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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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.

Destruction of the Bamiyan Valley Buddha Statues is the right analogy for Medieval Muslim Invaders of India

Came across this article titled A Vandalised Civilisation (published 01 Dec 2017) by PR Ramesh on the destruction of Hindu symbols by muslim rulers during medieval times, particularly in north India.

The wanton acts of vandalism and desecration by conquering hordes in evidence across north India is reminescent of the 2001 demolition—under orders of the then Taliban chief Mullah Muhammad Omar—of the globally-renowned Buddha statues at Bamiyan valley in central Afghanistan, 230 km northwest of Kabul.

This is the right modern analogy for the ruthless destruction of Hindu symbols in medieval times. Ironically, instead of acknowledging this as a fact of history ..

… the argument over this aspect of history has got sidetracked to whether claims of the count of Hindu shrines demolished by Islamic rulers are backed by evidence or have been overblown.

This is the power of narrative and the distortion that the leftists historians have propagated. The article is worth a read. Plenty of specific historical references for anyone to dig deeper on the Mughal period.

Starting from ancient times, history of India from every period needs to be revisited, but nothing is more relevant today than the British period. In that context, Shashi Tharoor’s book Inglorius Empire on the British Raj is a must read. In some places, Tharoor’s political leanings do seems to color his narrative, but the research is of RM standards.

India’s (unacknowledged) contributions to Mind Sciences by Rajiv Malhotra

India_unacknowledged_contributions_mind_sciences_blogcover

Indian embassy in Washington DC kick started their Third International Yoga Day (2017) celebration with the below lecture by Rajiv Malhotra. The main theme of the talk was appropriation and digestion of Indian ideas and techniques by the west. It charted the developments in Mind Sciences in the West since Swami Vivekananda’s trip to the west. In one-hour Rajiv Malhotra mentioned all the people (in yellow), institutions (in red) and techniques/ideas (in blue) in the image above! That should be reason enough to watch the lecture!

Every time I hear RM speak on this topic, I realize something that I was overlooking earlier. Digestion clearly violates the ethics of academic and scientific research since the references are not properly cited and acknowledged. By weakening Indian culture and tradition, digestion also facilitates various Breaking India forces. I appreciated all this earlier.

However, all that is a problem for the Indian government and Swadeshi scholars. Should the aam aadmi care? How does it matter whether one gets the authentic version of a technique or the digested one? In other words, should it matter whether you learn Vipassana or it’s digested version of mindfulness; yog nidra vs lucid dreamingTranscendental meditation vs relaxation-response? Rajiv Malhotra argues that it does matter because the digested versions are usually just a small subset of the source body of knowledge, and often are also substandard. He mentions that authentic Vipassana is much more advanced than mindfulness, yet mindfulness is projected as the “new and improved” version and is all over the town today! In a few generations, people may not even know that something called Vipassana even existed. I can easily imagine this. Indian scriptures and rituals can be very complex with many layers of meanings and symbolism. Same idea can often be interpreted and implemented in many different ways and combined with other ideas in numerous different ways. Once the source has been reduced to one or two digested forms, such experiments will no longer be possible. Paraphrasing from the talk:

digestion effectively plucks the fruit on a tree and leaves the tree behind to atrophy thereby eliminating the possibility of future harvests.

Another thing I realized is the difference between the way rest of Asia treated knowledge from India and how the west did it and is still continuing. Buddhism spread to China, Japan and south-east Asia over millennia and steadily became less prevalent in India. Yet, Buddhist scholars and practitioners in those countries even today respectfully acknowledge their Indian roots. Western appropriators, on the other hand, go out of their way to avoid crediting India. RM gives a powerful analogy to illustrate this point:

it is like you run 100m faster than any one before and the credit goes to the guy with the clock who timed you and reported it to the world!

RM mentioned that he is writing seven books based on this talk. I can’t wait for it!

Sepoy Alert!

Finally there is some sign of sensible and urgently needed reform in JNU‘s humanities departments. But some intellectuals are not happy about it:

Sheldon Pollock, Columbia University

David Ludden, New York University

Lawrence A Kimpton, University of Chicago

Joya Chatterji, University of Cambridge

Mrinalini Sinha, University of Michigan

Francesca Orsini, School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS)

K. Sivaramakrishnan, Yale University

I am glad that they expressed their opinion as it is a good indicator of a Sepoy. Right, right, I am not using Sepoy accurately here, since some of these are actually Angrez, not Indians employed by Angrez to shoot at fellow Indians.

