The Trolley Problem

There’s a famous philosophical dilemma called the ‘trolley problem.’ In this hypothetical scenario, there’s an out of control train on a track that is being repaired by five workers. You’re given just a second or two to decide if you want to to flip a switch and divert the train onto a second track. The dilemma is that there is a worker on the second track who will be killed if you flip the switch.

The opposing philosophies which apply here are ‘utilitarian’ – overall good of many, and ‘thou shalt not harm’ – leave it to a higher authority, and don’t consciously kill another person.

Studies have shown that 90 percent of people opted to kill one worker to save five when presented with this dilemma. The studies were then repeated with a twist. Subjects now wore virtual reality gear which projected an avatar of the worker. Surprisingly, 90 percent of people still opted to flip the switch and kill the lone worker even though they could now see their ‘victim.’ There was no change in the results.

Here comes the interesting part. When subjects were told that they had to physically push the worker and kill him instead of flipping a switch to save the other five, only 50 percent opted to kill him. And here’s the kicker. When people were told that the worker on the second track was either their spouse, sibling or parent, only one-third opted to save the five workers.

What can we infer? That evolution has selected a majority of those who will make split second decisions to kill another? That we don’t like to get our hands dirty? That we’re selfish and will sacrifice others in order to save our own? That there are powerful evolutionary forces which propel us into horrific acts when it is a matter of survival?

Are we condemned to always play out our Darwinian impulses? Will our humanity always beat out the divinity in us? That’s not a cheerful picture, if true.

What’s your take?

Why I Don’t Watch Television News

I stopped watching news on TV more than five years ago. I’ve tuned in only on rare occasions, like during elections or recently when the India Gate protests raged. I can count the number of these occasions. By and large, I’d rather have root canal surgery than watch television news. Here’s why.

The media plays at least 3 roles in a democratic society.

1. To inform.

It’s the job of the media to keep us informed of the facts. To be perfectly honest, I don’t watch TV to find out what Rajdeep Sardesai’s or Barkha Dutt’s opinions are. I could definitely do without Arnab Goswami’s histrionics. None of these “anchors” have expert training in economics or public policy or defense or anything else for that matter. They are (I believe) trained journalists and were hired to play the role of skilled interviewers. I’d prefer if they kept their opinions to themselves. I’d like them to tell me the facts, please. Then, I’d like to hear what experts have to say on the matter. And by experts, I don’t mean mouthpieces of political parties or former editors of semi-porn magazines or activist Bollywood actors or self-styled marketing gurus. There are smart people out there who’ve invested their time and careers in analyzing social issues, running businesses and researching and implementing policy matters. Go find them. Bring them on air. Allow us to hear what they have to say, even if they conflict with your opinions.

News anchors should be good at what they are supposed to be good at. If you talk more than your panelists, it means you’re not a skilled interviewer. If your show turns into a free for all among the panelists within a few minutes into the show, it means that you are an embarrassment to your profession.

2. To investigate

Media organizations are the watchdogs of a democratic society. They are our conscience keepers. It’s their job to find where the fire is burning when they see smoke. It’s their job to separate fact from fiction and help us tell a real scam from a smear job. We live in a complex world with complex issues. We want someone to tell us what’s going on so we can make up our minds about it. We are looking for someone to trust. Not someone who makes us live in perpetual anxiety.

It’s not really important to me as to who broke the story. What’s important is that the truth does not get bent in the process. I find our media stunningly incompetent on two counts. 1. They are not the ones to break stories. Stories get handed to them on silver platters. 2. And when they are handed stories, they make no effort to uncover details. In fact, they go through great trouble to obfuscate matters.

The last time we saw high quality investigative journalism in India was in the late 1980’s when the Hindu broke the Bofors story.

3. To build consensus

The media plays a critical role in building public consensus on matters of national importance. It’s not an easy job to take on emotional issues and steer the public towards thinking objectively about them. It’s a lot of hard work to assemble facts about an issue and to paint a clear picture. Instead, we have television channels which take the lazy route by fanning flames and obscuring facts that they end up doing incalculable long term harm to the country. The cornerstone of a democracy is the ability to engage in public discourse. If we don’t get this right, our democracy will fail.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Unfortunately for us in India, we seem to have neither a functioning government nor media.

I’m pretty sure that by now you can understand why I don’t watch television news any more. I’m amazed that anyone watches it at all. Is a little competency and integrity too much to ask for?

India’s approach to Pakistan is messed up.

I think India’s approach to Pakistan is messed up. Here’s why.

Pakistan is not our equal.

Not economically. Not in population size. And certainly not in the way they conduct affairs of the state. Pakistan now stands teetering at the edge of a precipice. India, on the other hand, has a much brighter future notwithstanding our many flaws. They should not be treated as an equal. If you can believe me, I don’t mean this in a dismissive, contemptuous way. I mean it as a matter of fact. A junior minister of state in external affairs should be deputed to engage with their foreign minister. Our external affairs minister should engage directly with their President, and none less. Our Prime Minister and the Leader of Opposition should not comment publicly on or engage with anyone from that country.

I support the position of our Prime Minister when he recently remarked that the recent provocations from Pakistan deserve no more than a tactical response, that we should not indulge in jingoism, and that the matter of how we deter the Pakistani army is best left to professionals in the Indian Army. In contrast, I found Ms. Sushma Swaraj’s “Get me 10 heads for one” response deeply disturbing and alarming.

Never get into a fight with a country which has nothing to lose.

At times, it may be tempting to engage in one-up-man-ship. What we have to remember is that by doing so, we’re going out of our way to keep an irrelevant nation in the public eye and thus make it out to be more important than it really is. In other words, there’s no gain for us. It’s all upside for them. Don’t stoke a dying fire.

The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference.

Pakistan works pretty hard to earn our anger. In return, we must offer our indifference. We must stop putting every act of theirs under the microscope and agonizing over it. We must stay focused on fixing our ownselves, and moving quickly ahead in this very competitive global economy. The best “revenge” – for those who tend to like this sort of a thing – is one that will be served someday when Pakistani people wake up and realize that we’ve left them miles behind in the race to prosperity. Those obsessed with things like “honor” and “izzat” should remember that it takes more courage to walk away from a fight than to get into one. Patriotism is not about having a misplaced sense of honor or a narrow view of the world or flag waving and chest thumping. It’s about being a committed citizen and taking the time to understand complex issues, how they intersect and doing what’s what’s best for the country and making your opinion heard in a constructive manner. In my opinion, Pakistan should cease to be a voting issue for Indians, and anyone who attempts to make it one should be discouraged.

There is no such thing as Pakistan.

There are the Pakistani people. There are the politicians. There is the Pakistani army. There is ISI. There are many niche centers of power, controlling narrow domains. None of them are in control. It’s impossible to negotiate when there is no decision maker on the other side of the table. We have to recognize this and understand the difficult job that our government has, when it comes to dealing with Pakistan.

They are people like us too.

Perhaps, a way forward might be one that involves building direct bridges to the Pakistani people and creating economic opportunities for them so they, over time, have something to lose by harming our interests. Pakistan is like this evil twin of India, separated at birth and adopted and raised by a gangster. In many ways, their people have suffered more than us. I refuse to believe that an average Pakistani wakes up in the morning and looks for ways to destroy us. I think the average Pakistani is like the average Indian. He/she just wants a good job, a hot meal and a peaceful life. An “economic version of Aman ki Asha,” which promotes free trade and collaboration – as much as it sounds like a fairy tale – might not be a bad way forward if we’re willing to be patient for at least a couple of decades.

Heck, we don’t have be nice to them, if we don’t want to. But we really ought to stop obsessing about them and move on.

What’s your take?

Also read: O Pakistan, Whither Goes Thou?

Why do rapes happen?

Unless we know why rapes happen, we cannot prevent them from happening. Rapes are prevalent in nearly all species of animals (especially primates). They happen in all cultures in every country in the world. And they have been happening for a very long time.

There is no country, as yet, that has managed to stop rapes from happening. Nothing has helped. Not even the death penalty has deterred rape.

Decades of research have brought us no closer to an answer that is fundamentally insightful enough to design prevention of rape. However, almost all research agrees on the following-

  1. That rape is not a sexual act. That it is an act of power. Of entitlement.
  2. That there may be other emotions involved, such as anger or mental depression.
  3. That the incidence of rape in a society or culture is a function of what’s commonly perceived to be a man’s ‘entitlement’ in that society and avenues it provides for discharge of the anger when such expectations are not met.

Which kind of leads me to the fact that women are physically weaker than men. That’s the way it’s always been. Why is that so?

I presume that at the beginning of the evolutionary cycle, there must have been females who were physically equal to or even stronger than males as well as females who were weaker than males. Now why did natural selection favor females who were weaker than males in almost all species that exist today? What was the evolutionary advantage of being a female who was physically weaker than a male?

Is it because weaker females were “preferred” in some way by males for reproduction? Are we humans a result of stronger, aggressive males systematically raping weaker females over millions of years? That’s a horrifying thought. Yet, that’s how far back in time we might need to travel in order to find where the demons lie hidden.

Is there such a thing as a ‘rapist’ gene? Do all males have it or is it just some? Can it be modified to change / eradicate this aggressive, entitlement behavior? Time will tell.

As scientists explore the “ultimate” reasons for rape from an evolutionary perspective, law makers and citizens must pay attention to the proximate causes for rape. In Indian cities and our society – there are many proximate causes, all of which are fairly obvious.

Imagine this. A group of young aggressive males, filled with an entitlement of superiority, encounter a single woman who’s more educated or successful than them. They feel emasculated. Rage erupts. One person suggests rape.  Group dynamics kick in. The others join in. And that may be how a gang rape results. This is not a justification. It’s an explanation. An explanation that does not provide solutions to preventing rape. But it provides some clues to women as to how they can safeguard themselves by spotting or avoiding signs of trouble.

The question is – why do men have a sense of entitlement? What do they feel entitled to? Can we medically or otherwise (mandatory therapy?) erase such notions from their minds? Research should hopefully shed some light on this.

As long as the law looks at crimes against women through the eyes of men, nothing will ever change.

An aam aadmi’s letter

To whomsoever it may concern.

They call me aam admi. For you babalog, that translates to “ordinary man.” Presumably women are included in there as well. That’s what they call me. I don’t know the first thing about supply side economics. I’ve never listened to Beethoven. I couldn’t tell an IIT from an ITI. There are many things I don’t know. But, I have a God given ability to detect bull shit. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get a few things off my chest.

When we got our independence, I was ecstatic. I was one of the millions who lined up whenever the Mahatma gave us the word. Then, I heard that Pandit-ji had his reservations about me. He wasn’t sure if I would exercise the right to vote responsibly. Well, here’s the thing. Neither did I. Who knows what’s best for the country? Who do we trust? Pandit-ji and his friends came highly recommended by the Mahatma. They had studied at firangi universities, spoke English and rubbed shoulders with world leaders. Once again, I fell in line when the Mahatma asked me to support his protege. I had a job to find, a family to take care of and mouths to feed. I didn’t have time to think it through. So, without protest, I voted for Nehru, in the hope that he was our Messiah and that he would part the Red Sea and lead us to the Promised Land.

I shed tears when Chacha died. He was our Messiah. We hadn’t yet made it across the Red Sea. In fact, there was no sea. I found myself marooned on a desert with no friendly faces. Pandit-ji, in spite of his firangi degrees and polished accent, had blown it. The lone face that I recognized of Lal Bahadur was but a brief mirage. And that’s when the nightmares started.

They say that the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. If that’s the case, I must fault Jawaharlal, the tree and not the fruit, Indira. But my gut tells me that that Jawaharlal was not the tree. He was just the guy who watered a tree called the Indian National Congress. This tree did not produce fruits. Rather, it sucked the life out of the ground it grew on, and gave shelter to reptiles and insects and rodents, which in turn preyed on me.

