Imp of the Perverse – Emotion versus Reason

We frequently encounter situations in life where we find that the behaviour of others is utterly irrational. We often exclaim in exasperation: “Why do they behave the way they do with the full knowledge that it will harm them”. Funnily, We do not notice such irrationality in our own behaviour. It’s always about the others. The implication is that we know it all and we never fall into such traps. When people insist on an answer to the question as to why people behave irrationally on occasions when they know that a certain behaviour is positively harmful, my answer is very simple. I say: “Because they cannot help it”! Before you dismiss this answer as evasive, let me present before you how philosophers and psychologists handled this question.

Edgar Poe, the 19th century American author and poet, writes in one of his interesting short stories(Imp of the perverse) about self- destructive impulses that we all possess and how we often commit acts which are not in our self-interest. The narrator of the story – imp of the perverse – murders a man using a candle which emits poisonous vapours in the victim’s a poorly ventilated bed room. Since there is no evidence of any murder,the coroner declares that it is an act of God. The murderer inherits the victim’s estate and enjoys the wealth for several years. Although the murderer remains free from any suspicion, he keeps repeating to himself – I’m safe as long as I do not foolishly confess. One day, a thought haunts him. He questions himself repeatedly – am I capable of confessing? Fearfully, he starts running around in the street arousing suspicion in the minds of people. They chase him and stop him. He feels as though struck by an inner demon or an evil spirit and blurts out the whole story of his murder. Having confessed, he faints and when he wakes up, people tell him he has already made a confession. He gets convicted for the murder.
The author of this story, much before the famous psychologists Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung talked about our dark Unconscious, theorized that we all have such self-destructive tendencies which make us act against our self interests.

As I write this, I recall an old funny incident which took place in our college. It was a chemistry practical class. Our demonstrator brought a very fragile glass apparatus and wanted to explain the safety aspects before starting the experiment. He was saying – “This is a very fragile and expensive glass equipment …you guys have to handle this very carefully.. absolutely carefully….” and all of a sudden he drops the very equipment he was proudly showing us and asking us to handle carefully. The thought that he should not drop the glass apparatus was very much in his working memory all the time and he did just the opposite.

This is what Daniel Wegner, a Harvard professor, talks about in his famous article in Science magazine titled – “How to think, say and do precisely the wrong thing”. Yes, we all think, say and do things against our interests.

I’m sure we all have experiences to narrate from our personal lives. For instance, we may go to a party telling ourselves that we shall NOT touch the dessert. We would keep repeating this to ourselves but the moment we see the spread of desserts, we would sheepishly follow our friends standing in a line and precisely do what we were hoping to avoid.

Psychologist Haidt, from the university of Virginia, describes this metaphorically like this. We all have a conscious rational mind and unconscious emotional mind. He compares the emotional mind to an elephant while the rational part is the Rider. That is, every human being has a Rider & an Elephant representing Reason and Emotion respectively.

The elephant cannot be overpowered by the rider because it is trained over millions of years of evolution to work on auto pilot mode without any effort or consumption of energy. On the other hand the rider, our Conscious mind, relies on exercise of sheer will power which is an exhaustible resource. Will power will work in the absence of temptations and when the mind is fresh. When the conscious mind is overloaded with work, it gets tired and that is the time when the elephant can easily overrule the rider. The rider is like a muscle power and any muscle can get tired under work load. Under those circumstances, the rider fails to either coax or distract the elephant. In that moment of vulnerability, the elephant can easily overcome the rider and make you do what you were hoping to avoid at all costs!

Talking of philosophers, David Hume, a famous Scottish philosopher was closer to the truth than Plato when he said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Neurobiology says precisely the same thing. The rider representing conscious thought is a mere advisor, not a master. The master is really the elephant. The elephant includes the gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions.

