Trekking up the Tiger’s Nest

“Come on, of course you have to do it. Everyone who comes to Bhutan has to do it. It is like almost mandatory,” is basically how Dawa Penjor, the CEO of Bhutan Media Foundation, reacted when I told him that I was giving Tiger’s Nest a miss, especially as ‘I hate trekking’. There was a look of incredulity on him, like I was planning to not see Eiffel on the visit to Paris, or miss the great Pyramids while visiting Egypt. Similarly, I guess, missing Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) is just not an option in Bhutan.

Thankfully, Dawa moved from incredulity to encouragement, and went on to soothe my frayed nerves that had started jingling at the very prospect of a climb up the mountainous path. “Don’t worry; you will surely be able to do it. After all even 70 year-olds are known to have climbed up the hill, pretty easily,” was his winning argument. It was only later that I Taktsang monastery Bhutanrealised, that “70 year-old” was more like a placebo for hassled nerves.

Nonetheless, I took the bait, and then our common friend Sonam Gyambo tinkered with my itinerary to fit in the one-day trek in the two days that I was left with in Bhutan. A phone call to his friend in Kicchu Monastery — whom he referred to as a healthy monk, and then we were all set for a climb up the hill. From skipping Taktsang to setting out to visit it, I had made a big leap of faith in a matter of few hours.

My reservations against Tiger’s Nest were not without reasons. You see, I am certainly not in the best of physical frames. The last time I had stood on a weighing scale, it groaned itself to some 3 digit number. Secondly, I am certainly not the trekking types; I more like the loaf-wander-drifter types. I loathe the very concept of those trekkers whose only aim is to quickly reach a point, take some selfies, preen and quickly descend. I am more likely to contemplate on a silly lily, or admire an ant-hill. I hate the rush in life, and I detest it more so on those scenic beautiful mountains. After all, “what is this life full of care, we have no time to stand and stare”, and I love to stand and stare without a rhyme or a reason.

And then, when I saw the pictures of Tiger’s Nest from a trek-able purview, I knew it would be stretching myself to an impossible scale. The last trek, I had undertaken was more than a decade back and here was a monastery that challenged you from an edge of a cliff, 3000 metres above sea-level. Nah let the tiger (or tigress) rest peacefully there. I had no intent to disturb it at all.

Anyways, on my last day in Bhutan, I was down there in the Paro Valley, with the healthy-monk to guide me to the top, and my better-half and two sons to inspire me to the there. On the first glimpse of monastery, as a tiny little white dot stuck afar into the green hill that stood rather tall, I knew it would not be an easy task. And how right was I.

Taktsang monastery BhutanWe were there at the base by around 7.30 am, after parking the car, we started on the route. It was a dusty hilly road, and immediately, it started up. At the start you could hear the horses grunting, possibly doing some horsey pranayam in preparation for the taxing climb ahead. For a moment, I was much tempted to load myself on a horse, but our monky guide was firm, and dissuaded me from it. Believe me; very shortly I would be cursing him for it.

Just about 30 minutes into the climb, my pace had dropped considerably and I was huffing and puffing badly. To save myself from embarrassment and also to not drag the others back, I requested the lot to move ahead, promising them that I would catch up soon. The kids were unaffected by the incline and bounded on their way to the top with the monk and another friend. Meanwhile, the better half was perturbed as well, but she was doing better than me. I asked her to move ahead as well, so that I will have some inspiration to move on. She reluctantly agreed but even that didn’t seem to work.

It must have been an hour and as I dragged myself grudgingly up the road, my condition seemed to get progressively worse. I would walk for 5 minutes and then for the next 15 Taktsang Monastery Bhutanminutes, I would be catching up on my breath. In between, there would be all those horses with those relaxed riders would pass by, and I would grunt in dismay. Why did I ever listen to that monk, is what I grumbled. As the sun gained strength as it made its way across the sky, the going seemed to go tougher.

But then, I was not alone. There were a lot many others from all across the world, climbing up the path to the monastery. The fitter ones would move ahead and pass by, but the not-so fit ones (like me) were moving in a sort of pack. We all were struggling, and the struggle seemed to make us aware of each other.

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Before #SupportDigitalIndia should look at #StrengthWithinIndia

There is this beautiful and candid moment in the Discovery of India, when Jawaharlal Nehru (the author of the book) breaks into an inquiry as to what really is India. In a passage, he poses a series of questions that dig at the very essence of nationhood —

What is this India, apart from her physical and geographical aspects? What did she represent in the past? What gave strength to her then? How did she lose that old Digital-India 6strength? And has she lost it completely? Does she represent anything vital now, apart from being the home of a vast number of human beings? How does she fit into the modern world?

These queries can also be termed as the core essence of the book itself, as Nehru takes us on a long journey to “discover” and uncover India. Somehow, I seemed to recall these words from the very 1st Prime Minister of India, even as the 15th Prime Minister roamed across the plains of the United States, exhorting companies and individuals to partner in his vision of a digital and developed India.

