A Trip to Vienna

Last week I was away in Vienna on a business trip but managed to take some time off to explore the city. In the limited time available, how does one choose places to visit in a city which is completely unknown to you? The only connection I had with the city dates back to 1977. My Ph.D thesis was reviewed by a well-known professor from the University of Vienna then and today I have no clue about where he lives. Well, under the circumstances Google comes in handy. Google says that Vienna has an illustrious history. It has a rich cultural life thanks to famous music composers like Mozart and several well-known painters.

I’m told that Mozart gave his first performance at the imperial court at a tender age of six. So I decided to see the royal palace as a priority. That turned out to be a great visit thanks to an interesting story of a queen who lived in 19th century.

Well, before I write on the palace and the story, let me share with you about my visit to an amusement park known as Prater Park on one evening. It’s a great place to unwind and take a stroll  after a hard day’s work. I will describe here a couple of things that might interest many. As I entered the park, I saw a huge brightly lit advertisement for an eating place called Roller-coaster Restaurant. Well, I was not particularly hungry to get into the hotel. However, what attracted me to the restaurant was this advertisement. It said: “You cannot buy Happiness, but you can surely buy our Pizza!”  This Ad did it! It struck me as a profound statement differentiating at once between Happiness and mere Pleasure.

I went inside the hotel and decided to have one chocolate brownie for my little pleasure. This is a real fun place to go and eat. True to its name, as you sit in the restaurant and order food using a tablet, the food is served at your table, by a robot racing down a roller-coaster! See the picture below to get a feel of what I tried to describe. It was a wonderful experience indeed.

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The following day, I decided to explore a couple of royal palaces belonging to late 18th and mid 19 the centuries.The Hofburg palace houses the famous Sisi museum. Sisi refers to the queen Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary. The museum is practically dedicated to the queen. Her sad story is worth narrating here. She was born into a Bavarian royalty and got married to the emperor of Austria Franz Joseph at a young age of 15. As a child she grew up in a completely carefree atmosphere and enjoyed complete freedom in her actions. The upshot of such an upbringing was that she was completely unprepared for her obligations as the first lady or even as a mother. Her duties as the queen involved rigid protocol of endless ceremonies and she hated it all from the day one and could not reconcile at all throughout her life. She would go through bouts of depression from time to time and write poetry eulogizing freedom and condemning rituals of the royalty. To cut a long story short, her life ended when she was finally assassinated by an Italian anarchist when she was traveling incognito in Geneva. Her story was like a typical fairy tale. A good fairy would bless her with all the good things in life while a bad fairy would appear next and deprive her of all the mental qualities and temperament required to get happiness out of the goodies.The question is: do we sympathize with her for losing her childhood freedom and getting trapped in a royal setting or do we blame her for not making the best out of her new situation? The queen’s story perhaps reflects a common human failing.

Oh, yea, I forgot to mention about one very interesting spectacle I saw while I was at the amusement park. It is Indoor Skydiving which is a newly invented sport. I believe in 2015 the first world cup of indoor skydiving was held. Inside a flight chamber made of glass and with the help of wind speeds of up to 280km/hour, one can experience flight that is comparable to a jump from a height of 4000 metres. Here are a few photos of divers in action captured on my smart phone:

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Published in: on February 26, 2017 at 11:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Dismissing Atheism – the Upanishad Style

Atheism and Atheists have existed all the time. One may be under the impression that this is a modern phenomenon caused by science and in the ancient days everyone was a believer. Far from it. Even during the Vedic period there were several atheists. That was the reason why Upanishads had to make certain statements to dismiss atheism.

The Taitriya Upanishad dismisses atheists in its inimitable style. It needed only two lines to do this. Let me quote this here:

Asanneva sa bhavati asad brahmeti ved chet asti brahmeti cedveda Santanam tato viduriti

A simple translation is: If anyone knows Brahman as non-existing, he becomes nonexistent. If anyone knows that Brahman does exist then they consider him as existing by virtue of that (knowledge).

Surely, a preliminary reading of the translation is confusing. What is the Upanishad trying to say here? In simple terms, it says: If you say there is no God, then you yourself do not exist and if someone knows God as existing, he comes into existence too. This is still confusing. Isn’t it? One can get further insight into this statement by understanding how the Upanishads explain God. In fact the quoted mantra appears in Taitriya Upanishad after a detailed discussion on Brahman (or God). Let me try to summarize the discussion in this post:

Upanishads use different teaching methodologies to convey truth. The method employed in this Upanishad is known as KARANA – KARYA PRAKRIYA.  This may be translated as a methodology describing cause and effect.

