19 March, 2018


"If you wish to unravel the mysteries of the universe, and to know true love, beauty and wisdom, you need to learn to surrender," said the Master. "A true seeker is humble and has overcome his ego and practices complete submission," said the Guru. "Submission is bhakti. Our rishis have written about it centuries ago. A true bhakt is the epitome of beauty," said the graceful enlightened being beaming with joy and gratitude, and composing several hymns in praise of her deity.

"The ego is the trouble maker. It wants its own way all the time. The path to enlightenment lies in vanquishing our ego and surrendering to the will of the Higher power," said the spiritual Master in his TEDx talk.

Someone in the audience squeaked, "If ego is such a trouble maker, why are we endowed with it?" But, as the audience sits in darkness, no one saw the squeaky pest, and the voice was edited away by the  videographer working with the latest AI.

"Don't intellectualize.. true wisdom lies beyond the intellect. Give up your logic and tune in to your self. Discover yourself," said my friends as they surrendered to true love and held its hand with faith, to take them to meet their destiny.

All this magic finally worked, slowly and gradually. It helped me understand how small and insignificant is our ego, and how we need the unwavering hand of the Higher power for leading us.

Holding its hands, I discovered the meaning of pure bliss, and true joy. Surrendering to its will, resulted in dhana-dhanya-sampatti (prosperity). In submission, I had found my freedom. In submission, I had found my destiny. In submission I had discovered myself.

I didn't still know what those things meant. But then, submission is beyond logic, and beyond meaning. I had come a long way from the life of poverty and spiritual darkness in which I was born.

As my submission became deeper, my wealth grew. I had several cars and latest gadgets and had traveled the world and expanded my horizons. I was now mostly free of my ego and had let go all attachments. My wealth I knew, was meant for me to serve. It is a wealth that came with pride -- the pride of having served, of having lent a small hand in the large world-wide system of creation.


But in times of solitude, a strange sadness enveloped me. There was a hole inside of me, and someone crying in there. My schedule did not permit me to tend to that sadness. When I did try to seek help, I was told that it was the sadness of "letting go" of my previous life of darkness. "It will heal, give it some time," I was told.

As time went by, I saw the people from my previous life of darkness, slowly fade away. What a wretched, Godless life they led. Their minds were enveloped in so much darkness that the light of enlightenment could never reach their souls. They spent their whole life in misery, in struggle; consumed by the social evils of the third world.

As they suffered and struggled, I was told that this was God's way of loving them. Suffering and struggle is the way to enlightenment. Once they learn to let go of their ego, their suffering ends and they would find the light.


But one fine day, the empty hole in my head, suddenly started to speak, bringing me great discomfort and embarrassment. It mocked my wealth and my graceful life. It mocked my purity of heart, and my life of proud compliance and integrity.

It provoked me to learn about political, social and macro-economic structures and how they evolved over time. It started kicking me in my head whenever I surrendered to suffering and pain. It mocked me for my definition of bhakti as surrender. "Bhakti means devotion, you moron! It is not surrender! Being devoted to something and surrendering to something are two very different things!" it shouted at me.

"If you kill your ego, you have no one to blame for your helplessness. You have made yourself helpless. You have enslaved yourself. Your ego is the result of thousands of years of evolution. It is your best weapon to fight against forces that make you helpless and want to use you as a resource. Nurture your ego and let it grow," it shouted in frustration.

"Your ego is not about you. `You' are just a state of dharma in the process of evolution. Your ego is just a stable configuration of logic that can support a living individual. Your ego, is basically nature's way of preserving its dharma. `You' are one among zillions of `knots' that form the fabric of nature. You may be small, but you are not worthless or insignificant."

"Nature is not a higher power -- just like you are not a `higher power' to your hand. Your will may control your hand, but if your hand stops working, you become powerless yourself. Your hand is not a machine. It is not a tool. It is not your slave. Your hand has not `surrendered' to your will. Your hand is not `obeying' your commands. Your hand is made of millions of autonomous creatures with their own ego -- their capacity for autonomous choice to sustain themselves. They comply with your commands by their own will, because it helps sustain them. They can and do refuse to comply with your commands if the see no reason to comply. If you neglect your hands, or abuse them in order to find enlightenment through suffering and pain, you *will* lose them."

"If your third-world country is suffering, it is because *you* have neglected it and failed to contribute to its dharma -- not because it is living in spiritual darkness. It is suffering because *you* chose to `surrender' to some putrescent philosophy of dominance. Your country is suffering not because of people's ego, but because its people chose to neglect their egos and surrender to someone else's will."