Is there a way out, then? Reason and emotion must both work together to create intelligent behavior. For this to happen, there are no easy solutions. Becoming aware of this conflict and pitfall is the very first step, obviously.. Then the solutions may appear and one may succeed with a bit of intelligent hard work. Firstly, knowing its limitations, the rider can consciously avoid situations where it comes into conflict with emotions. If it’s not possible to avoid a conflict, the rider can play an advisory or a trainer role for the elephant over a period of time so that the new behaviour works on an auto pilot mode. How do we do that? Here’s an example from my personal experience:

Several years back, I decided to give up all bakery foods knowing they are ALL processed and therefore bad(processed foods are generally rich in carbohydrates and have chemical preservatives). But then my elephant would not listen. Every time I went to a super market, my elephant would demand and get biscuits and bread. The rider, as an advisor, would take a lenient view and let the elephant have fun. My rider did not give up for long, though. It presented a logic to the elephant saying how the biscuits are processed and why they are bad for health etc. This logic presented over and over made the elephant develop disgust for these foods. I realized developing disgust is the key. As many would know, disgust is a very powerful emotion that an elephant possesses. It was developed evolutionarily millions of years back as a survival tool against toxic and poisonous foods that are generally bitter in taste. It’s through disgust that non-vegetarians turn into vegetarians. So, the rider should often use this emotion to retrain the elephant. That’s precisely what I did to get rid of the elephant’s craving for bakery foods. That’s a big victory for the rider and today, I don’t have to make any effort at all to keep away from Bakery foods. I just pass through those shelves as though they do not exist!!

Published in: on June 24, 2018 at 5:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

Are you motivating or demotivating? Here’s a simple Insight

Recently we got an exciting news of my cousin’s daughter being awarded  president’s medal for educational excellence in the US. Thanks to the social media, the news spread very fast and soon congratulatory messages started pouring in. I found it interesting to go through the messages. While most of the messages were simple in congratulating the kid, I found a couple of messages rather odd. One message talks about the brilliance of the kid while the other one says: You belong to such and such a family and so you ought to do well! I found the second message particularly odd. By bringing in family pride, you are not giving credit where it belongs. The achievement is purely a result of her hard work and she, as a person, deserves all the praise for the hard work and achievement. In any case modern science has dismissed all theories of superiority or inferiority of any specific race or tribe over others.

What about the other messages saying – You must be smart or you’re brilliant. At first sight, it may sound innocuous. In fact these are meant to boost the confidence or self-esteem of the kid or anyone for that matter. But, according to monumental research carried out by Stanford Psychologist (Carol Dweck), such well-meaning comments will have a negative impact on the kid. Carol Dweck published her findings in her famous book titled Mindset. I would highly recommend this book to all parents and indeed to all people playing the role of motivating others. In this post I will briefly summarize a few points relevant to our discussion:

What is wrong if a kid is praised for his or her great achievement? Carol Dweck coined two key expressions – Fixed mindset and growth mindset. Let me elaborate. The argument goes that when you praise some one saying he is smart or brilliant, the message one receives is the following: “If I’m successful, I’m smart….If I fail, I’m dumb. Will I succeed or fail. Will I look smart or dumb”. This is an example of a fixed mindset where the person has just one consuming goal , that is, to look smart! So, you will avoid taking any challenging assignment fearing failure. Also, “if I’m brilliant, there is no need  to work hard”. Such people believe their talents are carved in stone! They would start believing they are perfect (Carol Dweck calls this the CEO Disease!)

This is the fixed mindset with its disastrous consequences. There is no growth here since you cannot afford to fail at all.

The fact of the matter is that any big achievement, such as getting the presidential medal for educational excellence, is made possible by focused hard work. Mere brilliance will not win medals!

On the other hand, consider how a kid will receive a message such as: “Great, you must have worked very hard to achieve this”. The kid will say to himself or herself: “Yes, my hard work has paid dividends. I must keep working hard to maintain this level of achievement”. Eventually, working hard to achiever one’s potential becomes one’s passionate goal.

This is the growth mindset that she talks about.

Mind you, the conclusions drawn by Carol Dweck are not her opinions. They are based on hard-nosed research over several years.

The book reveals how, as genuine motivators with good intentions, we still make simple mistakes which can prove costly!

