Why do you want to become an ‘insider’?

I had long wanted to write a detailed review of Yanis Varoufakis’ book, ‘Adults in the Room’ which I finished reading some six months ago. But, never got around to doing it. I shall post separately a long review of ‘Adults in the Room’ – a simplified and shorter version of which appeared as a MINT column. It appeared in MINT in April 2018.

As my good friend Gulzar Natarajan remarked recently, the drawback of YV seems to be that he does not seem to admit to any mistakes or frailties or failures on his part.  In fact, some in Europe have claimed that he failed not so much because the ‘Troika’ (European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) did not agree with him but that his personality was abrasive and somewhat insufferable. We will not know which version is true.

But, one of the first things that strikes you from the book is the question that Larry Summers poses to YV:

There are two kinds of politicians: insiders and outsiders. The outsiders prioritise their freedom to speak their version of the truth. The price of their freedom is that they are ignored by the insiders, who make the important decisions. The insiders, for their part, follow a sacrosanct rule: never turn against other insiders and never talk to outsiders about what insiders say or do. Their reward? Access to inside information and a chance, though no guarantee, of influencing powerful people and outcomes. So Yanis, which of the two are you?

This is a very profound statement. In the context of Greece, both Alex Tsipras and Varoufakis were outsiders who became insiders. But, Alex internalised his ‘insider’ role too much while YV retained his ‘outsider’ spirit and could not continue and came out to become an outsider, again. That Alex Tsipras chose to agree to the demands of the Troika after the referendum he called gave him the mandate to reject the EU conditions was a dramatic about-face. Notwithstanding everything that must have gone on before, including possibly YV’s personality playing a role in the debacle of negotiations with Europe,  this must be a sad moment for all those who harbour romantic notions of challenging power and coming out the better for it.

Actually, Larry Summers’ quote above might sound utterly cynical but is very close to the truth. All change agents succeed only when insiders permit them to. Otherwise, most end up as rebellions without success. Even if they succeed in overthrowing a particular regime and come to office and then turn into ‘insiders’ themselves, did their cause or the ordinary citizens who trusted them succeed?

‘Insiders’ are those who control the discourse, the narrative, wield power, influence and usually benefit smaller power centres and narrow interests than serve large interests. ‘Outsiders’ are like Don Quixote tilting at the windmills.

If you become an ‘insider’ by accident as YV did and if the ‘insiders’ already inside permit you – assuming that you retain the spirit of the ‘outsider’ in you, you may be able to achieve a few things that are consistent with your ideals. That is the bitter reality of the balance of power. All democracy in that sense is a fig leaf for the balance of power that rests firmly with the powerful. The power of power is powerful!

A rising tide might turn some boats into giant steamers andin the process may lift some boats. But, we mistake it for the power of our ideas, power of our persuasion and the triumph of the underdog, etc. It might simply be the case that you were allowed to succeed for various reasons.

The question, at a personal level, is whether one wishes to remain an outsider or an insider. IF one wanted to become an insider for the sake of ‘doing good’, then it is important to remember Summers’ advice. IT is sound, practical and true. The risk is that one might become a quintessential ‘insider’ oneself. The system digests you completely.

Or, one retains the spirit or remains loyal to it, remains untouched by the trappings of becoming an insider and achieves whatever possible. At the margin, he or she would have made the world a better place. It is possible theoretically but happens relatively rarely or to a few. It is possible for policy advisors and some technocrats but less so for politicians and for those who hold political office.

Or, one comes out; becomes an outsider again and remains true and loyal to one’s beliefs and values and sleeps soundly. If one were lucky, a crisis occurs and one’s ideas are sought and one pushes them through in a crisis. Otherwise, insiders would never permit them. One’s ideas see the light of the day and make a positive impact and one remains an outsider. That is the ultimate success story. But, it needs a lot of luck or divine will.