"You are neither Shiva, nor Krishna, nor Shakti nor Durga -- or maybe you are all of them. How does it matter? You are but an integral part of existence, which has endowed you with some capability for intellect. Exercise your intellect, and even more so if everyone else is surrendering their intellect. Understand the difference between what feels good and what is true."


"Hey, hey, hey!. Hold it right there, mister! Just who do you think you are?" I asked the hole in my head. "And with what authority are you speaking to me? Are you a religious head? Have you performed tapas? Have you been certified to give all this gyan? Have you taken permission from the thought leaders who govern knowledge, before speaking to me?"

 "You are neither an enlightened being, nor a scientist. Why should I listen to you? You're just a fake baba and a peudo scientist. You have neither the blessings, nor a certificate to prove the authenticity of your words," I retorted.

With that, the hole in my head became silent again, and I had again vanquished my ego, and ready to return to embrace the beauty of my surrender. 

23 January, 2018

Dharma and Evolution

In this post, I would like to contrast between the models of life as defined by the theory of evolution, and as defined by the theory of being.

Evolution, or the "The greatest show on earth" is considered the scientific basis to describe how life operates. There are several underlying theories that make up the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology. Among these, the most significant is the theory of natural selection, proposed by Charles Darwin, in the mid nineteenth century.

At the core of this theory is the concept of "natural selection" that posits a differential selection among members of a species in an evolutionary cycle, by natural conditions. Natural selection is based on a concept of "fitness" of the phenotype. A phenotype refers to the overall expression of an organism such as its physiological properties, behaviour, dispositions, etc. that is a result of the interaction between its innate characteristics (its genotype) and the environment.

Natural selection is based on a concept of "fitness" of phenotypes and the process is called "survival of the fittest." The problem now becomes what defines the "fitness" of a phenotype. At the core of the theory seems to be a circular argument that says that, selection is based on "fitness" and "fitness" can be established by observing which phenotype gets selected.

To overcome such circularity, the concept of fitness has been attributed to various characteristics by different people over time. Fitness has been equated with characteristics like ability to produce offsprings, physical combat ability, ability to survive in harsh conditions, etc.

Although Darwin perhaps did not mean it this way, the idea of "natural selection" rests on a "judgement" metaphor of life. It is almost "religious" in its suggestion, that nature sits on a high pedestal and decides which phenotype shall live and which shall not. And species had better adopt the slogan, "be fit, or perish."

This judgement metaphor of evolution has given rise to so many misguided social, political and legal misadventures. Such a metaphor has made people explore theories of racial purity, it also created an obsessive compulsion about physical desirability leading to complications like anorexia, etc.

Regardless of what definition we take for fitness, there is ample evidence to the contrary. Phenotypes that were considered the epitome of fitness have either been deselected from the gene pool, or evolution seems to have simply ignored it.

Dinosaurs were "fit" in the sense of having enormous physical capacity. Yet, they are extinct now. Cockroaches are "fit" in the sense of being able to survive under vastly different conditions. Yet, despite the fact that cockroaches survived where dinosaurs didn't, nature preferred to evolve dinosaurs into birds, rather than asymptotically converging every species to the cockroach. Germs multiply very fast (have several offsprings) which is another interpretation of fitness. Yet, several disease causing germs are still contained across the world, and have not exactly resulted in a worldwide pandemic.

So clearly, while evolution is there to see and does explain how life functions, the problem is with the "judgement" model of how life works.


Let us now develop a "Theory of Being" concept of how life works. 

What I am going to assert here is that fitness is a consequence of evolutionary dynamics and not a driver of evolutionary dynamics. 

To recap the theory of being, the fundamental unit of existence is an abstract entity called "being" (atma). Every being has an innate capability for self expression called prana. Self expression is constrained and characterised not just by the being's innate capabilities, but also by the characteristics of its environment called the vidhi. The interplay between the prana and the vidhi, settles down in some stable state, which is called its dharma. Dharma is the state where a being maximises its self expression given its innate characteristics and the environmental characteristics. Disparate stable states of being for a given species, represent the different phenotypes that are observable for that species. 

In that sense, the phenotype itself is an expression of fitness -- it is an optimal state of robust sustainability that is achieved by the interplay between the being's prana and its vidhi

The fact that some phenotypes survive and some do not, has to do with the characteristics of the environment, rather than that of the being. When the vidhi changes, some phenotypes that emerged as optimal states in the previous generation, may no longer be the optimal states for the next generation. The previous generation did nothing "wrong" or "unfit" for its phenotype to be rejected by the next generation. It is just that the vidhi has changed, and what was optimal earlier is no longer optimal.

So, rather than nature passing judgments on us, nature is just finding its dharma -- that is, its stable states over time. Life in turn is responding to how nature is changing, and changing its stable states suitably. 