Published in: on June 15, 2018 at 5:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Why Zebras don’t get Ulcers – An Interesting Book

Visualize a scene where a zebra is being chased by its predator, say, a lion. That is the moment of do or die for the zebra. Aided by its evolutionary instinct for survival, it will run like hell for its life. In a few minutes after the chase begins, it’s all over for the zebra – either it is chased down and killed by the lion or it manages to escape. Either way, it’s all over. During the chase, its blood pressure could peak to 180. However, once the chase is over and it saves itself, it’s back to its normal self within a few minutes. How does it get back to its normal state of health so fast? The zebra does not brood over the past nor does it get anxious worrying about another possible chase by yet another predator in the future. It won’t ask questions like – why did it happen to me? If it happens again, how will I face it? Will I survive another attack? etc. It knows only one thing, that is, to keep running if a predator chases. That’s because it doesn’t have a well-developed brain which is, in a way, a great blessing. This is the major difference between we humans and all the other primates. Unlike a zebra, the human mind would not rest after a traumatic experience. It will keep brooding for ever on the same episode. Add to this our anxiety about insecure future and you have a deadly combination causing chronic & continuous stress. It’s this chronic stress, according to the author, that makes human beings susceptible to a variety of diseases such as diabetes or hypertension.

This book reminded me of a story I read long time back in a scripture called Yoga Vasishta. The story goes like this:

Long time ago there lived three princes in a city which did not exist. Of the three two were not born and the third one was not even conceived. The princes having lost all their relatives started wandering.They arrived at the banks of three rivers out of which two were dry and the third one had no water. The princes had a refreshing bath and quenched their thirst in them. Then they arrived into a huge city which was going to be built. Entering the city they found three exceedingly beautiful palaces. Of the three, two were not built at all and the third one had no walls. They entered the palace and invited 3 holy men to be their guests of which two had no body and the third had no mouth. After the 3 men had taken food the princes ate the left over. They felt happy and happily lived ever after in that city….

What does one make of the story? One is likely to dismiss it as ridiculous and non-sense. However, tell me how is it different, for instance, from a typical Indian parent worrying about the marriage of their son or  daughter? Here’s an example of a parent agonizing over the delay in fixing his son’s marriage:  What will happen if his marriage is delayed — what if he doesn’t get a suitable bride.. he will end up marrying a girl who is not educated .. not belonging to our caste…or worse still, he may remain unmarried… in which case he will have no one taking care of him.. . when my son reaches old age he will have none to support him… so on so forth.

To my mind this is no different from the story from Yogavasishta.

I have an over-simplified explanation (a mere speculation) of how a complex mind functions. It is as if we have a circuit for creating misery and one for unnecessary excitement.  What is common to both the circuits is endless analysis of ifs and buts of any given situation. So the subject lives in a non-existent future feeling either elated or miserable. The story from Yogavasishta falls in the second category of an excitement-seeking mind.
Human mind thrives on problems and worries. If there are no real problems to solve, it will create imaginary ones to worry over.

Let me narrate one more story from YOGA VASISHTA which depicts the same phenomenon of mind inflicting misery upon the body. Here is a very short version of the story:

There lived in a dark forest a man with thousand hands. Terrified with the darkness all around in the thick forest, he was roaming about restlessly in the jungle. He was beating himself with all the thousand hands. Seeing this, a sane person meets him, tries to bring him to senses and gets him out of the dark jungle . But then he feels uncomfortable in the daylight, having lived in darkness of the jungle all his life. He runs back to the forest blaming and cursing the sensible man for all his problems.
The story again may seem ridiculous. It’s just symbolic. The thousand hands represent his miserable mind filled with negative thoughts inflicting injury on himself. Troubled by his mind, he can neither help himself nor be helped by others.

Euphemism Treadmill

It’s said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is especially true in the context of words and the meanings they convey. Words convey our thoughts. However, very often our thoughts also influence our words and expressions. Euphemism is a great example of how thoughts influence our choice of words. This leads to the so-called euphemism treadmill. On a treadmill, we seem to be making progress as we keep walking but we are indeed staying at the same place without making an inch of progress. So too, words & expressions describing people or events may change without altering the underlying reality.

Here are a few examples:

Last week I attended a conference in Delhi……No, sorry, it was a conclave. Isn’t it something special? One may wonder how a conclave differs from a conference. Conclave, according to dictionary, is a private meeting of a limited number of  people of similar backgrounds. I have attended seminars, workshops, conferences and now a conclave too. I do not see any big difference in any of them. They are all mainly meant for networking besides having a nice time with special lunches and so on. It helps to rejuvenate or recharge yourself as you get away from your daily grind. If conference, conclave, meeting, seminar or workshop mean the same  why do we have so many words? I guess it’s a human tendency to keep inventing new names for the same activity to differentiate oneself from others or other groups.