I wish I could write away the twenty years between 1970 and 1990 as a bad dream. Even now, I wake up in the middle of the night, sweating and anxious that the past may return to revive its hold on me. But trust me when I say that I have a short memory and am trying my best to move on.

The damage that Indira wrought was not to my stomach. It was to my psyche. She said, “Garibi Hatao.” I enthusiastically cheered, more in hope and despair simultaneously and not out of belief. As I said, my instincts told me that these were reptiles, rodents and insects. Hope turned to anger and slowly resignation. And then despair, when one of my own turned his back on us and assassinated our Prime Minister. I lost one more familiar face and that hurt me even though I didn’t trust Indira entirely. Her son was another fleeting mirage. I’m told that he did some good for the country, but am not entirely sure what he did for me.

They tell me that we were in a lot of trouble in 1991. And this man named Narasimha Rao bailed us out of this trouble. I didn’t know he was capable of this feat. I voted for him because he was part of this tree that I told you about. Turns out that he wasn’t entirely a reptile. Another fleeting vision as far as I’m concerned.

Things have been getting better in the last twenty years, I’ll happily admit. I’ve got a cell phone. I can see roads being laid. A lot of my friends have left for cities. I see shiny buildings when I visit them. But twenty years is a long time to wait when you have too little to show for it. There was a time I had resigned myself to my fate. Now, I am not being allowed to even do that. I’ve seen things that I now can’t put out of my mind. My aspirations are spinning out of control. My country has changed a lot. And it doesn’t stand by itself any more. The destinies of all countries are now inter linked, they say. I wouldn’t know too much about that. I have no idea what current account deficit means, and why we need foreign investment so we can have supermarkets and megastores. All I know is that there still aren’t enough jobs for my people and things need to get a lot better before we can afford to fritter time on ideological and political debates. I’ve been waiting for a long while. I wish these fellows would get on with the program so my children can have a better future.

What galls me is that, not only are they frittering away precious time but they are using that time to loot my house. There are thieves inside my house, emptying it as I speak and there are folks outside my house yelling “thief.” It’s like I’ve become invisible to both of them. Neither is helping me.

Anna Hazare, God bless him, says he wants to help me. But, I don’t have the time to make it to Jantar Mantar each time he asks. With due respect, he’s not the Mahatma. Those were different days. And they were different men back then. I trust Anna-ji. But he also wants to tie me to a tree and whip me if I try to drown my sorrows in cheap liquor. So I wonder if I should trust a guy who wants to whip me. Like I said, no one helps me anymore.

This chap, Kejriwal, seems to have his heart in the right place. But I don’t believe I’ve ever met him. I guess it’s hard to meet up when one of you feels the need to be in a city and on TV all the time. To Kejriwal, I tell you this. It’s not enough to start an Aam Aadmi party. It’s not even enough to be an Aam Aadmi yourself. You need to come out here and meet me. Don’t tell me about those reptiles. I know about them already. I’ve seen more than fifty years of reptiles. Help me. We’ve been waiting for a Messiah. We’re so jaded that we’ll give you too a chance. And we fear that you too will blow it.

You know what I don’t need? I don’t need sermonizing and moralizing. Don’t tell me things I know. Don’t tell me that I’m illiterate. I know that already. Don’t tell me that I suck because I vote for my religion and caste. I have good reasons for doing so. If anything, my religion and caste guys are the ones who’ve shown up in times of my need over thousands of years. I can’t abandon such instincts easily. Don’t tell me that we need a dictatorship because only dictators can control fools like me. I’m not the fool that I’m made out to be. In fact, quite the contrary. I’m the product of evolutionary intelligence that’s been gathering steam over millions of years. If I’ve come this far in the evolutionary game, I’m pretty sure that I can handle a few reptiles. So don’t tell me anything.  Just step aside and allow me to be. And help, if you can.

I’ve always dreamed of this Messiah in shining armor, who’ll swoop down from the skies and carry us all away into this land where there is freedom and dignity in life. And you know what? I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. I’ve come around to believing that I, and only I, have my fate in my hands. For that, I need to be responsible. I need to change my habits. And I need to stop making excuses and think things through. I know all of this. But it’s going to be a while before I get there. I wonder if we have the time for me to get there. I don’t think there’s another choice. Let’s see how this one plays out.

Until then, although you may call me an Aam Aadmi, keep in mind that I’m anything but ordinary.

Best regards.

Mango (wo)man.

A Brief Overview of Hindu Cosmology

Time is possibly the most fascinating construct devised by humans. You may say that all organic entities have a ‘biological clock’ and act accordingly. And you might ask, what’s so special about time. It’s true that animals and plants seem to operate to built-in clocks. But humans are unique in the way that we have consciously embraced the notion of time and in the way we let our perception of time dictate how we lead our lives. A while back, I had written about ‘The Secret Powers of Time and Regret.’ You might want to check this out either before or after reading further.

What is time?

Time, at its core, is an artificial and abstract concept. In practice, it’s about keeping track of change and the patterns by which change manifests itself. Time is about keeping track of changes in ourselves and in the world around us. And this has become deeply embedded into our psyches, and into our religions and philosophies. The early human, for instance, must have noticed the regularity with which dawn broke and the sun set, and subliminally internalized the notion of time while deriving benefits of recognizing such patterns. One thing must have led to another, and eventually resulted in Egyptian and Greek sun dials, Indian hour glasses, Swiss clocks , Julian calendars and other inventions which helped in accurate measurement of and tracking time.

If there was no change or observable patterns either in ourselves or in the world around us, we would have simply ignored the passage of time. In other words, our mortal existences are so absurdly short that we have come to believe that there is a necessity to keep track of and measure time. There is no other entity (that we know of) in the universe which consciously does this and allows the concept of time to dictate its behavior.

Thought experiment

Imagine if each of us were to live for a few million years before dying. During the course of our lives, we would observe hills being formed, rivers changing courses and weather patterns changing so gradually that it’s possible that we might not value the notion of time or the practice of measuring it at all. I wonder how the absence of the notion of time would influence the way we live our lives.  Let’s take this to one logical extreme: Suppose we were all to be immortal, wouldn’t  we simply discard time since it would cease to have any value? So, could the converse be true? If we ceased to value time, would that be our ticket to immortality? Interestingly enough, that’s what eastern wisdom tells us – to stay in the now and discard all perceptions of time such as the past and the future. I told you that this was fascinating stuff.

Measuring time

There’s a lot to write on this. I’ll stick to what enthralls me about the way we and our religions have looked at time.

Abra’amaic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – take a linear view of time. They agree that the world started with the creation of the universe by God, who also created the first man and woman roughly five thousand years back. They have neatly compartmentalized time into the beginning – when God created man and woman, now – while we are alive, and the everafter, the future that comes after death when we shall receive Judgment and live in eternal bliss or torment depending on the way we led our lives. The simplicity of this compartmentalization is attractive. It provides a sense of purpose, which is to conduct our affairs now in a manner that we shall be one of God’s chosen ones in the future. It provides a basis in the past – which is that God created man five thousand years back.

Time is accorded a great deal of importance in these religious schools, which borrowed the Greek notion of time being finite and running out . This life that we have now is our only chance of getting it right. Once we die, our time ends, and so do our chances of correcting the errors of our ways. Seize the day and the life you have been given, they say. This simplicity is so powerfully compelling and so easy to grasp that it has taken roots in the way we’ve divided our history timeline – in terms of what happened before the birth of Jesus Christ (Before Christ – B.C.) and that which is happening in the year of our Lord (Anno Domini – A.D.).

Eastern schools are, in contrast, vexingly vague about time.  They insist that time is illusory and hence without value, and all that matters is this mysterious thing called “now.” They candidly confess that they don’t know when and where it all began, and who started this whole thing called the universe. They tell us that we’re trapped in a web of illusion called maya, and that time is merely one of the  illusory constructs which perpetuates maya. They ask – if nothing exists and everything is an illusion, then how can the concept of time be relevant? They tell us that if we can manage to find and stay in the moment, then time itself will cease to exist, and the past, present and future will merge into one and we will be able to see them simultaneously. Indeed, the Sakyamuni was believed to possess the powers of rising above time and view all his past lives, the stories of which came to be known as the Hitopadesha.

This is all confusing and perplexing, and intoxicating and exhilarating at the same time. We listen in fascination each time, and then go away, shaking our heads, back into our worlds in which time only moves forward linearly. We don’t know what to make of such theories, or what to do about them. The eastern concept of timelessness applies temporary balm on our wounded souls and scarred pysches, and provides us with some indescribable comfort. It soothes us to hear that time does not run out and that we will have more chances to get things right, and that God and this universe may not be as harsh and unforgiving as they are made out to be.

A look at Hindu cosmology, calendars and time scales

Carl Sagan describes the Big Bang and the creation of the universe in his television series “Cosmos,” which first aired when I was in school. In this, he talks about how it all began according to science, and how the universe formed within the first new nano seconds of the Big Bang. In the world of science, creation is synonymous with the formation of matter and the creation of space and time.

In “Cosmos,” Sagan makes an interesting observation about how Hinduism has looked at time. He says, ” <snip> a wonderful aspect of Hindu cosmology is that it is consonant with that of modern scientific cosmology. We know that the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old, and the cosmos, or at least its present incarnation, is something like 10 or 20 billion years old. The Hindu tradition has a day and night of Brahma in this range, somewhere in the region of 8.4 billion years. As far as I know. It is the only ancient religious tradition on the Earth which talks about the right time-scale.

Precisely for its uncanny resemblance to modern scientific cosmological time scales, I figured it would be interesting to share my understanding of the Hindu view of the age of the universe. These details are partly from my notes from reading Srimad Bhaagavatam and heavily borrowed from more erudite persons (my sisters), all of which can, I am sure, be found on Wikipedia.

Note: I’m not writing this to prove the superiority of the Hindu view vis-a-vis other religious views. I have no interest in such matters. Each religion brings forth its own compelling insight. That is the raison d’etre of each religion. To bring forth new insights and comfort. In the matter of cosmology and universal time scales, the Hindus have put forth a grand idea, and whether true or not, it does make the pulse quicken. My belief is that it would benefit all to take notice of this.

How old is the universe per Hindu cosmology?

The Hindu cosmic cycle is divided into Yugas, Chatur or Maha Yugas and Kalpas.

A ‘basic’ cycle is called a ‘Yuga‘ or an ‘age’. There are four such Yugas, each for a different tenure. These Yugas are Krita or Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dwapara Yuga and Kali Yuga. Their durations are (in human years):

Krita Yuga: 1,728,000 years. Treta Yuga: 1,296,000 years. Dwapara Yuga: 864,000 years. Kali Yuga: 432,000 years.

Note: At the end of each Yuga, the earth is overwhelmed by elements and humans are wiped out. Each Yuga is followed by an interlude of still and nothingness and life begins anew in the next Yuga. 

Each quartet, a set of 4 Yugas, is called a Maha Yuga or a Chatur Yuga.

 1 Maha Yuga = One quartet of 4 Yugas = sum of (Krita + Treta + Dwapara + Kali + all interludes between them) = 4,320,000 years = 4.32 million years.

1 Kalpa = 1,000 Maha Yugas = One half of a day of Brahma, the creator = 4.32 billion years.

Side notes

1. Each Kalpa is successively ruled by 14 Manus. Each reigning period of a Manu, the giver of Dharma, is 71.42 Maha Yugas. So, Manus come and go during the tenure of a Brahma.