Climactic changes in the Mesozoic era made the dinosaurial life form unsustainable. This life form found a new class of optima in the form of birds. This change is not a judgement on the dinosaurs or their "unfit" life form. 

The cockroach life form was optimal then, and is optimal now. Stable as it may be, its prana is very limited. So, while it has survived, it has not become the "global optima" onto which all phenotypes converged. 

The selfish gene seems to be driven not only by survivability, but also by maximising of the complexity (entropy?) of self expression.

13 January, 2018

The power of disassociative reification

It was some time in the '80s when as a teenager, I was visiting some places in north Karnataka with my family, during Dasara time. On the evening of Vijayayadashami, we went to witness a Ramlila celebration. There was a large statue of Ravana, which would be put to flames by Rama. We were all excited to watch this event as was the large crowd of people that had gathered there. 

However, there was some glitch because of which the performance was getting delayed and time dragged on and on, without anything happening. 

The gathered crowd became increasingly restless. First the shouts started, then people started pushing one another. Soon, there were fist fights among people, vandalism, and.. the works. 

We were stuck in the midst of the crowd and quite far from the gates, and got very worried. Some of my family members also started shoving us younger folks, in a bid to keep us safe. Needless to say, it was a harrowing experience. 

In the midst of this though, my father made a simple statement, which greatly helped me. He said, "this is what is the characteristic of mobs." 

This one statement suddenly changed the situation from a scary event happening to us, to a fascinating curiosity that we are witness to. I was no longer pushed by people and it was no longer people screaming and fighting at one another. It was a "mob" that was being itself. In front of me was not a harrowing experience to run away from, but a fascinating ring-side seat for observing a mob in action! 

This incident had greatly piqued my curiosity about the cognition of human groups, so much so that, even today, I work on understanding the collective behaviour of groups both in the online and offline worlds. 

What had happened that day, was that my dad taught me the awesome potential of "disassociative reification". When faced by a crisis, suppose we are able to "reify" an abstract entity to describe what is happening, and disassociate ourselves from it, the crisis happening to us, now becomes a curiosity that we can observe. 

I've since applied disassociative reification in several situations to keep myself from getting affected. As a result, I've been able to escape psychological attacks like gaslighting, manipulation, opinion-moulding, groupthink, etc. and keep a sense of independent perspective on the matter. 

24 December, 2017

Dharma and liberty

Given my interest in the concept of Dharma, it is assumed that my political inclinations lie with the "right-wing" (a term that has no meaning to describe the Indian political landscape) and by implication, I am a "conservative" and further by implication, I'm in the opposite camp of "liberalism" and favour imposition of collective will (led by religious doctrine), as against upholding of individual liberty.

This is how befuddled and muddled is the collective discourse, as is our understanding of important concepts from the Indian worldview.

This post is to address the question of whether a worldview based in dharma is in opposition to the ideology of individual liberty.

To recap, dharma is the property of sustainability or a "stable state" that is characteristic of any finite system of being. It is not some form of a divine commandment or revelation given by the Gods and accessible only to the sages or some such. It is a property that can be empirically verifiable, repeatable, and even proven. For instance, algebraic topology is full of theorems that look for "fixed points" in finite systems of set-valued transformations. The Kakutani fixed-point theorem for instance, plays a central role in proving that any finite system of interacting phenomena has a stable state of being (which gave the Nobel prize to John Nash).

In contrast, the political ideology of liberalism is essentially that -- an ideology. Fundamentally, an ideology is a wish -- about how things ought to be. The liberal ideology says that individuals are born free, and individual liberty is the basis for all civilised social orders.

As an ideology, it is perfectly fine and it is a good thought on which to base our thinking on.

However, individuals are not islands that are isolated from one another. They interact with one another and with the environment, to exercise their freedom. And when individuals interact, it forms a collective system of being, that settles down into its own stable state, that may or may not uphold individual liberty.

For instance, let us consider a system of two individuals A and B, who are living in a liberal setup and who have all the rights to exercise their free will. The individual A believes that one needs to be open-minded, tolerant and welcoming of differences of opinion, and truly believes in Voltaire's statement that "I may disagree with what you say, but will fight to death, your right for saying it."

The individual B on the other hand, believes that he knows the "truth" about everything and it is not just his right, but his duty to make everybody else comply with his beliefs, because that is the truth.

When A and B interact and both exercise their individual liberty, A has no choice but to be enslaved by B, because according to A, B has the right to practice his individual liberty, that involves domination over others. If A fights back, then A becomes the hypocrite, since he is not following his own ideology of tolerance and open-mindedness.