‘Digital India’ is now well and truly a global buzzword, it is already trending on Twitter and Facebook and everyone seems to be talking about it. The program launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi back in July 2014, seems to have come a long way with Digital india1even the CEO of Facebook sporting a DP in support of Digital India. Google in the meantime announced that it will provide free Wi-Fi at 500 railway stations; Microsoft is planning to take broadband connectivity to 5 lakh villages. There is now so much excitement and so much euphoria around the idea, that one feels that there is nothing that can now come between us and our tryst with digitisation. No power on this planet can now stop us from being Digital India. Yeah! Yeah!

But before we turn into a digital society, or even embark on being one, there is an important aspect that we see to be missing upon, namely, defining what digitisation is, its need and its challenges, its relevance and its impact on Indian society. While it is really a no-brainer that digitisation is required and necessary, the core question that arises is whether we have thought out before, is there an end goal that we are moving towards or is it just a relentless journey that we will keep moving on? How will all this digitisation impact the life of an average Indian? What would be the termed as success or failure? What is the gamut or the sphere of the program? There is much excitement indeed, but is there much sense

Quite like how Nehru had started his journey with a whole lot of definitive questions, should we not too proceed in a similar manner? Say begin with something like: What is this Digital India, apart from the technical and fundamental aspects?

A cursory search on Google throws up the following definition: (Wikipedia)

Digital India is an initiative of Government of India to integrate the government departments and the people of India. It aims at ensuring that the government services are made available to citizens electronically by reducing paperwork. The steps to Digital India program can be jotted as such:

  • Creation of Digital infrastructure
  • Delivery of services
  • Digital literacy

In fact there is a whole website (http://www.digitalindia.gov.in/) that has been created to communicate the goals of program, it has Prime Minister Modi’s image all over, and lot of content on this and that. Yet, there is precious little on the site to show in terms of details of work that has been done, or work that will be done. Since, the devil apparently lies in the details, there seems to be no details whatsoever provided on the website.digital-india2

And so that gets us back at the essential question, a program that is supposedly worth Rs. 125 crores, how come there is no detailed plan for it.  In fact there is not even a special body that has been created to monitor or drive it. The program currently falls under the ambit of the Department of Electronics and IT (DeitY) is leading it forward, and it is headed by a “Monitoring Committee on Digital India under the Chairpersonship of Prime Minister” and a “Digital India Advisory Group headed by the Minister of Communications and IT”. So essentially this is a baby of the PM and his ICT minister. Continue reading

Meet the Breakfast Annas of Mumbai

Mornings are an altogether different thing in Mumbai. Unlike the “subehe Kashi” (morning in Kashi), where mornings are king of romantic and melodious, in the urban sprawl of Mumbai it is anything but that. With scores and scores of Mumbaikars (good tens on the roads and on the run, there is no respite, calmness or freshness to be sought in the morning. Sanity is dependent on precise minutes like 8:15 F, or 8:47 S. Omens, good IMG_20150813_084041or bad, are all about whether you were able to find a seating place in the train. Chivalries and niceties are easily dumped, when you need to jump a queue and duck into a share auto, even before the lady, who has been patiently standing there for well over 10 minutes. Thus, mornings in Mumbai are chaos supreme, with blood pressures soaring and people zipping from one point to another.

In the very midst of this madness, there are little oasis of peace and tranquility that abound across the city. And the best thing is that these oases are mobile and agile, travelling along on the back on a bicycle. These are the Breakfast Annas of Mumbai that feed a huge population on the run.

Across the city, from early morning you will find these magical men with their bicycles feeding a population that is constantly on the run. At vantage points you will find them, Picture_000001with their meduvadas and idlis (at times even plain dosa). Quickly consumable and awesomely cheap, these Breakfast Annas are an essential part of Mumbai life. People waiting for a bus or a rickshaw, will quickly converge at these anna-spots and savour the goodies. For 10 bucks a plate, you can wallop down 3 small meduwadas or idlis and continue on. These annas are like small pit-stops for the people to come and charge self before rejoining the rush to work.

One of the things that truly amazed me over the years was the apparent standardised fare that is similar across the city. The idlis, the vadas, the sambar, and even the chatni taste almost the same all across. You move from one area to another, and yet the taste more or less remains the same. It took some investigation and journalistic prodding that I discovered the reason. Typically, the annas seem like householders, who are retailing homemade fare. But then, nothing could really be further from the truth. All the food stuff is actually mass-produced on a factory scale at different designated areas like Dharavi and thereon. The Breakfast Anna are merely retailers, who buy a designated quota everyday and cart it all over the place. This in short, is the reason for the uniformity. These annas are not the creators but merely smart vendors of the fast-food fare. Continue reading

Abstracting with new Tapestry

“Why should there be any purpose at all, can you not enjoy the canvases for what they are, rather than what they represent,” said a rather chaffed looking Gajanan Kabade. I had decided to pay a visit to his exhibition at the prestigious Jehangir Art Gallery. His show, titled Tapestry, was a representation of artworks that were all dabbed in myriad hues. The unique thing about Gajanan’s work is his use of the ever-common, ever-ubiquitous cello tape. By using overlapping tapes, and paints, he creates a pattern that is much pleasant to the eye, even though it represents nothing. And that was precisely what he wanted to IMG_20150810_190229_HDRconvey to me, when I asked him to explain the “logic”, the “meaning”, of his artworks. “Why can’t you accept and enjoy the abstract for what they are, without trying to place them in a context?” Gaja asked me, though it seemed more like an advice or a complain.