Our obsession with words and the concepts they convey gets too ridiculous at times. Take, for instance, the word toilet. It became a bathroom to start with, then turned into a wash room and finally a rest room. The expression rest room is even more ridiculous since it’s the last place one would think of for rest or relaxation! It’s our desire to appear sophisticated that makes us come up with an euphemism. But soon the new word gets tainted by what it refers to. Hence the search for yet another euphemism to replace the old one continues. This is an endless process with no net progress.

To take another example, a handicapped person became a disabled person and since this was also not acceptable, it changed to ‘ differently-abled’. This is perhaps well-intentioned. However, I wonder whether it has made any difference to our attitude to the disabled.

Look at the renaming spree of streets by obsessive politicians. It’s laughable. In Chennai, long time back, the government of the day decided to change the names of streets which had caste connotations. For instance, Dr Ranga Chary Road became Dr Ranga Road. But what about Dr Nair Road? Logically, it should become Dr Road, right? Well, mercifully it did not happen and the original name was retained. But I believe Brahmin Street was renamed as Street. I wonder if  it’s a fact. All the efforts at renaming streets has not made any difference to the caste realities and the associated politics.

What was a slum at one time turned into a ghetto which in turn became a more respectable Inner City. Has the reality of people living under subhuman conditions changed? No chance.

A negro has turned into Black American as if to bring parity with white American status. But soon this also became offensive and today they are referred to as African-Americans.

Another euphemism which falls in the same category is the acronym CRY. Originally, the acronym meant Child Rehabilitation & You. It was renamed aptly as Child Rights & You to reflect the sacred rights enshrined in our Constitution.

Politicians, the world over, use euphemisms, to exploit the emotions & sentiments of gullible masses. We are all familiar with George Bush’s infamous descriptions of Saddam Hussein’s stockpile of arms as Weapons of Mass Destruction. Using just one euphemism over and over, he got himself the moral authority to invade Iraq.

In India, as the word Hindutva got tainted, the Hindutva brigade now call themselves nationalists or patriots.

Communism became socialism and then democratic socialism for more respectability. Capitalism, likewise,  became Capitalism with a human face, whatever that meant. This is a clever jargon from Capitalists to give an impression that they are not cornering wealth and exploiting the poor.

Hitler’s genocide of the Jews got a respectable name – Ethnic Cleansing.

Military jargon also keeps changing to dilute truth. For instance what is Friendly fire? What’s so friendly about firing? This expression is used when you want to convey the news of a soldier being killed by his own men. Collateral damage is a nice expression to say that a lot of innocent civilians died when a military action was undertaken.

Is this euphemism Treadmill leading to real change in our cultural & moral attitudes? No chance. It’s a form of self-deception, as evolutionary psychologists say. That’s why the treadmill metaphor is used. On a treadmill, we keep walking briskly without going anywhere.




Published in: on July 22, 2017 at 11:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Self-Deception and Cognitive Dissonance

Can you hold two completely opposing or conflicting thoughts in mind at the same time and still be in peace. Not a chance. Human mind needs a resolution of conflicting points of view to maintain equilibrium. Otherwise it will be under tension. This is true of important existential issues as well as trivial day-to-day issues. To take a trivial issue first, consider our current political discourse. People who supported PM Modi after he took over as PM go all out to defend him even on an issue like demonetization which is hardly defensible. When you already have a mental picture of Modi as a pragmatic PM, you cannot entertain another conflicting idea of the same man taking politically motivated decisions. How does the mind resolve this conflict? It will ignore all facts of the case and defend someone who cannot be defended. Likewise, people who supported AAP in the beginning have every reason to feel disgruntled later based on his performance. However, they resolve the conflict in their minds by inventing new meanings to his actions. Basic point here is that the human mind can function in peace only when opposing points of view are resolved. If this happens without a proper inquiry this is self-deception?