In India, many political parties started out as outsiders. The DMK in the South, the All Assam Students’ Union come to mind. Laloo Prasad Yadav started out as a Lohia-ite socialist. Tamil movie, ‘Achamillai, Achamillai’, is the story of how the insiders turned an outsider into one of them – a school teacher who joined politics to do good; becomes a politician, engineers a caste conflict and killings. His wife does not ‘recognise’ him any more and kills him in the end.

Tamil Novel, ‘Mayaman Vettai’ by Indira Parthasarathy is another tragic tale of a returning non-resident Indian becoming an insider – part of the system that he sets out to change.

Just right now, notice how in the tragic turn of events in Sri Lanka, Arjuna Ranatunga, the hero of their World Cup victory in 1996, has been arrested as his bodyguards fired at demonstrators or opposition supporters. He was the leader of the underdog team – an outsider – that challenged  ‘status quo’ powers.

One of the most brilliant articles I had read this year was about the current Pakistan Prime Minister and the brilliant cricketer cum captain, Imran Khan, who led his team to victory in 1992 World Cup. The story is that of an outsider for whom becoming the insider became an end in itself.

Very few remember why they became insiders in the first place. IF they do not truly become insiders – at least, they forget their original ideals and settle for their personal career advancement. That is, becoming part of the system becomes an end in itself. They may not be as harmful as true insiders usually are but they drift far away from their ‘outsider’ spirit. Very little of it stays with them. There is little public welfare gain from them becoming insiders. There are many in this category.

Personally, I feel very comfortable imagining myself as an outsider. I must consider myself lucky that, in my corporate career, I was allowed free reign of my ‘outsider’ spirit. That was partly a matter of luck for my role never really threatened the insiders and my research calls, predictions and views – out of consensu as they were – did not turn out to be systematically and persistently wrong. In fact, they were right, for the most part. It was a lucky confluence of many things that helped me remain an ‘outsider’ for most of my corporate innings.

Things became difficult in more ways than one, after 2009, with the engineered economic recovery. I never could come to terms with it, until today. No wonder I quit in 2011, feeling confused about many things! I still am.

[Cross-posted in http://thegoldstandardsite.wordpress.com]

Getting it backwards

The collection of articles that I have put together on the drama at the U.S. Open Ladies’ Singles Finals tells its own story.

Some important links:

https://www.wsj.com/articles/naomi-osaka-gets-the-last-word-1536498590

https://www.smh.com.au/sport/tennis/it-is-serena-williams-who-owes-an-apology-to-umpire-carlos-ramos-20180909-p502q2.html

Washington Post:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/tennis/at-us-open-power-of-serena-williams-and-naomi-osaka-is-overshadowed-by-an-umpires-power-play/2018/09/08/edbf46c8-b3b4-11e8-a20b-5f4f84429666_story.html

WP video:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/sports/a-career-of-pushing-boundaries-how-serena-williams-has-rewritten-rules-for-women-in-tennis/2018/09/10/e314573c-b55c-11e8-ae4f-2c1439c96d79_video.html

A better article in ‘The Guardian’:

https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/sep/09/serena-williams-us-open-tennis-final-2018-game-penalty-naomi-osaka

The Guardian (its usual self):

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/10/serena-williams-black-woman-work-tennis-discrimination

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/sep/11/serena-williams-angry-soraya-chemaly-women-should-unleash-rage

https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/sep/09/serena-williams-again-bears-brunt-double-standards-tennis

The cartoon that was criticised:

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/sep/11/repugnant-racist-news-corp-cartoon-serena-williams-mark-knight

The cartoonist has drawn Nick Kyrgios too:

https://twitter.com/Knightcartoons/status/1039056385462349825/photo/1

Martina Navratilova in New York Times. Diplomatic but we can take it. It is a fair piece. But, if one goes by the code violations awarded men, there is no sexism. Look at the chart below:

Sexism in tennis

Men are docked far more for code violations than women. Period. There is evidence to show that there is no sexism at work here.

Roger Federer is all caution here but I think he manages to get the point across.

