovers and you experience the exhilaration that is in them. You know the ghetto’s philosophy of despair and the sage’s peaks of ecstasy. Love makes flowers bloom on your way and enables you to accept the thorns among those flowers too. Love is the music that moves the planets in their orbits and your heart resonates with the same music.
One of the best passages on love can be found in the Bible: 1 Corinthians 13.  I may be a powerful orator who can speak in the tongues of angels, but I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal if there is no love in my heart. Even if I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all the mysteries and all knowledge, and even if I have faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not self-seeking, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Always. Love is eternal. Perhaps, that is the only eternal thing we have. What better meaning do you want for your life?
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This post is the last in a series on Meaning of Life.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Meaning of Suffering

Pain by Donatella Marraoni (2018)

Suffering is either manmade or beyond man’s control. The concentration camps of Hitler and refugee camps engendered by wars are all manmade suffering. Natural calamities and epidemic outbreaks are largely beyond human control. There is also much suffering we bring upon ourselves by our actions or attitudes.
Whatever the type, suffering can never be a sanguine thing. No sane person would want to embrace suffering for any reason. The most natural tendency for normal human beings is to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Yet pain is an integral part of life. There is no likelihood of your ever encountering a person who has not experienced pain of some sort. The Buddha went to the extreme of defining life as pain.
The Buddha’s solution is to put an end to our desires. Desires are the causes of pain. The Buddha is speaking about one kind of pain only, the pain we bring upon ourselves through our passions and pursuits. And his solution is neither practical nor desirable. What is life without desires, passions and pursuits? Moreover, the Buddha’s solution won’t put an end to all the suffering engendered by factors which are not in our control in any way, and much human suffering belongs to that category.
Perhaps the Serenity Prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr can give us a better solution. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” That’s the prayer. A profoundly meaningful prayer it is. Much of our suffering can be tamed if we change certain things like our habits, attitudes, thinking, and responses to situations. We can change the situations that cause our suffering. If we cannot change them, we need to accept them gracefully.
Suffering cannot become meaningful, perhaps. But suffering can alter us in miraculous ways. Serenity is only one of the gifts of suffering.
I walked a mile with Pleasure;
She chatted all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow;
And ne’er a word said she;
But, oh! The things I learned from her,
When Sorrow walked with me.

That’s a poem by Robert Browning Hamilton, American poet. Suffering can teach us many deep lessons of life. That is arguably the only blessing of suffering. Those lessons constitute the meaning of suffering. Suffering can shake us out of our complacencies and move us towards thinking about things that really matter in life. It can make us better human beings. Suffering can be a potent force for our personal growth and change.

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This post is the 7th in a series on Meaning of Life.
8th and the last will be: Love: the ultimate meaning