2. Brahma is the creator of the universe, filled with its stars, planets and moons and Manus who reign periodically over it. Brahma is considered to be a manifestation of the (Para) Brahman, the or spirit underlying the universe which binds all things and is the fundamental energy that makes the cosmic dance possible. Even Brahma, the creator, cedes his place and “dies,” at the end of his tenure of a 100 years. And a new Brahma is manifested by the Para Brahman, and the cycle goes on. Such is the nature of the universe, according to the Hindus, one in which permanence is assured to none.

So, what do we get?

When we put the time lines together, we get –

A “full day” ie “day” + “night” of a Brahma works out to ( 2 x half-day of Brahma or 2 x Kalpa) = 2 x 4.32 billion = 8.64 billion years.

This number is interesting because cosmologists now believe that the Big Bang happened roughly 13 billion years back (revised significantly since Sagan did Cosmos twenty five years back). This number of 13 billion years is of the same magnitude (proportionally) to what the Hindus postulated many moons ago. This aspect of Rig Veda is nothing short of spellbinding. How could have they come up with such a grand scale – in billions of years – for the cosmological age of the universe? What kind of minds and awareness did they possess to get into the same ballpark timeline wise, when it has taken us billions of dollars worth of equipment and painstaking scientific research to get into the same ball park? Was it a lucky guess or is there more to this than meets the eye? Incredible.

What’s even more incredible is that the Hindus didn’t restrict themselves to the current universe. The Rig Veda tells us that the life of the cosmos stretches endlessly before the Big Bang and will stretch endlessly well after the current version of the universe ends. The life of a Brahma, we’re told, is 100 years of 360 days each, where each day = 8.64 billion years. Simple math (100 x 360 x 8.64 billion) gives us the life time of Brahma, which is the life of the cosmos. This number is a staggering 311 trillion years. And after 311 trillion years, the ‘old’ Brahma ‘dies’, and a ‘new’ Brahma is ‘born’. And the cycle of 311 trillion years repeats itself with a new Brahma, endlessly into time. Mind boggling!

The significance of the Sankalpa mantra

If you’re Hindu or if you’ve observed Hindu rituals, you may have heard a set of mantras called the Sankalpa mantra which precedes Hindu rituals. The Sankalpa mantra is meant to keep track of where we are, and the time it is now in this version of the cosmos that we exist, at the time of performing the said ritual.

A brief context first to the Sankalpa mantra

It is said that we are presently in the Sveta-Varaha kalpa in the reigning period of Vaivaswatha – the 7th Manu. In this Manvantara we are in the 28th Maha Yuga. As per Hindu cosmology, Brahma is supposed to have completed 50 Brahma years and is now in his 51st year. For this reason, he is called “Parardha-dvaya-jivin” ie he now lives in the second half of his life. The word ‘parardha’ means half. So Brahma is called this as he has completed one half of his life. This might help you make better sense when you hear or read about the Sankalpa. On a lighter note, we live in a time when our Brahma has reached middle age, and one can only hope that he doesn’t go through a mid-life crisis 🙂

As for the Sankalpa mantra, it goes roughly as follows-

…. dvi-teeya parardhe: In the second half of Brahma’s life

Sveta-varaha kalpe: in the kalpa of Sveta-Varaha

Vaivaswatha manvantare – in the reigning period of the Vaivaswatha Manu

Ashta Vimsati tame:  In the 28th Maha Yuga of the current Manvantara

Kaliyuge: in this Kali Yuga

Prathame Padhe: In the first quarter of this Kali Yuga. Note: Kali Yuga is said to have started in 3102 BC according to Aryabhatta.

Jamboodveepe: This denotes the place where the ritual is being performed. Note: India was once believed to have been an island called Jambudveepa.

Bhaarata Varshe, Bharata Kande: in this land called Bhaarata.

Sakhabde Mero, Dakshine Parsve: to the South of the Meru mountain. Note: Mount Meru is repeatedly referenced in Hindu purana, and is believed to have existed when India was once an island. 

Asmin Varthamane Vyavaharike: in the current period now reigning

Prabhavadi Shasti Samvatsaranam Madya: which is in the middle of a cycle of 60 years starting from the year Prabhava. Note: Hindu calendar was divided into sixty calendar years, each with a name to itself, the first of which is called Prabhava.

< insert name of year > Nama Samvatsare:  the name of the present year in the 60 year Hindu calendar. Note: The present year is called Nandana.

<fill in> ayane: Dakshin-ayane (when the sun travels south) or Uttar-ayane (when the sun travels north). Note: Uttarayana is the period between the winter and the summer solstices (roughly Dec 22 to June 21) and Dakshinayana is the other half of the year.

<fill in> ritou: Ritou denotes the six seasons or Ritus, who are Vasantha, Greeshma, Varsha, Sharadh, Hemantha and Shishira

<fill in> Maase: One of the 12 Tamil months when performed in Tamil tradition.

<fill in> Pakshe: Either Shukla Paksham (day after Amavasya to and including Pournami) or Krishna Paksham (day after Pournami to and including Amavasya)

<fill in> Subha Thithou: Name of the day of the month, which is one of the 15 days between Pournami and Amavasya. These are Prathama, Dvithiya, Trithiya, Chaturthi, Panchami, Shasti, Saptami, Ashtami, Navami, Dasami, Ekadasi, Dwadashi, Trayodasi, Chaturdasi, Pournami and Amavasya.

<fill in>Vaasara Yuktaa-yaam: Name of the day of the week, one of Bhanu, Soma, Bhowma, Soumya, Guru, Brugu and Sthira

<fill in> Nakshatra Yuktaa-yaam: Name of the Nakshatra or star prevalent on the day.

Upon reciting all of the above, the name of the ritual is said. According to HH Sri Paramacharya of Kanchi Kamakoti, the Sankalpam is a record of the ritual one performs with exact details going down to the day and location of the ritual. Presumably, this was an effective technique of keeping records and track of time in a tradition that relied more on word of mouth than writing things down.

There is another unusual feature of the Hindu calendar. Each year is labeled by the number of years elapsed since the epoch. As of 2012, 5114 years have elapsed in the Hindu calendar. The present epoch (Kali Yuga) is believed to have started on February 18, 3102 BC (though there are debates around this).

What boggles my mind is the ‘how did these guys keep track of everything?’ question. If the earth and the universe are being destroyed and rebuilt every so often, how do the Hindus confidently state that we are in the 51st year of Brahma? How did the information about the previous epochs get transferred across the epochs? The Hindu calendar is so precisely documented that they have every Manu in every epoch documented going all the way back to the beginning of the life of Brahma himself. How is this even possible? Should we dismiss this as carefully planned deception and bunkum? If it is deception, why would anyone go to such trouble to plan such elaborate deception when easier routes are available?

There is something inspiring about the way we humans have looked at time, especially those in the Vedic tradition. The next time you observe or perform a ritual, hopefully I have made it a more interesting exercise for us. Hopefully, it will make you wonder about the grand scale of this amazing universe and its life time, our own insignificance in the scheme of things that are destined till the end of time and the transcendent beauty of the nature of enquiry itself.

Let me wind up for now, with another quote from Carl Sagan on Hindu cosmology:

“The Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond, to those of modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long. Longer than the age of the Earth or the Sun and about half the time since the Big Bang. And there are much longer time scales still.”

Happy journeys!

PS: For a topic as complex as this, I’d be surprised if there were no errors in the way I’ve understood things. I stand by, ready to correct errors and mis-statements. Do write and let me know if you see anything amiss. Thanks.

On Creativity

Earlier this week, I happened to read an outstanding interview of Doug Casey, an investment guru of some sorts, in which he is scathingly critical of the school system that we have today. This prompted me to go back and re-watch the ” target=”_blank”>famous video of Sir Ken Robinson talking about “how education is killing creativity.” This made me wonder as to the nature of creativity, and how it happens. So, I found ” target=”_blank”>another video by Steven Johnson, in which he talks about how creativity happens. All of this in turn led to thoughts such as, “If creativity is such an amazing thing, why aren’t more of us creating things? Why is there a notion that creativity and pain are inseparable? Why do artists lead tortured existences and can creativity arise only out of pain?”

Here’s a synopsis of what I learnt, and my accompanying thoughts.

On why our schools are killing creativity (by Sir Ken Robinson)

What is creativity? There are many ways to describe it. I rather like the one which describes creativity as divergence in thought – an ability to consider infinite possibilities in the place of one or few. We are all born with it. Tragically, it dies within most of us by the time we cross the age of ten. Studies have demonstrated this. Conformity is the enemy of creativity, which likes to run unfettered and unshackled. The way we are schooled is much like the factory model, regimented and structured, and meant to enforce standards and conformity. This was borne out of the elitist notion during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe that most humans needed “schooling,” and out of the necessity created by the Industrial Revolution for a trained workforce. For a couple of centuries, the concept of “education through schooling” gained momentum on the back of the premise that “if you worked hard and went to college, you would find a job and become prosperous.” This worked for a minority of students who performed well on “standardized tests” and went on to obtain fine jobs and fat paychecks. For a large majority, it meant being relegated to the ranks of the “average” or “poor,” unfairly so because the schooling system did not value creativity that each of them possessed to begin with. The system continues till date, and hasn’t changed significantly over the last 100 years.

How does creativity happen? Where do good ideas come from? (by Steven Johnson)

Steven Johnson argues that creative breakthroughs don’t come through accidental moments of epiphany. Rather, they are the slow buildup of several related hunches (some which are ours, and some from others) which collide in our sub-conscious to produce what appear to be spontaneous bursts of inspiration. Great ideas require time to incubate before they hatch. He also makes the point that we live in an increasingly connected world of Facebook and mobile phones, which, although distracting, help connect us with others who may provide the missing hunches so we can assemble the whole picture for ourselves.

Why aren’t more of us creating things? Why is there a notion that great art comes only out of pain?

All of us love to create. We like to do things that we can get better at. Yet, we suppress these instincts for most of, if not all our lives. And, when leisure visits in our retirement years, we are at a loss as to how to fill our time. Why do we suppress our creative instincts and not let them flower? There are a couple of obvious reasons and one that is not so obvious.

First is the fear of punishment. In spite of all that is said, most workplaces do not reward creativity. So, we try to excel in our vocations through conformance rather than disruption. In most professions, except in a handful, predictability and stability are more valued than the inherently unstable process of creativity. Thus, we become slaves to standards and processes, and creativity dies a slow, painful death over time.

The second reason for loss in creativity is not so obvious. This is the ‘expert complex’ that we develop over time. Interestingly, research shows that the higher the intelligence, the lesser the creativity. Those with scores of 120 and higher on IQ tests have tended to perform poorly on creative fronts. These are ‘smart’ people, ‘who get it’ instantaneously and impatiently turn their minds away from considering other possibilities. As we get better at doing things, we become experts. Once we become experts, we spend our time defending the mountains we’ve built, rather than exploring new terrain. And thus, we turn ourselves away from creative pursuits.

The third reason is the fear of failure. As much as we enjoy creative pursuits, we carry with us a deep-seated fear of “not being good enough” at it. Since rewards from creativity are given only to those who scale its summits, we prefer to play it safe and pursue the mundane where even mediocrity is tolerated and compensated.

Even great, successful artists carry a fear of failure. Barbra Streisand, the singer who’s sold millions of records, once confessed to stage fright and shies away from live performances. In fact, success seems to bring with it an even greater fear of failure. The fear that somehow the artist does not possess what it takes to top the previous astounding accomplishment. This weirdly inexplicable fear drives a successful artist into drinking gin at ten in the morning, and drags him through a tortured existence to an early grave. Why is it so?

Is it the individual or the genius which creates?

Ancient notions of creativity described the individual as too insignificant, even incapable of creation by himself. Creativity was the divine spirit that ‘passed’ through him when it chose to visit him. They maintained a “distance” between the individual and his creation by attributing credit to the ‘genius’ who came to visit the artist and transported her to the realms of the divine.