The key to understanding Brahman(a Vedic terminology for Eswara or God) is just one famous line in this Upanishad, which is: SATYAM JNANAM ANANTAM BRAHMA. I will restrict myself to explain just this line in this post. I may not be able do complete justice to the discussion, considering that commentators have written volumes analyzing this line alone. Nevertheless, let me try.

Let us start with Jnanam or knowledge. Sastra says jnanam or Knowledge is Brahman, that is ‘Total knowledge’. It’s not knowledge of a particular thing. It may be understood as total integrated knowledge.

One may think that science has created knowledge. No – scientists have merely discovered existing laws. Newton did not create the law of gravity nor did any scientist create the laws of thermodynamics. They always existed. Everything in the Universe that exists is an expression of Eswara’s knowledge. In other words Eswara or Brahman is the cause of this knowledge.  If nothing can exist without knowledge or everything that exists is nothing but knowledge, then that total knowledge has got to be limitless or ANANTAM. The total knowledge, that is Brahman, manifests as different and distinct objects in the Universe. The very fact of manifestation or existence of an object requires knowledge as a prerequisite. In this sense Satyam (which is existence) and Jnanam are synonymous.

Sastra says: Satyam alone was present before the Universe began to manifest (Sadeva Soumya Idamagramasit: Chandogya upanishad). Satyam, as we have seen, is same as the Total Knowledge or Jnanam. The laws that scientists keep discovering from time to time are themselves manifestation of this all-knowledge which is Brahman.

For example, First law of thermodynamics which  says categorically that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, is a law which is followed in the entire universe. Similarly, law of gravitation governs the entire universe. Likewise, the theory of evolution and the rules behind cell division and multiplication, and all other theories of biological sciences explain how life evolved on earth – all existed much before scientists stumbled on them. All this indicates that there is a Universal order governing every piece of existence. That is, all life and its evolution, nature and its laws governing its existence and the laws by which scientists and technologists exploit nature are all based on a certain order. Science can only try to understand the order and these laws little by little in small steps. They don’t create any laws or knowledge but use those laws to create new materials.

Scientists like Stephen Hawking are struggling to identify the nature of this all-unifying knowledge without success. Stephen Hawking talks about the possibility of discovering a theory of everything.  Although scientists haven’t found such a theory, they do appreciate that the fundamental laws of nature are universally obeyed everywhere in the universe and there has to be one unifying law governing all laws.

Therefore, the Total knowledge which is Brahman, exists in everything that one finds in the universe (or Jagat). Without that knowledge nothing can exist. Since knowledge is a prerequisite for everything that exists in the jagat which is vast and infinite, the knowledge can as well be described as Limitless or Anantam.

That is why Sastra says that Brahman is both the efficient cause as well as the material cause. That is, Brahman has made the universe with Himself as the material. This is easy to understand if one looks at Brahman as all-knowledge. Knowledge exists in everything and everything is made by knowledge. That is, Knowledge is the maker as well as the material because the maker and material themselves are nothing but knowledge.

Brahman, which is all-knowledge, is self-existing. Everything else draws its existence from Brahman. Brahman is self-evident and everything else becomes evident because of Brahman. Brahman is self-revealing and everything else is revealed because of It.

With this understanding, it’s easy to demolish an atheist’s point of view which says Brahman doesn’t exist. If Brahman doesn’t exist, clearly the speaker himself doesn’t exist. In other words, the very fact of one’s existence is proof of the fact of Brahman’s existence.

 

Published in: on February 18, 2017 at 11:18 pm  Comments (2)  
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Chasing Reality

This is the story of my 3-year old granddaughter. She moved to our place along with her mother who was expecting her second child. She was super excited to be with her pampering grand parents. But soon she realised her father could not be with her. However, she  settled down with her new routine and was thoroughly enjoying her preschool where she was being taught singing and dancing. Then one fine day her father came over to visit us and she was on top of the world. This didn’t last long as he had to leave with in a few days. Her world plunged into darkness as she couldn’t understand why he had to go back. Flexible as kids are, she got over her sorrow within a couple of days. She was back again on her feet enjoying every moment. Her next moment of excitement came when her mother went to hospital for delivery and gave birth to a baby boy to play with. Her excitement did not last long, though. She saw a rival in the new arrival as she found her mother’s attention was more towards the new baby. With jealousy comes anger and we could see her throwing up tantrums over trivial things. She overcame this as well over a period of time. But she could never reconcile to her father appearing and disappearing time and again. Although she could not express, she sure must have faced several unanswered questions such as: What is real – Me living with my parents or with grandparents? The school is the reality or home with pampering grandparents. If parental love is real, how come my mother doesn’t show the same love after the arrival of the new baby. Does reality which is constantly changing has any meaning.