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Meaning of Meaninglessness

In his classical essay on meaning of life, The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus cracks a joke. A madman is sitting beside a bathtub holding a fishing rod. The hook is in the bathtub. Seeing this, his psychiatrist asks him, “Hey chap, are they biting?” The madman answers, “No, you fool, this is only a bathtub.”
We are not unlike that mad man in our search for the meaning of life. We know that there’s nothing to fish for when it comes to meaning in life. Yet we need meaning. Without it, life will be quite unbearable. Emptiness is what you feel unless you discover a meaning for your life. As we saw in the first part of this series, meaning is something we create rather than discover.
Was the madman creating his meaning by sitting with a fishing rod knowing that he was not going to get any fish? Well, Camus argued that life was as absurd as that. His contemporary, Jean-Paul Sartre experienced the nausea of the meaningless human existence and went on to tell us why we need to create a meaning. We are condemned to that freedom, Sartre said, the freedom to choose our destiny.
Most people go through life without committing themselves to responsible choices. They would rather accept given truths and meanings; those given by religions, for example. [This series already discussed the role of religion in giving meaning to life.] Samuel Beckett illustrated the life of such people in a short play which went on to acquire classical status in literature: Waiting for Godot.
Two men are waiting on a roadside for someone called Godot. They go through a series of repetitive actions throughout the play, actions which are obviously absurd. Even when they are told in no uncertain terms that Godot was not going to come that day, they continue to wait. They continue to wait after telling each other that they should leave.
Such is life for most people: a series of repetitive actions, a circle that goes on and on. It consists of certain regular actions like taking children to school, going to office, doing the same job day after day, bringing children back home, watching the TV, fiddling with the mobile phone, and so on. It goes on forever. When children grow up, the routine will change a bit; it will be replaced with a new ritual, another circular motion. Similarly, new rituals will replace older ones and the cyclical motion continues to our grave. Absurd!
The Existentialist thinkers like Sartre tell us that we need to forge a meaning into that meaningless absurdity called life. How do we do it?
First of all, we need to work on our self-awareness. The greater our awareness, the more our possibilities for freedom and choices. We can live better, fuller lives if we accept certain facts like:
·        We are finite and do not have unlimited time to do what we want in life.
·        We have the potential to take action or not to act; inaction is a decision.
·        We choose our actions, and therefore we partially create our own destiny.
·        The meaning of our life is created in the process of making our choices.
·        We are basically alone, yet we have opportunities to relate to other beings.
·        Society is a choice, and it inevitably corrupts you.
·        Loneliness is a choice, and it inevitably destroys you.
·        You need to grapple with the inevitable ironies of life.
Secondly, we need to accept personal responsibility for our life. Refusal to accept responsibility, by shifting it to other people through facile excuses like ‘I’m this way because I grew up in a dysfunctional family’, leads to inauthentic existence. We are free to do what we want with our lives. Freedom is responsibility. We are responsible, no one else, for our actions as well as our failures to act. Our choices may sometimes be wrong. Never mind, make new choices. That’s all we have: choices.
Thirdly, have the courage to be what you are. You are unique. There is no one else like you on this earth, there never was, and never will be. You are the only one of your kind. You are precious just for that one reason alone. Nurture your uniqueness. Your uniqueness can make great contributions to others. Even the flicker of a candle makes a huge difference in the mounting darkness. The truth is that your struggle to discover, to create, and to maintain the deep core within your being is going to make much more significant contributions than candle flickers. Every authentic individual is a radiant soul, a fountainhead of wisdom.
A whole new meaning is the final result of your enterprise. Many old values will be discarded in the process and new ones will be added. For example, you may decide that helping your neighbour with his broken fence is more valuable than going to church on Sunday morning. That’s just an example. Life offers you infinite choices.
And remember that meaning is not discovered once and for all. Meaning is as flighty as the cloud in the sky. You need to rediscover it day after day, perhaps. You need to forge new meanings in new environments. That is life: a great adventure, a great creation, a great joy. If you choose!

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This post is the 6th in a series on Meaning of Life.
7th  will be Meaning of Suffering

In case some of this has aroused your interest to get to know me better, here’s my memoir: Autumn Shadows, available at Amazon.       