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological state where two conflicting thoughts trouble the mind. This is often resolved by self-deception.
In a way one buys peace, however temporarily. Let me give an everyday example. Traditionally we are all conditioned from childhood to believe in God. But then as we grow up, our education makes us doubt this belief. This is a classic case of cognitive dissonance. I went through this phase. Every time  I went to a temple, my doubting mind which is educated would tell me: “Can’t you see how you and many others are wasting time in the name of a blind faith?. At the same time if I skipped any ritual enjoined by religion or  tradition, my innocent mind would quip: “Hey, you’re missing out on something important in life. Don’t be misguided by your science education”. The resolution came late  in my life after setting up a proper inquiry into all issues. Now whatever I do, I do with clarity and awareness. The point I’m trying to make is very simple. Can we resolve conflicts without self-deception? If we can’t, we end up leading lives without any direction. To resolve conflicts, we need to set up an inquiry and study all points of view objectively. The inquiry, in the particular example cited above, can either lead one to becoming an atheist or a firm believer. It may be right or wrong. But at least the internal conflict is resolved and one lives in peace and without cognitive dissonance.

Here are a few more interesting, if trivial, examples of self-deception and Cognitive dissonance in our daily lives. Let us say that our dietician convinces us to take a low-fat, low-carb diet. But then when we see a spread of yummy cakes and ice creams on a table in a wedding party, our mind is in a state of conflict or dissonance. How do we resolve it? We eat it anyway and justify that saying things like: “We live only once. Let us live it up. In any case, exceptional violations of diet rules should not matter”. This is a classic example of post hoc rationalisation. That is, you do a forbidden act and then find ways of justifying the act.

The other day I was reading an article on American history (after the 2nd world war) which provided the following interesting case of post hoc rationalization: Franklin Roosevelt, after the second world war, uprooted hundreds of Japanese Americans based on a mere suspicion that they would indulge in sabotage. Having committed the atrocities, a govt spokesperson says: the very fact no sabotage has taken place strongly justified the action against them.

Here’s a trivial example of post hoc rationalization: let us say you have missed your favourite music concert you wanted to attend badly. After the event is over, you will perhaps look for every bit of news which will minimise your disappointment. For instance, you will be pleased to hear someone say: “The artist was not in his elements this time….. Also, there was a big traffic jam on the route to the concert hall and it’s good you didn’t attempt to go”. And finally an irrefutable philosophical justification will ensue: “Whatever happens is for the good”.

After all, human mind, in spite of evolution over millions of years, still has several limitations. Let us accept that the human mind is still a work in progress. But an awareness of its limitations helps us to recognise instances of self-deception at least on serious existential issues and take corrective actions.


Published in: on April 22, 2017 at 4:05 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: ,

When your Memory lets you down……

I’m told we spend 33% of our life time on sleep. To that I would like to add that we spend another 10% on searching for spectacles, Cell phones, keys or trying to recollect some name etc. The other day, I spent nearly 15 minutes to find out where I misplaced my specs only to find it is nicely kept hidden from my view on my cot underneath a neatly folded bed sheet. I could clearly recall keeping it safely on the cot. But little did I realize that I folded my bed sheet and threw it precisely where my specs lay. What a precise throw it was! If only I played cricket, I would have run out several batsmen with a throw like that.

I find solace in the fact that I’m not alone in this. The problem of recollecting name of a familiar face or of recollecting a well-known phone number seems to exist among people of my age group. The badly needed info is for ever on the tip of the tongue as though glued to it with an all-powerful adhesive! The problem with memory is that we sometimes remember things that never occurred. Mark Twain puts it humorously thus: “When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now, and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened”. One hopes one doesn’t reach that state! (If this quotation is not Mark Twain’s you can blame it on my memory lapse!)

My sister who is passionate about Carnatic music has the same problem. We often discuss concerts on phone. In the midst of a serious discussion, at times, her thought process gets affected just because she cannot recall the name of a particular Raga which she is quite familiar with. If it happens to be an important raga of the concert, she would really get upset with her failing memory. I’m in no great position to help her because my capacity to recall ragas is no better. This is not surprising considering that there are 72 main Ragas and hundreds of derivatives. I have experienced this problem during some music concerts, especially with ”Raga maligai” where the musician would render a dozen ragas in quick succession. Before I could figure out the name of one Raga, he would move to another and yet another and so on. I would, for ever, try to catch up with the musician. This is sometimes frustrating because we might  miss the beauty of the Raga Maligai itself while struggling to recall the Raga. Often, the problem is not of identifying a Raga but one of recall. Some musicians, helpfully, announce the Raga names, even as they sing, to end suspense among the audience. I have now decided to sit back and enjoy the music without bothering to identify the Raga. I totally agree with Shakespeare who exclaimed: “what’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.

