The tale of O.S. Arun’s cancelled concert

This morning, a friend shared with me a conversation that supposedly took place between someone named Ramanathan, supposedly President of the Rashtriya Sanatan Seva Sangam, with Carnatic Music Singer Shri. O.S. Arun. The conversation sounded authentic enough. Therefore, I guess Mr. Ramanathan had recorded it.  I could be wrong. The recording was clear. I could figure out that the voice at the other end was that of Shri. O.S. Arun (OSA).

I do not know if he informed Shri. OSA that he was recording the conversation and took his permission to do so.  Also, I am not sure if it is correct to release a private conversation for public circulation.

The issue was that there was a flyer announcing that had Mr. Arun would be singing a concert of Christian songs set to Carnatic Ragas sometime later this month in Chennai. It set off a furore. Some of us were pained enough to see that. Then, a little bit of sleuthing on the internet showed that several other musicians had sung Christian songs mostly under the ‘Tamil Maiyyam’ banner in 2009. Tamil Maiyyam was promoted by Ms. Kanimozhi, the daughter of Mr. Karunanidhi, who passed away recently. Some of the singers do not appear to have sung Christian songs after that. Videos or pictures of Mr. Arun singing Christian songs with the Cross on a chain dangling from his neck were also discovered and circulated in recent days. For some, anguish turned into anger and they misplaced their marbles. That is unfortunate.

In general, artists should be free to pursue their art and craft in the manner they deem fit. In the past, Kannadasan and Vaali had written lyrics for the movie, ‘Annai Velankanni’ and T.M. Soundararajan had sung a very nice song when Jesus was being crucified, in the final scenes of the film. My grandmother took her grandchildren to the movie, if my memory serves me well.

But, I do realise that these are different days. Evangelism is very active and conversion of Hindus to Christianity is a big international agenda. This is indeed a ‘Clash of Civilisations’ as Samuel Huntington wrote. In fact, in that book, Prof. Huntington wrote, “Christianity spreads primarily by conversion, Islam by conversion and reproduction” (Chapter 3, page 65, 1996 Edition). Many Hindus are rather frustrated by this and some are angry. Justifiably so. There is something inherently unfair about coercive conversion achieved through material inducement, etc.

His Holiness Swami Dayananda Saraswati called conversion an ‘act of violence’. He also said something that should be of interest to the artists who had accepted invitation to sing Christian songs set to Carnatic ragas:

Religion and culture are not often separable. This is especially true with the Hindu religious tradition. The greeting word, namaste, is an expression of culture as well as religion. Even though a religious mark on the forehead is purely religious, it is looked upon as a part of Hindu culture. Rangoli [patterns drawn on the ground with rice flour] at the entrance of a Hindu house is not just cultural; it is also religious.

Indian music and dance cannot separate themselves from the Hindu religious tradition. There is no classical dance, bharata natyam, without Siva Nataraja being there. The classical, lyrical compositions of Meera, Tyagaraja, Purandara, Dikshitar and many others are intimately connected to the Hindu religious traditions.

 …. The living religious traditions, intimately woven into the fabric of their respective cultures, have to be allowed to live and thrive. Religious conversion should stop–the aggressive religions should realize that they are perpetrating violence when they convert. We want them to live and let others live. [Link]

Further, Swamiji’s speech in 1999 in Chennai on this topic, delivered with his trademark humour, can be found here. I had done a blog post nearly six years ago on the ‘Declaration of the Second Hindu-Jewish Leadership Summit’ that Swamiji had signed.

This is the context for the bewilderment, shock and dismay that many felt upon seeing the flyer of the proposed concert by OSA. The concert has since been cancelled.

It is one thing to express anguish at some of the artists failing to see the context and the evangelical designs behind the acculturation exercise that is being attempted in many forms. It is another thing to express anger, aggression, use vulgar language and threaten violence. It may be against the law. But, it most certainly is morally wrong and is both strategically and tactically stupid. It passes no test.

Indeed, imagine the following conversation:


Sir, please tell me how do I alienate artists, make them feel angry, powerless and frustrated and deliver them into the arms of Christian organisations and make them appear like the artists’ true benefactors?


