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:


              (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.

What do unintended consequences tell us?

I am always fascinated by unintended consequences because they remind us not to take ourselves, our feelings, opinions too seriously because we are utterly incapable of fathoming the long-run meaning and implications of what we see, hear and experience today. They are a reminder to us that excessive exuberance or despair at current events are uncalled for. We simply do not know how they would play out. Sample these two from the book, ’23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism’ by Ha-Joon Chang.

First Example 

When Korea wanted to develop a steel industry, the potential donors faced arguably the worst business proposal in human history – a state-owned company, run by a politically appointed soldier, making a product that all received economic theories said was not suitable to the country. The Korean government managed to persuade the Japanese government to channel a large chunk of the reparation payments it was paying for its colonial rule (1910-45) into the steel-mill project and to provide the machines and the technical advice necessary for the mill. By the mid-1980s, it was considered one of the most cost-efficient producers of low-grade steel in the world. By the 1990s, it was one of the world’s leading steel companies.

In the 1950s, the US government aid agency USAID had called Korea a ‘bottomless pit’!

When Japan invaded and occupied Korea, it would have been impossible to imagine that it would, one day, pave the way for Korea to become a world-leader in steel-making!

Second example:

After WW I, Soviet economy was in dire straits. Lenin had kept farming in private hands. Trotsky was opposed to it. Preobhrzhensky argued for rapid industrialisation which required transfer of farming surplus to the State.

Initially, Stalin was not in favour but upon becoming a sole dictator Stalin took Preobrazhensky’s ideas and implemented it. Of course, agricultural output collapsed. In the famine of 1932-33, millions perished.

The irony is that, without Stalin adopting Preobrazhensky’s strategy, the Soviet Union would not have been able to build the industrial base at such a speed that it was able to repel the Nazi invasion on the Eastern front in the Second World War. Without Nazi defeat on the Eastern front, Western Europe would not have been able to beat the Nazis. Thus, ironically, Western Europeans owe their freedom today to an ultra-left-wing Soviet economist called Preobrazhensky.

Policies recommended by a ultra-left wing Soviet economist and implemented by a dictator whose policies have led to the deaths of millions saved millions of lives in Western Europe and paved the way for a prosperous Western Europe since 1945!

What is your answer?

Professor Dani Rodrik, once at Harvard and now at Princeton, posed this moral dilemma in an article a while ago (in 2011!). It should be familiar to those of us who have ran into them in our personal lives and in Hindu epics. What is the answer to this dilemma? What is the guidance our scriptures give? I am very eager to know. Will be grateful for your comments.

APR 12, 2011

Saif Qaddafi and Me

CAMBRIDGE – Not long ago, a Harvard colleague wrote to me that Saif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, a son of Libya’s dictator, would be in town and wanted to meet me. He is an interesting fellow, my colleague said, with a doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE); I would enjoy talking to him, and I might be able to help his thinking on economic matters. The meeting, as it turned out, was a letdown. I was first briefed by a former Monitor Company employee, who gently intimated that I should not to expect too much. Saif himself held photocopies of pages from one of my books on which he had scribbled notes. He asked me several questions – about the role of international NGOs, as I recall – that seemed fairly distant from my areas of expertise. I don’t imagine he was much impressed by me; nor was I much taken by him. As the meeting ended, Saif invited me to Libya and I said – more out of politeness than anything else – that I would be happy to come. Saif never followed up; nor did I. But if a real invitation had come, would I have traveled to Libya, spent time with him, and possibly met his father and his cronies? Would I have been tempted by arguments such as: “We are trying to develop our economy, and you can really help us with your knowledge?” In other words, would I have followed in the footsteps of several of my Harvard colleagues who traveled to Libya to exchange views with and advise its dictator – and were paid for their services?

These scholars have been pilloried in the media in recent weeks for supposedly having cozied up to Qaddafi. Sir Howard Davies chose to resign as Director of the LSE, which awarded Saif his doctorate (which some allege was plagiarized) and took money for the school from the Libyan regime. There is a strong sentiment that academics and institutions that collaborated with such an odious regime – often with the encouragement of their governments, no doubt – suffered a grave lapse of judgment. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s murderous stance during the uprising has revealed his true colors, regardless of his more moderate posture in recent years. And Saif al-Islam’s recent support for his father suggests that he is not the liberal reformer many took him to be. But it is much easier to reach such judgments with hindsight. Were the moral overtones of dealing with the Qaddafis so obvious before the Arab revolutions spread to Libya? Or to pose the question more broadly, is it so clear that advisers should always steer clear of dictatorial regimes?

