Saturday, June 27, 2009

From Fundamentals to Rules: How religion evolves...

It is interesting to note how the shanti mantra evolved. This be from the Brihadaaranyaka Upanishad, one of the oldest of the lot.

ॐ पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदम् पूर्णात् पूर्णमुदच्यते |
पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते ||
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ||

And for those of you who cannot read devanagari...

om poornamadah poornamidam poornat poornamudkyate
poornasya poornamadaya poornamevaa vasisyate
om shanti shanti shantihi

(Remember 'Asatoma satgamaya...' ? Yup! That is from the Brihadaaranyaka Upanishad as well.)

In this, one of the earliest Upanishads, the Shanti Mantra talks about the nature of the Absolute. Brihadaaranyaka Upanishad is associated with the Yajur Veda (specifically the Shukla Samhita). Yajur Veda of course deals with the mantras associated with performance of rituals: the interpretation as well as the procedure.

As we jump to the Atharvana Vedaa, the shanti mantra suddenly becomes a shopping list! - Do this, Do that; don't forget this; God Help me! - The Realization of the Absolute is forgotten; the rules remain.
For instance, in the Mundaka Upanishad, The Shanti Mantra takes this form

ॐ भद्रं कर्णेभिः श्रुणुयाम देवाः ।
भद्रं पश्येमाक्षभिर्यजत्राः
स्थिरैरन्ङ्गैस्तुष्टुवागं सस्तनूभिः ।
व्यशेम देवहितम् यदायुः ।
स्वस्ति न इन्द्रो वृद्धश्रवाः ।
स्वस्ति नः पूषा विश्ववेदाः ।
स्वस्ति नस्तार्क्ष्यो अरिष्टनेमिः ।
स्वस्ति नो ब्रिहस्पतिर्दधातु
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥

om bhadram karnebhihi shrunuyaama devaaha
bhadram pashyemaakshabhiryajatraaha
sthirairanngaistushtuvaagam sastanoobhihi
vyashema devahitam yadaayuha
svasti na indro vriddhashravaaha
svasti naha pooshaa vishvavedaaha
svasti nastaarksyo arishtanemihi
svasti no brihaspatirdadhaatu
om shanti shanti shantihi

For the record, The Yajur Veda (along with Rig and Sama) predate the Atharvana Veda.

Yet another example of how Religion starts of with good intentions but invariably ends up as a set of rules. The funda still makes sense but, over time, the rules tend to become irrelevant.

p.s. Couldnt find my hardbound copy of the Upanishads. Wikipedia to the rescue (for now). Gotta scurry to Landmark and pick up another set!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Constellations (Or why I'm called a joyless soul)

A friend asked me if I would help her identify a few constellations. (sidetrack begins... She has the luxury of living on the top floor of a building and hence having instant and unrestricted access to the terrace. Now, anyone who knows me, realizes how much I love sleeping under an open sky. sidetrack ends.) Now, I'm capable of recognizing Orion's belt (thanks to Scribble Pad's m.) and a few of the major constellations visible in the northern sky. so it was not surprising that i offered to help her.
People who know me through my blog (and most others) will know that any offer of asistance from me comes with strings attached. In this case, I proffered said service (the one of identifying certain celestial conglomerates) with the caveat that the service not be mis-used. She warily asked me what would count as misuse. I promptly proceeded to inform her that I would help her identify the constellations, only if she promised to not use that information for non-scientific or pseudo-scientific purposes like astrology. I was persudaed to throw in poetry as a possible use that did not violate this tenet. The lady finally did laugh it off with a shrug and ended the conversation with "You are such a killjoy, Harsh!" I've never managed to get this woman to call me by my given name; a fact that irks me no end (but THAT is another post altogether).
Which finally leads us to the topic of the post! Why am I such ajoyless soul? Why do I insist on being a right-royal pain in the posterior?
My primary hatred is towards pseudo-science and its proponents. I do not have a problem with phenomena that cannot be sufficiently explained by science as we know it till date. To give just one example of such phenomena, I can control the weather around me to a certain extent, but I cannot explain, in scientific terms, the process by which I do this. I'm perfectly willing to let this go as just one of those things that our knowledge of science (in this case: the modus operandi and the capabilities of a human brain) is not sufficient to propose a hypothesis to explain the phenomenon.
It is not unscientific to acknowledge that there are things that cannot be explained by science. That is a limitation that Science (and I) can live with. However any concept that is claimed to be scientific, or that is made to appear to be scientific (by the mis-use or abuse of scientific terms), but which does not adhere to an appropriate scientific methodology, lacks supporting evidence, or which does not have scientific rigour, is non-scientific.
Belief in pseudo-science (astrology, zodiac, tarot, etc.) is naïveté (at best) and denial (at worst). Proponents of pseudo-science are either naïve people (with good intentions) or charlatans. Now, it doesn't really matter which is worse (though I personally don't mind the charlatans as much as I mind the misguided morons).
What matters is that AFAIC (as far as I'm concerned), you have no business talking pseudo-science, especially to a scientist. If you want me to to stop arguing, just say the F-word (that would be FAITH... not the foul four-letter variant).
IF you bring in the concept of belief, I'll agree that you have every right to have your own axioms. But if you try to make somethign sound scientific by using words like "energy" and "force" indiscriminately, KNOW that I have Occam's Razor and I will use it ruthlessly to slice and dice you and your arguments.
Science... is not a matter of opinion!
Amen! (tongue firmly in cheek!)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Guilt and Shame... Part I