Honestly, this was the second time in my life I had come across such a scenario, where my creative mind struggled to comprehend the abstract. It was some 15 years ago, when one evening a rather generous editor of Free Press Journal, called into his cabin a rookie reporter with long tresses and passed on him an invite to an exhibition of paintings by the celebrated Jehangir Sabavala at the Jehangir Art Gallery. “It will be very interesting for you boy,” said Gonsalves gesticulating with his hand on which was adorned a tribal band of various hues. And so, thinking it to be an arty soirée where costly wine will flow along with crusty croissants, I merrily landed at the Gallery. This was to be my big debut in the esoteric world of art. My brief encounter with the octogenarian artist did not really turn out to be a charm, as the moustachioed man possibly expected a more knowledgeable bloke from FPJ, not a greenhorn like me. Nonetheless, I did not let such incongruities distract me from the task at hand, and after badgering the artist with some terribly mundane queries, in response to which he merely muffled a grumble, I got to the task at hand. Also the fact that there were no waiters carrying platters of veggie snacks, nor was there the associated tingle of half-filled glasses, seemed to nudge to do something worthwhile, something which not many journalists are not known to do.

I looked along the room, it was full of those high-society peoples, you know ladies in clinging shiny chiffons, and bearded men in silk kurtas. There was much chatter all around, and the grandfatherly artist moved in the Gallery like a matador who had just killed a bull. Now and then you could discern a sudden explosion of an orgasmic sigh that went like “ohhhhhhh…” It would invariably be followed by silence and then there would be a few more sighs and then silence again. Steadily, the whole room was filled with such orgasmating creatures, especially the female types. Was frankly bewildered at such sighs, being a young lad with much interest in the birds and bees, these “oohhhs” and “ahhhhs” were pretty distracting. Continue reading

Can we ever #GiveItUp on Sexism?

BTW, have you heard the #GiveItUp ads on radio lately? Frankly, it is impossible to miss them because one is constantly badgered by them on all the FM channels. Before I get into the discussion on or about them, let me describe how the ad runs for the benefit of all those that have been ignorant about this great piece of social messaging.

At the start, we have a man sitting comfortable praising a woman (wife implied by the wayCDA_D3nUMAEeJ9p he calls her by first name Radha) for her “aloo ka paratha“. The women is thrilled at the praise, and in a tone that would befit a “bhartiya nari” — dedicated to the welfare and whims of her husband — duly states that she will bring him one more. The man obviously glad, feels not a pinch about the extra-work his dutiful Radha has to do. In fact, he ever so casually adds to her burden by ordering her to switch on the TV while she is on the way to the kitchen to cook. On the TV, there is our ubiquitous PM Modi delivering a small note on how if people were to give up on Hatheir LPG subsidy, he would provide the ‘gas ka chulha‘ to all the poor homes where women still use wood stoves, and kids are raised on smoke, and diseases are rampant. The PM’s speech touches a chord and the man starts fidgeting with his cell. The dutiful wife arrives with the paratha and on seeing her husband distracted with the phone, enquires (mind you just enquires, not irritated) about the reason for it. The man emotionally narrates the tale from his childhood, how he is reminded of his mother who used to burn her eyes on the wooden chula, and now that he is economically well off, he can help the numerous mothers by giving up his subsidy (through his cell). The wife all gooey-eyed and besotted can only exclaim with a happy sigh, “I am so proud of you“.

give itupThere is even a TV version of the same ad, with minor tweaks. But the overall script largely remains the same. Watch it if you care —

Being badgered by the same ad over and over again (they sure must have huge budgets to run the ads so many times a day on so many channels), I became kinda immune to the words and was able to notice certain things, all of which alluded to the parochial mentality of makers. I mean living in the 21st century, wherein we are sending missions to Mars, we still have a role-model of a man, who makes his wife cook for him and orders her around. Once, I started noting such thing, the whole ad seemed to be written by some guy, who sits in the Khap Panchayat in the day and moonlights as copywriter in the night. Continue reading

Indian Myth-busters and their unmythological bullsh**t

It is said that people that are in a tearing hurry, are often people that are terribly mistaken. While, in India we have a set of individuals who like to take immense pride and thump their chest about the vitality and immortality of their culture (read Hindu), there is another set that is virulently trying to debunk everything about it (read Hindutva). In this battle of ego and posturing, truth often gets beaten about. So, at one end you have the proud constituents claiming the superiority of ancient science by referring to tales and stories, the opponents are eagerly taking pot-shots debunking any story or theory. In the hurry to come out with fancy headline that will attract eyeballs, like “Raving Loony Hindutva History“, people tend to debunk everything or anything.  To be honest, I really liked the titled, and am sure many would have been enticed to read it just because of it.

And so is the case of another gem of a story that promises to “Rani Padmini and four other Hindutva history myths exploded“. Wherein the author, Girish Shahane, take upon his shoulders the onerous duty of showing the way. He goes on to start with a sort of sermonising stoicism, “BJP’s misreading of history, however, is also underpinned by versions of history that circulate as truth within the mainstream.” And then in reverse chronological order lists five major “myths that have gained mainstream acceptance in India”.

