Spirituality and the jigsaw puzzle

What prompted me to wake up with the thought of looking for ‘Julian Baggini’ (I had forgotten his name)’s quote on optimism on Saturday morning on November 1, I cannot explain. But, it is true that I did. After some efforts, I located the quote I wanted to re-read:

What positive psychology gets right is that when we confront reality, we always have some control over how we then respond to it, and that a lot of misery is avoidable if we try to make the best rather than the worst of things. In practice, however, this sensible advice often degenerates into an excessive optimism, in which reality is whatever we think it to be. But you can’t make the best of a bad situation if you pretend it’s really just a good one in disguise.

This was part of his long review of four books that dealt with ‘Happiness’ written more than four years ago (15 January 2010).

That somehow led me to the review of a new book by a well-known atheist, Sam Harris, ‘Waking up: a guide to spirituality without religion’. I suppressed a smile on reading the title and read the review. The reviewer concludes his review with the observation that the book presents a fragment of the emerging picture of ‘post-Christian spirituality’. Excuse me?! Post-Christian spirituality?! It is pre-Christian and pre-Christ spirituality. Merely because some of these atheists are waking up to the limitations of their logical self and trying to transcend it (I do not know what they mean by ‘transcendence of the self’ nor am I sure if they know what they mean), does not mean that these ideas are post-Christ or post-Christian. That, in itself, is a suggestion that one is a long way from spirituality. The universe is not just made up of our limited conceptions and experiences.

There is another paragraph that should elicit a smile from some of the readers:

With his very particular definition of spirituality as “cutting through the illusion of the self”, it is unsurprising that Harris considers eastern religious traditions to be greatly superior to the monotheistic faiths of the west. Indeed, he argues that the difference “resembles that found between Eastern and Western medicine”, only “with the arrow of embarrassment pointing in the opposite direction.” Although he recognises the “global comedy” of westerners going east to pursue enlightenment while easterners are coming west in pursuit of jobs and education, he ultimately suggests that we join it. [Link]

It appears that Mr. Sam Harris even gets the direction of the ‘arrow of embarrassment’ wrong with respect to medicine just as he seems to have made a belated discovery of the spirituality of Eastern religious traditions.

Once you transcend self, once you ‘cut through the illusion of self”, where does one reach and where does one land?

The reviewer is correct to point out that “religious rituals might help us in myriad ways to find meaning and solace on life’s journey”. The secret to the value and utility of rituals in illuminating the path to spirituality and transcendence of self is balance. Otherwise, one can remain entranced in rituals. Of course, that could/might help the person  scale spiritual heights in subsequent births.

One does not know what Mr. Harris has written about reincarnations and karma in the book. Well, it does not really matter.

Transcendence of the self can mean that one finds meaning in serving others and living for others. But, in terms of spiritual evolution, it has to be transcendence of the ego. As written in an earlier blog post, that is not possible without a belief in a superior power. In page 87 of his lovely introduction to the Upanishads, ‘the Wisdom of the Rishis’, Shri. M writes:

In the beginning of sadhana, the attraction to the form is often necessary in order to be guided into the formless. This is a question of practical sadhana because one cannot jump to or fix one’s mind on the abstract reality , something in thin air, although ultimately is the formless that we seek. On the other hand, if on learns to gather one’s energies into one centre or one form, or one ideal, then at some point, one may reach a stage when one may drop the form. So a form, especially an attractive form, is necessary for one to be able to fix one’s mind on one point, and then, when one comes to a certain state, one may choose to discard it. It is like making an image out of clay. Clay has no shape as such. You put the clay into a mould and press it until the image sets, and then you break the mould for the image to emerge. (Page 87).

The very fact that I woke up with the thought that I should look for Julian Baggini – and I had no clue as to how the thought entered my head – is one immediate proof that we are not in control of our thoughts and decisions. Daniel Kahneman has written a tome, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ demonstrating how little, if at all, control we have over our thoughts, actions, decisions and conclusions.

If that is too much to wade through, go through this lovely TED talk by Prof. Dan Ariely on how much (or, how little) we are in control of our decisions.

The moment atheists contemplate the existence of a higher power, they are at a loss to explain all the injustices and unfairness in this earth as though God is obliged only to dole out freebies to all of us. Therefore, they find that it is logical to posit that there is no God.