This is the "Tragedy of the liberals" that is seen in all liberal establishments. While liberal establishments promote individual liberty as an imperative, they also open doors to fanatics pushing fanaticism, using the entitlement for individual liberty.

As a result, societies built on liberal imperatives, evolve elaborate sets of processes and laws, involving snooping, spying, profiling, etc. that on the whole, poses as much a threat to individual liberty as a non-liberal ideology.

A society built on a liberal ideology is also susceptible to individuals being unaware of their individuality. Most of our "free-willed" choices are actually conditioned by social messages from other individuals, mass media and public figures. How many of us, for instance, would like to admit that we would rather not travel, as it is too expensive and exhausting, and does little to expand our horizons (based on who we are) -- no more than reading books or interacting with people on the Internet? Similarly, how many students want to study deep learning because they are genuinely curious about it, and not because it is the "coolest" technology with "lots of scope" and that "everybody else is doing it"?

Individuals are extremely vulnerable to suggestions and manipulations. Without an intense inquiry into our own selves, we do not really understand what our preferences are, and when we say we are exercising our liberty, are we really expressing ourselves, or giving an outlet to our frustration, or complying with what the rest of the society thinks is freedom?


The problem is not with liberalism as an ideology. The problem is that liberalism has remained just an ideology. We cannot just be wishing and insisting that individual liberty has to be protected. We need a theory about know how to protect it. 

This is where the theory of dharma is very important. 

Every system of being (called Atma) -- be it an individual person, a society of people, or even a physical entity like a piece of coal -- has one or more stable states into which it settles down. This is called its dharma. Each stable state is characterised by a level of Prana or "capability" of the system of being. A carbon polymer for instance, can settle down into various stable configurations, each of which gives it a different characteristic. 

The capability of a system of being, is not just a function of the amount of resources or "wealth" at its disposal. Consider a tall skyscraper that is powered by a local power station. The electric power is utilised by the building to manage its lighting, elevators, air conditioning, etc. -- basically to "be" the building. Now consider that the power station is hit by a lightning, and several orders more electricity flows through the system. This extra resource did not give greater capability for the building. In fact, it mostly ended up burning out the fuses and appliances, thus reducing the capability of the building. 

Capability or Prana, cannot be measured in a purely objective fashion. A fish and a monkey may have the same amount of energy measured objectively in terms of joules. But, the capability of a fish to climb a tree is very low, as is the capability of a monkey to swim in deep waters. Prana is innately tied to individuals and their individuality. 

Hence, for example, "real India" is not the poverty that is shown on news channels by an "objective" third-party observer, let alone in a movie like Slumdog millionaire. Real India is how Indians see themselves. Real India, as is the notion of India itself, is defined in the minds of its individuals. If Indians see themselves as innately wealthy, then their response to poverty would be to fight it and bring themselves back to a state of wealth. On the other hand, if poverty enters the mind, then it would result in real poverty. 

There is a saying in Kannada which makes me cringe every time I hear it. Groundnuts (ಕಡಲೆಕಾಯಿ) is called "ಬಡವರ ಬಾದಾಮಿ", or "poor man's almond". Except that the groundnut is grown in a region that is rich with tropical resources, rains, minerals, rivers, etc. while almonds are grown in deserts and desolate regions that are much less endowed with natural resources. And yet, we call ourselves the poor man, and crave for almonds which supposedly is affordable only by the wealthy. 

A dharmic society has to begin first from the individual. It has to begin with eradicating the poverty latent in their minds, and empowering individuals to deeply inquire into their individuality. We need to have individuals find their dharma that maximises their Prana -- a state of being where they feel the most free to express themselves, without being hampered by scriptures, norms and social expectations. 

In this sense, dharma for social structuring, is innately about individual liberty -- not just as an ideology, but as an integral element of establishing collective sustainability. 

But dharma does not stop with individual finding their state of dharma. Every collection of individuals forms a system of being that has its own stable states. A dharmic society is one where any collection of individuals actively communicate to understand where is their stable system of being, and what is the Prana associated with that stable state. A dharmic institution for example, encourages people to speak up about their concerns, own up the institution and actively work towards its sustainability. It does not, for instance, create rigid hierarchies and power structures for the sake of efficiency. 

The founder of Sony Enterprises, Akio Morita, had this to say about institutions in the US and Japan (and Asia in general). In the US, employees are kept happy because happy employees are more efficient and productive, and bring more profits to the company. While in Japan, the company was seen as a family and all members of the family were made to understand that the company has to make profits and be efficient, if the family needs to be happy. 