This piece by Mark Reason from New Zealand on America’s misandry says it all, I suppose.

In short, the world is getting many things backwards these days. What happened at the U.S. Open Tennis was one more illustration.

In fact, more than Ms. Williams’ behaviour, it was the reaction of the crowd at Flushing Meadows that day and that of the USTA officials that captured all that is wrong with the discourse in America today.

At the end of it – I watched it all – it was hard to figure out which one was more distasteful than the other – Ms. William’s loss of control, the crowd behaviour or the cringe-worthy behaviour of USTA officials.

Those who came out taller from the day of drama were Carlos Ramos and the winner of the Ladies’ Singles – Ms. Osaka from Japan.

She showed exemplary discipline, focus and maturity. Absolutely shameful on the crowd that booed her that she had to apologise for winning!

The umpire simply did not speak at all, besides sticking to his job and even now, he is not speaking out against the player or anyone else. At least, someone is keeping the average decorum from going down.

Madrasana

My friend Amar Govindarajan, co-publisher and co-founder of ‘Swarajya’ magazine (which completed its fourth anniversary recently) sends out a curated message every day about the topics covered by the magazine and, very smartly, lately, he has started to include a musical recommendation (a song, a raga, a ghazal, etc.).

This morning, in his email, he had recommended a clip by Tiruchi Pradeep Kumar. I had not heard of him before. I clicked on it and listened. It was nice because there were no instruments. It is just the singer and the ‘Tampura’ for maintaining Sruti. It has been pioneered by a startup (my guess) called ‘Madrasana’. I listened to several other clips. Two of them are here (Amrita Murali) and here (Rahul Vellal). I liked almost all of them. The voice and the musical enjoyment are enhanced. Very smart and innovative idea. The quality of the recording too was very good.

 

The margin of victory flatters England

England won the series against India 4-1 in India. Congratulations to them. Virat Kohli summed up the difference between the two teams at the end of the fourth test – England played a touch (or more) better in tough situations. India faltered or choked, depending on your level of disappointment. It is too tempting to resist and I shall succumb to it – this sums up India itself. Always full of potential; but mostly failing to convert the promise into performance. Occasionally, they all come together and the country goes delirious. Only briefly. Of course, we live for those moments.

To their credit, Rahul and Rishabh Pant gave us a glimpse of that prospect of it all coming together. They made us wonder, even if it was only rather ephemeral, if India might pull off the unbelievable and spoil the fairytale farewell that Cook had conjured up for himself, despite a century of narrow misses too – the ball missing the bat’s edge. So, they saved us all a lot more anguish and disappointment. Life is made up of such small consolations, most of the time.

Cook deserved his memorable farewell for sticking it out. Character is not about performing well when things are going well for you but when things are not going well for you. He showed that. In any case, someone succeeding as captain and batsman in India deserves a lot of credit. There was a time in 2010-12 when I was tempted to go to cricket matches to watch Alastair Cook. I did not do that. But, you get the drift.

Talking of winning in India; winning a series in England too is difficult. Pakistan has drawn two of its most recent series against England. West Indies had lost one. India has performed poorly here now for three series in a row. That is difficult to explain for a side claiming to be the No. 1 ranked Test team in the world. 4-0 (2011); 3-1 (2014) and 4-1 (2018). So, these rankings must be abandoned or taken with a big pinch of salt. Doesn’t mean that other teams are better than India while touring. Last year, I had watched South Africa struggle in England. But, India’s margin of defeats are too big to be dismissed as ‘par for the course’ while touring England.

So, we should have two rankings: one for teams playing at home and one for teams playing away and weight them 40-60 – give more weight to teams playing away from home and winning. Sanjay Manjrekar makes a similar point with respect to selection of batsmen.