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Literature and Meaning

Most people, almost all normal ones, live their lives by the stories they tell about themselves and those others tell about them. As psychologist Gerald Corey says, “These stories actually shape reality in that they construct and constitute what we see, feel, and do.”
Your personality is not a static entity which took shape at your birth once and for all. As you grew up physically, you encountered a lot of other people, situations, and forces that contributed into the ongoing shaping of your personality even if you didn’t want all that shaping. Your life is a story that continues to be written till your death. You are the ultimate writer of your own story though a whole lot of others make significant contributions which you can’t ignore. Every Othello has to meet his Iago. But the plot need not necessitate the murder of Desdemona. Every Hamlet has to deal with the demons of fraudulence. Mark Antony has a choice to not “let Rome in Tiber melt” and thus rewrite his story.
Your life is a story that unfolds as you go on your way to your grave. Other people add colours and thrills to the plot. They determine the plot to a great extent too. It is like a game of cards, if I may borrow the analogy from Jawaharlal Nehru. The hand you are dealt is your fate; the way you play is your choice, your skill, and your responsibility. Your story depends only partly on you.
You have to play your part; there’s no escape from that. Literature helps you to see how others do that. The flaw in Othello’s character, his refusal or inability to see beyond what Iago egged on him to see, will teach you vital lessons in the game of life. Every character in good literature can teach you such lessons. The skills required to play your cards can be learnt from literature better than anywhere else.
Literature reveals life’s inevitable struggles and subsequent conquests or losses. It places before us life’s agonies and ecstasies. How do other people play their destined cards? What could they do to make their games better? We learn the strategies of life from their stories which literature brings to us.
When you are faced with a serious problem of life, it is always worthwhile to imagine a story around that problem. Create a character similar to you and give him/her that problem. This helps to externalise the problem and see it from a different angle. Your perspectives widen and you begin to understand the problem, its causes, and possible solutions more clearly. The stories you’ve read may help in the process.
Literature helps add meaning to life at least in two ways: other people stories can inspire you, and you can create your own narratives which will help you understand yourself better.

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This post is the 5th in a series on Meaning of Life.
6th will be Meaning of Meaninglessness

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Science and Meaning

Protons and electrons won’t ever become gods though they are the fundamental truths of existence. Atoms and molecules don’t stir human emotions. Hence it is hard for science to offer transcendent meanings to man.
Science is usually seen as knowledge rather than wisdom. Science helps us to understand the physical reality around us. It helps us to manage all that reality for our welfare and progress. Without science, mankind would not have conquered the great peaks of excellence. All our skyscrapers and flyovers, submarines and space capsules, smartphones that carry whole universes in them, are gifts of science. Without science, we would have been little better than the savage that descended from the tree and started walking erect on two legs instead of four millennia ago. Science keeps the world moving ahead, at breakneck speed. Science is the lifeblood of progress and development. Yet science fails to satisfy the human soul. The soul does not live by facts alone. The soul needs certain fictions too. The soul has imagination.
Science is founded on reason, logic, facts, experiments, proofs and what we call objectivity. It can give us the rules and regulations that govern everything in the universe. It can tell us how and why the planets move the way they do. It can tell us why the stars twinkle. It can even transport us to the outer spaces. And there, in those vast endless spaces, we will seek our gods. Science doesn’t proffer us those gods we seek desperately. We need the gods. The gods give supernatural colours to our bland existence.
“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious,” said one of the greatest scientists that we ever had, Albert Einstein. Mystery “is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science,” He went on to say.
Science need not stop at the microcosmic subatomic particles or the billionth galaxy out there light years away. Science can stir the depths of our spiritual longings. Einstein knew how to do that. He stood in awe before what he called “the eternal riddle”, the cosmos whose meaning he sought to understand. The pursuit of that meaning gave him “inner freedom”.
Most people chain themselves with the rubrics and rituals given by their religions and gods. Without those gods and rituals, the ordinary man would be smothered by his greed and pride, lust and sloth, envy and gluttony. Chains are required to keep these inner demons under control.
Science liberates, not enchains. Knowledge is a great liberator. Knowledge can throw open the floodgates of the mysterious fountains of wisdom. But people fail to see beyond atoms and molecules. When science points at the billionth galaxy, we end up looking at the pointing fingertip.
“Atoms make up everything. Beauty of a living thing is the way those atoms are put together,” said Carl Sagan, one of the greatest votaries of science. Science can disclose those beauties. Unfortunately, we have compartmentalised science as a bundle of bland facts and formulas.
If we can go beyond our pragmatic approach to science, we will be able to discover the music that plays in protons and electrons, in the Pole Star and the Great Bear. Then science can give us a whole new range of meanings. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter,” said the Romantic poet Keats. The unheard melodies are lying within the electrons of your very being, waiting to be discovered by you.