In the Hindu tradition, to create is to dance with the Lord. An indelible image of Lord Shiva is that of Lord Nataraja, “the Lord of the Dance,” of the great temple of Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. The Ananda Thaandava of Lord Shiva represents his five activities – shrishti (creation), sthiti (preservation), samhara (destruction), tirobhava (illusion), and anugraha (emancipation), through which he maintains the harmony of the universe. To witness the dance of the divine spirit is to see the world truly as it is – an endless moment of cosmic creativity in which birth, life and death come and go to every entity in this universe.

The ancient Greeks and Romans viewed the creative process similarly.  The Greeks had a word for the spirits whose possess our bodies during inspirational moments of creativity. They called these spirits ‘daemons.’ The Romans called this divine helper a ‘genius.’

It was only during the period of Renaissance that the notion of the individual himself being considered a genius and not separate from it, came about, and has stuck on since. One can speculate that this dissociation of the individual from the creative spirit may have led to extreme egotism and narcissism among artists and resulted in their tortured existences over the last five centuries.

When we regard ourselves as not responsible for creation, and merely as instruments of the divine spirit – there can be no room for pain.

We were born to create.

Great art may come out of great pain. But, the greatest of art comes from the greatest of bliss. To create is to let go of the few, and to embrace the infinite. It is to surrender to and dissolve oneself into the genius when it comes to possess, and draw it forth into expressions of exquisite beauty. To create is to dance with the divine spirit, with Nataraja himself.

This is the work we were born to do. Happy journeys.

Capital Punishment in India

The argument against capital punishment: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Hanging a murderer is to seek retribution and to not attempt his reformation. Death penalty is not ethical since none of us have the right to demand or take another’s life. Death penalty is not an intelligent option as it simply erases the offender and leaves the root cause of the offence untouched. No matter how heinous the crime, it is the society who created the criminal. Hanging the convicted is to cop out of society’s responsibility to rehabilitate the criminal. It is to play an unforgiving God and exercising only the powers of destruction and protection and not the ones of creation. It is a step back in our evolutionary process by perpetuating a destructive ‘tit for tat’ cycle.

The argument for it: “To not punish is to sanction the un-sanctionable.” 

Premeditated murder is unpardonable. It reflects an incorrigible condition which neither time nor hardship can cure. When a human plans in cold blood to seek the extermination of fellow humans, he loses the right to society’s compassion. Not erasing the convicted offender would be to run the risk of repeat offences. Rehabilitating the offender costs money and effort which are better spent on higher priorities with better return on investment. To punish is to deter. To deter is to prevent. To not punish is to sanction the un-sanctionable and violates the trust of citizens. It is to create an environment where everything is viewed through the prism of self-flagellating tolerance.

Adding a new breed of criminal to the mix: The terrorist

The capital punishment debate is complicated as it is. Now add a new breed of criminal to the mix. The terrorist.

The terrorist is an individual who, for various reasons, has chosen to commit premeditated murder. What the terrorist does is definitely not an impersonal war. It is very personal. The terrorist provides no advance warning of the targets, location or time of attack. Several months of planning often go into an attack. It is hardly credible to view terrorists as passionate individuals who lost their heads over some petty provocation and indulged in an impulsive act, and thus ones to regret their actions later and reform. Terrorists represent the fringes of society where the possibility of rehabilitation is the faintest. They are the closest to a lost cause as we can find. Stopping the growth of terrorism is not a lost cause. Reforming terrorists might be. They combine the passion of a temporarily deranged murderer with the cold blooded-ness of a serial killer and the intelligence of an army. If not destroyed, they will destroy. It is us or them. As dramatic as it sounds, that’s the way it looks from the view point of an ordinary citizen.

The Dilemma: Dharmic justice or Gandhigiri?

The Supreme Court today upheld death sentence to Ajmal Kasab, who participated in the murder of innocent people during the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. Should we hang Kasab in our lust for revenge? Or should the President pardon him? Will pardoning terrorists encourage more terrorism or will it stem the flow by winning their hearts and minds?

To pardon a terrorist is to break the inviolable social contract that we the citizens have made with our governments to serve the society and to be protected in return. To extinguish the life of a terrorist is to uphold Dharma on which depends the survival of our society as we know it. A Gandhian style of “blank check” tolerance, as history tells us, can make martyrs out of the tolerant. On the flip side, to forgive Kasab is to take the high road and demonstrate the divinity in us.

If you had the choice: would you choose the power to destroy an enemy? Or, would you choose the power to change his mind? Dharmic justice or Gandhigiri? This is a tough call in a country which has taught us both.

What are the Vedas?

Many years back, I read a book titled simply “The Vedas.” It’s an English translation of a series of discourses given by Paramacharya Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati of Kanchi Mutt. I’ve read this book several times over in the last five years. Each time I’ve read it, I’ve discovered a new and intriguing notion missed in earlier readings. Highly recommend this book to those inclined to such topics.

Below is a summary of my notes (taken in 2007) of the first two chapters of this book, which answer the question “What are the Vedas?

*** Begin Notes ***

What captures the doctrine of Hinduism?

Various religions have their doctrines in a single work or treatise. The Christians have the Bible, the Muslims the Koran, and the Buddhists have the Dhammapada.

What captures the doctrine of Hinduism? Some say that it is the Ramayana. Others say it is the Bhagavad Gita. Yet others will point to Vedanta. To know what Hinduism is, we have to know what the sacred texts of Hinduism are. Hinduism as a religion does not imply mere ritual. It also includes Dharma or the path to joy and bliss. To understand Hinduism’s principles of Dharma, one has to refer to a series of texts and books, which are together called the Dharma Pramaana ,  that which provides true knowledge of Dharma.

These are 14 texts, and they are:

– The four Vedas: Rig, Yajur, Saama, Atharva
– The Vedaangas or the auxilliaries to the Vedas. These are Siksha (pronunciation), Vyaakarna (grammar), Chandas (meter), Niruktha (etymology), Jyotisha (astronomy), Kalpa (procedures), Meemaamsa (interpretations), Nyaaya (Logic), Puraana (mythology) and Dharma Saastras (codes of conduct).

In addition, we may add the 4 Upaangas or the appendices, which are Ayurveda (science of life), Arthasaastra (science of wealth), Dhanur Veda (science of weapons and war) and Gaandharva (study of fine arts like drama, music and dance).

In all, the 4 Vedas + 10 Vedaangas + 4 Upaangas may be considered to contain the doctrines of Hinduism as they apply to the conduct of life and to the pursuit of joy and happiness.

Who authored the Vedas?

The Vedas describe themselves as Anaadi – without a beginning in time. They also refer to themselves as Apoureshya – without an author. They describe themselves as the “breath of the Parabrahman”, and are said to have been discovered by rishis during their deep meditative states. For this reason, the rishis mentioned in the Vedas are referred to as Mantra Drishtas or the seers of the Vedas, rather than Mantra Kartas (doers/authors of the Vedas).

There are four Vedas – Rig, Yajur, Saama and Atharva. Each has a different way of recitation referred to as“Saakha”. Each Saakha has three portions: Samhita – the foundation, Braahmana – the manuals and Aaranyaka – the spiritual interpretations of rituals. Typically, the Samhita portion is what is referred to in each Veda. In all, there are 20, 500 mantras in the Samhita portions of the four Vedas.

Rig Veda

The Rig Veda comprises of ‘Rik’s or mantras or hymns of praise. These came to be known later as “slokas”. The Riks are grouped into Sooktas. In all, the Rig Veda contains 10, 170 riks and 1028 Sooktas, broadly divided into two groups of 10 mandalas and 8 ashtakas. Each Sookta begins (Upakarma) and ends (Upasamhara) with an invocation to Agni. The import of Agni in the Vedas is not to be understated. Indeed, the Aranyakas remind us that Agni is the same as “Atma Chaitanyam” or the glow of a soul’s awakening. The Rig Vedas contain mantras in praise of Devatas as well as on ways of social living and on specific rituals such as marriage ceremonies.

Yajur Veda

The word “Yaj” means worship, and is the root of Yajna (fire worship). The Yajur Veda contains procedures that add to the mantras in Rig Veda on performing yajnas and sacrifices. There are considered to be two branches of Yajur Veda – Sukla Yajur Veda (propounded by Yajnavalkya) also known as Vaajasaneyi Samhita, and Krishna Yajur Veda by Veda Vyasa also known as Vaisampayana Samhita. Yajur Veda contains detailed procedures for rituals such as Soma yaga, Rajasooya and Asvamedha. Yajur Veda has special significance for Advaitins. For each Siddhaanta (philosophical doctrine) such as Advaita, there is a Sootra (aphorism and theorems), Bhaashya (treatise and commentary) and Vaartika (explanation). There is considered to be only one vaartika-kaara for Advaita, namely Suresvaracharya, the direct disciple of Sri Adi Sankara. Suresvaracharya wrote Vaartika on only two of the Upanishads – Taitreeya and Brihadaaranyaka – to explain Advaita. Both these Upanishads are from the Yajur Veda.

Saama Veda

“Saama” means “shanti” or bliss. The Saama Veda is the musical rendition of the Rig Veda, and contains the same mantras. Saama Gaana is considered to be the basis for the seven swaras in Carnatic and other Indian music traditions. The Saama Veda is designed to bring peace to the mind through the rendition of mantras in melodious form. In Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says “Among the Vedas, I am Saama.

Atharva Veda

Atharva” means purohit. The Atharva Veda is designed to ward off evil and adversity. It contains “Prithivi Sooktam” about the wonder of creation, and contains the Prasna, Mundaka and Mandukya Upanishads. It is said that for a “Mumumshu”, a seeker of Truth, the Mandukya Upanishad alone is sufficient. Such is the greatness of the Atharva Veda.

Highlights of Vedic structures

One of the noteworthy aspects of the Vedas is that they do not claim to be the only way, or insist that there is only one God. In fact, the Vedas are uniquely atheistic in that they do not refer to a personal God. They repeat, through various mantras in each of the Vedas, that there are many ways to realize the same Truth. Other than the Samhitas, the Vedas also contain Braahmanas and Aaranyakas. The Braahmanas are the manuals that describe the procedures for performing rites. The Vedas describe rituals as means to discipline and purify the mind and body and make them ready to meditate upon the true nature of the Self. The Aaranyakas explain the subtler, inner meaning or the spiritual import of the hymns in the Samhita.


If the Samhitas are the trees, the Braahmanas the flowers and the Aaranyakas the unripened fruits, the Upanishads are considered the ripe fruits of the Vedas. The Upanishads, while they contain references to rituals and ways of living, deal primarily with philosophical enquiry.

Action versus Knowledge

The Vedas are broadly divided into “Karma Kaanda” (dealing with action and rituals) and “Jnaana Kaanda” (dealing with knowledge of the Self). The Karma Kaanda was compiled by Maharishi Jaimini and contains over 1000 sections. The Jnaana Kaanda, compiled by Veda Vyasa, is much shorter with only 192 sections. It is said that the study of the Karma Kaanda leads to the purification of the mind and body, and a desire for withdrawal from worldly actions. It is at this highest state of readiness, one is ready to be a Sannyasin and initiated into the Maha Vaakhyas of the Vedas.

There are said to be four Maha Vaakhyas in the Vedas. They are

1. Rig Veda, from the Aitreya Upanishad: “Prajnanam Brahma”  – Exalted actual experience alone is Brahman

2. Sukla Yajur Veda, from the Brihadaaranyaka Upanishad and in Krishna Yajur Veda, from the Taitreeya Upanishad; “Aham Brahmaasmi” – I am Brahman

3. Saama Veda, from the Chandogya Upanishad: “Tat Tvam Asi” – That thou art

4. Atharva Veda, from the Mandukya Upanishad: “Aayam Atma Brahma” – The Atman is Brahman

The Vedas emphasize readiness to receive the truth about the nature of the Self, which is explained in the Upanishads. The Upanishads are to be taught only to those who are considered “ready” to absorb the Truth as contained in them.