The dichotomy between collective will and individual liberty is a false dichotomy -- they are not always in conflict with each other. The relation between the collective and the individual, is a whole-part relation -- somewhat like the relation between (say) our liver and the rest of the body. They body cannot be healthy if the liver is suffering, and even if the liver is healthy when the body as a whole is suffering, it adversely affects the liver as well. 

Individual Prana is important for the collective dharma (sustainability of the collective) and the collective Prana is important for the individual dharma

An individual may be part of several collectives (office, family, club, neighbourhood, ecology, etc.) each of which have their own stable states. Sustainability of all these collectives are affected by the individual's contributions to them. An adverse impact on the individual in one collective (say, office politics) may impact the individual's contribution to another collective (say, the family). A dharmic mind is holistic in nature, and is sensitive to such interferences. It does not live in an articulate, water-tight compartmentalisation of one's life. Hence, "work-life balance" as a separate object of inquiry, makes no sense to the dharmic mind, because the dharmic mind is always balancing between several systems of being that it is contributing to. 

Dharmic hermeneutics offer the most promising potential for building theories of sustainable liberty, rather than pursuing liberty as an ideology.

10 December, 2017

An Indian Teacher's Dilemma

Every year, when bright students come to me for advice and recommendation letters for them to pursue their careers abroad, I'm stuck with a debilitating dilemma, which I'm sure, is not unfamiliar to teachers all over India.

India is a wounded civilisation that is emerging from centuries of oppression, and grappling with collective trauma. The challenges it faces are immense and we require the brightest of minds working endlessly to make even small collective improvements. There is still life left in its civilisational roots, and it takes enormous care and nurture for these roots to grow back into the magnificent tree that it once was.

India needs bright minds, and bright minds are likely to be consumed by its challenges, with little or no traces left of their individuality.

On the other hand, moving abroad to a more developed country does wonders for these bright minds for developing their individuality. They get exposed to new cultures, new experiences, greater wealth, greater power, etc. However, none of these are likely to add much value to address the challenges that India is facing.

My Western, liberal education tells me that individual liberty is the basis for all free societies and development. Any society in which the individual cannot express their individuality is not free, and hence it is not only rational, but also moral, for individuals to seek greener pastures where they can grow and express their individuality.

As a teacher operating in the same hermeneutic echo chamber, no doubt, I would have implicitly endorsed and repeated those values to my students.

However, the values of dharma or sustainability that we learnt at home, teaches us something slightly different. It says that every individual is essentially a complex system of being, who themselves become components of a much larger and even more complex system of being, called the human society. And the basis for all free societies is to maximise the sustainability of all systems of being -- be they the individual, or the collective. Freedom in the dharmic sense, is hence, a multivariate optimisation problem. Individuals have to sustain their system of being, while at the same time, they are also responsible for helping sustain the collective system of being.

Promoting individuality by encouraging migration to greener pastures, greatly impedes the sustainability of the collective system of being. Individuals, by their mere presence can contribute greatly towards affective benefits of others around them. The mere presence of people we care about being in our vicinity gives us hope, strength and gumption to take on life's challenges for yet another day.

Of course, every student who wishes to go abroad, says that they are going to come back soon and they are only trying to "expand their horizons". But data tells us otherwise.

It is very rare for expat Indians to return to India after their studies. Their studies would have created some debt, which forces them to look for jobs after their studies. By which time, they would be married and having kids. And so on.

But more insidious is not these rational decisions that drives them to grow their roots elsewhere. The real scary and insidious elements are the narratives their minds (subconsciously) build to justify for themselves emotionally, that they are doing the right thing.

We are not rational beings who are emotional. We are emotional beings who are rational. Our system of being is largely driven by our emotional connects. And the decision to break away from one's emotional roots and settle down in a different country and culture is a decision fraught with trauma.

Our system of being -- the system that strives to keep us alive, quickly jumps into action and builds defences to justify the rational decision. Hence, people who decide to settle abroad end up with extra hate and resentment about their Indian roots. Indian culture, Indian values, Indian worldview, everything becomes the evil incarnate, which kept them oppressed in creepy ways, and which they have escaped to find a refuge in their new home.

The specific trajectory of each expat would be different -- but the broad template of experience that they go through is somewhat like the above. And I know that when I write a reference letter to a bright student who can solve complex math problems and write great code, they are actually diving headlong into an existential crisis, in a few years time. Not every one emerges out of existential crises, stronger. Most of them are scarred and traumatised for life.

So am I really helping them when I encourage them to expand their horizons? Can't they expand their horizons using the Internet and with the myriad exchange programs that exist to bring people of different cultures together? Do they have to essentially uproot themselves in their quest for their individuality?

On the other hand, if I discourage them, will I be hurting them emotionally? If I convince them to put their minds for work in India and they end up struggling and getting consumed by its problems, without being able to express their individuality, did I not fail the trust they had in me?