Her young mind would have found some convincing answers when she finally moved to her father’s place along with her mother and the newborn. Having finally found the warmth of love from both parents, she may finally conclude: Yes, this is the ultimate reality – not my grand parents, not my friends, not my school.

Did the elders fare any better in the emotional drama? Far from it. The parents and grandparents were equally or more affected than the kid herself. Their heart sank along with the kid’s and their spirits got elevated as the kid got excited. Not just that. When both the grand kids finally left them, they could not take it in their stride. The silence in the house was overpowering. The house felt desolate and lifeless without the usual noises.

Look at the contrasting experience after the kids left. During their stay, time was in short supply. Now there is plenty of time on hand. There was plenty of noise then. Now there is deafening silence. There was plenty of fun, then. We all would laugh, make faces, whistle, sing & dance to no particular tune. Now that is replaced by meaningless monotonous work, matter-of-fact conversations, gentlemanly behaviour and plain boredom. Every piece of work had a purpose then, while now whatever work we do seems meaningless.

What is reality? They living with us or they living away from us? If the elders understand the realities, why do they find the separation unbearable?

The fact of the matter is that none of the things that we see as reality are real. All that we see in the human drama are mere emotions. Emotions come and go. They are not real. Whatever is changing with time is not real. And we are chasing the so-called reality which is constantly changing. What then is the reality that does not undergo any change? Awareness or Consciousness which lights up all the seemingly real things is the only reality. It’s that without which the relative world of experiences and emotions cannot exist. One may call it God, or Eswara or Brahman ( as in the Vedic terminology).

Published in: on February 11, 2017 at 5:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Ethics in the Context of Cruelty to Animals

Last week I wrote a post condemning the cruel sport Jallikattu involving bulls. The post was incomplete in some respects. For one thing, I did not elaborate my stand on cruelty to animals. I thought I will do that here.

Before I do that, I should point out that I’m a little surprised to see unequivocal support for Jallikattu coming from several religious leaders on grounds of culture. My surprise arises from the fact that Hinduism strongly advocates the principle of Ahimsa or nonviolence. Our scriptures declare – Ahimsa paramo dharmah, meaning, nonviolence is the highest virtue or value. Here’s how it is considered as the highest form of dharma? Ahimsa prohibits violence in all forms – thought, word and deed. And all other values – love, compassion, sympathy, empathy – are derived from this all-encompassing value.

One has to go back to our history to understand how this value got distorted over time. Hindus always talked about preferential treatment to be given to cows. That is, within the animal species, we select cows as being holier than any other animal. The question is why don’t we extend this protection to all life forms. Failure to do so has led to practices like Jallikattu, bullock cart races or cock-fights (famous in Andhra Pradesh) with religious sanction.

In a way human beings have all along been taking  similar morally indefensible positions in different degrees at different periods of history.Racists are convinced that the race they belong to is far superior to those of others and hence they deserve a better deal. If this defines a racist, do you know who is a speciesist? A speciesist is one who thinks that members of human species or Homo sapiens  deserve better treatment over other species like animals.

When a white man says life is precious or sacred, he means it’s the life of the white man that is sacred. Likewise speciesist are conditioned to believe the life of a human is more sacred than that of an animal. With a similar logic, a hard-core Hindu would believe that among animals, the life of a cow is more holy.

While Hindu scriptures discussed dharma at length, the philosophers of the West tried to systematise their thoughts on ethical values only in the last few centuries. Peter Singer, a contemporary philosopher who is regarded as the philosophers’ philosopher, in his famous book titled Practical Ethics, captures the essential principles of ethics spelt out by philosophers of the previous centuries like Emanuel Kant, Stuart Mill, John Rawls, David Hume etc and adds his own definition of an ethical action. He proposes that an action should be judged ethical based on the criterion of what he calls equal consideration of interests. Let us try to understand and apply this principle of ethics to, say, Jallikattu or any other similar animal sport. The interest here is the experience of pain by the bulls. The principle of equal consideration implores us to consider a bull’s pain on par with that of a human. It could be a bull in Jallikattu or a cock in a cock-fight. The same considerations should hold regardless of which species it belongs to. Normally, most of us don’t take into consideration the effect of our actions on animals which also have well-developed central nervous system to respond to pain or pleasure, although they do not have the language to express the same.