Before I delve deeper into what my fellow journo brother listed, I wish to clarify a few things beforehand. First up, let’s define “myth” (and I know I go through this painful exercise so very often). Now Oxford Dictionary  beautifully describes it as: A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events. Without even venturing into the domain of Joseph Campbell, where he artfully defined myths as “Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life”, we can safely conclude that myths are tales, stories and pretty fantastic.

Sadly, many educated (the uneducated can be excused) make the mistake of mixing falsity with myth. According to popular notion, myth means false, whereas actually myth means story (which could or could not be true). Thus, myths cannot be debunked, destroyed, exploded, blasted, thrown, jumped, sat, vomited (speaking of vomiting there is an interesting myth of a branch of Vedanta was revealed through vomiting — read about Taitriya Yajurveda). Myths are stories that have been far and widely accepted, they are not some ugly heirloom that needs to be smashed to smithereens. When you start with that “pehalwan” or wrestler mentality, you are bound to go wrong. Like our friend does, when he talks about myths that have gained mainstream acceptance, I mean, myths are myths because they have widespread acceptance, else they will not be so.

So, just like him I will list out his points, and see if there is any sense that can be made here.

1.  The Myth of Rani Padmini

The first one is the beautiful tale of the ever so-very beautiful queen of Chittorgarh, Rani Padmini or Padmavati. The story is pretty simple; she is supposedly a hell-of-a-looker, hearing tales of her beauty, Allauddin Khilji, attacks Chittor and asks her husband to Queen_Nagamati_talks_to_her_parrot,_Padmavat,_c1750surrender her (as part of harem) as part of settlement. Instead of doing so, the king of Mewar and her husband Ratan Singh makes a suicidal dash against his army, while, the queen and rest of Rajput ladies commit “jauhar” (stepping into fire, rather than risking their honour). The story is gleaned from an epic poem written in 1540 by Malik Muhammad Jayasi. And in a society where honour came before everything, the tale sort of became a sort of an answer to what should be done in similar situations. “Jauhar” or “Sati” was pretty common in Rajput society, and understandably so, considering they always bore the full-frontal attack of any invader making a foray into India. The story of Rani Padmini thus was meant to be an inspiring tale for the rest of the Rajput Princesses or ladies, as to what must be done, in case their husbands lost the battle.

Indeed, as the article points out, there are no real historical records of Rani Padmini, but then, that is pretty common isn’t it. Am sure, if Rani Padmini or even Rani Jodhabai would have known that their existence would be questioned epigraphically by writers centuries later, they would have surely made more efforts to that end. But then, since they did not, let’s not hold it against them. I mean for god’s sake, Christ also had no historicity associated with him, but then don’t we accept him as so.

2. The Myth of Prithviraj Chauhan

Prithviraj Chauhan was a brave and courageous Chandel ruler, in the 11th Century AD. Among his many exploits, the most defining was with Afghani invader Mohammed Ghori. He fought two battles with him, in the first one Ghori was defeated and at Chouhan’s mercy, who rather foolishly let him go. Ghori made good of the second chance, and returned with a much larger force, defeated Chauhan and then had him killed. Now this is history.

220px-Prithvi_Raj_Chauhan_(Edited)There was a poem composed by Chand Bardai, Prithviraj Raso, wherein the exploits of the king has been vastly exaggerated and he is shown as being blinded by Ghori, and based on a cryptic message from Chand which gives the detail of Ghori (Char bans, chaubis gaj, angul ashta praman, Tau par sultan hai, mat chuko Chauhan), Chauhan let flies an arrow and kills Ghori. Now this is fiction.

Sadly, our friend here is unable to distinguish between the two, and blames everyone including Amar Chitra Katha for his ignorance. I mean a person who believes and writes on history based on what he read as a kid in Amar Chitra Katha, must be kidding right? Apparently not.

3. The Myth of a Non-Violent India

The history of India, recorded and accepted, stretches thousands of years back. In all these very many centuries numerous empires came up and vanished, starting from the Maurayas, the Guptas, Cholas, Mughals, Marathas and so on. Yet, in all these years, there was never an invader on the lines of say Alexander or even say Genghis Khan from Indian soil. Yes, the Cholas and Chalukyas expanded their scope of influence in South Asia, but it was rarely of LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01the military type.

In fact, when our friend here talks about the invasion of Lanka by “Hindu” kings like Chola, he forgets about the first ever ‘invasion’ of Lanka by an Indian king, way back in 3rd Century BCE, when Ashoka sent his son Mahinda and daughter  Sanghamitta down south to propagate the idea of Dhamma. Today, Sri Lanka is a majoritan Buddhist country, because of the seeds that were laid by Ashoka and not anything else.

India had this unique ability to assimilate, so most of those who invaded India got entwined within it, and were subsequently assimilated. So, be it the Greeks (Seleucus Nicator’s daughter was married to Chandragupta Maurya), then came the Islamic invaders, the Mongols, the French, the Portuguese, the British and so on. Each of these were in somehow integrated within the big cultural-melting pot.