Universities all over the world are falling over each other trying to deepen their engagement with China. Most academics would jump at the chance to have a meeting with China’s President Hu Jintao. I haven’t heard much criticism of such contacts, which tend to be viewed as normal and unproblematic. And yet few would deny that China’s is a repressive regime that deals with its opponents harshly. Memories of Tiananmen are still fresh. Who is to say how the Chinese leadership would respond to a future pro-democracy uprising that threatened to undermine the regime? Or what about a country like Ethiopia? I have had intensive economic-policy discussions with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in Addis Ababa. I must confess to having enjoyed these talks more than most meetings I have in Washington, DC and other democratic capitals. I have no illusions about Meles’ commitment to democracy – or lack thereof. But I also believe that he is trying to develop his economy, and I offer policy advice because I believe it may benefit ordinary Ethiopians.

The conundrum that advisers to authoritarian regimes face is akin to a long-standing problem in moral philosophy known as the dilemma of “dirty hands.” A terrorist is holding several people hostage, and he asks you to deliver water and food to them. You may choose the moral high ground and say, “I will never deal with a terrorist.” But you will have passed up an opportunity to assist the hostages. Most moral philosophers would say that helping the hostages is the right thing to do in this instance, even if doing so also helps the terrorist. But choosing an action for the greater good does not absolve us from moral culpability. Our hands do become dirty when we help a terrorist or a dictator. The philosopher Michael Walzer puts it well: “It is easy to get one’s hands dirty in politics.” He immediately adds, however, that this getting one’s hands dirty in this way is “often the right thing to do.”

In the end, an adviser to authoritarian leaders cannot escape the dilemma. Often, leaders seek the engagement only to legitimize their rule, in which case the foreign adviser should simply stay away. But when the adviser believes his work will benefit those whom the leader effectively holds hostage, he has a duty not to withhold advice. Even then, he should be aware that there is a degree of moral complicity involved. If the adviser does not come out of the interaction feeling somewhat tainted and a bit guilty, he has probably not reflected enough about the nature of the relationship.

© 1995-2014 Project Syndicate

Discussions on ‘Shri. Aurobindo on Good, Evil and God’

(1) Email from me:

dear xxx,

This is a old email thread. As I was re-reading these paragraphs (I had not yet read the attachment that came with this email – an error that I hope to rectify soon), a thought/question/confusion struck me. May be, it is a naive and silly question too.

If, as Shri. Aurobindo says, 

To put away the responsibility for all that seems to us evil or terrible on the shoulders of a semi-omnipotent Devil, or to put it aside as part of Nature, making an unbridgeable opposition between world-nature and God-Nature, as if Nature were independent of God, or to throw the responsibility on man and his sins, as if he had a preponderant voice in the making of this world or could create anything against the will of God, are clumsily comfortable devices in which the religious thought of India has never taken refuge. We have to look courageously in the face of the reality and see that it is God and none else who has made this world in his being and that so he has made it. We have to see that Nature devouring her children, Time eating up the lives of creatures, Death universal and ineluctable and the violence of the Rudra forces in man and Nature are also the supreme Godhead in one of his cosmic figures.

violence, cruelty, evil and destruction are God’s creation, then why should we destroy them or fight against them? What gives us the right or what is that dharma that empowers us to act?

(2) Response from friend:

Not a silly but a huge question. For a proper answer I guess you would have to read Sri Aurobindo’s Life Divine. Note that the same statement is implied by Advaita Vedanta’s assertion that there is only Brahman and nothing else. In that case, despite attempts to wriggle out of the difficulty through the concept of Maya, all evil must also be Brahman. However classical Vedanta does not take us very far beyond this point, while I have found Sri Aurobindo’s view of an evolutionary world (and human being) much more satisfying as well as logical: we are all in transition, and transitions are necessarily imperfect. We cannot judge this creation by its present stage, but by its ultimate (if there is an ultimate) realization, which, in Sri Aurobindo’s view, can only be a full and therefore material manifestation of its latent divinity. In this perspective, evil is a powerful tool to speed up evolution towards this goal — and, in the human world, to compel us to call the divine forces down into this highly imperfect world. This is however a crude oversimplification and I can only point to Sri Aurobindo’s works if you wish to understand his “philosophy” (which he said was experience and not philosophy). I have often come across severe criticism of it by classical Vedantins or orthodox Hindus, but I have also found that they either could not understand the concept of an evolutionary, progressively manifested universe (the Puranic concept of endless cycles must be blamed here) or simply rejected his approach out of hand as being “confused” or worse. Of course it hardly matters in the end — what matters is where this creation is really going.