So, clearly, ethical principles are well laid out whether one relies on our scriptures or studies the philosophers from the West. It’s only our lack of sensitivity that makes us ignore and indulge in actions to suit our whims and fancies.

Published in: on January 29, 2017 at 10:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Post-Truth and Jallikattu Debate

Oxford dictionary declared Post-truth as the word of the year 2016. Post-truth refers to circumstances where emotional appeals rather than objective facts shape public opinion.The prime example is the US presidential campaign in 2016 and now one can see it in full demonstration in the agitation in Tamilnadu .

Here are the blatant lies, Half truths & Myths related to the Jallikattu agitation:

  1. PETA is in collusion and conspiracy with Multinational Companies to finish off the local breeds used in Jallikattu so that the latter can sell their breeds in India.This is a completely imaginary story spun out of desperation by agitators.
  2. Jallikattu represents Tamil Culture? No way. This is a myth. A true Tamilian would  rather be proud of their ancient art & architecture in  temples, their rich literature etc. A Tamilian should, in fact, feel  ashamed of evil practices like Jallikattu.
  3. Do the imported Jersey Cows produce the harmful A1 milk as claimed in Social media like FB or What’s up? Again this is a blatant lie. According to the reports published by The National bureau of  Animal genetic resources, Jerseys produce only A2 milk, not A1 milk as claimed in the social media.  Among Indian breeds the bureau reported that Gir, Rathi, Red Sindhi, Sahiwaland, Tharparkar  produce 100 percent A2 milk. However, the breed Kangayam which is the most prominent breed used for Jellikattu does not seem to figure in the report.
  4. Is A1 milk positively harmful? The claims of harmful effects of A1 milk are highly controversial. In fact in 2009, European Food Safety Authority, which is a highly reputed body, reviewed the published literature and concluded that the findings are inconclusive. The conclusions are tentative and based on mere epidemiological studies of patterns and correlations in different populations. Clearly, deeper clinical research needs to be done to come to conclusions. .

Do not take whatever I say on its face value. If anyone is interested, I can provide scientific references to support my conclusions.

The media is so full of half-truths and lies that the truth is deeply buried hidden from the inquisitive lay public. What a shame! A group of misguided youth could whip up  raw emotions of the gullible public who rallied behind them in thousands on the marina beach in Chennai.

The truth is that there is big money at stake in Jallikattu. For the sake of big money and cheap entertainment, people are willing to go to any length to have their way. As someone said in jest, the mark of a reasonable person is to find a reason for any unjustified cause!

In the heat of the emotionally charged atmosphere, has any of the practitioners of this cruel practice considered the bull’s point of view? Why would they? They have such a blinkered view of the issue they cannot see but their narrow version.

According to the old tradition, the winner even gets to marry the daughter of the bull owner.The sport is purely meant to showcase masculinity and arrogance. I believe, these days very few women come and watch the show.

Even if it’s part of our culture, we should take pride in putting an end to such cruel practices instead of resisting the change through blatant lies and half-truths.

 

 

 

Published in: on January 22, 2017 at 10:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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Memories, Experiences and Living in the Present


My daughter has a penchant for capturing precious moments of life with her camera. She is particularly fond of photographing kids in action. She visited us recently from the US along with her 2-year old kid and went on clicking video shots of the kids in action. I think she is sentimental when she says: Life is all about experiences and memories which are best captured with video shots. Whenever she has leisure, she says, she spends time going through these captured memories.

I disagree with her on the question of whether life is all about memories. Being a fan of the great philosopher J Krishnamrthy, I have completely different views on the subject. Let me quote JK himself.  He says very profoundly: Memory is the residue of an unfinished, uncompleted experience, is it not? Watch your own memory and you will see. When you finish an experience, complete it, there is no memory of that experience in the sense of a psychological residue. There is a residue only when an experience is not fully understood, and there is no understanding of experience because we look at each experience through past memories, and therefore we never meet the new as the new, but always through the screen of the old. Therefore, it is clear that our response to experience is conditioned, always limited”.