There are two counterarguments to that in ‘The Wisdom of the Rishis’ by Shri. M. I am in the middle of it and I find the book a great starting point for further explorations into the higher wisdom of the Upanishads:

When one prays, does one get blessings? Sometimes one does and sometimes one does not. It depends not only on how much one prays or what energy one puts into it; it also depends on the circumstances. Often we pray for things that we want, but they may not be the things we need for our evolution. There is a difference between what you want and what you need to evolve spiritually. Since the Supreme Being is concerned with your need to evolve rather than satisfy your want at that moment, sometimes prayers are not answered. (Page 98)

Then, there is another paragraph in page 105:

Let us say that there is a giant jigsaw puzzle; and the person who makes the jigsaw puzzle, the one who draws the picture and paints it and then cuts it up into little pieces – he knows what the ultimate figure looks like. Suppose the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are taken apart and the different pieces lie here and there. I pick up one piece in isolation. I see that it does not even have a regular geometrical shape, and say, “This is meaningless. What is this?”. If I can put all the pieces together, then I see that there is some meaning to it. And the one who has made the jigsaw puzzle knows what it is.

Most of us – theists and atheists – are holding one piece – and trying to explain the puzzle of the creator. The problem is not only that we do not know but that we do not know that we do not know.

From Dikshitar to Tolle

On 1st of November, as per his usual practice, good friend Bala had organised his annual Dikshitar day concert at his residence. As the Sai Sisters and then good friend Shankar Narayanan sang various Dikshitar compositions, we kept looking for the lyrics and the associated temples on the Internet. Shankar sang ‘Ardhanareeswaram’. We were discussing which temple would Shri Muthuswami Dikshitar have visited. We came across the mention of a specific Ardhanareeswarar temple in Thiruchengode. As we were searching for Ardhanareeswarar temples in Tamil Nadu, we came across a blog post about a temple for Shri. Ardhanareeswarar temple in Egmore in the website of the Isha Foundation. Excellent and inspiring work done by a group of volunteers. Their website link is given at the end of the long but very riveting blog post on the temple reconstruction. One must visit the temple.

Then, as Shankar sang ‘Meenakshi Me Mudham’, I searched for that song and came across blog posts by one Sriram V. Iyer. He had done two posts on that kriti by Dikshitar. Both the posts are well written and detailed. Some of the anecdotes he narrates as part of the posts are very moving and interesting. As I spent some more time in the site, I came across this interesting post by Mr. Sriram Iyer: ‘Identifying and reaching goals’ (link).

IN that post, he mentions that if one were to read only one spiritual book, he would recommend Eckhard Tolle’s ‘A New Earth: Awakening to your life’s purpose’. I have not read it though I have a copy. I do not know if others, who have read that book, share his intensity of emotions about the book. Let me know.

This particular paragraph from Eckhard Tolle’s book on the anger and the ‘pain body’ is particularly insightful. I doubt if Sriram Iyer was quoting Tolle verbatim. But, here goes. I am sure all of us can see our own behaviours reflected in this paragraph, when in anger:

Sri Tolle says that the ‘Pain Body’ takes over. (Pain body is the collection of all the pains stored in our consciousness over many many births). The worse thing about it is that anger will usually be redirected esp to the loved ones in the closest ring since they are most vulnerable. (The pain body wants to extract maximum pain out of the situation not just others’ but yours too!) – The worst part is not yet over – The WORST thing is that the pain body knows the weaknesses or pain points of the closest ones and then will literally devastate the closest ones by using this knowledge most often leaving a very deep scar that takes time to heal, and making you miserable for days / weeks / months together for having done / said something.

I should read this book. This paragraph is so true.

It was truly a veritable evening of treasures on Dikshitar day at Bala’s residence on November 1.

A note of thanks to my father

On Friday morning, as I was taking my morning walk (Btw, morning walks are infinitely better than evening walks. Most of you might know. But, this reinforcement comes from someone who had not thought about it deeply until now. I was focused only on getting a walk done, regardless of the time of the day. I feel and experience the difference now big time. Hence, it might help steel someone’s resolve to get this done in the morning itself), I was listening, as usual, to Carnatic Radio on Internet.

They were playing a concert of Aruna Sairam. It must have been several years old. The voice sounded fresh. She told her audience that they might be listening for the first time to a composition of Oothukkadu Venkatasubba Iyer, ‘Vishamakara Kannan’. Since she had popularized this composition so much in recent year, one could deduce that this concert was from many years ago.

She sang the famous song, ‘Ayye Meththa Kadinam’ from Nandanar. Sri Dhandapani Desikar had played that role in the film. It is the 1942 version. Until I began to write this blog post, I did not know that there was one ‘Bhakta Nandanar’ released in 1935 with K.B. Sundarambal playing the role of Nandanar and Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer (somewhat more famously and contemporaneously, his son Shri. Maharajapuram Santhanam must be known to more people) playing the role of the Vedhiyar (Brahmin).