I watched the Fifth test on Day 1 at the Oval. England’s luck was when Joss Butler reviewed and succeeded on day 1. The ball had barely kissed his bat on its way to his pads. Otherwise, he was plumb in front of the wicket. On the other hand, Hanuma Vihari was a victim of too sharp an ear of the field umpire and the third umpire refusing to overrule him. Moeen Ali has top scored in this match if the number of misses count as runs. Shami toiled lucklessly. But, he also threw his wicket away recklessly and irresponsibly when all that he had to do was to keep Jadeja company. Pujara must be cursing himself for the shot he played in the first innings.

Virat Kohli, for all his brilliance, faltered when it mattered. He was toying with the bowling in the first test eventually, when he got out against the run of play. After that, he did all the hard work in several innings but never converted more than one into a century. He must watch the videos of Brian Lara leading his team single-handedly to a series draw against Australia in 1998-99. They were dismissed for 51 in the fourth innings of the first test.

Kohli has a lot to reflect on, not just about his captaincy and third-umpire reviews. In my view, just as England’s margin of victory flatters them, Kohli’s total number of runs in the series flatters him.

What happened to the lessons of success for Ravichandran Ashwin, from the first test? In the case of Shikhar Dhawan, was it a matter of technique or application or both? Very happy for K.L. Rahul that he came good in the end and in a crisis situation. He has class and talent. Hope the fourth innings of the Fifth Test was a demonstration that he was capable of application. He needs to show us that he can sustain it. He is still on trial. But, after watching how he batted in the IPL, I thought he would anchor the Indian team much better in this series. That was not to be.

While Pant deserves a lot of praise for his century, in the context of the match, his keeping is not up to Test standard. He does not collect the ball cleanly. The century might have helped wipe off the byes he had conceded. Net byes are negative now! Perhaps, Hardik Pandya needs to figure out quietly what it takes to become a reliable allrounder, in the mould of Kapil Dev, Ian Botham and Imran Khan. India probably made a mistake by not picking Umesh Yadav in at least two of the tests. Indian tailenders batted better than the top order on occasions. He might have done so too! It is impossible not to speculate on the possible results of the series had Bhuvanesh Kumar been fit and playing.

That brings us to Jimmy Anderson. My good friend Gulzar Natarajan pointed out that his wicket statistics improved substantially since 2014 playing against weaker teams in English conditions. He has a point. He is a good bowler but not a great bowler. Glen McGrath’s record might have been bettered but he was a far better bowler, across conditions. But, one cannot take nearly 600 wickets without being good. His fitness needs to be admired and replicated.

Finally, a word about the BCCI and the team management. Even if they did not arrive in England early enough, what prevented them from practising with Duke balls with bowling machines conjuring up all kinds of swings and lateral movement of the ball? Where is the professionalism, preparation, keenness and passion to justify the ranking of world’s top Test playing nation in the world?

Finally, for all cricket administrators: As Venkatraghavan once said, abolish leg byes. It is not fair to the bowler. The batsman should not be rewarded for failing to make contact with the ball! Use Duke balls everywhere because cricket, as a game, needs bowlers too.

I was happy to have watched the first and the fourth day’s plays at the Oval this week. The crowds were sizeable and the atmosphere good. Weather ideal for watching cricket from open stands. Free Yorkshire Tea (pretty decent) was available.

In all, a good Test match series and a decent advertisement for Test cricket. India competed well. But, as in business, it is in sports. It is not good enough. It is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for sustained success.

India must talk less and walk more. India did not deserve to win the series. England did not deserve to win the series 4-1. 3-2 in England’s favour would have been a fairer reflection of the relative qualities of both the teams.

It is ok for leaders to be human

There was some hullabaloo about the remarks that Rajiv Kumar, vice-chairman of NITI Aayog, made about the causes of the growth slowdown in 2016 and 2017. Some say that he blamed Raghuram Rajan and some, like yours truly, think that the evidence was not clear-cut. He called the former Reserve Bank of India governor’s attempt to make banks come clean about the extent of bad loans they were carrying in their books heroic and, in another place, he appears to have likened Rajan’s approach to administering an overdose of Crocin. Perhaps, he was both conflicted and confused. It does not matter. The interesting lesson here is how governments react to economic growth slowdowns.