Ok, so let’s call this post Sepoy and Lords-of-Sepoy alert! I will keep adding to the list.

Rajiv Malhotra’s Report Card of Indian Diplomacy [Feb 2017]

Rajiv Malhotra today posted the below talk delivered in Feb 2017 at the Foreign Service Institute in Delhi which is part of the Ministry of External Affairs. I must have watched over 50 lectures by RM. This one is definitely among his greatest hits. It is full of deep insights, telling anecdotes and, of course, political incorrectness!

Some of the questions that RM addresses are:

  • Why would US and the west destabilize India? Isn’t India, being a democracy, a natural ally?
  • Are the Breaking India forces isolated and local? Or, are some foreign “grand designs” also at play?
  • How does India studies in the west compare with that of other major civilizations such as Chinese, Japanese and Islamic? Who funds it? Who controls it?

Some observations from the talk that struck me are:

  • It is not always the case that Breaking India forces are driven by Western agencies. Indians are far too eager to blame it all on the west. However, now there even are vested interest groups based in India who are duping western agencies into supporting them under the pretext of human rights, etc. It is the responsibility of Indian government to identify and weed them out.
  • Islamization of India is often pointed out as a threat to the stability of India. However, RM makes a distinction between islamization and Arabization, and says that it is the later that is the problem. Islam per se is not an issue. He points to Indonesia as a case study since, in spite of converting to Islam, it has retained the Indian civilizational identity. So religion and civilization are two different things – fascinating! He also points to the rise of Urdu in Kerala as a symptom of the problem. Urdu in Kerala – WTF?!

 

Ok, lets talk about Caste

This is my response to Caste in the caste, curry and cows caricature of India. Out of all the topics covered in this blog, perhaps none has vitiated the public discourse on India and Hinduism more than caste. Some of it stems simply from ignorance of history and context, but there is a good degree of malice too, particularly on the part of western indologists, Indian activists, ‘NDTV intellectuals’, and, of course, Indian politicians.

There is a lot to say on this topic and the discussion can quickly get all convoluted. Let me first say that caste discrimination in India is real and needs to be fixed. However, the solutions cannot be found till we understand the problem correctly and identify the forces which are working for and against caste discrimination. This post does not aim to be the last word on this topic, but hopes to highlight a few key points which are often overlooked.

Forces Working to Remove Caste-based Discrimination

1. Caste is much less of a problem in Indian cities than it is in the rural areas. Yes, India is still predominantly rural (67% in 2016), but it is rapidly urbanizing and by some projections the urban population may be in majority by 2050. Another factor which counters caste discrimination is education and that is also moving in the right direction. Economic development of Indian is also helping to weaken the caste divide.

2. Anecdotal evidence quickly shows up in any debate on caste. You start hearing statements like I have seen my own grandmother discriminate, or, that temple or that guru in my village does not allow people from that caste, etc. What fails to come out is stories of all the other relatives, friends, temples and gurus who do not discriminate. There are quite a few gurus out there today – Ramdev Baba, Sadhguru, Sri Sri, etc – who do not care about caste. As for temples, I have never had to declare my caste to enter in a temple. The point is that for every temple or guru who cares for caste, you would not have to go too far to find another who does not. So, just go with the one who does not! You have complete freedom to do so being a Hindu. This is where the inherent comfort of the Hindu tradition with diversity of opinion becomes important.

3. No debate on caste can escape the ghost of Manusmriti! Here, I really don’t understand what the whole fuss is about. Not only I have not read Manusmriti, I do not know of anyone else who has. Do you? I have heard temples hosting jaagran and kirtan to chant Ramayan or Mahabharat, but never Manusmriti. Have you? I know of a few translations of Gita which are commonly referred to and also where to buy them, but have no idea of about Manusmriti. Do you? My point is simple – if you have a problem with Manusmriti, just let it go. No one cares for it anyway. Again, inherent comfort and respect for different schools of thought helps here. As someone said – Hinduism is not a religion of A book, it is a religion of a library

In this context, it is also important to understand the fundamental Hindu concept of Shruti and Smriti (the master explains here). Shruti contains eternal truths and can be thought of general principles, for example, equality of all people. Smritis, in contrast, are context dependent and can be rewritten for a given society and age, for example a constitution implementing the principle of equality. In other words, Manusmriti, if you still want to read it (!), should be read in the context of when and where it was written.