If there are any errors in above, please let me know and I will make the corrections. Thank you.

The Minority Report

I’m writing about something that happened a long time back. In fact, it was so long back that I was in 8th standard in school. My school was run by the Church of South India. The class was an eclectic mix of rich and not-so-rich, mostly Tamil, Malayali and Telugu speaking, Christian, Muslim and Hindu kids. The common ‘profiles’, as I recall, were the good old fashioned Tamil Brahmin kids, Malayali Christian kids, Tamil speaking Telugu kids who grew up in Chennai as well as those Tamil kids from other parts of Tamil Nadu like Salem, Madurai and Trichi. The last mentioned group of kids came from affluent families who owned vast areas of agrarian real estate and which had made their fortunes on the backs of farmers who tilled their ill gotten land, and now wanted their wards to enjoy a good ‘city’ education.

Needless to say, it made interesting conversation when Sushil Koshi Babukutten, Sanjay Rao (a Telugu kid from Chennai), Saravanan (Tamil Gounder kid from Madurai), Abdul Kader and moi sat down for our afternoon lunch. The conversation mostly centered around the various unflattering attributes of our teachers as usual. The collective innocence of our group was such that none of us had any idea of the schisms that existed between our communities. Yes, I had vaguely overheard conversations in family gatherings about ‘anti-brahmin’ activities in our state. Not having encountered any first hand evidence on this front, I paid little attention to such things. I was more interested in cricket, football, marks and getting homework done on time. And, I suspect, that was the case with the others too.

We were the distinguished denizens of the last row in the class. As to why we had been banished to the last row – there were many theories. I attributed it to my height. Unfortunately, the rest of the group did not have the ability to make such claims. We all suspected that we had been identified as ‘trouble makers’ and segregated in the last row where we could make the least possible trouble. And I also suspect that we all agreed with this assessment.

Abdul Kader was a classic trouble maker. Every school has a don. Abdul was ours. He was flamboyant. He was ruthless. And he set new standards in academic non-performance. His crowning accomplishment came in a quarterly exam when his total of 32 in all subjects failed to cross the passing grade of 35 for one subject. This achievement did not go unnoticed by Mr. Jayaraman, our maths teacher, who’d seen many Abduls come and go in his time. While handing out Abdul’s answer sheet he remarked, “You’ve attempted 3 out of 20 questions. To say that you’ve attempted them is going a bit too far given that you’ve got zero on 100.” Abdul smiled. Mr. Jayaraman was not a man to let such things so very easily. He was well aware of Abdul’s reputation as our don. Such things were mere trifle to him when it came to discussing competency in the Pythagorean method. “Abdul, tell me why you come to school. You’ve spent 2 years in each standard. At this rate, you’ll still be here when your friends have finished college.”  Abdul nonchalantly replied, “Sir, in that case, I’ll skip college and join my friends.” Keenly aware of his inability to influence Abdul, Mr. Jayaraman let go, knowing that he needed to hand out answer sheets to other kids who were by now on tenterhooks waiting for the verdict. He let go, and moved on. Abdul raised both hands in a winning pose like a boxer, and smiled again.

Abdul may have been our don. But, he was the don with the heart of gold. Once he came up to me and said, “You are a “padikarra payyan” (studious kid). If anyone gives you trouble, let me know. I’ll handle it.” Abdul’s reputation was legendary. For starters, he was well connected. His elder brother was the Don of 10th grade. Senior ‘goons’ from that grade would seek Abdul’s counsel. He was always accompanied by his posse wherever he went. He rode a motorbike to school, and generally his arrival or departure from a room or building was a much heralded event. There were also rumors of his ruthless ability to ‘straighten out’ those who did not adhere to his ‘laws’. He would bring us juicy tales of fights with bus conductors, roadside vendors and auto rickshaw drivers. The tales would always end with how he vanquished his enemies. The message was pretty simple and clear. “Don’t mess with me.”

Sushil’s parents lived in ‘the Gulf’. For the longest time, I had no idea what the ‘gulf’ was. I thought it was a town in Kerala. Occasionally, he’d tell us that his parents were coming down to Chennai. After every one of these visits, he’d always come back loaded with something ‘cool’ and ‘mysterious’. I remember that he once brought a Sony Walkman to class, which had headphones and we listened to the Beatles on it. He always dressed smartly, and set new fashion trends in school. He was always smiling. In fact, I do not remember ever seeing him upset or angry at anything. He would make light of the worst of predicaments and counseled us to do the same. In each group, you always have a kid who assumes the ‘elder brother’ role. Sushil was our elder brother. He was wise beyond his years, and always lent a willing ear to our problems. As the elder brother, he also felt obliged to be our group’s financier. He had chockfull of cash, and spent it liberally on ground nuts, grape juice or an occasional Gold Spot for his friends. In return for Sushil’s solutions to life’s problems, I coached him in mathematics. He had one of the worst phobias of numbers I’ve ever seen. Confronted with a simple and straightforward problem, he would freeze with furrowed brows and glazed eyes. After a few minutes, he’d look up and say, “I have no idea what to do.” It amazed me that such a wise man could not comprehend that ‘a*(b+c) =a*b +a*c’. My attempts to tune him into the magic world of numbers proved futile, as time would tell.

Sushil was our hero. He was smart, well dressed and articulate. We all jostled to be seen with him in public. He always had a few kids around him at any point, hanging on to his stories of foreign jaunts. Sushil had a ‘VCR’ at home, and he would come to school every day and tell us the tale of the movie he had watched the previous evening. He stayed with his indulgent grand parents, and made the most of it. He had covered major ground in travel and film watching at the ripe age of 12, and this added to his reputation of wisdom and maturity. Sushil’s most endearing quality was that he treated his friends well. He never had an unkind or sarcastic word for us. He would save us from embarrassment and take it upon himself. He was truly our elder brother who watched out for us. I cared for him so much that I nursed a deep concern about his deficiencies in the field of mathematical sciences. He usually dismissed such concerns with a sweeping “I’ll join my dad’s business in the gulf once this is over. All you need to do is to help me pass.” I swore that I’d do what was humanly possible to get that done.

Saravanan was a typical Tamil speaking Gounder kid, who resisted all attempts to speak to him in any language other than Tamil. His stoic silence to questions posed in other languages masked his lack of comprehension of them. He was medium height, dark with a longish face, and applied liberal amounts of oily substances to his hair. His hair was always neatly combed, with a curl down his forehead, which he guarded vigilantly. He was a boy of very few words. He spoke rarely, and on very few subjects. He was affiliated with another group of kids, who were commonly referred to as ‘hostel kids’. They were his fellow inmates of the school’s hostel, and his hostel network was far and wide. Saravanan was not the first ranker in class. But he was not known to do shabbily either. His consistency in staying in the middle ranks was admired by those in the lower ranks. Nothing perturbed him. No one perturbed him. He was a cactus, who survived on very little water, in the unfamiliar desert of a Chennai school. He was not the most sociable character. Occasionally, all one would get out him by way of response was a grunt. And that was generally well received when it happened.

Sanjay was the kid with whom I related more than others, though he came from a more affluent background than mine. He came from a higher-than-middle class, but not-quite-rich family. His dad was a teacher in our school, and made a fortune from teaching mathematics ‘tuition’ to the rich 12th standard students in our school. Sanjay was seen speaking Telugu to some kids, and Tamil to us, which I found very impressive at that impressionable age. Sanjay tried very hard to create his own niche in the school, but struggled till the end to find that spot in the sun. Otherwise, he was well regarded by his peers, and was known to be Sushil’s right-hand man and confidante.

The year was 1980. We had just returned from summer vacation to start eighth grade. And, that’s when things changed. For starters, our seating arrangements had been re-shuffled to our nasty surprise. Instead of Sushil and Sanjay, I had Saravanan and another kid on my sides. I took it in my stride, although I knew that neither of my neighbors could be placed in the eloquently social category. To my surprise, Saravanan appeared more talkative than usual. He doled out tales of family gatherings during the summer, trips to far flung villages and attendance at what appeared to be political meetings. Slowly, I gathered that Saravanan’s father enjoyed the company of politicians, and made liberal donations to such causes. He mentioned prominent names, and would casually slip out details of their having had ‘tiffen’ or tea at his house. All this was fine but boring. Patiently, I nodded my head way through his ramblings. To me, Anbazhagan’s appearance in Saravanan’s house was not very exciting stuff. And then, one fine day, Saravanan mentioned Periyaar.

It’s probably pertinent to pause here and examine what I knew about Periyaar at that point. Amidst my indifference to politics and political talk, I had, by then, ingested some details on Periyaar. I knew that he was part of some movement which didn’t relish the sight of Brahmins in the state. I’d also heard stories about how Periyaar didn’t believe in God, and how he had once garlanded a deity in a temple with footwear. These stories didn’t endear Periyaar to me. I was also aware of the fact that I was brahmin. So, I made the simple inference that if Periyaar hated Brahmins and if I was a brahmin, then Periyaar and I would not get along well. That I wouldn’t get along with Periyaar didn’t bother me. I had more on my mind in those days, and did not ponder this issue deeply. In essence, I knew who Periyaar was, and where he stood in my book.

So, when Saravanan mentioned Periyaar, I listened. He talked about what his dad had told him about Periyaar. He talked about the things Periyaar had done for the people. At this point, Saravanan made an important mistake. He loudly proclaimed (so loud that others could hear clearly) that Periyaar had once said, “If you see a snake and a Brahmin, kill the Brahmin first,” and he laughed. By now, the rest of the class had heard this and there was pin drop silence in the room. Even our class teacher who was grading papers stopped and looked up when he heard the silence. He, however, had not heard what Saravanan had said. I could feel fifty pairs of eyes on me. I could see Saravanan’s mocking smile looking back at me to sense my reaction. Slowly he drawled, “So, what do you think about Periyaar and what I said?” I was livid, not at Periyaar but at Saravanan. And I knew I looked livid. “Why don’t you try saying it one more time and I’ll tell you what I think,” the threat was obvious in my voice and I stood up.

By this time, our class teacher, Mr. Rufus Jeyakumar, got up from his chair and had started walking towards us. Saravanan stood up and repeated the statement about snakes and Brahmins. He didn’t get to finish his sentence. The next thing I remember was throwing a punch straight into his mouth, and blood trickling from it. Saravanan swung his arm back, and I was ready by now. I had him pinned under my armpit, and we both collapsed on the table with books and pencils and paper flying around. Mr. Rufus just stood by and watched, as I was told later. That afternoon, Saravanan got the beating of his life. When it was over and I got up, Mr. Rufus looked at me calmly and said, “Are you done? He asked for it. And, you gave it to him. If it happens again, I’ll give it to both of you.” And he walked away.

I’ve remembered this incident all these days, because this was my first direct encounter with bigotry and communal hatred. I didn’t know enough to comprehend why it was there. Nor was I wise enough then to walk away in dignity. But, I learnt that the bigotry was there. I could see it in Saravanan’s eyes. I found it confusing that, only a few months back, the hatred was not there and we’d been just a couple of kids horsing around. In many ways, that was the beginning of the end of our innocence.

This was originally written by me in June 2006. Reproduced in-toto in 2012. If you’re a Madras Christian College school alum who remembers those days, do get in touch. 

God Delusion by Richard Dawkins – A Review

“God Delusion” is a bestseller non fiction book, written by Richard Dawkins, a professor at Oxford.

The primary purpose of the book is to debunk the Judeo-Christian notion of God as a “superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us,” which Dawkins calls the “God Hypothesis.” His argument against this hypothesis is that a God with such abilities has to be more complex than what it has created, and hence improbable. He then raises the reductio ad absurdum question of who created God. In fact, this elaboration on the “Mommy, who created God?” question is the central argument of the book.

