A Case Study in Digestion of Vedic Mind Sciences?

In my other post, I explained that mind sciences is at the core of the Yogic world view and can be considered the organizing principle for the Indian civilization. Various Dharmic schools (including Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism), Sanskrit, Yoga, meditation, Pranayaam and Ayurveda were all developed to create an ecosystem for exploring the mind. Needless to say this is not generally appreciated, not even by Hindu Indians, forget the rest of the world. I myself didn’t appreciate this until a few years back when I was still an IBCD!

Why so?

One of the reasons is the systematic decoupling of the Indian mind sciences from Hinduism and, consequently, India. RM’s talk in this earlier post (India’s (unacknowledged) contributions to Mind Sciences by Rajiv Malhotra) presents numerous examples of famous westerners indulging in this appropriation and digestion. They are all from recent times (last 100 years); some are around today. I think I have found one more which can be added to that list — David Chalmers, a professor of philosophy and a cognitive scientist in NYU and Australia.

I came across this episode of NPR’s TED Radio Hour titled the Unknown Brain. Last segment of the show is on the below TED talk by Chalmers. With over 600,000 views, this is one of the most popular TED talks. Watch it before reading further –

Amazing, isn’t it?! It could hardly have been grander. With his following two “crazy” ideas, Chalmers is sketching the outlines of the next scientific revolution which might well be much more fundamental than quantum mechanics and relativity combined (!):

Idea 1: consciousness is fundamental – in the same sense as space, time, mass and charge are; he calls it his “postulate”.
Idea 2: consciousness is universal – everything is conscious, even the rocks. There is even a word for it — panpsychism!

I was stunned when I heard this talk, and not at all by the grandness of his vision or the originality of his ideas. Even a casual reader of Vedanta would recognize the ideas as the core tenets of the Vedanta, as I explain in the other post using references to a talk by Sadhguru. In fact these ideas would not be novel to any one who knows about the philosophies of any of the Indian-origin Dharmic traditions. Still, all that Chalmers says about the eastern connection is a casual side comment – these ideas are not all that alien to people from the eastern traditions. But an unsuspecting viewer might not pick it up and may well get the impression that these are radical new ideas and that Chalmers has pioneered them!

At this point, you may say – all right, he is not crediting the source adequately. Why is this such a big deal? A friend of mine actually said this to me. And he is certainly not the JNU-type with any allergy to anything Hindu. He is just confused! In other words – my target audience!

Ok, so what is the big deal? For starters, using an idea without crediting the source is considered academic misconduct. Chalmers, being a professor, ought to know this. Perhaps he is not aware of the Vedic philosophy? Possible, but unlikely. He is a philosophy professor, after all! So yes, I do suspect that he has plagiarized from Indian thinkers, but I can’t make that  claim just based on a 15 min video. I am raising a red flag, just like RM raised a red flag for Wendy Doniger, Sheldon Pollock, Devdutt Pattanaik and many more. Readers should investigate further. But certainly, if Chalmers ever applies for a patent for a product (say a new “mindfulness” app!) based on these not-really-that-crazy ideas, I hope the patent office considers Vedic mind sciences as prior art. (Related – Dr Mashelkar on The Turmeric Patent Battle and KSRI, Chennai)

Now, whether or not Chalmers has plagiarized from Indian thinkers or is “inspired” by them is not really my main concern. Ignoring the ethics of all this, look at this from the point of view of the end-user — a layman who has no exposure to this stuff but is curious about meditation, brain, mind, etc. I happen to be in that category. Recently, I have been listening to an (authentic) lectures series on Patanjali’s Yog Sutra, the master text for meditation. And I am completely awe struck by the depth, sophistication and rigor of it. Patanjali, unlike Chalmers, is not iffy about things. He does not use words like “postulate” or “crazy” to describe his theories, presumably just to be safe, in case he turns out to be wrong later! Patanjali has developed the whole thing from theory to application. And by the way, Yog Sutra is just one of the many Hindu theories of the mind.

My point is that, not only is Chalmers not original, his formulation is likely also crude. So, a new student would be well advised to refer to authentic Hindu material along side Chalmers and see which makes more sense. For me, Patanjali’s Yog Sutra is the real deal. Why would you go for something like scotch when scotch is available; or, since it is mango season now, why go for any other mango when Indian mangoes are available?! RM has often commented – the digested versions of Indian traditions are invariably inferior to the original. And it is not always due to an ulterior motive. For a westerner, it may just be due to a lack of context.