Forces Propping Up the Caste Divides

Why then, instead of diminishing, caste seems to be only getting more prominent in Indian pop culture and also in academia? In western academia, caste has pretty much become a defining characteristic of Hinduism. Here are some thoughts on how we got here and who is working to deepen the caste divide, instead of healing it.

First we need to get the history right. The current version of the caste system in India is a direct result of multi-generational social engineering by the British as part of their divide-and-rule strategy. One of the key architects of this engineering was Lord Risley who institutionalized caste by making it part of the census. Over multiple censuses caste was inherited and soon one would be rigidly assigned to a caste right at birth. Caste-by-birth is a distortion of Hindu philosophy and tradition. Caste itself is a distortion and an European import, just like secularism. The closest Hindu construct is that of varna and jaati. This is a big topic, but Varna may be be thought of as division of labor in society and jaati as professional associations, like the Institute of Engineers. The relevant point is that these categories were fluid and could evolve over time and are certainly not fixed at birth. I repeat – Inheritance of caste is a distortion, and not a fundamental tenet of Hinduism. Most prominent scriptures of Hinduism, such as the Gita, completely reject the idea of ‘caste by birth’.  By the way, Lord Risley had gone further and also assigned a hierarchy to the different castes. That was the origin of the current upper, lower, scheduled, OBC and tribal categories.

Another notable Brit in this context is Sir William Jones. He interpreted Manusmriti to give Hindus their laws! My guess is that our current obsession with Manusmriti can be traced back to him.

Ok, so the brits messed it up big time. But that was nearly 70 years ago. Why was it not fixed after independence in 1947? Well, this is one of the biggest puzzle for me about our history. Not just caste, British messed up our education, legal system, religious harmony, and on and on. Why then, in spite of wide spread nationalism following the freedom movement, was there not a move to review and break free of everything that the British did? On the contrary, instead of turning to be deeply skeptical of the west like Chinese today, Indians seemed to have become anglophiles. Again, right after independence! Beats me!

Speaking specifically of the caste system, from a public policy point of view, since Independence no steps seem to have been taken to make the government and the society “caste-blind”, for example, by undoing what Lord Risley started. On the contrary,  our politics seem to have gone is exactly the wrong direction. Who would deny that caste-based reservation is a bad idea and Mandal commission in the 90s was a monstrosity? Vote-bank politics by politicians like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Yadav is working to deepen the caste divide. Of course they claim to champion the cause of the downtrodden.

Such politicians are supported in not small measure by Western indologists like Sheldon Pollock, their leftists Indian sepoys in universities like JNU and Jadhavpur, social activists like Arundhati Roy and of course biased media like NDTV. Through muddled up interpretation of scriptures, selective presentation of history, exaggerated reporting of discrimination and deliberate suppression of efforts to remove caste divides, these people are effectively legitimizing caste-based politics and even providing ideological ammunition for it, again all under the veil of championing the cause of the ‘weaker’ castes. So next time someone expressed their dismay over caste discrimination in India, just ask if they would call for complete repeal of caste-based reservations, and replacing it with need-based reservation. If they say no or avoid the question, then call out their hypocrisy. It is the same as an animal rights activist eating meat.

[By the way, if all this sounds like one big conspiracy theory to you then all I can suggest is that you read Rajiv Malhotra’s book Breaking India. If even that doesn’t change your views, well, then see you in the next life!]

Conclusion

Hindu society in India is naturally evolving to remove caste divides, and there are plenty of forces within Hinduism working toward it. There is no need for importing western constructs of human rights, or conversions to other religions to free India of caste issues. What is needed is, first, a recognition that the current caste system is inconsistent with core values in the Hindu philosophy, and then working to heal the divide by appealing to those core values. An analogy would be that of slavery in the west. Slavery was initially not considered inconsistent with Christianity, but later the anti-slavery movements employed a different interpretation of Christian ideas to appeal to the masses. Finally, all the forces that are working to prop up the caste divides, regardless of what their motivations are, must be exposed and curtailed.

Further reading

  • Views of another master on this topic – Subramanian Swamy
  • In this video, in response to a question, Rajiv Malhotra explains in detail why the caste system as it exists today has nothing to do with Hinduism. He also explains jaati and varna.
  • I added this post on Ambedkar.

[note to readers: please share any additional material on this topic, particularly talks or writings of RM. I will try to weave it into the above narrative.]