(3) Follow-up email from me:

 Thank you, XXX. Very, very helpful. I shall reflect on them.

A first thought/question:

If it is true that there is a transition to the ultimate realisation of the latent divinity and in the process, evil has to be confronted and destroyed, then it necessarily follows that there is free will?

Am I on the right track?


(4) Response from my friend:

 The question is too big, but I believe the answer is broadly yes. (Sri Aurobindo again wrote a good deal on fate and free will, some essays are brief and I could send them if you wish.) Of course every part of our being has a free will of its own, so it’s not as simple as we may think. Besides, karma as a cosmic mechanism (not the popular notion but a play of vibrations carried from the past) also has its say, which can limit the free will. There are also various non-human forces at work. And there is the divine grace beyond all determinisms which also acts of its own free will. Hence the cosmic mess we witness, or perhaps divine mess, clearly beyond our limited understanding. Even enlightened beings only glimpse a reflection of it through that part in them which received illumination, or only a moment of the manifestation. To understand it thoroughly, we need to grasp its full course in time and its play at all levels, all at the same time — which means becoming divine, I suppose.

(5) My response:

Thank you for this very enlightening message or ‘warning’. I fully grasp it. I did not want to convey the impression that I was using the term, ‘free will’ flippantly. I fully realise that it is loaded and hedged with the caveats such as the one you had expressed in your email below. Therefore, let me try to make my understanding and exposition of ‘free will’ clearer for the purpose of eliciting your feedback.

I quote a paragraph (few lines) from Shri. Aurobindo in an email you had sent two-three years ago:

War and destruction are not only a universal principle of our life here in its purely material aspects, but also of our mental and moral existence. It is self-evident that in the actual life of man intellectual, social, political, moral we can make no real step forward without a struggle, a battle between what exists and lives and what seeks to exist and live and between all that stands behind either.

What this paragraph suggests to me (and I would be grateful for your comments/criticism, etc.) is that ‘evil/war/destruction’ are also part of God’s creation but that they have been introduced to this world and they keep festering as ‘testing ground’ or obstacles for us to struggle and overcome (as Shri. Aurobindo notes above) and reach the plane of ‘what ideally should exist and live’ (paraphrasing the above).

So, that makes a few things clearer for me in my head:

(a) I accept them as God’s creation; so I do not question God for evil, unfairness or destruction and war and resent God for them. I see them as part of his ‘divine design’.

(b) I accept them as struggles to be overcome or milestones to cross to get to the other side (‘what seeks to exist and live’)

(c) So, to the extent that there is ‘free will’, it should b exercised and will work only in the pursuit of (b) with the mental acceptance of (a) above.

Any other thing that we consider as ‘free will’ is not exactly ‘free will’ and is merely a reflection of the Maya created by ego and false identities in our minds.

I shall also try to use a modern analogy here, to make my understanding clearer to you for you to tell me if I am on the right track or not.

As a plane flies through the sky, it can fly at an altitude where there could be turbulence (relatively more) or it could fly at a higher altitude where it is only blue skies and nothing else.

Both the turbulent sky and the blue sky are divine expression. The plane has the instrument and the pilot has the skill to fly amidst turbulent clouds or to take the plane to a higher altitude where the flying is smoother.

In that narrow sense, he has that ‘free will’. Of course, he cannot do other things with his ‘free will’. He can use his ‘free will’ and skills only to ‘elevate’ himself, his passengers and his plane. That is the circumscription of his ‘free will’.

So, I understand ‘free will’ in that sense here. If we exercise our ‘free will’ in that sense, with the humility that one is just a chosen instrument and hence engage with the moral purpose of overcoming war, destruction and ordinary or big evil to reach, what Shir. Aurobindo writes in that same paragraph, ‘the highest and best law of conduct based on the principle of harmlessness‘, then the ‘divine will’ will be with us.

Then, in such an activity, there is no conflation between ‘free will’ and ‘divine will’. In fact, both merge into one.

Does this make sense?