Why so much grief for Notre-Dame?

My friend Rohit shared with me Christopher Caldwell’s piece in ‘The New York Times’ on why so many – including the so-called atheists and seculars – grieved over the fire that engulfed the Notre-Dame church? I have come to respect Caldwell’s views ever since I read his book, “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West.”

Caldwell asks the question, ‘Why?’ for the outpouring of grief over the fire and proceeds to answer:

Objects and traditions bound up with religious belief lend a feelingof sense and stability. For believers they are a reinforcement. For nonbelievers they are a substitute. Notre-Dame is perhaps the greatest such object in Europe. It is a consoling relic, as surely as the crown of thorns that Father Fournier rescued, and this is so for believers and nonbelievers alike. [Link]

This is a classic:

The Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who raged against Muslim immigration to Europe at the turn of the century, believed she did so as a proud atheist. Yet oddly her most passionate complaint was that camping migrants had “profaned” the area in front of the Duomo, the cathedral of her native Florence, and had “profaned” the Baptistery across the street as well. [Link]

What Caldwell has written here resonates with what historians Will and Ariel Durant wrote in their little classic, ‘The lessons of history’. Peruse the chapter on religion.

Some extracts:

For since the natural inequality of men dooms many of us to poverty or defeat, some supernatural hope may be the sole alternative to despair. Destroy that hope, and class war is intensified.. Heaven and utopia are buckets in a well: when one goes down the other goes up; when religion declines Communism grows. …

…. No reconciliation is possible between religion and philosophy except through the philosophers’ recognition that they have found no substitute for the moral function of the Church, and the ecclesiastical recognition of religious and intellectual freedom. …

… There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion…..

Source: Durant, Will. The Lessons of History . Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

நின்னை சரணடைந்தேன் – ஒரு விளக்கம்

நின்னை சரணடைந்தேன், கண்ணம்மா,  நின்னை சரணடைந்தேன்
நின்னை சரணடைந்தேன், கண்ணம்மா,  நின்னை சரணடைந்தேன்

பொன்னை, உயர்வை, புகழை விரும்பிடும்
என்னை கவலைகள் தின்ன தகாதென்று
நின்னை சரணடைந்தேன், கண்ணம்மா, நின்னை சரணடைந்தேன்

மிடிமையும் அச்சமும் மேவி என் நெஞ்சில்
குடிமை புகுந்தன, கொன்றவை போக்கென்று
நின்னை சரணடைந்தேன், கண்ணம்மா, நின்னை சரணடைந்தேன்

தன் செயல் எண்ணித் தவிப்பது தீர்ந்திங்கு
நின் செயல் செய்து நிறைவு பெறும் வண்ணம்
நின்னை சரணடைந்தேன், கண்ணம்மா, நின்னை சரணடைந்தேன்

துன்பம் இனி இல்லை, சோர்வில்லை
சோர்வில்லை, தோற்ப்பில்லை

நல்லது தீயது நாமறியோம்
நாமறியோம், நாமறியோம்
அன்பு நெறியில் அறங்கள் வளர்த்திட
நல்லது நாட்டுக, தீமையை ஓட்டுக
நின்னை சரணடைந்தேன், கண்ணம்மா, நின்னை சரணடைந்தேன்
நின்னை சரணடைந்தேன், கண்ணம்மா, நின்னை சரணடைந்தேன்

I had asked many folks as to how and why such an evolved soul like Subramanya Bharati wrote the lines he did (see highlighted stanza) in this poem of his?

I did not get a satisfactory answer. Nor did I find one of my own. Perhaps, I did not ask enough people or the right people. Some of you may know the answer (your answer) already.

[Please pardon me if this blog post gives the impression that I (alone) have cracked the interpretation of this lovely poem. That is not the intent.]

One person said that Bharati suffered from poverty and hence, those highlighted lines. Perhaps.

But, none told me to make sense of those lines in the context of the whole poem. Once I did that, my personal dilemma was resolved.

What Bharati does here is to show us the ‘Maslow’s hierarchy’ of our prayers to the divinity.

First, we pray out of greed.

Then, we pray out of fear.

Then, we realise that it is all our ego that leads to both greed and fear and prayers to fulfil one and alleviate another.  We realise the futility of thinking that it is our action.

Then, we realise that we do HER bidding; we go with the flow.

Then, there is no suffering; sorrow; weariness and defeat;

Then, we practice love and morality and spread both;

Then, Devi it is up to you to entrench the good and extinguish the bad because I just do not know what is good and what is bad;

Implicit is the message in these last lines: ‘I surrender to THEE’.