Oh, that is easy. Take to Facebook and Twitter. Use foul language to abuse their mothers and sisters; threaten them with violence and aggression. Job done.

It sounds ridiculous. But, that is how things have unfolded, from what I gather.

One is justified in threatening a violent response if they encounter violence or perceive unwanted and needless aggression from the other side or a real threat to their physical safety. Anything else is boorish, uncultured and unbecoming of those who associate Carnatic Music with divinity. Losing the Ends for the Means?

With artists, one does not flex muscles. Most of them can be persuaded and made to see one’s point of view, with information and persuasion. If they still don’t, it is their prerogative and as fans and followers, one has the right to boycott them.

Chanakya spoke of Sama, Daana, Bedha and then only Dhandam.

Sama: conciliation or negotiation.

Daana: material inducement.

That is why ‘Samadhanam’ involves both of the above.

Bhedam: ‘Divide and Rule’.

Dandam: aggression.

Remember the Kriti, ‘Sarasa Sama Daana Bheda Danda Chathra’ by Saint Thyagaraja?

The meaning is this:

Oh Rama! You are the One who knows how to use the saama, daana, bEdha and danDa methods at the appropriate time…. [Link]

Lord Krishna offered Sisupala 100 chances to abuse him before he vanquished him. In Mahabharata, he goes to Duryodhana seeking peace including the request for just five villages. Only when all else fails, does the war begin.

The situations are not similar and the analogy is far from perfect but the simple point is that, even in such extreme situations, violence was the last resort. The current situation is far from that.

Once threat of physical violence is in the public domain, even spontaneous injuries or accidents can be spun as having been caused deliberately by an act of violence.

Imagine the near-eternal damage caused by headlines in international English language dailies:

‘Murderous acts of violence unleashed on artists by Hindu Right-Wing Extremists!’

Civilisational conflicts are not solved by threatening hapless artists with violence.

Withdrawal of following is a legitimate instrument for a fan. Before that, it is incumbent on the aggrieved fans to explain the rationale behind their pain and anguish instead of flexing muscles. The latter is inappropriate; counter-productive and self-defeating. It would amount to not even winning the battle; let alone the war.

Patience, persuasion, prudence, pragmatism and purse and not pugilism are needed to win this war in which the odds are loaded against Hindus.

(Postscript: I typed this blog post listening to the LIVE Streaming of a Carnatic Music Concert by Sid Sriram on the 10th August at the Arkay Convention Centre, accompanied by S. Varadarajan on the violin (delightful); K.V. Prasad on the Mrdangam and by Karthik on the Ghatam. Lovely concert.)

What is prayer for?

Karma as Uncertainty

News of the passing away of a young life always brings out one’s innermost fears, questions and uncertainties to the surface. This blog post was triggered by one such news I received recently. First, it brings one down to earth. The thought that arises in one’s head is that it is so unfair. Then, the thought repeats itself. That is a fear-proxy and is an outcome of our confronting the uncertainty that life is. Through practised indifference, humans seek to deny the presence of uncertainty in their lives. News such as these remove the veil on reality.

Sudden and tragic deaths disorient the living. The Goddess of Dharma rushed to the Kurukshetra battlefield upon learning that her ‘son’ Karna had been slayed. She berated Krishna. The overarching logic and the duties of the universal ring master eluded her too. He reminded her. But, macro logic is too big for humans to comprehend.

For some, they disrupt the journey to equanimity. Yudhistra, an evolved human being who answers all the questions of a Yakshan and brings back from death, his brothers, is stuck with grief after the war. Sage Vyas, Lord Krishna and Vithura were all available to him for real-time counselling. Dronacharya, on hearing the news of the ‘death’ of Aswathama, put down his weapons and starts to meditate. Arjuna was not able to come to terms with the death of Abhimanyu. He had listened to the Gita from the Lord himself. In other words, humans can claim to understand intellectually the ‘truth’ of uncertainty and the inherent unknowability of how human life on earth unfolds but accepting that truth emotionally is a different matter.