I began thinking about how I have come to know about these things, appreciate and enjoy them. I realized that I owed a lot of this familiarity and appreciation to my father. Then, in my mind, I could list a few things rapidly. Introduction to Shri. M.K. Thiagaraja Bhagavathar’s everlasting melodies, to Shri. Madurai Mani Iyer, to the devotion of Smt. M.S. Subbalakshmi, to the classic and brilliant humour of ‘Devan’ (Shri Mahadevan who wrote in Tamil), to Cricket, to Tennis, to many religious speakers cum scholars – Needamangalam Krishnamurthi Bhagavathar, Srivatsa Jayarama Sharma, K.V. Santhanagopalachariyar, Thoopul Lakshmi Narasimhan, Smt. Sivananda Vijayalakshmi, et al. Above all, temples and temple tours – to Shri. Bharanitharan, to Shri. Tho.Mu. Bhaskara Thondaman (‘Venkatam mudhal Kumari Varai’), to Kannadasan’s ‘Arthamulla Indu Matham’ and, in politics, to Shri. Rajaji and later, to Shri. Kamaraj.

Today, I write prolifically in public forums because his ‘Letters to the Editor(s)’ in those days pointed the way to me. I walked on the same path first.

The list is long and its import sank in before I finished the morning walk.

[Parenthetically, I must add here that to my eldest maternal uncle, I owe the introduction to P.G. Wodehouse]

My father is now more than 85 years old. A physically active man until well into his Eighties, he has shrivelled quite a bit in the last one+ year and barely steps out of his house in Madurai these days. He is not computer savvy. Internet eluded him and he had no patience to master it. So, it is very unlikely he will get to read this blog post himself. But, it is a reminder to myself to put and keep things in perspective, all the time, with all the people.

I am very grateful to him for these because, as we grow older, as we learn to appreciate the ephemerality of many things, we feel a need to graduate to slightly less ephemeral things and so on and so on. I find that these songs, these artists, these scholars and these writers are very important stepping stones. They take us to a different level and, if I may dare say, to a higher level.

To be able to lean on them when we need them, we must know of their existence. I am grateful to him for making me aware of these and creating in me, without deliberate effort, an appreciation for these finer elements and fine people.

Of course, eventually, we will realise that IT is nothing that we worship here. But, that comes much later and, in any case, that is a different matter for a different occasion.

Sanatana University

Just listened to the Day 1 lecture by Swami Omkarananda held on 11th September on ‘Kaivalya Navaneetam’, a Tamil treatise (work) on Vedanta (Upanishad).  Some of the information he presented about the studies and writings in Tamil on Vedanta are utterly fascinating – Vadivelu Chettiar in Chennai, Kovilur Mutt, one Sannidhi at Nannilam temple for Guru and his disciple (Narayana Guru and Thandavaraya Swamigal).  He has given these lectures in Chennai (Sadguru Gnanananda Hall, TTK Road) starting on 11th September.

I visited the Koviloor Adheenam Website and found out about the plans for the Sanatana University. I did not know when the plan was conceived and whether it has already been implemented. There is no date on the page.  I made some inquiries and phone calls and found that the Sanatana Academy is functioning. It has been functioning for the last few years. Looks very interesting to me.  God willing, I look forward to visiting them in February next year.

The objectives of the University are:

THE PRIME OBJECTIVES OF THE PROPOSED WORLD UNIVERSITY OF TRADITIONAL SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY AND CULTURE OF INDIA

              (World University of Sanatana Dharma)

              The University will mainly focus on preserving and maintaining the essential sources and instrumental factors of Sanatana Dharma and on keeping the traditional streams of Sanatana Dharma alive and flow for ever. Following are the activities to be undertaken by the University:

               To identify the original Vedic Sutras, Vaastu Sutras and Mantras and to explain them against the background of actual practice.

               To revive and vitalize the traditional and classical music as applicable to the temples, mainly based on Tamil hymns of Tirumurai and Nalayaira Divya Prabandham; To collect Tamil songs related to temples and festivals from various literary sources and to publish them with musical notes and notations. To offer tradition-based training in music related to temples.

               To conduct workshops and training courses in traditional Vaastu and to conduct practical-oriented training courses on traditional architecture incorporating the principles and techniques of contemporary architecture and engineering. (architecture and town planning based on the Vaastu Sastras and the works of Mayan)

               To document important temple forms and sculptural representations, covering technical and agamic concepts.

               To study the nature and impact of temple rituals and festivals, based on the principles of ecological and environmental sciences.

               To train the Archakas as per the Agamic directions.

               To undertake higher and advanced studies in Agama, Vaastu, astrology, astronomyand Siddha system of medicines.