Guilt and Shame are not just emotions that people feel. Like all other emotions, Guilt and Shame have evolutionary roots. Let us axiomatically assume the three Laws of Humanics. Shame is the system's way of negating anti-societal behavior while emphasizing the need to prove oneself acceptable/desirable to others. Shame is the system's way of enforcing the 2nd Law of Humanics - Thou shalt obey the system. Guilt evolved as an implementation of the 1st Law of Humanics - Thou shalt not harm a human or through inaction allow a human to come to harm.

Note that neither Guilt nor Shame have any impact on the 3rd Law - Self Preservation. Guilt is not rooted in the need for self-defense. Rather, for guilt there must first be some concern with the welfare of others.

The classic example of caring and responding to the distress of another human is probably in the parent-child care system. As a child becomes aware of distress in others (including awareness of being a source for others distress), develops empathy and sympathy, and the wish to help others, the capacity for guilt becomes developed. Unlike shame, guilt is not associated with anger at others, guilt is not associated with feeling inferior to others.

Although animals may have the precursors for shame (sensitivity to dominant others and submissive behavior) and guilt (care-giving), I'm not entirely convinced that animals feel shame or guilt as such. They lack self-conscious awareness (of "being a self") and the capacity to reflect on behavior and judge them good or bad.

Humans have evolved certain cognitive competencies that enable Guilt and Shame. First, humans became able to form symbolic representations of objects in the world and of the self and others. Symbolic self-awareness comes with language and the ability to symbolize "the self," the ability to "imagine" the self as an object and to judge and give value to the self; to have self-esteem, to think about the meaning of one's appearance to others and the implications.

Evolution also provided humans with the ability to understand what might be going on in the minds of other people. One can think about what motivates someone else's behavior, what they might value or devalue, what they know and what they do not know, and one can think how to manipulate them to like us or be wary of us.

Linked to these abilities is metacognition - to be able to reflect and judge one's own thinking and feelings.

Guilt and Shame make sense only to an evolutionary entity that has these three abilities. Without meta-cognition, there is no way a man could feel disturbed by the knowledge that he-she is mentally undressing a woman. Without the ability to figure out how someone might think, there is no way you could explain to a human why calling someone a bastard might hurt the person who is being thus adressed. Without the ability to be self-aware, there is no way you could feel self-conscious: Without self-consciousness, there is no meaning to Guilt or Shame.

So, what about people who don't feel Guilt or Shame? Are these people sub-human or inhuman in any way?
The next post has the Analysis...

p.s. The theories explained in this post are not opinions. This post is almost entirely based on well-established facts and conclusions based on anthropological research.
p.p.s. No! the reasearch wasn't done by me!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Love, Life, and a large dose of Logan: The week that was

Finally, this blog has its first non-didactic entry.
Stuck at home for the early part of this week, courtesy influenza, I spent it in the usual manner; Little contact with humanity, lots of DVD, a little benadryl and extensive theorizing.
But first let me start with O Henry. I was reading The Last Leaf (yet again) and was surprised (yet again) how much the story enthralls me. It is probably just my obsession with the idea of death, But, for me, the climax of the story is Johnsy's flash of realization.
"I've been a bad girl, Sudie. Something has made that last leaf stay there to show me how wicked I was. It is a sin to want to die.

The rest of the lovely tale is typical O Henry irony.