For ordinary mortals, unexpected sad events shatter the illusion of certainty and they bring uncertainty and fear to the front and centre. Paradoxically, the illusion of certainty is what helps people cope. Sudden tragedies do shatter that illusion and reveal humans’ powerlessness but ego is powerful and is a great survivor. So is ‘Maya’. They regroup and together, they help humans bounce back and carry on living.

On the other hand, if the state of being awakened to the truth – induced by tragedies – stays, humans would lose the motivation to get back to living normally, as before. That is the message of a somewhat morbid and sad novel written by Tamil writer, ‘Sujatha’ (Rangarajan). The ‘hero’ in that work of fiction loses his wife and child in an accident. The novel is about his attempts to cope with it. He is unable to, in the end.

Poet Bharati took another route than the character in the novel by ‘Sujatha’. He demanded that he be spared the uncertainty and there was no quid pro quo from his side. He said, ‘பொன்னை, பொருளை, உயர்வை விரும்பும் என்னை கவலைகள் தீண்டத்தகாது’. I like that. But, there is a problem with such a prayer. It would negate the law of ‘Cause and Effect’ that most humans can intellectually subscribe to it.

Causes will have effects. The problem is that humans do not know what they caused and when. Hence, they do not know when would they reap the effect and what would that effect be.  That is the uncertainty, in a nutshell, in human lives.

How to deal with it?

The flawed prayer of Kunti

In this context, some scholars hail Kunti’s prayer to the Lord that he should always ‘bless’ or ‘shower’ her with setbacks and sorrows that she never forgets HIM. Allegedly, that is an answer to be freed of the trappings of ego, the delusion of control or of the illusion of certainty. That is a wrong and even ignorant prayer, in my view.

First, it is not right to be in a permanent state of fear or despondency to have faith in a transcendental Shakti and look up to that Shakti for guidance. That is not a healthy relationship with the Divine.

Second, disappointments and sorrows do bring humans down to earth and keep their egos in check from time to time. So, they are levellers. However, it makes no sense to pray for them so that one remains level-headed. Far better to pray for a state of mind that is freed of the dependency on sorrows and disappointments to level itself.

Third, Kunti’s prayer is a confession that if one got only good tidings one would become a victim of ego and megalomania. Therefore, the right prayer is to seek a cure to that malady and not ask for sorrows.

Fourth, to ask for something is to be inconsistent with the iron-clad and inviolable law of Karma – you reap what you had sown – joys or/and sorrows.

What else DOES one pray for, then?

If ‘Maya’ or the illusion, even after being shattered by tragedies, can regroup itself and help the human to pick himself or herself up and carry on living, then is that what one prays for? To be in a state of ‘Maya’ or in an ‘illusory state’ always?

May Divinity or Shakti keep my ‘Maya’ alive, strong and healthy because that is what keeps me living happily?

Well, that sounds as stupid as Kunti’s prayer because, once humans glimpse the truth, no matter how brief it is, they cannot escape feeling silly about their illusions and their attachments to them, in those rarer moments of solitude when truth penetrates human conscience and allows it to be revealed to the individual.

So, what SHOULD one pray for?

  • It is to learn to live life with the awareness of uncertainty, with feet on the ground; with humility; with the realisation that humans are powerless before the uncertainty that their own Karma has created;
  • It is to ask for the capacity to accept the fruits of Karma with equanimity;
  • It is to ask for the ability to live life in such a way that one’s Karma does not generate too much uncertainties in this life or in the lives ahead;
  • It is to ask for the realisation and the acceptance that such a prayer is an exercise spread over multiple or countless lives before it bears fruit and to keep at it.

This model of ‘Karma as uncertainty’ is consistent with science for life’s uncertainties is beyond science. Second, even science accepts that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. ‘Cause and effect’ is central to science.

Nor it is a problem if one were faithless. Accepting that Karma – our past words and deeds – manifests itself as uncertainty does not require faith. It is logical. Dealing with that in any manner that one finds comfortable is an individual prerogative.

Lastly, humans now know what to seek of their spiritual gurus. Not riches. Not short-cuts and no boons and bounties. Gurus have to help their followers in the above prayer. Period. Anything else prolongs the cycle of Karma and hence, uncertainties in human lives.