JK implies that since we do not experience every moment fully, we feel the need to keep going back to the past so that we can relive the experience. But then memory is really not very helpful either. It’s very selective and is never a faithful reproduction of what actually happened in the past. Not just that. We are perpetually busy recording experiences and miss the live experience. It’s like the old joke about a Japanese tourist who visits many places and ends up seeing them all only through the camera lens!

Having seen J Krishnamrthy’s profound insight on the topic, let us take the case of Lord Krishna’s life. He always lived in the present. His childhood was spent in Gokul. Then he moved to Brindavan where the Gopikas (Cow herding girls) experienced the ecstasy of his spiritual love. From Bridavan, he moved to Mathura for a while to complete his unfinished task and then went on to become the king of Dwaraka. Once that phase was over, his next destination was Hastinapur where he played a crucial role during the Mahabharata war. Wherever he went he played his role to perfection without being overwhelmed by emotions. He was always present in the moment and never looked back or brooded over the past. For instance, when the time came to leave Brindavan, he left all the gopikas he loved without feeling sentimental about their relationship, although the gopikas pined for him with nostalgia. Nostalgia is a symptom of having had an incomplete experience.

When is an experience complete? It’s only when one lives in the present moment completely. One can learn about living in the present moment from children. Children live every moment so completely that they have no need for memories. Here are a few live examples. Recently my granddaughter took part in her school sports day function. She participated in the running race and stood first in two events. Here is a photograph of her after winning:

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Don’t you see the innocence in her face. There is no great excitement. She ran like anybody else and winning was not important to her or for that matter to any kid. Excitement was only for the parents. Children, in their age of innocence, do not develop any sense of competition. Since there was no sense of competition, there was no tension before running and  no excitement either after the event. Nevertheless, they all enjoyed every moment of the race. Perhaps after a couple of years of brainwashing by parents on concepts like  competition, winning, losing etc, they would behave like any other adult.

Here is another instance of the spontaneity of children. The pictures below are of celebration of the birthday of my granddaughter:

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One can see all the children playing spontaneously on their own without feeling inhibited. Unlike adults who have to be coaxed into playing, all the kids joined in to play games without anyone prompting then to do so .

To me, this is the meaning of living in the present moment which is completely different from living in memories and nostalgia.

 

Published in: on January 9, 2017 at 12:10 am  Leave a Comment  
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Can Culture exist independent of Religion?

Last month I had been to the temple town Tiruchanoor (near Tirupati) to take part in the grand celebrations of Brahmotsavam of the Goddess Padmavati. I have been attending this festival fairly regularly every year. I often wondered why I attend this so regularly without fail. Is it because I am a great devotee? No chance. I do not consider myself as one. Do I love the elaborate rituals that go on and on endlessly? No way. I’m not much of a lover of rituals either. In fact I do not perform any rituals at home.  I discourage rituals, especially those that lead to wastage of food items like ghee which is poured into fire as an oblation or offering to Gods. In a country where so many poor go hungry without food, I believe it’s a colossal waste. It’s not just ghee that is wasted – the priests use a lot of other stuff like coconut water, honey,milk, curd, fruits and what not. OMG, the amount of food stuff that goes waste is mind-boggling. I’m aware that purists and traditionalists would vehemently oppose my views in this respect.

Then, why do I attend this festival so regularly? I’m trying to make sense of my annual visits.

I have two great reasons to take part in the festivities: The festival presents rituals, no doubt, but most of the rituals are performed to the accompaniment of certain mantras and Nadaswaram music. Music is a big attraction for me in this festival. One may wonder how this is different from what we get to hear in Chennai or Bombay. It’s indeed a very different kind of experience. It’s different especially when the royal procession of the Goddess seated in a decorated vehicle is taken around the small town. The procession takes about three hours to complete and one is fully entertained with one of the finest exhibitions of Nadaswaram recital by some very talented players. This is pure classical music. It’s uniqueness lies in the fact that it takes place in the cool hours of late evening out in the open. The beauty of the music and the ambience complement each other and one can easily lose oneself completely.  The spiritual experience one gets out of a great Nadaswaram recital in the cool hours of late evening is simply unmatched. Good music in the right ambience has the capacity to take one’s mind to a level where the real self is experienced.