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This post is the 4th in a series on Meaning of Life.
5th will be: Literature and Meaning

Friday, September 6, 2019

Career and Meaning

If your job is your passion, there is no better meaning you can discover in your life. If your job is something you love doing, life is as breezy as a delightful song.
For many people, work is a burden from which they need to relax in the evenings with some leisurely activities. Weekend pastimes and annual holiday trips are required for such people to recharge the batteries of their lives. Leisure, hobbies and holidays are all good and required too even for people whose career is their passion. But if such activities are necessitated by the stress of your regular job, then your career cannot offer you the meaning of your life.
We live in a world which cannot offer everyone the jobs of their dreams or a profession that suits their genes. We are forced to take up certain jobs out of the sheer necessity of a regular income. However, we can convert that job into something we enjoy doing. Otherwise, life can be a misery; if not for ourselves, for our clients or whoever we are supposed to be serving.   
Let us take an example out of the thousands of people who needed no other meaning in their life than their career.
Leonardo da Vinci
Image source

Leonardo da Vinci was a son of a wealthy man, Ser Piero da Vinci. But since he was born out of wedlock, he was barred from attending the university or practising any noble profession. His destiny conspired against him right from his birth. He was allowed to grow up in his father’s house, however.
After a little schooling, Leonardo was left to himself. Not knowing what to do with his time, little Leonardo wandered in the wildernesses of the da Vinci estate. The wild animals, birds, flowers and waterfalls fascinated him. He started sketching those beautiful scenes on paper pilfered from his father’s office.  Paper was quite an expensive thing in those days.
His artistic sense and skills were soon noticed by his father. Thus he became an apprentice at the Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio’s studio. Leonardo could not complete his assignments there just because he refused to imitate his master. Apprentices were expected to learn by imitating their masters meticulously in those days. Leonardo followed his own instincts and tastes. He created, not imitated.
He created with perfection and so even his master could not but recognise the merit of his talent. When Leonardo was asked to create an angel in a biblical scene which Verrocchio was working on, the young artist experimented with colours until he got a new blend that exuded a radiance that befitted angels. Before drawing the angel, Leonardo spent hours in the local church until he got the right model for the angel. In order to give wings to the angel, Leonardo purchased several birds and studied their wings. The plants that surrounded the angel in the picture came from Leonardo’s observations in his father’s estate during his protracted childhood. Until then, there was a clear tradition about the plants that artists drew around angels. Leonardo changed that tradition. Geniuses don’t follow traditions blindly. They can’t.
The angel was only a small part of a large scene that the master was creating. That didn’t deter the young apprentice from giving his best to the scene. Perfection comes naturally to geniuses. Perfection is part of the genius’s passion.
In 1481, when the Pope asked Lorenzo de Medici to recommend the best artists to decorate the Sistine Chapel, Leonardo was ignored just because Lorenzo despised people who could not read Latin and had no education. It was a bitter experience for Leonardo. But he did not let despair get the better of him.
Leonardo left for Milan where he soon established himself as more than an artist. He pursued all the things that fascinated him: architecture, military engineering, hydraulics, anatomy, sculpture, music, literature, mathematics, astronomy, palaeontology and cartography. The rest is history. He became an unparalleled artist, sculptor, architect and engineer.
For Leonardo da Vinci, his career was his life. The job he did was the meaning of life for him. He loved what he did; he did what he loved. What else can bring bliss to one’s life?
Mona Lisa by Da Vinci
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This post is the 3rd in a series on Meaning of Life.
4th will be: Science and Meaning