I can never forget my ”mama thatha”(my father’s maternal uncle) fumbling with names in cricket in his late sixties. I was a child then and he was a great cricket enthusiast. We owe our knowledge and interest in cricket to him. We learnt from him all the nuances of the game like leg spin, off-spin, swing bowling, field positions, batting techniques etc. However, he always used to get confused between Bapu Nadkarni and Manjrekar. (Old-timers like me would be familiar with these legendery names). While recalling some great matches of 1960s, he would confidently say: The way Nadkarni batted was unbelievable or you should have seen Manjrekar bowling those wonderful maiden overs non-stop etc. We used to have fun correcting him.(For those of you who may not know these players of 1960s, Nadkarni was a great bowler while Manjrekar was a great batsman!)

A friend of mine tells me that learning Sanskrit grammar (Panini’s grammar) is a great help in improving one’s memory. I’m seriously considering taking such a course since it will come in handy in my study of Vedanta as well.

By the way, human memory is a serious subject of scientific research all over the world. Memory evolved over a few million years as a necessity for fitness and survival of the caveman. Our ancestors needed to remember their predators and their locations well in order to survive. Therefore, even now our memory rarely fails when it comes to remembering anything which affects our survival. Obviously, misplacing one’s specs or forgetting the name of a Raga do not fall in that category!





Published in: on December 10, 2016 at 5:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

Neuroscience behind Donald Trump’s Victory

Rage, anger, frustration, fear, jealousy, insecurity, alienation – anyone of these emotions by itself is enough to make one extremely irrational. But if one is possessed by all these at once and is asked to take a big decision, the outcome is bound to be catastrophic as we have seen in the behaviour of voters in the recent elections in the US. Neuroscience and neuroscientists explain it all beautifully. A neuro scientist from the university of Maryland, Dr Douglas Fields says that  while everyone is dismayed at the outcome of the elections, neuroscientists are not. Let us see how.

Human brain has a circuitry for reasoning which is also the centre of awareness and consciousness. This is known as the brain’s cerebral cortex.This can reason out and help in taking rational decisions. However it has limited capabilities in terms of memory and analysis. For instance, we can hold no more than 7 digits at a time in our working memory. This limitation puts us at a disadvantage when faced with a complex set of factors for decision-making (By the way, this raises the question whether humans deserve the name Homo sapiens – the wise ones?).

The complexity of decision-making often arises from that part of our brain which produces emotions. An emotion is just a feeling. The part of the brain which houses a host of emotions is called our limbic system. The cerebral cortex is  the centre of awareness while the limbic system is meant for generating emotions. For an emotion to be produced, you need a thought which is produced in the cerebral cortex. In the context of the elections, the cerebral cortex  creates a thought which divides citizens into two categories – ‘us’ and ”them”. ‘Us’ in this case could be our religion or race or our jobs. ‘Them’ are the Muslims, Asians etc. This division created by the thought communicates with our limbic system and generates all the negative emotions that I mentioned in the beginning. Fear and panic caused by terrorism, insecurity and alienation caused by the prospect of losing jobs to Asians, uncertainties due to a non-functioning government – all these emotions are too complex to be handled by the rational part of our brain. Under such conditions, there comes a privileged billionaire who appeals to these raw emotions and promises to take good care of their concerns. The mass hysteria falls for it and votes for him. Rational minds such as those of the pollsters, the media, elite and the intellectual class cannot comprehend, much less digest the happenings.

As the poet philosopher Leonard Cohen said: “There’s a crack in everything. That is how the light gets in”. Let us look at the happenings in that light.


Published in: on November 13, 2016 at 5:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Unlearning Our History Lessons

Ashoka the great, Nepolean the great, Alexander the great, Samudragupta the great and not to forget the great Khan of  the Mangol empire Chengiz Khan- what is common among these?  Each one of them was a great warrior who killed and decimated his enemies. But Ashoka had one more distinction for his claim to glory. As all of us studied in our school texts, he became a Budhist after the bloody Kalinga war and became a pacifist overnight seeing his own brutality. But is this narrative of history true? This is now being questioned by Sanjeev Sanyal, a best selling author. He says after Bindusara’s death, Ashoka killed Bindusara’s son and crown prince in Pataliputra. He also killed all but one of his 99 half brothers and in fact became a Budhist for political reasons a few years before the Kalinga war. His conversion to Budhism was related to the politics of succession and had nothing to do with the Kalinga war. Even after the Kalinga war, where about 100,000 people were killed, Ashoka was not repentant. He went on to kill his religious adversaries like Jains and Ajivikas. Thus he was a mere usurper who became an emperor by violence and went on to expand his empire through bloody wars. He was also cruel with people following other faiths and like all bad kings tried to plant false evidence through inscriptions in distant places to counter his reputation for cruelty.