               To focus on land and marine archaeology and thereby to unearth the hidden sources and evidences of the science-based Indian culture.

               To offer the systematic and tradition-based training in Nadaswaram, Tavil and such other musical instruments of pristine tradition of Tamil Nadu.

               To offer tradition-based training course in Classical Dance related to the temples of Saivism and Vaishnavism.

               To encourage institutions engaged in the revival and promotion of ancient Indian sciences and technologies that lie at the root of our Sanatana Dharma.

Incidentally, some one has attempted a contemporary commentary on Kaivalya Navaneetam here. I am yet to read it, though.

Religion and spirituality and not Religion vs. Spirituality

(I seek the understanding and forgiveness of learned scholars and souls for lapses in what I have written below.)

I just happened to read the piece by Sandipan Deb on the anniversary of the speech by Swami Vivekananda in Chicago on 11th September 1893.

What follows is a stream of thoughts triggered by the piece. They do not necessarily constitute a response to the piece.

The author takes great pains to distinguish between spirituality (Hindu spirituality) as opposed to faith, belief and rituals.  Among many relatively young people, it is almost a fashion statement to claim or to consider themselves spiritual as opposed to being religious. In their minds, the latter is somewhat obscurantist, antiquated, quaint, primitive and superstitious whereas being ‘spiritual’ is a sign of intellectual evolution.

This also helps them sidestep the question of belief in an Almighty. They can profess a studied neutrality at best or contempt, at worst, towards the question of a God or an all-pervasive external force. See this blog post, for example. [This blog post is better in that it mentions ‘ego’ twice but does not discuss the concept of surrender and its role in spiritual evolution. That said, I must add that I liked the idea of ‘detaching from drama’ as a sign of emerging spirituality.]

To a large extent, all of the above are understandable and even reasonable. After all, while it is possible to be both religious and spiritual, the truth is that, for most, being religious stops with that and they do not make any attempt to see their religiosity, beliefs and rituals as stepping stones or milestones in the path towards spirituality.

For many, their interaction with divinity in its multiple manifestations found in Hindu temples is at a transactional level.

So, one can understand a certain aversion towards being called or being considered religious or ritualistic. Being considered ‘spiritual’ or a seeker of spirituality sidesteps all these inconvenient questions and practices.

However, there is nothing wrong or shameful being a religious person who believes in rituals and who is a seeker or a person in quest of spirituality.

To understand that there is only one Brahman that pervades all living beings – animals, plants, birds and humans and space, air, water and fire – and that it resides within us as it resides within others and that our quest in life is to realize that Brahman (or, Godhead) in ourselves is one thing but to actually realize or experience it is another thing.

There are very few – perhaps none – who have reached or arrived at this understanding truly and permanently taking an intellectual approach to the quest for self-realisation.

The reason, as far as I can tell from my own reflections and experiences on this matter, is that an intellectual approach to spirituality will confront that one trait that most intellectuals (self-acclaimed, perceived and real ones) suffer from – EGO.

Ego will come in the way of crossing the last several steps because realizing the Brahman within oneself and accepting ITS presence in all others is to shed the last vestiges of ego, self-importance and self-righteousness. These are much easier to discuss and to write about than to shed, in practice.

Religion – faith, beliefs and rituals – has an advantage in that. If pursued and practised with the ultimate goal of becoming a spiritual or evolved human being – can help better in realizing that goal than an intellectual approach. Why?

Faith, rituals and prayers to an anthropomorphic God – done in the proper spirit – can help inculcate the spirit of surrender to a higher or superior force. That attitude of surrender – unconditional and permanent – is needed to achieve the last few steps of spirituality or, more precisely, to reach the pinnacle of human evolution, which is to realize and experience the oneness of Brahman – inside and outside – and to stay with that realization, forever.

Human beings have to realize that there is precious little that they control – even typing these letters and words. Psychological experiments and studies (books by Daniel Kahneman and Dan Ariely are but two of the sources) have amply demonstrated that our decisions are influenced by thoughts and forces that we are not even aware of. Indeed, the very success of consumer marketing and advertising is an eloquent testimony to human irrationality or put differently, a severe indictment of human rationality.

In spite of these studies, we refuse to surrender. We believe that we make things happen. Without the shedding of ego, it is impossible for anyone to become spiritual and remain in that state.

It is very difficult to ‘surrender’ to ideas. We surrender to those who espouse certain ideas. Whether it is Hitler, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Friedman, Gandhi or Annadurai, in the hands of certain individuals, ideas become powerful. That is, ideas become powerful tools of enslavement of humans by certain humans. Therefore, ideas do need champions and leaders. It is to those people that others surrender.