So, the song is the evolution of our prayers – or how they ought to evolve.

[In January, as I was undergoing a rather painful recovery from a surgery, I wanted to divert my mind and called a faculty colleague of mine in IFMR Graduate School of Business to discuss this unresolved question in my head. He is a connossieur of poet Bharati. As we were discussing the question, something clicked in my head. My thanks to him. I won’t name lest I embarrass him.]


…. mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation. It’s possible – easy, even – to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others. Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired. Unhappy, as the dictionary has it, as a result of being without the companionship of others. Hardly any wonder, then, that it can reach its apotheosis in a crowd. ….

…..Like depression, like melancholy or restlessness, it is subject too to pathologisation, to being considered a disease. It has been said emphatically that loneliness serves no purpose… Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think any experience so much a part of our common shared lives can be entirely devoid of meaning, without a richness and a value of some kind…..

…..Loneliness might be taking you towards an otherwise unreachable experience of reality………

………..Marriage and high income serve as mild deterrents, but the truth is that few of us are absolutely immune to feeling a greater longing for connection than we find ourselves able to satisfy. ………..

………..It (art) does have a capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly…………

…… Amidst the glossiness of late capitalism, we are fed the notion that all difficult feelings — depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage — are simply a consequence of unsettled chemistry, a problem to be fixed, rather than a response to structural injustice or, on the other hand, to the native texture of embodiment, of doing time, …. in a rented body, with all the attendant grief and frustration that entails……….

…………..Loneliness is personal, and it is also political. Loneliness is collective; it is a city. As to how to inhabit it, there are no rules and nor is there any need to feel shame, only to remember that the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse our obligations to each another. We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell.

What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last. [Link]

Exracted from the book, ‘Lonely City’ by Olivia Laing, by Maria Popova who sends out emails called ‘Brain Pickings’. You can subscribe.

Maria Popova had first posted this in 2016 and she had re-sent it yesterday.

While reading this, I was reminded of the review of the book, ‘Mind Fixers’ that I read (the review and not the book) and the blog post I did on the death of Alan Krueger, well-known policy economist in the United States.

In brief, the book, ‘Mind Fixers’ talks about how little really we know of how and why mental depression occurs and how the cures are, even today, more by chance than by design.

There is a lot that we do not know. We simply do not and cannot know….

The complex case for rejecting AND using plastics and wearing cotton AND silk, leather and fur

A fascinating article on why the ban on plastics is not necessarily, if its overall impact on the environment is understood correctly, an unalloyed good thing as is being made out to be. An eye-opener just as the article on cotton vs. synthetic clothing was. The law of unintended consequences never ceases to fascinate me.

University of Sydney economist Rebecca Taylor started studying bag regulations because it seemed as though every time she moved for a new job — from Washington, D.C., to California to Australia — bag restrictions were implemented shortly after. “Yeah, these policies might be following me,” she jokes. Taylor recently published a study of bag regulations in California. It’s a classic tale of unintended consequences. …

….. People in the cities with the bans used fewer plastic bags, which led to about 40 million fewer pounds of plastic trash per year. But people …. still needed bags. …..This was particularly the case for small, 4-gallon bags, which saw a 120 percent increase in sales after bans went into effect. [Link]


…. Trash bags are thick and use more plastic than typical shopping bags. “So about 30 percent of the plastic that was eliminated by the ban comes back in the form of thicker garbage bags,” Taylor says. On top of that, cities that banned plastic bags saw a surge in the use of paper bags, which she estimates resulted in about 80 million pounds of extra paper trash per year……

….. A bunch of studies find that paper bags are actually worse for the environment. They require cutting down and processing trees, which involves lots of water, toxic chemicals, fuel and heavy machinery. While paper is biodegradable and avoids some of the problems of plastic, ….. …. the huge increase of paper, together with the uptick in plastic trash bags, means banning plastic shopping bags increases greenhouse gas emissions. That said, these bans do reduce nonbiodegradable litter. [Link]

You can read the rest in the original itself. But, you have got more than a gist of it.

Now, let us turn to cotton vs. fur and leather. There was this great article in Quartz in February 2019. I thought I had blogged on it but I had not. The author of the article, Ephrat Livni begins the piece well:

Being “good” isn’t as easy as it might first seem. In theory, it’s as simple as minimizing the harm you cause. This is the line of thinking that often prompts people to make decisions like giving up meat, or, in the case of clothing, refusing to wear any materials made from animals—specifically leather, fur, silk, pearls, wool, and feathers.