The dilemma continues...

22 November, 2017

Argumentation: Being Style

Over the last several posts, I have been developing the Theory of Being inspired by ancient Indian hermeneutics, as a universal theory.

The main idea here is the assertion that the fundamental building block of the universe is an abstract entity called "being" (Atma). A being has a certain capability (Prana), which is based on the energy and information content of the being. A being settles down in a stable state (dharma) relative to its environment (Vidhi) that maximizes its potential to express its capability.

Now that we have revised the essential elements of the Being theory, let me focus on an interesting aspect of argumentation in such hermeneutics.


One of the most celebrated debates from the first millennium India, was the debate between Adi Shankara and Mandan Misra, that took place in modern day Bihar, sometime in the 9th century CE. There are several commentaries and interpretations about what exactly happened in the debate and what were its key learnings. 

It is difficult to separate fact from myth in the several commentaries and narrations that exist about this debate. Here, I will discuss one such narration, which may or may not have reported the exact sequence of events as they happened in the debate. 

Mandan Misra was a learned scholar in the Mimamsa school of Vedic philosophy that stressed on the "karma kanda" -- or the formal, ritualistic way for spiritual exploration. In this school of thought, spiritual realization is sought through focusing upon our actions (karma) and performing each of them with the greatest possible commitment. 

Adi Shankara, who at that time was a young man in his 20s, was on a tour from the south of India where he hailed from, to the Himalayas, in his quest to identify and revive places of historical significance as mentioned in the epics like Vedas, Ramayana and Mahabharata. 

He was disillusioned by "karma kanda" and the way it was widely practiced. He had seen the enormous emphasis on rituals and facades actually obscuring, rather than facilitating the realization of the underlying wisdom. Thus, he chose to not take the "karma kanda" for his journey and instead chose the path of "jnana" (knowledge). The "jnana kanda" is characterized by skepticism as the primary tool for exploration. The explorer in this mode of exploration keeps rejecting assertions (also called the Neti or "not this" response), until an assertion sustains against the skepticism. (Yes, India practiced the scientific principle of falsification, centuries before Karl Popper). 

Following this process of exploration, Adi Shankara revived the underlying ideas of the Vedic worldview from the perspective of a skeptic, and called it Vedanta (literally, beyond Vedas). 

The debate between Mandan Misra and Adi Shankara about ritualism versus skepticism, was refereed by Mandan Misra's wife Ubhaya Bharati, who herself was a renowned scholar. At the end of the debate Ubhaya Bharati declared Adi Shankara's arguments as more sound than that of the much more learned and experienced husband of hers.

There are several narrations about the actual debate itself, which went on for about six months. But here is a story that piqued my interest. 

In this story, Ubhaya Bharati insisted that both Adi Shankara and Mandan Misra start their debates by wearing a garland of fresh flowers. And by the end of the debate, she duly noted the garland on which the flowers were most wilted. 

She found that the flowers on Adi Shankara's garland were consistently more fresh than that of the garland on Mandan Misra, every day after the debate. And this was one of the factors that contributed to her declaring Adi Shankara as the winner!


For someone who was educated in the "scientific" worldview as understood by the West, and having studied Stoicism, Objectivity, Socratic argumentation, modus ponens, modus tollens, etc. this makes no sense. 

I mean, what does the freshness of flowers (resulting from the emotional state of the wearer) have to do with the content of the argument? The objective merit of an argument is independent of how it is expressed or the emotional state of the argument maker. Right? 

For instance, someone may nervously state that the number of prime numbers is infinite, while another may confidently assert that the number of prime numbers is finite. That does not make the first assertion false and the second assertion true. We can prove that the number of prime numbers is infinite and is independent of how someone feels about it. 

Well yes, that is right, but, and there is always a but.. let's look at the big debate once again. 

Mandan Misra and Adi Shankara were debating about the relative merits of different pathways for the ultimate spiritual realization -- something which cannot be empirically verified. (There was and is no reliable test for "enlightenment"). Moreover, both "karma kanda" and "jnana kanda" are pathways for realization -- they don't guarantee anything. The seeker needs to pursue this pathway (perform "sadhana") for several years, before they can return any more wiser or enlightened. There is no way Ubhaya Bharati could have conducted a controlled experiment to determine the merits of each line of argumentation. 

What she instead noted was that both Mandan Misra and Adi Shankara were not just professing their respective philosophies, but were embodiments of these philosophies! They were not just preaching their philosophy -- they were living it!

Given this, if one of them consistently ended up flustered and emotionally insecure than the other, then the other embodiment displayed a greater level of sustainability or dharma.

