Spirituality and the jigsaw puzzle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, there is another paragraph in page 105:

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

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

From Dikshitar to Tolle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A note of thanks to my father

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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