Therefore, belief in the existence of an anthropomorphic God becomes essential to develop the habit and the idea of surrender and without surrender, there is no self-realisation.

It is true, as many have argued, that there is a very thin line between A-dwaita and atheism, which is more clearly directed at the notion of the existence of Gods as defined by Abrahamic faiths.

That is why some of them claim that Adi Sankara who preached A-dwaita could not have written hymns and slokas in praise of anthropomorphic Gods – hymns such as Bhaja Govindam, Soundarya Lahari and Kanakatharaa Stothram.

[Sandipan Deb does well in his article to note that Swami Vivekananda’s spirituality was ‘pragmatic, robust and even physical’ but fails to elaborate or explain them. That is a pity.]

I do not know enough to take sides in this debate. But, I do not find this reason persuasive enough to dismiss his authorship of these works. I believe that he understood that faith and belief lead to surrender and then to self-realisation and realisation of the Brahman.

Further, those who are (or, think that they are) spiritual and not religious, should also be clear in their heads as to what exactly they mean by ‘being spiritual’. I doubt that, among the God-sceptics and intellectual seekers of spirituality, there is unanimity on the definition of spirituality. Lord Krishna, in his Bhagawad Gita, had defined, at several places, the attributes of an elevated soul in different ways. One thing is clear. Spiritual evolution is not about an intellectual pursuit of ‘spirituality’.

At a personal level, I see (a) action (or, non-action) with awareness and consciousness and (b) alignment of thoughts, words and deeds between themselves and with Dharma as being spiritual. I had written about it in a blog post on ‘What it means to be spiritual’.

As I wrote earlier, I understand the aversion to rituals. Many religious people stop at being ritualistic. It is seen as an end in itself. The larger purpose behind them all continues to elude them. I had covered this aspect in the above blog post too.

But, the trap for genuine seekers of spirituality is that they see this and shun rituals totally. That is a mistake too. In doing so, they are falling into the same trap as the ritualistic practitioners of rituals do. They should see the deeper purpose and meaning of rituals beyond their ritualistic practice.

In sum, there is no faith without rituals. There is no surrender without faith. There is no elimination of ego without surrender. There is no spirituality without ego elimination.

May we celebrate the true spirit of Shri. Vivekananda’s speech!

Nuanced understanding of Hinduism

Good friend Nitin Pai had sent me this interview of Jonardon Ganeri, author of “The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India 1450–1700″. It was a good interview. Clearly, Mr. Ganeri knows his subject well. His interpretation of Karma appealed to me:

The idea of karma is that every human action has consequences, but it is not at all the claim that every human action is itself a consequence. So the idea of karma does not imply a fatalistic outlook on life, according to which one’s past deeds predetermine all one’s actions. The essence of the theory is simply that one’s life will be better if one acts in ways that are ethical, and it will be worse if one acts in ways that are unethical.

Also, his comment about reading religious texts was interesting:

Reading a religious text, taking it to heart, appreciating it, is a transformative experience, and in the transformed state one might well become aware that the claims of the text would, were they taken literally, be false. So religious texts are seen in Hinduism as “Trojan texts” (like the Trojan horse, but breaking through mental walls in disguise). Such texts enter the mind of the reader and help constitute the self.

The full interview is here.

Similarly, for those of you who know Tamil, this exposition by writer Jaya Mohan on why one should read Bhagavad Gita is a MUST READ.

Not so curious

A.K. Bhattacharya of  ‘Business Standard’ has reviewed a book written by Shri. V. Krishnamurthy, former Chairman of BHEL, Maruti and SAIL, etc. The book may not have anything new and it may be the case that Mr. VK’s close connections to Mrs. Indira Gandhi and then her sons, etc. helped him. But, it is interesting to note that Shri. VK
has mentioned twice how his religious beliefs helped him come out of tight situations.

What is difficult to understand is Mr. AKB’s observation in the end about the ‘curious explanation’ of the author’s religious beliefs helping to rehabilitate him. What is so curious about that?

In difficulties, all people run into the limits of both rationality and their abilities. They seek some intervention. In India, most people seek divine intervention. In fact, limits of reason and ability are always evident except that we do not have the ability nor the humility to accept that.

What is reinforced – yet again – is the not-so-curious case of some members of the Indian English-speaking public not being in touch with India. No wonder the rest of India does not take them seriously as much as they themselves do. That is why they are way out of touch with their election forecasts, predictions, analysis and advice. They remain in their own cocoon.

No. Make that ‘echo chamber’. They live in their own ‘echo chamber’. It is noisy and it is a nuisance but they hardly matter to the lives of rest of us.