The biggest and most successful exports of India have been Buddhism and Yoga, not some swords or gunpowder. Even India’s freedom struggle inspired many countries and leaders; Gandhi was an inspiration from Martin Luther King to Barrack Obama. And am sure when Swami Vivekananda was speaking about a non-violent India, he was referring to such things.

4. The Myth of Sanskrit

While, indeed, the Sanskrit is not really the “mother of all”, but yet, it is certainly not too easy to debunk either. Sir William Jones, who proposed the commonality between Sanskrit and other European Language, did so as a hypothesis. His claim was based on linguistic similarities between Latin, Spanish and Sanskrit; this led him to believe that there was a Rigveda_MS2097common “proto Indian-European source” to all these languages.

Subsequently, there have been many claims and counter-claims to the same, and the theory has been yet to be conclusively proved. That should not stop us from celebrating the sheer depth and amazing spread of Sanskrit language. Today, the biggest universities across the world are offering courses on Sanskrit, and there are many researchers doing very interesting linguistic study of the same.

And while, we are talking about the antiquity of language, did you know that the written inscriptions found at Indus Valley Sites, called as Harappan Script are not yet deciphered. Now, if and when that is done, it will be a revelation.  But then since, there is no real hypothesis to prove there, not many seem to be interested about it.

5The Myth of a 5,000-year-old civilisation

Among the 5 myths that our friend busted here, this one, without an iota was the most silly and stupid one. But before we delve deeper into the mathematics of this claim, let’s first begin by defining what exactly is “civilisation”. Oxford defines it as, “the stage of human social development and organization which is considered advanced.” The level of development and organisation can be discerned by the level of infrastructure built. Thus, a village with mud huts is not really considered ‘civilised’, while an urban centre is.

Now, when we speak of the past, Indus Valley civilisation is considered to be a hallmark on Shiva_Pashupatithat front. So, dating “civilisation” should be as simple as dating an Indus Valley site. Mehrgarh (in modern day Pakistan) is considered to be one of the oldest ruins of Indus Valley. The date of the Neolithic site has been estimated by archaeologists to be around 6500 BCE. According to Wikipedia page; “It is assumed that early Mehrgarh residents lived in mud brick houses, stored their grain in granaries, fashioned tools with local copper ore, and lined their large basket containers with bitumen. They cultivated six-row barley, einkorn and emmer wheat, jujubes and dates, and herded sheep, goats and cattle. Residents of the later period (5500 BCE to 2600 BCE) put much effort into crafts, including flint knapping, tanning, bead production, and metal working. Mehrgarh is probably the earliest known centre of agriculture in South Asia.”

This would easily mean that the proof of Indian civilisation stretches as far back as 6500 BCE that would make it, close to 8500 years old. So, the 5000-year-old myth is not really a myth but is actually history.

In the end, the purpose of articles like these is not generate a healthy discussion or encourage deliberation, but to garner hits and eyeballs. If in that pursuit, sanity, rationality and truth has to be sacrificed, then so be it. That really is the travesty of such myth-busters, who know little but claim much. Guess, one must write an article with an interesting title like “Raving Loony Myth Busters” and then possibly they will stop. Or probably not.

 

 

 

How mythology is not a science, and why it should not be treated as one!

“Who really knows?
Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?”

 Rig Veda, 10:129-6

 Somewhere embedded deep inside the Rig Veda — which happens to be one of the important canonical texts of Hindu religion, the four Vedas — is Nasadiya Sukta, or what is known as the hymn of creation. Of unknown authorship, this hymn poses some very cryptic and incisive queries on the purpose of life and the very existence of an all-bearing god. There is an element of agnosticism, of query, of doubt. It starts in a rhetorical fashion, posing incisive queries questioning the singularity itself. And while numerous interpretations of the Sukta have highlighted the scientific temper and the inquisitive Indian mythology1temperament of the early sages who penned this and the very many hymns found elsewhere, the fact remains that Nasadiya Sukta is also a very humane and emotional query. For instance, when asked to believe in something, don’t we always begin with scepticism and doubt, it is only later when through understanding and acceptance that we move to the next level. Until then, we are atheists, sceptics, agnostics and so on.

In that way Nasadiya Sukta is most special, it accepts doubt and empiricism as part of the man’s spiritual and scientific journey. It encourages questioning the very fundamentals, even the existence of a supreme being or many is not taken for granted. It is in this sense, Hinduism differed from all else, you did not have to believe anything that your rational mind did not. Faith was not a mandatory imposition; that is, not believing in the trinity — Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh — did not make you any lesser of a Hindu, than say a temple priest who spent a lifetime propriating the very triad. And so the ancient Vedic Hindu was a questioning, open-minded, person, not a self-deluded proud oaf who saw Meru as the centre of the universe, denying everything else.

Much has changed in the journey from a Vedic Hindu performing a homa on a vedi in the ancient time, to the modern Hindu blogging and posting on the Vedas on FB and Twitter today. The progress of technology and evolution has left its mark on the religion itself. New gods have emerged, old have been dislodged, there have been numerous reformist movements from Arya Samaj to Theosophical Society, from Iskcon to Art of Living. Hinduism probably is the only religion in the world, where new deities keep emerging at different time, and all the time. Take the case of Sai Baba, there are numerous temples dedicated to him and many more are sprouting all the time. In fact, Shirdi which was the seat of Sai Baba has become a huge pilgrimage centre, with annual donations running in many millions. Faith is always good business in any religion.