Dawkins’ argues that science and religion are mutually incompatible for the reason that science is all about evidence, while religion is about believing without evidence. He makes the point “morality needs no religion,” which, frankly, has been said before. He stands on the shoulders of Bertrand Russell when he says this.

My observations from reading the book

Dawkins treats “believers” with little respect. e.g. calling them ‘faith heads’ to make unwarranted, implied comparisons with ‘crack heads’. This is not necessary. On the other hand, religion has become accustomed to getting respect. So, maybe a little disrespect is not a bad tactic to get attention. Agree with his real point that there is no reason why religion should be immune to criticism or get any special treatment.

Dawkins blames religion disproportionately. Reading the book – one would be tempted to believe that if religion were to be somehow obliterated, all the world’s wars would cease. Rather dramatic and flawed since things like language and good old megalomaniacal tendencies have contributed more to wars than religion. I get the sense that Dawkins is hung up more on labels rather than religion or God itself, and is stretching to make the linkages. his point really is that religion is a ‘marker’ much like tribal membership, language, skin color etc except that we’re giving it way more (undeserved) respect than the other markers. This is a fair point but not a very useful one.

Dawkins recommends impractical and absurd measures like “children should not be given the religious labels of their parents”. Again, he unfairly picks on religion, since non-religious beliefs of parents play possibly an even more important role in deciding children’s future development. Further, children tend to grow out of their parents’ belief systems as they have experiences of their own

Dawkins makes no distinction between ‘liberals’, ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ in religions. This may not be a minor point. Just like – not all atheists are pacifists (eg Stalin, Mao), not all theists are pacifist. So why, again, isolate religion as a sole culprit?

He is unable to pin down what he really feels is wrong with or does not makes sense about religion from an evolutionary perspective. Dawkins would be the first to admit that religion has a “utility” value in evolution, although he would qualify this by saying “even false beliefs have utility value.” False belief or not, religion’s utility appears to be there. So, what’s the problem with this? Why the hysteria against religion? This is especially disappointing given his strengths in this area.

The Verdict

Dawkins brings a great deal of passion to the book, but reading it can feel like watching a Michael Moore movie. His tone is smug, logic sloppy at times and the book occasionally includes crass phrases like “sucking up to God”. When it comes to his own specialty, evolutionary biology, there is none better. But the purpose of this book is not to explain science. It is rather, as he tells us, “to raise consciousness,” which is quite another thing. The book ends up being a unscientific polemic, in which an evolutionary biologist stretches into areas like socio-economics, politics, history, philosophy, theosophy, theology etc. where he has no core expertise. For a person who does not believe in God, he appears more obsessed with Him than the believers.

Dawkins puts forth that to be an atheist is a “brave and splendid” aspiration. On a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is certainty that God exists and 7 is certainty that God does not exist, Dawkins rates himself a 6. “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there,” he says. An assumption, not coincidentally that has fetched him millions of dollars.

If you’re looking for a “good atheist” book, this one’s not it.

What is the Higgs Boson?

Today (July 4, 2012), scientists from CERN in Europe announced that they may have found clear signs of a particle which is thought to be the Higgs boson, popularly known as the God particle. The hardworking scientists aren’t getting ahead of themselves, and are not quite confirming the existence of the Higgs boson outright. They’ve stopped at saying that they have evidence for a new particle, which “must be a boson” and that “there is a high probability that this could be the Higgs boson.”

What is the Higgs boson? Why is it called the God particle?

Is there a simple way to describe this without doing gross injustice to the years of work and thought that has gone into it? Not really, but what ho! plunge into it we shall, in any case.

All matter is composed of fundamental particles. In fact, scientists have uncovered twelve particles that can be described as building blocks of matter. There may be more yet to be found. As of now, there are twelve. Out of these twelve, three (electron, up/down quarks) are considered even more fundamental for the reason that everything else can be constructed using a combination of these three. In other words, a few basic particles combine in various possible ways to create higher level particles. Higher level particles get together in other possible manners and shapes to form chairs, cats, people and plants, which have perceptible mass. I think we should leave this at that, for fear that if we go any further, our brains will begin to tie themselves into knots.

Long story short, there are a small number of sub-atomic, “massless” particles which combine mysteriously to form matter. Mysteriously? How do an electron and an up quark decide to form a neutron? What is it that triggers these combinations causing matter to be formed?

This is where the Higgs boson comes in. Peter Higgs, a British physicist, came up with the theory that there *had* be this even more inscrutably mysterious particle that catalyzed interactions between the fundamental particles, which results in matter being formed. He and later scientists have envisioned this “thing” as sort of a massless wave that exists everywhere. When other particles interact with this energy field, if you will, they combine and begin transformation into matter. Whew! Hope that made sense. This theoretical particle was named the Higgs boson, in honor of its postulator, and the popular media began dubbing it the “God particle” due to the powers of creation ascribed to it.

How do you prove something called the God particle exists?

For a good part of four decades, the Higgs boson has remained a theory in search of proof. Speaking of proof, how exactly do you go about proving a thing like the God particle? Well, here’s how it roughly works. You have two models. One which says, “Yes, there’s a Higgs boson”. And another that says, “No, there isn’t.” You let each model to make predictions on effects that can be observed. An example of an observable effect is what happens when two particles are smashed into each other, otherwise known as a “particle collision.” So, scientist conduct collisions and record the data from the collisions. And then they check to see if there are observable differences between predictions of the two models. In this particular case of the Higgs boson, the difference predicted between the models is incredibly tiny. Since this difference is so small, bajillions of data are needed before you can come to a statistically significant conclusion. All of this also means you need apparatus that can generate enormous amounts of energy required to conduct particle collision experiments.

This is where the CERN labs in Europe came in. They spent billions of dollars in building the Large Hadron Collider, designed to go in search of the God particle. And, they have been running 40 million collisions a second, all day for the entire year during the last two years.  And, it looks like they have finally found something that looks like the God particle. Amazing stuff.

So, what does this all mean?

First, it is a reflection on this day and age that we have to hold a press conference to cautiously announce that we may have discovered the God particle. There is something indefinably amusing and ironic about this act. That we who have been created by the God particle are not yet sure if our creator exists! This drama appears filled with even more irony when you consider that a large majority of people on this planet are unlikely to even notice this announcement regarding their creator.

Cartoon on reactions to God particle announcement

Having said that, the quest for figuring out how it all got started just got a whole lot interesting. We’ve all heard that the universe started from nothingness and exploded into what we know as the universe with a big bang. The one thing that has mystified scientists about this theory is the question, “How and why did matter form after the big bang?” The Higgs boson, if proved, gives them something to stand and build on.

The day is not too far when CERN scientists will be able to confidently confirm that the God particle does exist. And then will come the question, “Who created the God particle? And where did it come from?”

Picture, my friend, abhi bakhi hai. Get some popcorn, sit back on the couch, make yourself comfortable and have fun watching! Cheers.

An Inconvenient Truth

There are inconsiderate human beings that occupy this planet in every village, town, city and country. Even so, I wouldn’t be straying far from the truth when I say that we Indians occupy a special place in the pantheon of insensitivity. We are a nation of uncaring, indifferent boors, whose lives are only occasionally punctuated by those (increasingly rare) Satyameva Jayate moments, when we sit down and pretend to care about our fellow citizens.

The Inconsiderate Indian

Our indifference manifests in countless exotic ways. It could take the form of spit impelled out of a window of a moving bus or car. It showcases itself in how we drive on the other side of the road, passing those who wait patiently for the light to turn green. Our selfishness blossoms when presented with a long line in front of a small counter with a harassed clerk, and plots clever ways to cut through and get around the indignity of waiting. Mindless road/traffic planners, rude hospital staff, robotically insensitive school principals, gossiping colleagues, uncaring airport staff.. The list goes on. So, it should come as no surprise when our leaders display the same inconsideration that we have so carefully cultivated amongst ourselves. Yet, it surprises us when we hear that our ministers have been pilfering from us, promoting their sons and daughters and circumventing the laws of the land to suit their purposes.

There is one potentially redeeming aspect of the Inconsiderate Indian, which suggests that this condition might not, in fact, be incorrigible. Our strain of inconsideration largely stems from indifference and mindlessness, and is less insidious than its cousin variety that breeds on malice and ill-will. We’re not a malicious people, by and large. But, we, surely, are dim witted. Mindlessness and indifference are progeny of foolishness. In fact, that may be the best piece of information we have at our disposal. That we are mere fools and not evil monsters like what the chinese system has perpetrated. Of course, the worry remains that our behavior is not really borne of our idiocy and it reflects our true selves. In any case, idiocy, in my book, is a far lesser crime compared to malice and leaves room for hope that we may yet overcome this failing someday.

Why are we a nation of dimwitted fools?

Never mind Viswanathan Anand. Never mind that Silicon Valley genius engineer, who invented that clever thing that lets us search the internet. Never mind Homi Bhabha. Never mind J.C. Bose and C. V. Raman. Never mind that ours is the land of Buddha and the Vedas. Never mind the nostalgia from having invented zero. Make no mistake about it. We are a nation of fools. There’s no dearth of evidence or fools, to support this hypothesis, in our otherwise lovely nation.

So, what’s the solution?

This is the tricky part. There are two reasons why this is tricky.

The first part of the trickiness has to do with the possibility that there may exist no solution. There is no magic wand to wave or potion you could force down throats that could rid us of our insufferable mindlessness. I like to think that if there was one, we, in spite of our stupidity, would have found it by now. These sort of things, especially those that involve senselessness, take time to work through. The process of working through stuff is called evolution. Unfortunately, the way evolution seems to be working at the moment, it appears to be favoring the fools. One hopes that this trend will correct itself. If not, we will extinguish ourselves and the problem will solve itself.

Second, I cannot, in good conscience, issue a clarion call to corrective action to you, my reader. For, it would somehow imply that you, the reader, are part of this clan of fools, a notion which seems at odds with the fact that you are a What Ho! reader. What Ho! readers may be misguided. But, they are erudite. They like the finer things in life like What Ho!. They may be many things. But, they are no fools. I say this with sincerest respect and in the fondest hope of retaining your patronage.

Seriously, why are we a nation of fools?

Even a tiny North African country with 10 million people and nothing more than sandy deserts, has found a way to build roads, run hospitals, operate shiny airports and promote civility. I think, the truth is that we, at some fundamental level, seem to revel in our foolishness. We call it jugaad. We call it ‘street smarts’. Our brains work overtime to figure out detours. We are a nation of arrogant, self-centered people which believes that its brand of perverted intelligence is somehow superior because it helps beat the odds. We are a society of fools that celebrates the most ‘jugaadi’ fools. I, for one, take no pride in our jugaad. To me, jugaad is a symptom of how low we have fallen. It is a sign that evolution is favoring the energetic fools amongst us.

The smart thing is to take the straight roads and drive faster. Somewhere along the line, we have forgotten this inconvenient truth. How about more sense and less jugaad?

A Bliss Mantra

From my notes from 2009. Here below is a “bliss mantra” from the Taitriya Upanishad in the Vedas, along with my interpretation.

<In Sanskrit>

Om saha naa vavatu saha nau bhunaktu
saha viryam kara vaavahai
tejaswinaa vadhItamastu maa vid vishavahai
Om shanti shanti shanti-hi

There are two interpretations. The first is as addressed to a friend or a partner

Let us enjoy life together, Let us experience life together
Let us engage ourselves together and share our energies to meet adversities
Pray we do not do or say anything that can divide us
Let there be bliss in our lives

The second is as addressed to the Universal Spirit (Parabrahman) which resides within all of us –

Let us be united, let our energies be united in overcoming adversities
Let our wisdom shine, Let us not be led astray by intellectual conquests
Let us be together in eternity, Let there be no division between us
Let there be bliss

Let there be bliss in your weekend.