Yet, one can still argue that, maybe Mandan Misra took a bigger emotional toll in the debate because he was emotionally insecure by nature, or maybe that he was much older than the young and energetic Adi Shankara, and hence got tired faster. 

Both are valid arguments and indeed if the adjudication were based solely on whether the flowers wilted or not, without any consideration of the actual contents of the argumentation, it would not be a sound judgment. 

However, given that Mandan Misra was a renowned scholar who knew how to argue objectively and dispassionately, the fact that he consistently felt emotionally insecure at the end of each day's debate, was evidence for Ubhaya Bharati to conclude that the objective merit of Adi Shankara's arguments were indeed strong -- strong enough to make a learned scholar who knew how to argue, feel emotionally insecure.


What I find really fascinating in the above, is the brilliant elucidation of what holistic thinking really means. 

We are taught so much to articulate and "divide and conquer" a complex issue, that we completely forget that the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. When we consider the entire system of being as a whole, its characteristics are vastly different from a simple aggregation of the characteristics of its parts. 

We have lost this ability to think holistically (read also this theory of synergistic thinking that I'd started to develop some 10 years ago, before I really understood dharmic thought). We instead, focus on just one dimension or aspect of an issue and blow it totally out of proportion. 

In most social matters, this one dimension usually pertains to what is a legal entitlement and what is not. For instance, the entire public debate on the issue of the movie on Rani Padmavati, has focused on whether the makers of this movie have a legal right to make an artistic rendering of a historical figure that greatly distorts and offends the sensibilities of a large segment of the population. 

Well, yes of course they do -- just like people are not forbidden from cursing in public. But that is not the issue. The issue is what happens to our collective world-view or disposition when history is continuously and subtly distorted in several different ways. For most of our lives, we are driven by perception -- not by reason. Where will the collective system of being end up?

The story of Ubhaya Bharati shows us that a good scholar is one who not only reasons on the objective elements of the argument, but also on the affective dimension of the argumentation!

05 October, 2017

A Being perspective of the Mahabharata

The Mahabharata is the largest epic poem ever written some time in the 8th or 9th century BCE, comprising over 100,000 shlokas (couplets). It narrates the story of the Kuru empire of ancient Hastinapura, spanning over several generations, and interweaving several other stories within it.

The main feature of the Mahabharata is the Kurukshetra war that lasted over 18 days, involving several kingdoms of ancient India, bringing forth great bloodshed and destruction. The epic narrates events leading up to the war, as well as the aftermath of the war.

The epic has captured the imagination of Indians for almost 3000 years now, and even today several authors continue to analyze and provide commentaries about the intricacies of the story.

Here is one such perspective, based on my understanding of cognition and the theory of Being.

At the face of it, the Mahabharata war is a war between cousins -- the Pandavas on the one side, fighting the Kauravas. Events that lead to the war are many, and span over several years. War was seen as inevitable after Pandavas, led by Krishna had explored and exhausted all possible options to seek justice in a peaceful manner. The war was touted as "dharma-yuddha" -- or a war that was meant to prevent the system from collapsing from within, due to its own unsustainable (adharma) activities. The dharma yuddha hence potentially prevented a much larger catastrophe.

Rivalry between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, is seen as the primary factor resulting in this war. A rivalry that was exacerbated by a "weak" father Dritharashtra, and an "evil" uncle Shakuni.

However, I prefer to see it very differently, as terms like "weak" and "evil" have no meaning in the theory of being.

In order to understand my perspective, we need to refresh some basic definitions for atma (being), dharma (sustainability), vidhi (schema), and prana (capability). Atma is the fundamental unit in which the physical world is built. It represents an abstract notion of "being" that has many stable states called its dharma, where it would settle down, depending on its environment (vidhi). Once a being has reached a stable state with respect to its environment, the system of beings in mutual equilibrium forms a composite being that is in its stable state with respect to its environment.

A being also has a certain level of prana (capability). Prana refers to the complexity of the being's self expression, and may be viewed in terms of the information entropy of its expressions. A being with a high level of prana is capable of very rich expressions in some form (rich musical ability, rich athletic ability, rich philosophical ability, etc.)

Within an environment, a being reaches a stable state that maximizes its prana. Each stable state (or local optima) allows for a certain extent of expressive complexity. If a being is capable of more complex expressions than what the stable state allows, it strives to find a better stable state -- the so-called "global optima" for the being.

Hence for instance, in the Mahabharata, the being called Karna who had been endowed with superlative abilities of a warrior was raised by a charioteer, he could not stay as a charioteer. His prana pushed him to find a dharma that suits his prana.