Sadly, the Vedas to a large extent have now been relegated to the domain of the experts and the scholars, with newer texts taking their place. The Hindu theology can be broadly classified into three buckets:

  • Vedas & Brahmanas
  • Upanishads 
  • Puranas & the Epics

The four Vedas – Rig, Yajur, Attharva, Sama — primarily are a collation of hymns, rituals and prayers, propitiating the various Vedic deities (32 approximately), like Indra, Agni, Varun, Maruts, Prajapati. There’s much lesser storytelling in them, and whatever are there, the purpose is to present a reasoning for a certain ritual or sacrifice. For instance the tale of Apala in the Rig Veda provides a clue as to why certain rituals like the turmeric

Indian mythology3ceremony is performed during the nuptials. Thus, the tales are a sort of story to explain the science. There is a purpose, a well-thought objective. The sheer depth and complexity of the Vedas are tempered by such tales. Also, it is important to note that there is a lot more cultural and scientific material in the Vedas, through careful examination and interpretation, one can understand the nature of being, and the natural world that surrounds it. Indeed, there is theology and philosophy, but only to a limited extent. For instance, we get to know about how the world was created through Purusha Sukta and to an extent the Nasadiya Sukta. Matters like philosophy of religion is dealt with much greater emphasis in the subsequent works like the Upanishads.

So, broadly speaking Vedas are the scientific texts, Upanishads are the philosophical treatise, and by the time we reach the Puranas, all we are left with tales and myths. The Puranas are much later compositions and were written for a specific purpose to promote and endorse one deity over all else, thus in the Shiv Purana, you are told that Lord Shiva is ‘dev adi dev, mahadev’ (the super-duper god), the Vaishnav Purana would tell you about the Maha Vishnu, who creates a million universes with each breath lorded over by a smaller Vishnu in his own image. The Devi Purana, similarly pronounces the supreme-ness of the female deity. All this is done through prose stories, and almost every time the story of creation is reinvented with a new twist.

Meanwhile, the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana penned by Vyas and Valmiki respectively are Maha-Kavyas, great poems and work of fiction, like say Iliad and Odyssey. These are fantastical tales possibly of fantastical people and times, but then in lack of larger proof in terms of historical finding or artefact, they cannot really be considered as real.

Yet, since the epics are much a part of the religious ethos, the Hindus treat them Hindu mythology 2with much deference and respect. Considering that the two major Vishnu Avatars are at the core of each of this epic, raises the religious value of these works beyond comprehension. Little wonder, when the same epics were adopted on television the actors playing Rama and Krishna were treated like gods, and there are stories of how people would offer flowers and fruits to the TV when the episodes aired. In that particular timeslot the television set would turn into a temple of sorts. That is the power of belief.

Little wonder, the amazing tales told in the epics, or even the Puranas, are not fiction for many. There are numerous who believe them to be real, and so many scholars and researchers spend their lifetime looking for clues, meanings and physical markings of all the things and places etched out in them. This is a sort of retrofitting research, wherein you try and find the physical manifestation of a fictional object or thing. People give real world dates, 4000 BCE, 8000 BCE, 80000 BCE and so on. Ramayana came first, Mahabharata second, and so on.

Ravana_seizes_the_chariot_Puspaka_from_KuveraAnd this is essentially where the anomalies start, in the fascination and fastidiousness of proving the epics as historical contrivances, supposed scholars start building fancy hypotheses.  Thus, a Brahmastra in Arjun’s  quiver becomes an equivalent of an atomic missile, Ravan’s Pushpakvimana turns into an early age helicopter, Gandhari’s mechanism of having kids by raising 100 embryos in 100 earthen pots is like test-tube baby, replacement of Ganesha’s head with that of an elephant is surgical procedure, the Jambudweepa is another term of the ancient Pangea, the extreme slowness of Brahma’s time is actually time dilation, the Krishna’s precise and pinpointed Sudarshan Chakra is actually a cruise missile, and the list just goes on and on.

Looking from the prism of today, these scholars try to reinvent the past using the epics as the base. The core idea is to impress upon us that our lineage actually hails from a very scientific and advanced race. It is like reading Verne’s ‘20,000 Leagues under the sea’ and deducing that the medieval man had a powerful nuclear submarine like Nautilus, or using HG Wells novel to claim the indisputable existence of a time machine. The lines between fact and fiction gets blurred.