An important lesson from Dr. Y.V. Reddy

Among many lessons that I learnt is one from Governor Narasimham who
was my boss. One day he showed me a draft letter that he was writing to Robert
McNamara. He asked my frank comments. I promptly did. He walked across to
my room and told me. “I wanted you to be frank; but not brutal”.

In substantive terms I learnt that for good negotiations, we should start with
what we agree. That makes a pleasant beginning and positive start. Then, we
discuss only what can be negotiated. If we cannot negotiate something, we take it
to the end. Most of the time, the negotiators have to help each other in public
policy matters, to please their bosses. [Link]

Teachers the world forgot

A lovely article by my friend Niranjan Rajadhyaksha – from 2013 – on two scholars who wrote and taught in their mother tongues and not English.

First, they wrote in Indian languages and have perhaps paid a price for this by being forgotten by the exclusively English-speaking elite of today.

Second, these were two towering intellectuals who barely had a decent school education but ended up teaching in prestigious academic institutions. I cannot but wonder whether they would have been able to do so today, when universities have become closed shops that shoo away anybody who does not have impressive certificates. It is hard to believe that either Kosambi or Sankrityayan would have been invited to teach at a contemporary Indian university. [Link]

But, if one thought a bit more deeply about it, we come away less surprised. Whether we like it or not (more often, we don’t and that includes me), this is how things evolve. Further, in a world when numbers of people have multiplied a lot, how do we overcome this and yet not make it an open season for mediocrity? Tough, isn’t it?

May be, they were not outliers then. So, in that sense, it was not a surprise that they got to teach.

But, the context has changed.  Fraud is more rampant now than before. The bar too has gone up. It is more competitive. So, if we pause being wistful about the bygone era, we realise that some of these things are inevitable, regardless of whether they are desirable.

UBS on top of UBI

No, this blog post is not about Union Bank of Switzerland on top of Union Bank of India!

Late Wednesday night, I chanced upon this article in New York Times. The article was about how the society would have to redistribute sex just as it is contemplating income re-distribution. ‘Sexual inequality’ is an issue! I suppose just as our elites have come up Universal Basic Income (UBI), they may come up with Universal Basic Sex (UBS) as an answer.

One hare-brained solution deserves another or builds on another. Incidentally, there are reportsthat a widely-watched trial of UBI in Finland is being shelved. There are official denials. But, it is evident that there is some serious re-thinking going on.

Sexual inequality or a discussion of sexual redistirbution misses at least a few important things. It is not an asset or endowment that people are entitled to expect from their government. It makes a public policy issue of an almost entirely private matter. Second, it misses the point that sex involves two people and their mutual consent.

Apart from these angles, there was one sentence in the article that set me thinking. It comes at the end of an interesting discussion:

…. because the culture’s dominant message about sex is still essentially Hefnerian, despite certain revisions attempted by feminists since the heyday of the Playboy philosophy — a message that frequency and variety in sexual experience is as close to a summum bonum as the human condition has to offer, that the greatest possible diversity in sexual desires and tastes and identities should be not only accepted but cultivated, and that virginity and celibacy are at best strange and at worst pitiable states. And this master narrative, inevitably, makes both the new inequalities and the decline of actual relationships that much more difficult to bear …

… which in turn encourages people, as ever under modernity, to place their hope for escape from the costs of one revolution in a further one yet to come, be it political, social or technological, which will supply if not the promised utopia at least some form of redress for the many people that progress has obviously left behind.

There is an alternative, conservative response, of course — namely, that our widespread isolation and unhappiness and sterility might be dealt with by reviving or adapting older ideas about the virtues of monogamy and chastity and permanence and the special respect owed to the celibate.

But this is not the natural response for a society like ours. Instead we tend to look for fixes that seem to build on previous revolutions, rather than reverse them. [Emphasis mine]

The highlighted sentence is interesting. In many cases (not all), it makes sense for humans to roll back and reverse. Progress is not always building on what you already have. That is linear. Going back to something is circular. Life is not lived linearly. But, that is the western idea of progress.

Progress is the ability to accept that certain things are not progressive but regressie and that not all ‘incremental’ advances enhance well-being and happiness, on balance. If you are in the wrong lane, reversing course is not only sensible but also the only option.

