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 it’s 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.]

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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.

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.

Aryan-Dravidian Divide: One of the Biggest Bane of Videshi Indology

The Aryan Invasion Theory, although thoroughly discredited, still has deep impressions on the psyche of (confused) Indians. Along with Caste system, it is the poster child for the harm done by Videshi Indology. The most concrete illustration of the harm done by Aryan-Dravidian divide is the current politics of Tamil Nadu.

Dr Nagaswamy recently published a book titled Tamil Nadu: The Land of the Vedas which collects evidence against the Dravidian theory and sets the record straight. The following conversation between Rajiv Malthotra and Tamil scholar Dr. R. Nagaswamy talks about the book and much more.

More on the topic in this article on Pragyata.

 

The Deception of William Dalrymple

William Dalrymple is another character whom I admired in my confused days. I considered him to be a true admirer of India. I had browsed some of his books and seen them in many book shelves of friends and family.

I got suspicious when I learned that he is one of the main organizers of the Jaipur literary festival and has hosted and showered praises on Sheldon Pollock. While at the same time blocked Rajiv Malhotra from being invited to the festival.

That is guilt by association, and not a clinching evidence. I agree. Now read these articles:

  1. Does Willy get it Wilfully wrong? by Farrukh Dhondy (Outlook 2004)
  2. William Dalrymple’s incurable colonial hangover by Arvind Kumar (Indiafacts 2014)

Still not convinced. Ok, just consider this a red flag and BEWARE!

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.]

 

 

Why bother with Ancient Knowledge when we have Modern Science?

I believe that ancient Sanskrit texts have a wealth of knowledge on a wide range of subjects, including science, and that it is well worth the effort to study them. A common response to this proposition is:

I doubt there is anything there which might be relevant today. In any case, even if there is something, why should I bother with a whole new approach when I already have something that works – modern science and technology. If it is needed today, modern science will rediscover whatever our Rishis found. 

In this post I would like to challenge this view with two main counter arguments.

Before I present the arguments, let me say that the progress that modern science and technology has made in short 500 years since Galileo is truly mind blowing. The advances in the last 100 years since the steam engine are even more spectacular. I am well aware of the recent breakthroughs in genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, robotics and computing. The potential of each of these technology individually is immense, but combining them really takes you into crazy science fiction realm.

In fact, science has come so far that Ray Kurzweil is able to talk about singularity and people actually take him seriously. Including me! I agree with Ray Kurzweil that technology can grow exponentially. But the point he misses, I think, is that exponential growth may not be sustainable forever as it may hit a fundamental bottleneck (think Moore’s Law). And once that happens, you need breakthroughs in basic science, which are completely random and unpredictable – you cannot generate an Einstein by design, just create conditions such that if an Einstein were to show up, he would not go unnoticed. So, yes, singularity is a possibility but it is not inevitable, and most likely not on the time scale that Ray Kurzweil imagines.

Here are my arguments for why we should study the Indian ancient sciences:

Argument 1: We need breakthroughs in Mind Sciences

I believe our ancient knowledge can inform a whole range of fields in both social and physical sciences. But one area where it can have a huge impact is mind sciences or neurosciences. In this domain modern scientific understanding is truly primitive. Needless to say, mind sciences can have direct impact on our emotional and mental well-being. Modern medicine’s understanding of the human brain is at the same level where modern physics was just after the invention of the telescope (I consider functional MRI as the telescope of neuroscience.) Mental health issues have reached epidemic proportions world over – this is better appreciated in the West than in the developing world, but the problem is universal. For most mental disorders, forget cure, modern medicine cannot even diagnose the problem with any confidence. It just comes up with different names. As an example, look at the history of autism described by Steve Silberman in this sobering TED talk.

I believe our ancient Rishis excelled in mind consciousness studies. They certainly thought very deeply about it, and more importantly, very differently from the way modern medicine is approaching it today. The reason for this, I think, is the absolutely central role of meditation in Hinduism. One just needs to read a good commentary on Patanjali’s Yog Sutras to get an idea of the depth of their knowledge (here’s one recommendation: Four Chapters on Freedom by Swami Satyananda Saraswati). In fact, I look at Swamis and Yogis more as psychologists and neuroscientist, than as spiritual or religious teachers! Other Dharmic traditions, particularly Buddhism, would probably also have something valuable to contribute here since meditation is a core practice in those traditions too.

Argument 2: Science is not at the center of the society due to it’s secular origins

My second argument is not about a specific area of science, but about the status of science and technology in today’s society. The spectacular rise of western science and technology has had some serious adverse effects. We have damaged the environment to an extent that some of the damage may be irreversible (watch the documentary Racing Extinction). We now have nuclear and biological weapons which have the potential to wipe out a good fraction of life on earth. I have already mentioned the mental health epidemic. There are other disease epidemics too, for example, auto immune diseases. Though modern science may have created some of these problems, I have no doubt that it can also find the solutions to quite a few of them.