If all this is true, then, does Ashoka now become an Antihero? Can we now denounce him as Ashoka, the cruel(Chandashoka). If so, what will we do with Ashoka Chakra which adorns our national flag?

Somehow our historians accept emperors fighting wars and expanding their empires and declare them as great. However, they cannot accept a usurper to the throne as a hero. Wars were always glorified by historians. A ruler is expected to keep expanding his empire and historians would thrust greatness on them. We have come a long way from an era where one’s greatness is evaluated by the number of wars fought and won. No one can get away today saying – I came, I saw, I conquered, like the great Julius Caesar did. However, one can certainly get away saying – I came, I saw and as I was looking on innocently, someone attacked me and I counter attacked and killed him. However, in today’s world economic imperialism has replaced political imperialism. The logic of Julius Caesar is perfectly acceptable in building Business empires. Businessmen have to either grow or perish. And when they grow it’s okay to kill a thousand competitors!

Talking of violence and wars, the evolutionay psychologist Steven Pinker describes, in one of his books, how the standards of violence have changed over time. Even as  recently as the early 20th century, a hereditary member of the British House of lords complained: PM Lloyd George had created new lords solely because they were self-made millionaires. When asked, how did his ancestors become a lord, he replied: with the battle-axe, sir, with the battle-axe!

Shakespeare, echoing the values of his time, says in one of his dramas: You ought not to mix up murder with war.. It’s puzzling that it’s wicked to kill one person but glorious to kill a thousand.


Published in: on August 14, 2016 at 5:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Spontaneity in Action 

Did you hear about this interesting stuff about IIT JEE. Way back in 1990s, there was this  simple question on arithmetic: 1+1=? The options were: 2, 11, 22, none of the above. Most of the students preferred not to attempt the question as they were scared of negative marking for a wrong answer. Why did so many guys miss the obvious? The answer is not far to seek. Many must have felt: There’s something more to the question than what meets the eye. A simple sum such as 1+1 cannot find its place in an exam like IIT, JEE.

 The story maybe apocryphal but one should not miss its moral. We tend to complicate our lives and miss the obvious and simple solutions.  An important consequence is that we lose Spontaneity in our actions making our lives dull, boring and devoid of any excitement.

Talking of spontaneity,  let me narrate my recent  experience with my grand-daughter. She was admonished and taken to task by both her mom and grandma obviously for being terribly mischievous. She was all tears when She found me relaxing on the sofa. She came running to me and buried her face in my  lap. empathizing with her misery, I told her matter-of-factly: Oh dear, whatever happened to you? Ah, I know, your mom and your Patti(grandma)got angry and scolded you. Right? She nodded in agreement and looked at me expecting to express my support to her. I consoled her and said reassuringly:”My dear little one, from now on, if  anyone hurts you, do not hesitate to come to me. I will keep you company and play with you “. Instantly her spirits perked up. She displayed her affection by hugging me tightly with a warm smile.That is spontaneity in action. When she was in mental pain, she was completely absorbed in that emotion and when she was consoled, she showed her love and affection without any inhibition. Having got over her agony she was again ready for her next round of mischievous acts. No brooding over the past at all like adults.

Interestingly, we lose that spontaneity when we grow up. How does it happen? The word tomorrow is the culprit, I suppose. Think of tomorrow and one gets into the psychological world of one’s ambitions , targets, plans, the fear of not achieving or under-achieving, the fear of losing money or property if one is wealthy,  the thoughts of retaining one’s name and fame if one is a celebrity, the fear of losing health if one is healthy and the fear of death if one is aged  etc – the list is indeed endless.

The solution lies in relearning to live in the present which is a life of spontaneity. Plan, by all means, for tomorrow. However, do not get bogged down by fears and  insecurities of tomorrow. These are not real. Present is the only reality and if we fully live in the present the future will take care of itself.

Published in: on July 28, 2016 at 10:43 am  Leave a Comment