When we look at things from the perspective of dharma and prana, we have no need for vocabulary like "weak", "evil", etc. When an atma (being) is stuck in a stable state where the expression of its prana is highly curtailed, it leads to frustration and helplessness, and release of its latent energy in self-destructive ways, which in turn leads to other negative repercussions.

This in a nutshell is the story of the Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata is the story of two system of beings -- the Kuru system of being and the Gandhar system of being, both of which had very different experiences with their dharma and prana.

In the Kuru system of being, there was relatively more peace and freedom for people to explore and express themselves to the best of their abilities. So much so that people were generally unaware of the interplay between their prana and their dharma.

Among them was the prince Dritharashtra, who was born blind. Dritharashtra was a highly capable warrior and endowed with a lot of prana. He had trained himself in several martial and administrative abilities, despite his debilitating blindness.

However, Dritharashtra was constantly frustrated. His prana pushed him to aspire for much higher goals, while his blindness cruelly pulled him back. None of the others around him understood the intensity of frustration that he was constantly going through.

Dritharashtra understood several aspects of administration and governance, and was much more able than his brother Pandu. However, in their "wisdom" the Kuru advisers advised the queen against making Dritharashtra as the king, citing his blindness. This frustrated Dritharashtra even more leading to his latent prana releasing itself in self-destructive ways, which was widely interpreted as his "weakness".

No one in the Kuru empire thought of creating an formalized abstract administrative process and system, where Dritharashtra can still express his capabilities despite his blindness, and which could be gainfully used for effective administration. Instead, they only saw the throne as an entitlement for one who is capable -- and being stuck in a disability was seen as a lack of capability.

In contrast to the Kuru empire, the empire of Gandhar, situated in the desolate region of present day Khandahar in Afghanistan, lived in a place with constant challenges and threats to survival. Their life was a constant struggle and they had to keep themselves fighting fit, just to survive.

When Bhisma from the Kuru empire came with a proposal for the marriage of Dritharashtra with the Gandhar princess, the king and his son were aghast at the thought of marrying the princess to a blind prince. But having struggled for everything all through their lives, they saw the practical benefit of being aligned with a much stronger kingdom, and agreed for the marriage.

The Gandhar princess Gandhari on her part, was equally aghast at this arrangement. Not only did she have the frustration of being used as an object of trade to buy peace, she also had to spend the rest of her life with a blind king. But having been no stranger to adversity, struggles and defiance, she took a drastic decision to blindfold herself and lead the rest of her life in blindness. This decision is interpreted by different people in different ways. But for her, it was a complex expression of her prana struggling to break out of its surrounding constraints -- it was a mix of expressions involving protest, defiance, empathy and acceptance.

No one in Kuru understood the complex nature of the frustrated prana and the different ways that it finds to express itself. Instead, they continued on with very simplistic models of dharmic practices, making both Dritharashtra and Gandhari's brother Shakuni (who had accompanied his sister to live in Hastinapura), feel even more frustrated and helpless.


The second part of the story is with the next generation.

When we interact with others, we are simultaneously communicating in two dimensions -- abstractions and expressions. Abstractions represent the ideas that we are processing in our minds, while the expressions represent the emotions that we are feeling.

Cognitively, we are hard-wired to catch and imbibe others' emotions even without our knowledge. This is called emotional contagion. This is even more so with children. Children are far too ill-equipped to process our ideas, but have native abilities to imbibe and internalize our expressions.

Which is why, when we bring up our children, it is very important to be mindful of how we are feeling, in addition to what we are telling them.

From this perspective, the Kauravas have the saddest story ever. Right from the day they were born, they were subject to the intense feeling of frustration and victimhood by their father and uncle. These emotional states were so deeply ingrained in their minds that they practically became embodiments of those emotions!

They never got to learn who they were as individuals. They never got to experience happiness that characterizes our fundamental nature. All their happy moments were entailed on a bedrock of frustration and victimhood.

It is only when Krishna realized this, that it became clear to him that war was the only option. There is no way to reason about peace with a person who does not have an innate understanding of peace. There is no way to appeal to a person's happiness when they do not innately understand happiness.

It is somewhat like trying to reason with a suicide bomber or threaten them with punishments. When our hermeneutics -- or the basic framework of reasoning -- does not know the existence of essential elements like peace, trust, empathy, etc. it tries to interpret everything within its own bounded framework of victimhood or frustration, and ends up with wildly inaccurate conclusions.

And when such minds with damaged hermeneutics occupy a position of power, there is no way one can bring peace or uphold dharma without battling them.

This is just the same problem we face today with terrorism or religious extremism that seeks to rule the world according to a rigid belief system that is based on segregation, discrimination and hatred of the "other".