But, it is very unlikely that humans can think like that because they have been conditioned to think that progress is ‘building on what you have’ and not letting go of what you have.

That is why sometimes, a logical and reasonable answer is that we are doomed, because we never pause to reflect and retrace. Very likely that such a capability has deserted us.

That is why I concluded my MINT column on Tuesday in a somewhat ‘hopeless’ or ‘helpless’ state but yet nurturing the hope that they ‘shock’ some readers into thinking deeper about it. Two of my friends were disappointed with the concluding sentiment and one of them had a solid explanation as to why it was not the most appropriate conclusion.

The restrictions of a column did not allow me to elaborate in detail the above and, in all honesty, I had not thought through. But, the article, ‘Redistribution of sex’ made me realise better for myself as to the wellspring of the ‘concluding hoplelessness’ of my column. That is, the vast majority of us – conditioned to the linear depiction of life on earth – life lived forward – are not capable of viewing it as circular and hence, reversing course on occasions.

[Cross-posted here]

The Zuckerberg dilemma

From a NYT interview with Mark Zuckerberg:

Roose: Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s head of News Feed, recently said he had lost some sleep over Facebook’s role in the violence in Myanmar. You’ve said you’re “outraged” about what happened with Cambridge Analytica, but when you think about the many things that are happening with Facebook all over the world, are you losing any sleep? Do you feel any guilt about the role Facebook is playing in the world?

Zuckerberg: That’s a good question. I think, you know, we’re doing something here which is unprecedented, in terms of building a community for people all over the world to be able to share what matters to them, and connect across boundaries. I think what we’re seeing is, there are new challenges that I don’t think anyone had anticipated before.

If you had asked me, when I got started with Facebook, if one of the central things I’d need to work on now is preventing governments from interfering in each other’s elections, there’s no way I thought that’s what I’d be doing, if we talked in 2004 in my dorm room.

Overall, he had handled the interview well. He came across as honest and sincere. That is important.

But, what set me thinking was the portion highlighted. Most of the time – or all the time – we have no idea of what we are unleashing, when we set out on a path. What we are unleashing for ourselves, for people around us and in the larger world. With many of us, the consequences are limited to a smaller circle of family, friends and colleagues. We do not cause much damage or good. In the process, we will never know whether we helped someone realise their potential for the greater good or limit theirs from doing good.

But, some of us have the ability to influence events far bigger and wider than in our immediate circle. Zuckerberg’ FB is an example. It takes on shapes and forms that one could have hardly visualised at conception. That is what he is admitting.

That is not a reason not to try. Human beings will always not know what is coming next. That is no reason not to try. But, it should inform how we try and, at what point, we stop ‘trying’ and ‘surrender’ to the larger force or wisdom.

At a somewhat more mundane level, does it set limits on growth? I had written on this earlier too. FB’s impact and the situations it keeps throwing up make me keep revisiting these issues. When do we completely lose control of the forces that we unleash? At that point, do we simply admit and walk away that we had created a Frankenstein monster rather than being a force for good?

Can we even anticipate that moment and stop ourselves a moment or two before that? Is it even possible?

I do not have answers to these questions. But, I find these questions fascinating and posing these questions repeatedly to myself and others might help me discover some answers which, again, have to keep evolving. Not easy.

Proving the point being made

The argument does not create the idea, the idea creates the argument. [Link]

So says Manu Joseph in this article. Nothing new. I saw it the first time two years ago in Jonathan Haidt’s ‘Righteous Mind’. That too, I am sure, was not the first time it was mentioned or discovered but that Haidt himself had cited from research.

We do not use reason to make decisions or to form priors but we use them to rationalise decisions we make or to validate our priors.

Having said this in a somewhat complicated way, Manu Joseph goes on to demonstrate that the article itself was a very laboured attempt to make the point – totally unconnected to the issue – that, for him, Amartya Sen is a more ‘conscientious’ person whereas Bhagwati was a mere ‘economist’.

Regardless of the motives and the manner in which Bhagwati argued with Amartya Sen, he was absolutely right to challenge the notion that economic growth did not matter or that distribution mattered more.