This beautiful thing called empathy

Last Sunday, I watched a a fascinating conversation between His Holiness Dalai Lama and a group of scientists, titled “Neuroscience and the emerging mind,”. The dialogue revolved around the questions of “what triggers empathy?” and “can we be trained to be empathetic?”. I spent an hour watching the scientists and the monk in rapt attention. Here’s a gist.

Empathy is the ability to view the world from another’s perspective. Of all emotions, it’s empathy that makes us human. Some would even say it’s empathy that makes us divine. So how exactly does empathy work from a neurological perspective? Prof. V. Ramachandran at University of California, San Diego explains it nicely. Not a surprise since he’s been researching this topic for over two decades. Here’s my understanding of what he’s found.

The brain, at its core, is a mushy mass of gooey tissue filled with a massive number of neurons. The cerebral cortex is the largest part of the brain, and contains 10-13 billion neurons. What are neurons? They’re cells that excitable. When they’re excited, they transmit information through electric signals. When you lean forward to pick up a cup, there’s a neuron in your brain that fires and coordinates the motor movement of the arm stretching, fingers clasping the handle and the hand picking it up.

What made things more intriguing was the discovery of what Prof. Ramachandran calls “mirror neurons”, found in the cortex. Mirror neurons fire when *someone else* performs an action that you’re familiar with. In other words, a mirror neuron fires in my brain when *you* lean forward to pick up a cup. And soon after its firing, my hand signals back to the brain saying “It’s not you picking up the cup. It’s the other person”. All of this happens reflexively in the background. Amazing stuff.

Mirror neurons are the agents of empathy in the brain. When you see another person being pricked with a pin, you flinch reflexively because of them. Your finger quickly sends a message back saying “safe” and that’s how you realize that it’s not you being pricked. In experiments performed on folks with prosthetic arms, subjects actually experienced pain when watching another person being pricked. That’s because their arms lacked cells to transmit “safe” back to the brain! Suddenly, the question of – can we be “trained” to be empathetic? – doesn’t appear out of bounds!

All this talk did leave me a tad uncomfortable. It’s as though we’re trespassing noisily into a sanctum where one must tread with respect. The strength of science lies in its irreverence, which keeps it moving forward and from settling in a comfort zone. That just might be its Achilles heel as well. Science seeks to discover so it can manipulate and control. Any quest based on the notion of “how can I control what’s going on”, I believe, will fail ultimately. Action-without-agenda has far higher staying power, resilience and chances of achieving its goals than action-with-agenda. This is what eastern wisdom tells us. And that’s what His Holiness Dalai Lama subtly conveyed to the professors in the room.

Empathy is a beautiful thing. It holds the key to happiness. Forcing it upon another violates the idea of empathy itself.

ps: This was a great way to spend an hour on a Sunday morning. Check out the video when you get a chance. cheers.


Notes from a recent trip to Turkey 

A world historian in mid 16th century could not have been faulted for confidently predicting the dominance of Asia and Islam in world affairs for times to come. The dominant empires of the world at that time were the Mughal Empire in Hindustan and the Ottoman empire in Middle East Asia and Europe.

Mohammad Jalal-ud-din Akbar had just firmly established the Mughal empire in Hindustan, having seized Delhi back from Samrat Hemchandra Vikramaditya (Hemu), following it up by annexing Kandahar from the Persians. Shahenshah Akbar-e-Azam was just getting into his stride on the way to becoming the greatest ruler of the Mughal empire.

At that precise moment in history, the Ottoman empire was at its zenith, led by Kanuni Sultan Suleiman, known in the East as Suleiman “the Law Giver” and in the West as Suleiman “the Magnificent” – with Christian strongholds of Belgrade, Hungary and Rhodes as well as entire Middle East Asia and large swathes of North Africa in its sway. Their Christian rivals – the Hapsburgs in Austria-Hungary – were kept in check if not subjugated. The Holy City of Jerusalem came to fall into the hands of the Empire. And the Shia Safavid dynasty in Persia had just surrendered to the dominance of the Sultan who marched triumphantly into Baghdad.

Incidentally, around the exact same time, a gentleman by the name of Ivan IV “the Terrible” had not so quietly crowned himself the “Tsar”, laying the seeds for the famous Tsarist empire that grew over time to dominate Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries.

What heady times it must have been for the historian! Between the Mughal and Ottoman empires, they controlled nearly 1 of 5 people on the planet and produced close to half the world’s GDP. Although Akbar the Great ruled over a greater size of population and was more progressive in his governance, it is Suleiman who understandably captured the attention of the western world at that time. And, Constantinople, overlooking the Bosphorus, was justifiably described the “center of the world”.

Yet, history has a way of making something big happen every hundred years or so. And so the fortunes swung towards the Europeans in the 17th and the 18th centuries as the British, Spaniards and the Portuguese came to pre-eminence and supplanted the Islamic empires around the world. The crowning achievement of these later centuries, of course, was the systematic establishment and dominance of India as a western colony, which sealed the British empire’s status as the new world power by the time the 19th century rolled around.

Flash forward to the early 20th century – when a sniper’s bullet felled the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, triggering what came to be known as the Great War or the First World War. The four major empires – the Hapsburgs (from Austria-Hungary), the Ottomans, the Russian Tsarist empire and the British empire – with their historical rivalries in the background, clashed in this major world conflict, one which resulted in a victory for the Allies (England, France, Russia) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary). Ironically, the Ottoman empire chose to throw in its lot on the side of its once bitter rival – Austria-Hungary – and ended up on the losing side.

Notwithstanding its success in the war, the Tsarist empire in Russia was overthrown in the Bolshevik revolution led by Lenin and comrades. The Austrian-Hungarian empire was whittled down to a shell of its former self. The British empire’s dependence on American military technology was established, which eventually led to the forced withdrawal of England from its colonies by the end of the Second World War by the Americans. The Ottoman empire, already described as the “sick man of Europe” was dismembered and distributed among the Allied Forces after the First World War in a stunning and humiliating reversal for the Turks who had held court in most of Europe and Middle East Asia for a good part of six centuries. Indeed, post Second World War, no less than 39 new countries were formed, which were once part of the Ottoman Empire.

Thus all four empires perished and were either dismantled or transformed, sooner or later, in the aftermath of the war, thus paving the way for the United States to emerge as the new power in the 20th century.

It was against this backdrop that a group of rebel ‘nationalists’ led by Mustafa Kemal (who later took the title ‘Ataturk’), a Turkish officer in the Ottoman army, defeated the Allied forces in Anatolia (Central Turkey) with tacit support from the Russian Bolsheviks and forced the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which led the establishment of the Republic of Turkey and the return of Constantinople to Turkey after a brief period of Allied occupation.

If Rome is the eternal city, Istanbul – as Constantinople was renamed by Kemal Ataturk – has to be the timeless city, having endured centuries of struggle and change. Once the bastion of Christianity in the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) empire, and then the capital of the Islamic Ottoman Turks, Istanbul is now a modern, secular and vibrant metropolis which yearns to be admitted into the European fold, of which it was once the capital city.

An admission letter from the Indian Institute of Technology

This year, as is the case each year, there will be crazed competition among teenagers, in which they will fight each other to the finish for a grand prize. Yes, I’m talking about the Hunger Games, also known as the Indian Institute of Technology Joint Entrance Exam (IIT JEE) – in which hundreds of thousands of contestants from all over the country will take each other on, in a riveting drama and spectacle watched by the population at large – for the privilege of entering the hallowed portals of learning at the dozen IIT campuses in the country. Last year, less than 1% of aspirants were admitted, making this easily the most competitive race in the world. Compare with Harvard which accepted 7% of applicants last year.

From: The Director of Admissions, IIT JEE

To: “Hunger Games” Winner, Class of 2016

Dear Winner,

Congratulations. You’ve made it!

First, I salute your parents’ dogged determination and single-minded focus in making sure that you got in. I tip my hat to your grandparents for their prayers, and to your siblings for intuitively grasping the significance of the stakes and staying out of your hair as you prepared for the ordeal. I commend your school in advance for its annual report, which they will publish shortly, carrying 4×6 photos of winners like yourself. I would salute you, but we all know that you had nothing to do with this.

Let me share details about the class of 2016. This year, we have one successful aspirant who neither attended Kota nor comes from the city of Hyderabad. We’re investigating the reasons for this anomaly. For security reasons, I must keep her name confidential. The boy-girl ratio in the class of 2016 will continue to resemble that of armed forces. My advice: Learn Telugu. And, start practising your pick-up lines.

Over the next four years, you will have an opportunity to demonstrate your repressed truculence towards absorbing any education whatsoever, and most of you will seize it. More than half our faculty is not looking forward to your presence on campus, as they are fully aware of the disregard you will demonstrate towards gentlemen named Maxwell, Gauss and Lorentz. Indeed, you will be blind to the joys of science and engineering which you never had in the first place.

You’re now a life member of the most exclusive club in the world. Allow me point out some of the exciting benefits that await you.

– You will be sought after throughout your life. You will have opportunities to enter varied and unconnected universes in investment banking, angel investing, optimizing search algorithms, designing the next Angry Birds app, increasing pre-paid SIM card sales in Assam and creating powerpoint presentations for the next desktop operating system. Sadly, a miniscule percent of your class will “engineer” anything of value.

– You will be a member of various google and yahoo alumni groups, the primary purpose of which will be to find jobs for all of your relatives.

– You will be enrolled into a lifelong email relationship with our alumni association, whose idea of robust engagement is to invite you to a re-union twenty five long years after you’ve left the campus.

– You will be presented opportunities to obtain enormous power. Some of you will use this responsibly to enable social empowerment by implementing national ID systems. Yet others will use it to make shady deals with Sri Lankan day traders. Most of you will prove yourselves to be incapable of receiving or handling this and fade into obscurity.

– You will spend most of your life “living upto your potential”, advancing your career, competing with rather than winning friends, and in having unreasonably high expectations of the world at large. It’s likely that disillusionment will hold you in its uncomfortably tight embrace by the time you enter your forties. At that point, a number of you will embark on a search for “the meaning of happiness”, whatever that means.

Fret not. The picture is not entirely dire. It’s entirely possible that the “IIT education”, which you spent your energies assiduously avoiding, may have actually penetrated your consciousness without your knowledge. Some of you will wake up to the wonders of learning and creativity at some distant point in time. And an even smaller fraction of your class will finally get to bask in the bliss of comprehending the insignificance of it all.

Welcome to IIT and God speed!

Best regards.

If you liked this, you might also like Weighted Average – a campus tale.

Rahul Dravid – The Accidental Hero

It’s not hard to understand why Rahul Dravid is celebrated as a hero. There are obvious and undeniable reasons. Yet at some level it is hard to fathom how such a persona – one who was so unwilling to seek public attention and uncompromisingly focused inwardly – came to be a hero in these modern times.

In India, it’s hard not to be popular if you’re a cricketer who has scored the second highest number of runs in (Indian) Test history. We love ranks and hierarchy out here in this lovely land of ours. We are easily impressed by words like “first”, “most” and “highest”, when it comes to individual accomplishments. Dravid scaled the summit of fans’ expectations with the skill of a practiced mountaineer. He checked all the stats boxes and ensured that all flattering adjectives applied.  He “left no stone unturned” (in his own words) in the quest to scale peaks. Dravid was like the studious kid in school, whose single minded pursuit of the goal leaves peers, teachers and observers in awe. He was the ultimate geek of Indian cricket’s high school years. Usually, geeks evoke grudging admiration. Very few become celebrated heroes.