Now, let us change the point of view to that of a nation or civilization. Imagine a TED talk which starts with these words: Imagine if we could cure diseases without any chemical drugs or surgery .. just by poking on your skin with micro needles. We call this technology micropoking! And it continues for 15 min without any mention of accupunture or China. Anyone, even an IBCD, would smell something fishy. The fact that people do not associate meditation with Hinduism, in the same way as they associate accupunture with China, or, for that matter, burger with the US, shows how India has squandered its greatest soft power. Even today, in India, Vedic mind sciences are not given enough attention in school curriculum nor in medical training. The centers of excellence in mind sciences are all in the west and that is were most the innovation (new apps, courses, etc) is also happening. The situation is very much like that of yoga 25-30 years ago. India had nearly lost the adhikaar on Yoga till PM Modi intervened a few years back. Different matter that the intervention may be too little and too late. Ayurveda and meditation are fast heading in that direction.

Finally, I think I should make a disclaimer which should really not be necessary for those who know me or those who have read the rest of this blog. But then, this is on the internet and people have short attention spans! Some of you might be asking – so, you think all of modern neuroscience — fMRI based brain mapping, human-computer interfaces, artificial intelligence, moon shot projects like BRIAN — are all pointless? I never said that. And I don’t think so. But I am asserting that the Vedic mind sciences are useful and have relevance today. The object of study for both the Hindu rishis and modern neuroscience is the same – the human mind. The two approaches have to be complementary, not at conflict with each other.

[Proof reading TODO: using Hindu, Vedic, Yogic and Dharmic interchangeably. Sort out and standardize the terminology.]

Further reading:

  1. Very nice (and short!) video on the Hindu formulation of consciousness by Swami Sarvapriyananda of  Ramakrishna Mission.

 

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Yogic World View – India’s Soft Power

Sadhguru was recently (May 2018) on a panel on The Technologies of the Future. He shared the stage with three scientists and innovators, including eminent physicist Michio Kaku, also a great communicator of science, in the league of Carl Sagan and Arthur Clarke. Kaku kicked of the discussion by presenting a fantastic science fiction like vision for the future — exoskeletons, thinking robots, humans upgrading themselves by merging with robots and so on. And according to him all this will happen in the next 100-200 years and he was very optimistic and upbeat about everything! I don’t quite share Kaku’s optimism for the future, but I respect his opinion and would consider his predictions within the realm of possibility. The two speakers after Kaku were far less eloquent than Kaku, but just as high on science!

Sadhguru spoke in this science-is-God context! The link below starts with Sadhguru (~43 min) but I would recommend that you sample a few minutes of Kaku first.

I feel Sadhguru elevated the whole discussion to a completely different level. More important than what he said is what he did not say, given that he is from the fluffy world of spirituality as against that of the real world of science. Sadhguru did not dismiss Kaku’s vision or that of the other speakers, nor did he minimize the importance of science or pass any moral judgements of any sort. Neither did he say that all of modern science is already in the Vedas! In fact, Sadhguru whole heartedly acknowledged the contributions of modern science and embraced it for the future.

In any such discussion, someone always mentions the problem that every technology is a double edged sword, and then the science-is-God panelists will use phrases like human rights or democracy (Kaku used it) or corporate social responsibility and the religious-types would resort to high morality using cliches like love thy neighbor. In the end there is no concrete suggestion on how to blunt the evil edge of the sword. This is because responsible use of science is no longer within the domain of science. And of course, science is out of the domain of the Abrahamic religions.

But this panel was different because of Sadhguru bridged the two worlds of science and spirituality in what he called the yogic science of mind and consciousness.

His framework is basically that of Vedanta or Upanishads. In fact, an undergraduate level student of vedanta (like me) can easily draw parallels between Sadhguru’s ideas and those in Upanishads, Gita and Yoga Sutra. In other words, Sadhguru here is articulating a well developed world view. I can imagine many other gurus rooted in the Vedas giving a similar vision.

Sadhguru eloquently explained how modern science nicely fits into the yogic world view but does not really address the big picture. In other words, there is no conflict between modern science and the yogic world view; there never was. However, if pursued within the yogic world view, science would automatically be used responsibly. Sadhguru argued that, in fact, the yogic world view will become more and more relevant as science advances. I agree with him.

All this is not just a theoretical framework like most social theories (e.g. Marxism) which look great on paper but are just not practical. Indian civilization actually implemented the yogic framework for thousands of years and developed elaborate social structures around it. No wonder ancient India achieved incredible heights in all spheres of life till the islamic invasions disrupted the process around 1000 year back. Of course, it is not all gone. After all Sadhguru exists today!