But do we have the social, political and economic structures to enable this?

I would say – No, not by a long shot. In spite of the existential threats that we face today, science and scientists are hardly at the center of the society. If you don’t believe me, ask any researcher in a university or even one in a corporation about the funding situation. But do so at your own risk since the whining can go out of control! You will get sob stories of how screwed up the system is and how they have to beg before politicians and business heads who have no idea about the science and on and on. Most large scientific initiatives would not have materialized without a politician championing it, for example JFK for the Apollo mission and now Joe Biden for Cancer. In other words, regardless of how important or urgent the scientific question is, it does not go anywhere until a politician or a businessman gets on board.

Why is this so? Why does science, in spite of all its successes and potential, get a step motherly treatment?

So far I was talking like a journalist and just describing things as they are. Now let me put on a sociologist’s hat, and present an admittedly speculative theory on how we got here. I feel that the present status of science in society is to a large extent due to its historical origins as a revolt against the almighty Church. You just need to read Galileo’s Daughter to realize how strong the Church was in 16th century Europe and how hostile it was towards science. Modern science arose in the Renaissance period as a revolt against the establishment, which pretty much was the Church at that time. The impact of this secular origins linger on to this date and is partly the reason for science not being truly integrated into the society. Neil deGrasse Tyson summed it up well when he said something to the effect that it is ridiculous to see people bad mouth science while talking on their cell phones! I don’t think this is merely due to poor science education or poor out reach by scientists. The conflict between cultures based on Abrahamic religion and modern science continues to this date. Oh, by the way, left leaning atheists who claim to be champions of secularism and science are not doing themselves any favor by mocking religion and spirituality. They need to understand that spirituality does not equal blind faith and superstition, certainly not in the Dharmic traditions. I feel that extreme atheists can be just as obnoxious as religious fundamentalists, for example, Javed Akhtar in this conversation with Sadhguru.  If you come down on the side of Javed Akhtar, all I can say is try to suspend your arrogance for a bit and listen to a few more talks by Sadhguru.

Now, lets talk about the position of science in ancient India. And by ancient here, I mean pre-mughal. This conflict between science and spirituality never existed in Hinduism. Vedic philosophy does not dismiss the modern scientific method. In fact the two can collaborate fruitfully. It is already happening with Ayurveda and modern medicine, though modern science is the one who is more hesitant. In Vedic philosophy the ultimate goal for an individual is to gain a deep and clear understanding of the nature of the self. And the collective responsibility of the society is to create conditions for individuals to pursue this goal. Furthermore, the genius of the Hindu tradition is that it does not prescribe a single path leading up to the ultimate truth. In other words, freedom of thought and exploration is built into the Hindu framework. And science could, and, indeed was, one such path. The subtitle of Dr Alok Kumar’s wonderful book Sciences of the Ancient Hindus sums it up beautifully: Unlocking Nature in the Pursuit of Salvation. There could be a whole series on ancient Indian studies with subtitles like ‘unlocking music in pursuit of salvation’, ‘unlocking trade in pursuit of salvation’, ‘unlocking language in pursuit of salvation’, and so on. In other words, Indian civilization did not need secularism to develop as a culturally and scientifically advanced civilization. On the contrary it was the quest for the sacred and spiritual that motivated individuals to excel in different areas of human endeavor. When Rajiv Malhotra says that ‘Sheldon Pollock is removing the sacred dimension’ he is talking about attacks on this very foundation of the Indian civilization and we should take it seriously.

Now, let’s envision a society organized based on the Dharmic principles. Using the categorization of the varna system, the center of such a society would indeed be the Brahmins as they are the knowledge producers and disseminators. And Brahmins would include not only swamis and gurus, but also artists, musicians and scientists. Brahmins would not have political or economic powers but all other sections of the society would be obligated to heed to the advice of the Brahmins. In fact, everyone else, including politicians and business heads, would consider themselves support staff for the Brahmins!

Conclusion

In summary, we should realize that there is no conflict between modern science and the knowledge of our Rishis, and also that modern science may not be the panacea. By studying the ancients, modern science only stands to gain new ideas and insights. Let me remind you that I am not one of those who romanticize our past claiming that India was an utopia, err Ram Rajya (!), in 5000 BCE. But neither am I dismissive of my past. The way forward is not to try and regress to the past, but to study it with the attitude and humility of a seeker. I hope this post will encourage such exploration.