The theme of ensuring that one leaves one's mark - one's masterpiece - before taking leave is one that I, the ultimate theatric, have often toyed with. (Incidentally, I pronounce the word "off-ten".) I've kept my debts low (both financial and emotional); ever prepared to pop-out of this world with a "No Dues" Certificate.

But what of my thoughts? What about those unexpressed emotions, sentiments, anger, love and despair that must eventually die along with me? Do I want to be remembered? Yes I do? Do I want to be missed? Most definitely NOT! In a world full of deceit and hidden agenda, I've always attempted to be blunt - brutal, at times - about having my intent very much visible. Even if my penchant for dramatic effect has often kept the manner of fulfillment of said intent in suspense!

Well, I've made my final peace with the last remaining secret. She knows; Finally! How I've felt in the ten years that I've known her and not said a word. I wish I could have said it like this... :)

Oh, and she does look like Kiera Knightley. :)

And after all the years of excuses and lies (including the big fight with DAAD about bunking a lab course to go make it to IIT-KGP) the truth is out. Those words are so beautiful... "Without hope or agenda"...

Life goes on... The same brainless work. The same silly games. The same infinite stupidity. And the same solitude.

And I caught X-Men Origins - Wolverine on DVD last night. Amazing flick! (But don't take my word for it! After all I adore the character and will watch the Logan saga, even if the role is assayed by Akshay Kumar!) And finally we have a director and writer who stick to the story line of the original comic book: Unlike the silly spider-man movies which turned the arse-kicking punch-line quoting spidey into a love-lorn loser! I watched the entire X-Men series and then, out of pure masochism, downloaded and watched the spidey movie series as well, just so that I could feel the difference.

And so ends the inside view of my mind and its twisted and dizzying paths. I promise to get back to being "Il Professori" very soon. Let me just get over the virus.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

the end is nigh!

As I sit in solitude enforced by H1N1, all I can think of is this episode of House M.D where Gregory House is ranting about medication and how it is used.

House: This is our fault. Doctors overprescribing antibiotics. Patients getting them over-the-counter. (sarcastically) Got a cold? Take some penicillin. Sniffles? No problem; have some azithromycin. Is that not working anymore? Well, try levaquin. [There are] Antibacterial soaps in every bathroom. They'll be adding vancomycin to the water supply soon. We bred these superbugs. They're our babies, and they're all grown up, and they've got body piercings and a lot of anger!

Every year, the attacks come; wave after incessant wave of mutant viruses. Probably, this is just the eco-system known as Earth defending itself from the largest and most deadly virus that has ever threatened to destroy it. The joke of course is that the virus is Humanity. Can we fight back the next wave? And the one after that? Is this doomed to be an eternal struggle or is this the precipice?


What is it about men that prevents them from having the balls to play a gay guy in a movie?

I was watching bits and pieces of this movie called Girlfriend (Isha Koppikar and Armita Arora) on TV as India snatched defeat from the jaws of victory (yet again).

What struck me abt this movie was the fact that this was the second or third Indian movie I had seen where the lead character was homosexual. The common theme I noticed was that Nandita Das (with oodles of panache), Shaban Azmi (with grim determination) and Isha Koppikar (with a generous dose of bloody-mindedness) played convincing parts; without any gestures, mannerisms or any other suggestions or attempts at typecasting. The homo-sexual nature of character came through in the words and the actions - as it was meant to be. Mind you - I'm not comparing the relative worth of the movies themselves - just the lead characters and the people who played them. The homo-sexual lead character was a real 3-D person. Not a sex-driven maniac. Not a prop. And definitely not a caricature.

My big question is this... When (ignoring Mango Souffle) did you last see an Indian male actor/star do a serious role as a homo-sexual character?
It isn't that our writers don't know how to create convincing homo-sexual characters. Maybe it is just that our leading men have not the guts to play a serious homo-sexual character. Maybe we - men - are more afraid of the label "gay" than women are of the label "lesbian".
Why? Is "fear" really the word I'm looking for? Or should go for it's Martian twin Deimos?

(This needs more thought; but I'm too tired to stand up, let alone drive. Can someone pick up the cigarettes for me?)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Games People Play!

The trouble with playing a trick on a highly intelligent man like Mr. Teller is that the time it takes him to figure out from the moment that he sees there is something wrong till he understands exactly what happened is too damn small to give you any pleasure!

- Dick Feynmann

Sunday, June 14, 2009


I'm down with the flu. Possibly the swine variety. getting it checked today. Take a break!
Checked.. its not H1N1. Hallelujah!