This yogic world view is India’s soft power. The final frontier of science (and humanity), is not the outer space, it is the human mind. And no civilization other than the Indian Vedic civilization has placed more importance on the mind and actually developed theories and methods to understand and enhance it. India today should be owning, developing and exporting this soft power.

India’s MAHAKATHA (Grand Narrative)

This is a one-and-a-half hour long lecture delivered on 20 March 2018 at the iconic India International Centre in New Delhi.

RM has often talked about grand narratives of other civilizations but more as a side note. The central thesis of this lecture, which is a sneak preview of an upcoming book, is the Indian Grand Narrative. Anyone new to RM should start by watching this lecture as, I think, it provides the context to all of RM’s work so far.

Now, some of my comments:

  • The bits of the early romantic phase of Indology was quite interesting, especially the french prisoner of war; Initially German indology scholars did not want to create trouble for India. But later Max Mueller (1823-1900) did. After all he was sponsored by the British East India Company!

 

  • RM’s comments on new documents from Columbia University related to Ambedkar’s study there are troubling. These documents are apparently not in public domain but Ananya Vajpayee, Sheldon Pollock’s protege and now faculty at CSDS,  New Delhi may have access to them.

 

  • Based on RM’s and other thinkers and the current state of affairs, I am convinced now that at the core of all of India’s issues is the lack of a clear and positive grand narrative. A grand narrative which holds a country together is not simply about being patriotic (nothing wrong in that!) or just about having a sense of pride in one’s heritage (nothing wrong in this too, there are plenty of reasons to be proud) or India trying to become a global super power (also, nothing wrong!) or about Hindutva (nothing wrong with that too .. reminder – this is not right wing!).

 

  • The Indian Mahakatha should have been developed and institutionalized within the first decade of independence. The fact that a lecture like this is a crying need 70 years after independence is itself a symptom of the problem. If you reflect on this lecture for sometime and connect the dots with the news (of course, not the NDTV version), you would realize how big the stakes are — not just the integrity of India but also the very existence of the world’s oldest continuous civilization. You would also realize that we are very close to the tipping point. Current and the next generation will determine whether the Hindu civilization ends up like the Greek, Roman and Mayan civilization – in the museum. RM hints at this when he says that I am afraid that we may not have enough time.

Hope that is enough motivation not just to watch the lecture in its entirely but also to  reflect on it.

Dr Sampadananda Mishra on Devabhasa Sanskrit

I have often heard people say Sanskrit is the vessel for our Sanskriti. I have heard experts from very different fields – classical artists, ayurveda, scientists and, of course, linguists – hint at it. But the below talk really hit it home for me.

For example, the arrangement of alphabets (varnamala) in Sanskrit is directly related to physiology of how sounds are generated. The bit in the video on using this insight to design speech therapy for kids was brilliant.

The video also talks about the connection with Yoga and Pranayaam. The bits explaining cHandah was amazing. Had never heard of that before.

By the way, Dr Sampadananda Mishra is one of the foremost Sanskrit scholars today. Links to some of his other talks which I have watched are below. He has also written a series of books titled Devbhasha for teaching Sanskrit to kids (will post link later). Have heard a lot about his The Wonder that is Sanskrit. It is on my reading list!

Other talks:

 

A Master Class in Decolonization for Indians (and Brits!)

Rajiv Malhotra recently delivered two ground breaking lectures in the UK. The first lecture addressed a small group of British MPs in the British parliament on India-Britian relations in the post-brexit era. When the talk was announced, I thought to myself: RM’s mission is to highlight the mess is in India and to point out that it is really the doing of Indians. What has that got to do with Brexit and why would British MPs care about it?

He answered this question brilliantly just in the first five minutes of the talk! And it just kept getting better as the lecture the progressed. I had heard or read most of the main ideas presented in the lecture but they come together beautifully in this talk. Brits do bring out the best in an Indian! I was pleasantly surprised how well the British MPs received the talk. They could not stop showering praise on RM. Even if they were just putting on a show, their graciousness is worth applauding. I don’t think most Indian MPs would behave similarly.

By the way, Shashi Tharoor also spoke on this topic at Oxford a few years back. His talk had gone so viral that he came out with a book named Inglorious Empire to elaborate on the talk! I would recommend both the talk and the book for an undergraduate level treatment of the topic compared to that of Rajiv Malhotra which, I would say, is at a graduate level.

Watch the talk till the end. There is lot in the Q&A.

Swarajya has published an article on this talk.