By the way, in no manner do I imply that our great ancestors were some pastoral oafs. Indeed they were ahead of their times, inquisitive and used science as a tool. Anyone who has ever visited any Indus Valley Civilization’s ruin — even excepting Harappa & Mohenjo Daro (because they are far too superlative to not impress) — would immediately realise the scientific temperament of the ancient Indians, the town planning, the right-angled streets, the sewer system, the trade mechanism, etc. do provide a glimpse into the scientific past. Continue reading

Here is what they should not tell you about Hindu mythology

While I much respect and admire the kind of work Devdutt Pattanaik is doing in bring Indian mythology to the fore, he has written numerous books and spoken at various TedX events on the same, yet I am much disappointed by his latest post on qz.com, titled “Here is what they don’t tell you about feminism and sexuality in Hindu mythology”. It is a well-written piece on a well-read website, yet at the core of it, it makes a lot of errors not only in terms of judgements but also on inferences drawn from them. The very first words of the piece start with, “Hindu Mythology reveals”.  This can be a very dicey phrase to beginMahabharat1 with. You see, mythology by a simple definition is actually a story or a tale. And being one, it cannot really reveal anything; one can only make interpretations of it, to guess what the thought process was in that time when the same had been supposedly penned. Thus, as a corollary, etiological study of epics like Mahabharata or Ramayana are as prone to misinformation, as say an archaeological study is.

Coming to the primary premise of the said piece that talks about a very important issue of feminism and equality in ancient Indian times. The objective is much noble, but then, it starts of in a weird manner, stating that in the Mahabharata, there is an allusion of a time, where “men and women were free to go to anyone, until it became important to establish fatherhood.” Mahabharata is a vast epic that has much in it, like an ocean, where you can dive and find different gems every time. Hence, finding instances that support such inference is not really a surprise. Yet, in the phrase above, the allusion seems to be either on promiscuity or freedom to choose partners in ancient India.  Continue reading

The curious case of Rajdeep Schwarzenegger

It was a moment of euphoria when the whole of India, and a significant little bit of the US, were looking with expectations at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s US visit, especially his address at the packed hall of Madison Square Gardens. The limelight was supposed to be on Modi and what he is going to speak. Top-billed as a mega event, almost everyone had India's Prime Minister Modi gestures while speaking at Madison Square Garden in New Yorklanded up for the glitzy event, all agog to hear the man speak. This was supposed to his moment through and through.

But just like Jayalalitha’s conviction had overshadowed his UNGA address, there was another event which almost did the same to the Madison Square address. Just an hour before Modi took to stage another news broke out, that veteran editor Rajdeep Sardesai had been assaulted by a mob at the venue.

The script was so jarringly repetitive, saffron fanatics hitting out at people who ‘disagree’, trying to muffle out the voices. The sad part was that this was happening in America. As, you could hear Rajdeep say, “Something and some people don’t change”.

Not surprisingly, the news was picked up by many, people were tweeting, retweeting and belabouring the conduct of the so-called Modi Bhakts, and there wanton acts. There were aspersions being thrown of how sane and sensible voices are being progressively silenced under the new regime. It was indeed a shameful event, something we all should be ashamed off.

Suddenly Rajdeep, who was just another media star in a star-studded affair in NY, was now trending and popular. By a quirk of fate, he had stolen the limelight from Àrnab Goswami, Barkha Dutt and Bhupendra Choubey, all of who were diligently trying to cover the event and raise the stakes. By their wanton act the Modi Bhakts had given the Modi baiters a good chance to draw the attention away.

But then, as the dust settled on the matter, and the time progressed, conflicting stories started to emerge. You know there, were these small mobile clips, where Rajdeep could be seen exchanging blows (rather trying to) than just receiving them in Buddhic acceptance. As time passed, there were more clips and more testimonials that hinted at a bigger story that what one got at first measure. Continue reading

Will someone kick the #StupidBucket

Imagine for a second, what would happen if  someone pours a bucket of ice-cold water over your head? A slight chill runs through the body, the hair gets spoilt, the dress gets wet, and god forbid if you are carrying your wallet or your phone on you, the person with the bucket would possibly be buried in one.

But what if you could have some fun, get publicity, and indulge in friendly ICB11bantering with your colleagues or friends, and finally, the beatific feeling of having contributed to a good cause, all at the same time. If imagine you could get all this by having a bucket of cold water poured over your head, would you not agree to it?

This is what essentially the Ice Bucket Challenge (or as it is known #IceBucketChallenge) is all about. Lots of fun, PR gimmicks, bantering and all this in the name of a charitable cause. Apparently the Ice Bucket Challenge is being taken for spreading awareness on ALS or Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. A neurological disorder affecting the nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Patients suffering from ALS or Lou Gehrig Disease as it is also known suffer from a degenerative loss of control over their bodily functions, leading to total paralysis and subsequent death. Typically, the time-span between the onset of symptoms to death is around 2-5 years. It is a painful and traumatic disease, which leaves the person debilitated and is incurable. Hence, people having fun with cold water in the name of such a traumatic disorder must make you sick. Right?

Not really. In our disjointed world, something as abominable as this is repackaged as a philanthropic and social exercise. SO, the Ice Bucket Challenge has a social side, the participants in the challenge have a choice of donating $100 or having a bucket of ice-water poured over their heads. Ideally, you’d expect folks (especially the uber rich ones) to opt for donation, so that there can be more research on the disease, and the possibility of finding a cure. But no, in a sort of pseudo machismo, people will have water poured over their heads as if it is a very brave and gallant thing to do. The script is similar in almost all the videos posted, the person will ICB2“accept” the challenge, rattle of a few more names, steel himself/herself up, have the bucket emptied over self, smile, shriek or just look bewildered. The length of the video varies from 30 seconds to over 2 minutes, directly proportional to how desperate the person is for publicity. In fact, in many videos the celebs don’t even mention ALS or do it very casually, thereby defeating the whole purpose for taking up the challenge (remember the greater good of spreading awareness). Continue reading

Numismatics and its role in Indian history

The quest for past

The quest for truth has been innate in the human mind, since time immemorial. Right from the Vedic times, as the Nasadiya sukta tell us, man has been wondering as to whom and how did the universe appear as they do now.  While the quest has been undertaken on meta-physical levels, with questions being raised on the shashwatdccoin1practicality or impracticality of a supreme creator, this has in no way heeded the efforts to find the origins of the past. To know, from where it all began in a logical and chronological sequence. This quest for answers for roots lies at the very heart of archaeology.