But in reality, we live in a big, complex, connected world, and the consequences for our actions and decisions aren’t always easy to assess. Sadly, the possible ways that we can cause harm are seemingly infinite, and the chances of our doing so practically inescapable. And sometimes what seems like the simplest or most correct approach, when examined closely, is actually just another tricky thicket of moral quandaries. [Link]

Look at how ethically difficult it gets to choose to wear cotton and synthetics than silk:

In 2010, the majority of textiles produced in the world, 85%, were woven from cotton and polyester. Neither of these fabrics uses any animals—one is natural, and the other synthetic. “Both are responsible for widespread pollution of waterways, soils, and air,” Kwasny writes. “Both consume enormous amounts of resources.” ….

…. Cotton, for example, is the world’s most profitable nonfood crop, and 11% of pesticides used worldwide are sprayed on these plants. …. nearly all the water in Pakistan’s Indus River—97% of it—is devoted to growing cotton. It takes about 5,300 gallons of water to make a cotton t-shirt and a pair of jeans, …. Every time we wash a polyester item, we’re releasing plastics into the world’s waterways and ultimately leading to the death of flora and fauna.  …..

………. to spin enough silk for a kimono requires thousands of silkworms, and that sericulturalists kill these worms once they’ve spun a cocoon around themselves. But the work of farming silk involves a deep interaction with the natural world. …….. Nothing went to waste, and throughout the silk-creation process, farmers and artisans acknowledged that their lives were intertwined with those of the worms.

Similarly, when Kwasny visits a mink fur farm in Denmark, she remarks on the astounding care the creatures receive. ….. she notes that the mink farmers are much closer to nature than most people. They know their minks and check in on them from morning until night, feeding them, cleaning up their spaces, ensuring that the animals are healthy and getting along. During mating season, the humans look in on the minks every 20 minutes to make sure males and females are happy. They raise the puppies whose mothers die in childbirth and they get to know them. And the farmers themselves don’t gloss over the darker parts of their profession; they admit that each creature they raise has an individual character, that sometimes they grow attached to the animals, and that the nature of their work is bloody. [Link]

What are the lessons?

(1) At a policymaking level, one has to be patient and consider ALL evidence, all costs and benefits and exercise judgement even as one is acutely aware of how little one knows and might have missed out a lot. That would definitely make for better policy with appropriate and essential mitigation for the costs. Then, be humble about the policy choice taken and that also gives us the mindset to be open to new evidence and change course, without associating it with losing face.

(2) At the individual level, Melissa Kwasny, the author of the work, ‘Putting on the dog: the animal origins of what we wear’ has many lessons:

(a) In order to have a reciprocal relationship with the world, then, we have to be aware that it’s impossible to be ethically pure. It’s pleasant to think of oneself as a kind and gentle person, but it’s better to be brutally honest and understand that the best any of us can do is be “goodish.”

(b) Instead, it’s better to accommodate complexity and reject blanket answers that are convenient but untrue, and avoid insisting upon a foolish consistency, which as Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, is the “hobgoblin of little minds.” Emphasis are mine.

In other words, the absolutism of the ‘do gooders’ is a bigger threat than we realise.

(c) This is the gem:

In a reciprocal relationship, you take only what you need, rather than as much as possible. …. Reciprocity begins with awareness. It is guided by respect and restraint. It always involves an expression of gratefulness.

Taking according to one’s need IS NOT the same as giving according to need. That is central planning and communism combined. This is individual, voluntary restraint.

Distilling it further:

  • Awareness (of the limitations of our knowledge and) of complexity and avoidance of absolutism – i.e., awareness that one can only be ‘goodish’ and not GOOD
  • Restraint (taking for need instead of pandering to greed) AND
  • Respect for nature borne out of recognition of interdependence

Meditation and Capitalism

I remember reading this article in the Wall Street Journal last June and shaking my head. This was one of the several indications that we had lost it. The other two articles, in recent times, that made me feel that we have lost it are here and here. These two articles are, at least, three years old.

Being competitiveness about meditation is to negate and repudiate all that meditation stands for and is supposed to enable.

This is about the modern American capitalism and capitalists distorting and destroying all good things that come in its way, including capitalism itself! lon

This morning, came across this interesting (somewhat long) article in the ‘South China Morning Post’ on the ‘British’ author Rajeev Balasubramaniam, his personal journey, his fictional work and his views on meditation, its usefulness to him and how it has been distorted. It is consistent with the link I have provided in the first sentence of this post. His journey is interesting and illuminating and it sounds authentic and genuine too.