Monday, September 2, 2019

Religion and Meaning

Maggie [my wife] and a friend at Badrinath

In the post-graduate course in psychology I did a decade ago, there were dozens of theories and corresponding practical approaches for dealing with psychological problems. Religion was not mentioned anywhere in those theories or their practical approaches. Yet religion remains the most common refuge of people from their day-to-day trials and tribulations. Millions of people rely on religion for making sense of their life. Moreover, religion has been coeval with homo sapiens. We cannot obviously ignore religion when we discuss people’s search for life’s meaning.
My mother was an example of a typical religious believer. Hers was a simple faith which accepted the given dogmas and rituals without a question. The Bible was the ultimate source of truth for her though she never cared to study it systematically. In fact, she knew nothing more of the Bible than what the priests preached from various pulpits. If anyone pointed out the contradictions within the sacred scriptures, she would dismiss them as immaterial matters. Knowledge, intellect and reason had nothing to do with religious faith, as far as she was concerned.
She offered endless prayers to God. She attended the church regularly and devoutly. She prayed for miracles when the going got tough and beyond her control. If something good turned out, she believed that God had answered her prayers. If nothing good came, she consoled herself that it was God’s wish. Her suffering was not a fraction of what Jesus went through in his last days, she would say. 
Her faith kept her relatively happier and healthier. She was no saint, however. She possessed the normal human foibles and vices. That made her scared of hell. She was sure that she had to pass through some period of purgation before being eligible to meet her God after death. She believed that prayer had the power to reduce her soul’s suffering in purgatory and get her a seat in heaven more quickly. So she prayed a lot more in her last days. She hoped that her children would pray for her redemption after her death.
If her God really existed, I’m sure He would be quite pleased by her simplistic faith and religious practices. The biblical God is not so magnanimous, however. But my mother’s faith lay in the average believer’s grey realms rather than the biblical God’s clearly demarcated black-and-white morality. My mother would have found the thirteenth-century mystic Rumi’s god more in harmony with her genes and inclinations.
In one of Rumi’s poems, Moses overhears a shepherd speaking to God. The shepherd tells God that he wants to wash God’s clothes, pick the lice off, and kiss His hands and feet at bedtime. He admits that he does not know how to pray. “All I can say, remembering You, is ayyyy and ahhhhhh,” he tells God.
Moses is horrified. He thinks that the shepherd is talking to God as if He were his old uncle. He rebukes the shepherd who repents his sin and wanders disconsolately off into the desert.
God rebukes Moses. “What seems wrong to you is right for him,” God tells Moses. “Ways of worshipping are not to be ranked as better or worse than one another.” Rumi’s God goes on, “Hindus do Hindu things / The Dravidian Muslims in India do what they do. / It’s all praise, and it’s all right.” God tells Moses that the heart of the believer is what matters, not the words he uses in his prayer.
Religion offers the meaning of life to the believer when he internalises his religion in his own way. My mother did that. Rumi’s shepherd did that. Most ordinary believers do that.
These ordinary believers belong to somewhere in the middle of the religious continuum at either end of which stands the fundamentalist/terrorist and the saint. The fundamentalist and the saint too give shape to their lives with the help of religion. Both take religion to the extremes: opposite extremes. One extreme generates hatred while the other generates compassion.
Both the fundamentalist and the saint have certain serious psychological problems. Both are unhappy with themselves as well as the world. They find it difficult to accept the flaws, whether in themselves or outside.
The fundamentalist projects his indignation and unhappiness to god. He remoulds god in his image and thus reduces god to less than himself. God becomes subservient to the fundamentalist’s redemptive vision for the world. God becomes the certificate of merit for the heinous deeds perpetrated by the fundamentalist.
The saint, on the other hand, places himself at the feet of god in absolute humility. He accepts responsibility for his imperfections and also the imperfections of the reality around him. The saint’s vision is rooted in a compassionate acknowledgement of the imperfections as much as the fundamentalist’s is in hateful rejection. The fundamentalist brings the bomb to dispel the darkness while the saint brings light. The fundamentalist brings the sword to snip hatred while the saint brings love.
The fundamentalist transmutes religion into a horror. The saint is usually perceived and tolerated as an innocuous oddity until his death and venerated thereafter. The average person continues to make more practical use of religion.
A church near Kottayam
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This post is the 2nd in a series on Meaning of Life.
The 3rd will be: Career and Meaning

Pessimism of the gods

There is a romantic at sleep in my heart who likes to believe that people were better in the good old days. The people I saw as a child we...