The second reason for my annual visits relates to the celebration of Tirumanjanam or holy bath of the goddess conducted to the accompaniment of mantras from Upanishads. What a contrast – Upanishad mantras, describing reality on one hand and the ritualistic holy bath of the goddess on the other! The various actions performed are aesthetically pleasing and conducted with great reverence. This is accompanied by chanting of mantras which are declarations of the ultimate reality. The ritual is performed as dictated by the karma kanda of the Vedas while the mantras are straight from Upanishads which are at the end of each Veda (otherwise known as Vedanta). The beauty of the Upanishads is that it doesn’t deal with any Gods or Goddesses. In fact there is no mention of names of any gods. It gives only the vision of Truth. Let me illustrate this with an example from Tatriya Upanishad. It starts off with the famous statement – Satyam Jnanam Anantam brahma. This statement encapsulates the entire Vedanta beautifully, if understood properly. Let me try to explain. Brahman, in the Vedic terminology, refers to the ultimate reality. A simple translation of the mantra is : Brahman or Eswara is Existence, all-knowledge and limitless. Put differently, all that is here is Brahman. What does this mean? It simply means that you, me, the entire universe, our minds, the cosmic order, psychological order and every other order – conceivable and inconceivable – is Brahman. This necessarily leads to the inevitable conclusion of non-duality or Advaita. The beauty of this declaration is that it defines reality without naming any god. The god can be Jesus or Allah or Eswara or Narayana as long as one understands It as Satyam, Jnanam, Anantam.

In the light of such great mantras which go with a highly ritualistic Tirumanjanam, the ritual itself looks highly insignificant, wasteful and meaningless because the performer of the ritual, the materials with which you perform the ritual, the gods receiving the offerings in the ritual are all manifestations of  Brahman, the only reality. The mantras, if understood, can liberate even without the need to perform the ritual, while the ritual performed mechanically can only lead to deeper bondage.

Well, then, can one have such festivals without the rituals? It’s a tall order. Cultural richness comes with a price tag. Some even say that without religion there would be no culture. There may be some truth in it. The musical compositions of great saints like Tyagaraja were, after all, created in their great moments of ecstatic devotion to their favourite gods. Today, all great musicians rely heavily on Tyagaraja’s musical compositions to lend richness to their concerts.

So, it looks like we owe our rich cultural heritage to our religions. There is no way one can separate the two.

Published in: on December 19, 2016 at 2:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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  
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Reciprocal altruism – My Experiments with my grandkids

 

“Naan avanai tiruppiam adichutten thata” – said my 3-year old grand-daughter proudly.( I hit him again, grandpa). She is referring to her ongoing one-sided battles with her younger cousin. How does one handle this? Opinions within our house are divided. My wife and my second daughter decided to encourage him to hit back. The logic is that once my granddaughter realizes that she would be paid back in the same coin, she would understand the cost of being aggressive. My first daughter, however, says this is not right since it is leading to a never-ending cycle of hitting and counter-hitting. I kept silent and decided instead to do some experiments.

We bought two toys – a bus for my granddaughter and an auto-rickshaw for my grandson who is obsessed with this vehicle. As expected they picked up a quarrel on the rights of ownership over the toys. A peaceful resolution was not in sight as both the kids seemed to believe in the age-old principle of Might is right. So I tried to devise a trivial game using both the toys and a baby doll. The baby doll would take an auto ride first before taking the bus to go to a market nearby. Now, the game became more interesting to them than the ownership issue of the toys. This worked for a while. They could get more pleasure out of sharing the toys than merely owning just one toy. This is of course an old trick which all of us know of. When we go to a restaurant with friends, we order different items from the menu and share them.

The other experiment was in a park where both the kids wanted to play the slide at the same time. Here again the aggressive kid was shoving and pushing the milder one to make sure she was always ahead of the other kid on the slide. No amount of sermonizing would help change her behaviour. So I decided to try out a game. Here each kid, by turn, will get on the slide and slide down while the other kid would stand at the other end of the slide with open arms to receive and hug. Both enjoyed this game immensely at least for a while. Here again it’s the same principle of trying to maximise pleasure the by cooperating and working together instead of competing and fighting. Here are the photographs of the game being played:

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I’m not suggesting that the problems between them have vanished for ever. Obviously, one has to keep inventing newer games to keep them interested in cooperation. It proves, though, that the solution doesn’t lie in encouraging the other kid to hit back.

Evolutionary psychologists say that people are altruistic not out of love for each other but because they understand the basic human principle that – if I’m nice to you, you will be nice to me too. This is reciprocal altruism, which is innate in all human beings. This is an adaptation that evolved over millions of years as a mechanism for survival.

 

Published in: on December 4, 2016 at 4:37 pm  Comments (2)  

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  
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