In practical terms, archaeology is the physical effort undertaken to unravel the past. A scientific approach that either substantiates or debunks propositions from the past. The precise definition, reads something like this:

The systematic study of past human life and culture by the recovery and examination of remaining material evidence, such as graves, buildings, tools, and pottery.

But this quest for past has not been a recent one, many centuries yore, too people have been looking for answers in mythology, literature and religious books to discover the roots. The earliest historians, who documented India, were the religious or rather Buddhist travellers who came down to India with the objective of finding the real source of Buddhist literature.

Foreign nationals from across the shores or Himalayas have been frequent visitors to Indian since time immemorial as traders, travellers, scholars, and finally as rulers. One of the biggest fascinations for these travellers has been the immense wealth of epigraphical, architectural and sculptural material that is found in this region.

One of the first major documented visitors to Indian continent have been the shashwatdccoin2Chinese travellers Fa-hien (5th century CE) and Xuanzang (Hieun-Tsang-7th century CE) were interested in Buddhist remains and have left accounts of numerous cities and sites related with Buddhism, such as Nalanda, Bodh Gaya and Ajanta. Through their works, one is able to draw a clear anthropological picture of the time and lifestyles of Indians of those era.

In fact the name that stands out or comes to the memory is that of Hsuen Tsang – Xuanzang  [c.602 – 664] was a famous Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, traveler, and translator who described the interaction between China and India in the early Tang period.

Born in Henan province of China in 602 or 603, from boyhood he took to reading sacred books, mainly the Chinese Classics and the writings of the ancient sages. While residing in the city of Luoyang, Xuanzang entered Buddhist monkhood at the age of thirteen and developed the desire to visit India. He knew about Faxian’s visit to India and, like him, was concerned about the incomplete and misinterpreted nature of the Buddhist scriptures that reached China. Continue reading

How to be Benarsi in 4 Easy Steps!

Honestly, I do have these doubts at times that Shakespeare knew the city of Varanasi more intimately than we credit him for it. In fact, his oh so famous quip about the relevance of a name, or rather the irrelevance of it, was actually penned to encapsulate the radiant perseverance of the world’s oldest city. You see, a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, the name is hardly a factor there. But on the other hand, it is the city of Varanasi, or Benares, or Kashi that underscores the temperance and the James Prinsep_ varanasipermanence of things. Through the ages the motley township of a million temples closeted on either sides by two rivers Varuna and Assi, with the mighty Ganga flowing right through the heart of it, has been known by different names at different times, but it never really did matter, because no one name or a single title will ever be encapsulate the true essence of the city, the language that could do so, has not been invented as yet. Little wonder, through the very many ages the city of Kashi has been known by so many other names, Kasika, Avimukta, Anandavana, Rudravasa.

Subah-e-Banaras…

Step into the city at 4 am, you will be transported to another portal in a totally different dimension. A million temple clangs, a billion murmured hymns, the little rush of feet to the nearest ghat, the gentle wave of the serene ganga moving to its own cosmic hum, all this weave a magical blanket that rests over the city where time is of no consequence. Benares is regarded as the oldest living city in the world, it was a part of the original Mahajanapadas, the 16 republic states that dotted this land a thousand years before Christ was born, Athens, Troy or Sparta were mere tiny hamlets back then. Babylon was a thriving trade center, the Pyramidal pharaohs of Egypt were still very much in place, the roads to Rome had not yet been conceived, let alone being built and so on. With the legacy of the grand Harappa behind, the civilisation in the land was taking new shape. The city predates even Lord Mahavira. And not surprisingly a distraught prince confounded by the vagaries of life, death and the entangled cycle, found peace, solace, knowledge and nirvana sitting under a banyan tree in this very city. Kashi had the power to turn prince Siddhartha into Gautama Buddha.

The beauty of Kashi is that you don’t require an archaeologist to dig through the stratified mounds to uncover the passage of time. It is said that it is the favoured city of Lord Shiva, the destroyer, the ascetic, the all-pervading all powerful omniscient simpleton, Bholenath. Legend has it, that the city rests on one of the pointed tips of his trishul, thus protected by the very deity that destroys all. Not surprisingly, Kashi exists in a dimensional space, where time ceases to exist. The passage of time, hours, days, months, years, centuries, millenniums, is merely a statistic. Empires fall, empires created, new beliefs sprung up and old lose faith, the city has seen it all, gone through it all, without being affected or impacted. Kashi has always existed and will always, it has transcended the limitations imposed by of dimensions that we know, time, and space. Continue reading