The second talk was (almost!) at Oxford university on RM’s forte of “Decolonizing Academia”. The almost is explained in my post A case study in Freedom of Speech. But first you must watch the talk:

 

A Case Study in Freedom of Speech

[19 Mar, 2018]  I am assuming that you have watched the two videos mentioned in my other post. Did you find anything that Rajiv Malhotra said that might be inappropriate for a public talk on Oxford campus? Did RM make personal attacks on any student or faculty of Oxford? Did he ask for burning or banning any books? Did he call for violence of any sort?

I don’t think so.

Now watch this till the end (there is an update at end as this is still a developing story):

This is not new for RM. He has faced similar attacks at Columbia University, New York and Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, both premier centers of education and research which allegedly subscribe to the principle of freedom of speech.

Now, a plea to Indian students (and their parents) at western Ivy leagues — get to the bottom of this incident and don’t let go till the investigations are completed. Several questions remain answered — why exactly was the talk forced out of Oxford campus at the eleventh hour? Who exactly is threatened by issues raised by Rajiv Malhotra? What precisely are their objections? Rajiv Malhotra has consistently been inviting all his critics for a public debate. Instead of disrupting talks why don’t they engage with RM in a debate?

On this incident, Rajiv Malhotra posted this on his facebook page on 19 Mar, 2018:

Dear Udit Bhatia, this is to request an open & amicable dialogue with you to clear your misunderstandings and slander against me at Oxford India Society. Lets walk the talk about free speech in the open, and let the public decide. Namaste.

By the way, it is worth reflecting on the arrogance and hubris of Oxford. Rajiv Malhotra is not an amateur scholar whom Oxford can dismiss just because he is not in the academic system. Rajiv Malhotra’s books contain original research which has remained unchallenged for over two decades. He has hundreds of lectures on youtube and a huge following on social media. Did Oxford really think that they can get away with such disruption without giving an explanation?

In fact, it would have been lot more smarter for Oxford to just let the event continue uninterrupted because then they would have earned some free-speech brownie points and it was possible that the talk would have gotten lost among RM’s other talks. But now I am writing a whole post on it! Oxford should have learned a lesson from RM’s Columbia university talk (clip, full talk) which has now become exhibit A of academic hinduphobia. Now, Oxford will be exhibit B!

A wake up call for parents who read Devdutt Pattanaik to their kids

Finally! I have been hoping for a few years now for Rajiv Malhotra to expose Devdutt Pattanaik (DP). I had become suspicious of DP when he called Wendy Doniger his mentor because I knew the reality of Wendy Doniger from RM’s book Academic Hinduphobia.

The video is a conversation between RM and a Sanskrit scholar named Nityanand Misra who has studied DP’s work minutely, but from a Dharmic perspective. It is a rigorous hour-long critique. This is enough evidence for me to conclude that Devdutt Pattanaik is a quack.

This post is primarily addressed to parents who are using DP to introduce Hinduism to their kids.

Ok, so one more quack. What is the big deal? The big deal is that this quack is considered an authority on Hinduism by many, including some in my family and friends. One thing that stood out for me in this video was that most of the errors and distortions by DP are not that sophisticated. I was stunned by the अ vs आ error and the insidious definition of आस्तिक. One does not have to be a big pandit to pick these out. So more than exposing DP, this video exposes the ignorance of the people reading DP. The high popularity of DP shows how widespread this condition (of ignorance and confusion!) is.

Ok, let’s say DP is toxic. But I don’t see any good alternative to DP. I have actually heard that from a friend whom I told that DP might be toxic. First, this is a ridiculous argument. Would you take poison if you are hungry and food is not readily available? Second, this is a lazy excuse. There is plenty of good material out there. You just have to  seek it out. Lastly, you can’t preach something that you don’t practice. So before you try to teach hinduism to your kids, you should first learn. And I will be honest — for someone who has been preconditioned by the popular hinduphobic (pseudo) secular narrative, Hinduism is easy to appreciate. First you would do some serious unlearning. And then put in some serious time into reading authentic material and reflecting upon it.

Alright then, forget it. I will drop DP … and hinduism! Neither do I, nor my kids have the time for this.  The fact is that you are not dropping anything. You have ideas and opinions on everything, not only Hinduism but also every other religion. In fact, given how the world is changing you better know not only Hinduism, but also every other religion. For kids, this education is far more important than math and coding. I am not interested in converting anyone to anything. But if you are going to form opinions on Hinduism, do so based on authentic sources, not quacks like DP.

That is too big an ask. Still, let’s say I try educate my kids accordingly, can I tell if I am getting it right? There is actually a simple answer to this. While in school, as long as your kids don’t get the impression that all religions are the same, you might be fine. And by the time they are out of school, they should be absolutely clear as to why the Dharmic religions are fundamentally different from the Abrahamic religions. Note that I said different, not that any one is superior.