We do not fail to fail in conflating ‘means’ and ‘ends’.

In America, meditation has become mindfulness and a company promoting ‘mindfulness’ has a billion dollar valuation.

In Tamil literature, there is enough reference to meditation (or, Dhyanam), for example, in Thirumoolar’s ‘Thirumanthiram’.  Therefore, I am not even sure if it came along with Buddhism.

I think the practise of meditation went along with Yogasanas and it was all about preparing the body and the mind for spiritual practice and evolution of thought, words and deeds.

To reduce it to all competition and valuation is about simply signalling to our spiritual forefathers and gurus that we are beyond redemption!

Van’s day out – first IPL match

My first IPL match, watching live in a ground, in its 12 years of being around, was yesterday’s match between Chennai Super Kings (CSK) and King’s XI Punjab. Chennai is captained by Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Chennai has accepted him so much that most spectators wear jersey with his name and No. 7.

King’s XI Punjab was led by Chennai boy Ravichandran Ashwin and another Tamil boy Murugan Aswin plays for them too.

There was enough buzz around the ground. But, there are no helpful signs nor volunteers to guide the spectators to the right gates. Policemen and policewomen were conspicuous. But, they could not care less. One cannot blame them. Directing spectators to the ground was not their job. Maintaining order was.

In England, there are plenty of volunteers from the tube station to the ground to guide spectators to the right entrances.

Tamil Nadu Cricket Association has barely invested in the facilities for spectators. The path to the ticket counter is so narrow that if there is fire, it is certain death. There is no way to escape. They are veritable traps.

One is not allowed even a phone charger inside – a normal charger and not a power bank. Could not figure that out.

The stench outside from the Buckingham Canal was very strong. But, most seem to have gotten used to it.

In the initial years, I shunned IPL because I felt that it was too crass and commercial. It still is. It is all about merchandise, commercials and endorsements. But, I have come to terms with it for the following reasons:

(1) It has opened the doors to cricketers from many hinterlands. It has spawned other lower level leagues in districts.
(2) It has given rise to leagues in other sports
(3) It has raised fitness standards
(4) It has raised India’s importance to other countries and Boards.

Furthermore, I decided to think of this as the same as watching a mindless ‘Masala’ movie. It is yet another mindless entertainment, helping one to de-stress without any stake in the outcomes. Just watch some athleticism and skill.

For example, the magical moment in CSK vs. King’s XI match was M.S. Dhoni’s remarkable reflex, presence of mind and agility in trying to run K.L. Rahul out who had barely stepped out of his crease. The funny part of it was that it went unrewarded. The bails shook but never fell!

All that being said, I never identify with clubs. I cannot. That is why I have never followed the soccer leagues in Europe. I can identify with national teams but not with clubs. Players are not loyal to the clubs but to money. Fair enough for them.

So, I did not really care if CSK won or lost. I find the loyalty and the fan obsession amusing, especially coming even from older folks. It probably is infectious and, I guess, as one grows older, immunity is weaker! One middle-aged woman kept blowing her heart out into a whistle she had brought from home. Alas, she was seated next to me! There is “#whistelpodu” for CSK! We live in strange times.

The match itself was a non-contest. Spinners dominated the match. CSK had more spinners and they all bowled well. Punjab’s well-set batsmen kept playing out the spinners and backed themselves to get a lot of runs in the last few overs against the pacers. They could not succeed and the margin of victory was too wide for a T-20 match.

The amount of garbage generated by the spectators was quite considerable.

Once out of the stadium after the match, young children were trying to sell T-Shirts to the happy fans of Chennai Super Kings without much success.

I was happy to see the Vivekananda House on the Beach Road well-lit, well maintained and it was offering some interesting courses. Chennai-iites would do well to check it out. I hope they are doing it.

The Vivekananda House has the room where Swami Vivekananda stayed in, in 1897, on his return from the West. That room is now a room for meditation with air-conditioning! What more excuse does one need not to go there and meditate?!

Further, I felt guilty on seeing two sign boards pointing the direction to Poet Bharati’s house. Been around in Chennai so often but yet had not visited the place he lived.

Indeed, we live in strange times with strange priorities. I am part of it.

A nice distinction

On reading my previous blog post, my wife sent me this:

Just listening to Swami Sarvapriyananda on how to stay focussed, on the path? He says one of his gurus (Ramakrishna order) used to say before spirituality seeps in your response to situations will be an exasperated “WHAT??”and after you understand, your response will be a calm “So What?”

Yes, that too sums up the issue rather well. Here is the link to Swamiji’s speech.