They claim credit for accelerating economic growth and cast their net wide to find someone to blame for growth deceleration. The reality, when it comes to economic growth, is the opposite. Governments are seldom responsible for positive growth surprises and certainly not in real time. They are more likely responsible for negative growth outcomes. Government actions and outcomes are often asymmetric in nature. Governments carry more power and ability to hurt than to help. That is why their controlling instincts hurt more than their liberating instincts. For the latter to succeed, non-government actors have to do their bit. The former succeeds because it influences behaviour and attitudes of non-government actors more easily. The asymmetry is evident there, too. Most politicians do not get it.

That is why they want guaranteed outcomes, whether it is in the economy or in elections. They deal in certainties and certitudes, no matter how often they fall flat on their faces. With respect to India’s growth outcomes in 2016 and in 2017, both deleveraging—triggered by low credit demand and supply—and demonetization played their part. The government should have owned both as deliberate efforts on its part to cleanse the system with a clear recognition that the efforts would hurt economic growth in the short-term. Instead of being defensive, it should have paraded its decisiveness.

When I shared these thoughts with a friend, he wrote to me: “Governments prefer to be hated for the wrong reasons than speak the wholesome truth, which admits errors of judgement in good faith and they will never understand that people value honesty so much that they forgive honest mistakes!” Beautifully put.

However, if we think that only politicians suffer from this affliction, we will be wrong. Business leaders offer plenty of company. They want guaranteed successful outcomes. When employees offer “under-promise and overachievement”, they raise their eyebrows. They see that as an effort to game the system and garner more rewards for exceeding targets. However, not in all cases, such employee attitudes are driven either by incentives or by the fear of failure and the consequences it entails. Possibly, it is the recognition that there are very few certainties and certitudes in life. Leaders must demand over-performance in effort and employees must offer it. However, demanding guarantees with respect to outcomes and offering it are both signs of hubris. There are other problems, too, with such an attitude.

Such leaders usually come with high self-belief and proud ownership of their missions. Up to a point, these are desirable qualities in missionary leaders. However, they have their downsides. Such missionary leaders are human and humans, without exception, have limitations and are prone to fail from time to time. Such leaders run the risk of being undemocratic, of being untrusting of others to deliver on their tasks, of excessive interference and of second-guessing their employees.

An episode involving two gifted artists, Sivaji Ganesan and Manorama, in the Tamil film, Thillana Mohanaambaal, serves up these messages beautifully. Manorama asks Ganesan to play a note on her Nagaswaram, the wind instrument familiar to most south Indians. After he plays a note, she asks him how he could produce such wonderful music; he replies that it depended on one’s effort and divine grace. Later, in the same episode, she wistfully wonders why such a gifted artist (Sivaji Ganesan) was short-tempered and prone to bursts of anger. He answers that there was no human without blemish. Not only was that scene marked by spontaneous and brilliant acting, but it contained such obvious, yet profound, truths.

In the Bhagawad Gita, Lord Krishna says that for any effort to succeed, there must be a goal, a doer, skills and instruments. However, above all, he says there must be his support and blessing. It is natural to forget it when we pursue a project or a goal with zeal and sincerity, trusting in our efforts. They are necessary, but not sufficient. Of course, if one does not believe in the existence of a God, one can replace “divine blessing” with “chance”. However, it is there.

Recognizing that, and displaying frailty, is not a sign of weakness but to be human. Mostly, employees will not turn shirkers or slackers because of that, but would relate to their bosses better for being human. Mutual trust will emerge. To be able to balance being a normal human and being a leader is the challenge of leadership. To fail in that challenge is to risk becoming ineffective and unsuccessful. Above all, they risk being lonely in their most vulnerable moments.

This was the text of my column in MINT on Tuesday.

[cross-posted here]

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:

Question:

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?

Answer:

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.