Dravid managed to slip through the cordon that enforces the rules of celebrity stardom in modern times and get noticed. And, as always, destiny had a hand in it. The Dravid-Laxman heroics in Kolkatta in 2001 rejuvenated a nation disillusioned by cricket shenanigans and hungry for evidence that it still had the mojo. Beating the nemesis after being truly down and out – Dravid demonstrated that practiced determination and patience had a role to play in winning. That it wasn’t only about hurried displays of extraordinary genius on a given day. He showed us that sweetest of triumphs come from systematic application of fundamental principles, and that the purist still had a role to play in the scheme of things. Fate handed him the opportunities to make his case. And he made it all so well. And thus he got our attention and became our accidental hero.

What if destiny had not conspired. Would we still celebrate Dravid with the passion that we do? The tale of Dravid is not about the 13,288 runs and 36 hundreds in Tests at an average of 52.31. It’s about the gentleman who elevated himself above the din of shirt swirling, chest thumping and fist pumping heroics that have come to define the modern cricket celebrity. The story is of a an ordinarily reticent man, who overcame astounding odds to capture the imagination of an easily distracted public through unwavering devotion to the sublimely beautiful aspects of the game. It is the tale of a man who was not beaten twice on consecutive balls.

I’d like to think that Dravid would have still walked away with ‘sadness and pride’ even if he had scored half the runs and centuries and not pulled off every heroic rescue that he did. But I wonder if he would still have been our hero.

The What Ho! Guide to the 2G Scam

There’s a storm brewing in this country, in the form of the alleged 2G scam, which has the potential to unseat the government. Given the complexity of this case, and our own lack of time to comprehend what’s being reported, not to mention who to believe about what, I figured I’d put together a simple dossary of facts and observations on this. Here’s everything you’ve always wanted to know about the 2G scam but were too afraid to ask.

The What Ho! Guide to the 2G Scam

Pertinent Facts 

1. 2G is a technology used to provide voice and data services by operators such as Vodafone, Airtel, BSNL, etc

2. Offering voice and data services requires something called spectrum – a band of frequency specifically allocated for this purpose – which is allocated to qualified operators.

3. Spectrum is scarce because it is limited to a specific band of frequencies.

4. To the seller, spectrum is free. There is no cost to creating spectrum since it’s simply the right to use air waves. This complicates things when you try to price it. If something cost Rs. 100, you could add a profit and arrive at a price for it. When a good does not have any intrinsic cost, pricing is subjective and purely driven by demand.

5. In countries all over the world including India, spectrum is treated as a national asset very much like land owned by the government, and sold by governments to buyers in the form of licenses.

6. To the buyer, spectrum is not free since there are limits to availability, and further because governments would like to derive income from the sale, just as they would if they sold a public sector company to private sector

7. The price paid for spectrum by operators affects the tariffs offered by them. As the price goes higher, so will the tariffs since operators have to recover their costs and make profits on the services offered

8. If the prices offered by operators are too high, the common man may not able to afford the services. So, it is not surprising that a government could deliberately set a low price for licenses so as to enable telecom services to reach the masses.

9. If the government deliberately under-prices spectrum, it need not necessarily be misconstrued as “losses to the exchequer”. In any case, any and all “losses” are notional since the government is not losing money out of its pocket. They are “lost” revenue (what could have been).

10. Hence it is the responsibility of governments to devise a proper mechanism so A. operators have a free and fair shot at winning spectrum bids. This creates a conducive business environment and promotes competition in the country which in turn benefits the customer. B. ultimately the needs of common people (consumers) are met, in the form of reasonable tariffs at adequate quality

11. There are several methods to selling a national asset. A couple are 1. Auctions – there are many types of auctions. Highest bid auction is the most well known. 2. First Come First Served (FCFS) – typically used to sell a distressed asset for which there are few takers

12. For something like 2G licenses which are in great demand and have high value and counterbalanced by the need to promote telecom services to the masses, selecting the procurement method is not simple and straightforward.

What happened

1. The NDA govt mooted the idea of First Come First Served. It was never made into policy or ratified by the PMO/Cabinet at that time.

2. The UPA govt which followed continued the FCFS line of thinking and converted it into policy. This was led by Dayanidhi Maran first and executed by A. Raja who followed him. Apparently, the PMO had objections, although I’m not sure exactly what and how forcefully they made them. Net of the story is that FCFS came to be the policy

3. The Telecom Minister A. Raja led the process of procurement – in which it is alleged that favoritism was exhibited in the FCFS process. In other words, some companies were prevented from coming in first, others were favored and another lot of them decided to stay out of the fray not fancying their chances.

4. A number of winners came out of this process – a good number of which turned out to be companies unconnected to Telecom. Some of them were clearly real estate companies and entered the fray for the sole purpose of not creating a telecom business but to re-sell their licenses to an operator for a profit. Think of them as touts and blackmarketeers who buy movie tickets in bulk in advance and sell to movie watchers for a profit. However, there is nothing illegal about a real estate company buying a telecom license, especially if the govt considered them “qualified buyers” when they bought them.

5.  Some of the companies who ended up as “winners” of 2G licenses, promptly turned around and sold their licenses to foreign operators for a hefty profit. The questions that this raises are: A. Did the govt have the right policy in place? B. Did they implement the policy fairly? C. Was the process of bidding subverted in favor of a few, friendly buyers? D. Couldn’t the profit made by these fly-by-night operators (adds upto to Rs. 20K crores+) have been made by the govt instead? E. Were there any individuals or companies who benefited illegally from this? In short, this looked and smelled like a scam when these details came out four years back.

A landmark Supreme Court judgement earlier this week

Earlier in the week, SC quashed 122 licenses granted by the government and asked for these licenses to be re-bid. The court did not place culpability or guilt on any specific person. Instead, it commented on the inherent unfairness of the FCFS buying policy as it pertained to sale of 2G licenses and also on the shoddy way it was implemented by the govt.

It also asked a Trial Court to decide if there should be a probe into the role of Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, who was Finance Minister during the period the licenses were awarded.


To even the most naive and under-informed observer, it is clear that there’s something rotten in Denmark. This smells like a scam. The reluctance of the govt to act/correct for four long years adds fuel to the speculative fire. This has gone on long enough. Our Prime Minister needs to speak up.

The UPA govt and the Congress party are trying to put lipstick on a pig when they blame the NDA govt. Blaming the NDA govt for FCFS is like Dhoni blaming Sourav Ganguly for losing in Australia. They are barking up the wrong tree. The Govt should stop patronizing the people of India and come right out and admit if there were mistakes, and penalize those who committed them. Their reluctance makes one wonder how deep this rot goes.

The BJP has done a poor job of holding people’s attention to pertinent details of this scam. The usual cry of the BJP to call for the resignation of the PM or Chidambaram is likely to fall on deaf ears as the party has 1. done nothing to expose the corruption 2. done nothing to merit their status as an opposition party. In fact, every statement made by BJP may actually weaken the case against the govt. Nothing works worse than a bad argument for a good cause.

Does the SC judgement mean that our cell phone tariffs are going to go up? Well, the telecom companies whose licenses are cancelled cover only 5% of the subscribers. It’s unlikely that prices will go up because of this judgement. The prices may go up for other reasons like  prices have gone far too low for operators to make profits in this market.

Update: The trial court has dismissed the petition from Subramanian Swamy to initiate a probe against P. Chidambaram. Subramanian Swamy has the option to appeal this judgement in the High Court and then the Supreme Court. Interestingly, Swamy’s petition to quash licenses was first rejected by the High Court before the Supreme Court upheld it. This legal battle is far from over.

There are some details which I’ve skipped to keep this readable. Do write back with your observations.

The Secret Powers of Time and Regret

We live in an incredibly fascinating world. I found more evidence of this in the last couple of weeks while reading a couple of different but related articles.

The first insight came from a video by Professor Philip Zimbardo on the “The Secret Powers of Time“. The good professor posits that we, humans, tend to live in one of six ‘time zones’ – 2 of which focus on the past, 2 on the present, and 2 on the future. Of those who live in the past, there are those who are ‘past positive‘ who focus on the ‘good’ memories (birthdays, weddings, past glory, etc.). And there are those who are ‘past negative‘ and wallow in regrets and failures. Those who live in the present can be divided into hedonistic “seeking knowledge, pleasure and living for now” and those who view life as fated “my life is destined to be thus and no amount of planning will help”.

Most of us are ‘future oriented’, mainly because evolutionary forces have favored this approach. That’s the reason we are here and carry this genetic predisposition. According to Prof. Zimbardo, there are two ways of living in the future – One is to be disciplined, learn to work than play, to avoid temptation of the present and postpone gratification. There is another way to be future oriented, which depending on your religious views, starts with the premise that life begins after the death of the mortal body, and one has to earn the rewards for what happens in the after life, in this life.

For example, Protestant nations tend to be very future oriented and consistently outperform others in every economic measure thanks in big part to the Protestant ethic of ‘trusting the future, working hard and earning the right to be called God’s chosen people’. Interestingly, countries that lie along the equator, where weather patterns are uniform and things don’t often change, tend to be more present oriented. Catholic nations such as Spain or Italy tend to be more past oriented. In fact, incredibly so much so that there are cultures (in Southern Italy) which do not have words for ‘plan’ or denoting the future tense.

How about the quality of life in the time zones? Countries which tend to be present oriented tend to have the longest life expectancy. And cities like New York City and London which lie at the furthest end of the future planning spectrum have been observed to have the highest rates of coronary heart disease.

So, the “time culture” of the people makes a profound impact on the personality for a nation and on the personal outcomes for its inhabitants. Fascinating! Another way of internalizing this might be to say – you are likely to be happiest when living in a country/city/neighborhood or working for a company which matches your own personal “time culture”, assuming we have the luxury of being to able to make that choice.  As much as some of us might complain about how slowly things happen in India, there are those of us who believe it to be one of its charms and the secret of its endurance.

The second insight came from an article from Psyblog, which describes the “amazing power of regret to shape our future“. The key observation made by the author is that – regret is not just a backward looking emotion. It is also forward looking. Which is to say that we have the power to anticipate regret and we try to avoid it. This is truly a powerful insight into the workings of our minds.

The article also provides a very cool example of how anticipation of regret works, and sometimes in very irrational ways!

Swapping Lottery Tickets – An example of how we anticipate regret:  In a study, people were asked to first choose lottery tickets. Once they had chosen, they were asked if they’d be willing to exchange their ticket with another person. Those willing to exchange were offered a chocolate truffle as incentive. Surprisingly, less than 50% agreed. Why surprising? Because all lottery tickets have an equal chance of winning, and there is nothing better or worse about any ticket. So, it would make sense to take the chocolate truffle and exchange your ticket every single time.

So, why did more than 50% of the people act irrationally?

This is where anticipation of regret kicks in. We tend to project into the future when making decisions and imagine consequences. Though this is usually the right thing to do, sometimes it works against us. What if we exchanged our ticket and it ends up being the winning one? It is this anticipation of regret that at times stops us from acting rationally and taking the no-brainer chances that come our way. By the way, the only species of organic life observed to be immune to anticipatory regret are auto drivers in Chennai who would rather turn down a handsome offer and wait it out in the auto stand for more. Again, this is one of those things we might have always known instinctively. But, it’s worth a pause to reflect on how anticipatory regret shapes the decisions we make in our lives.

On this note, I leave you with a few questions, the answers to which could improve the quality of the lives we lead.

Which cultural time zone do you belong to? Are you past positive, hedonistic or future oriented? Do you believe in after-life? Does the company you work for or the neighborhood, city, country you live in – reflect your time zone preferences?

I’ve heard a few people claim that they don’t have any regrets. The more useful question to ask is – Do you have any anticipated regrets?

You can watch Prof. Zimbardo’s video on YouTube. And, you can read the Psyblog article here.

pip pip and toodles.