Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Why should I perform rituals?

Often I hear questions like "What is the purpose of performing _____?",  "What do I gain by performing ___________", mostly from TamBrahms.  Fill up the blanks with any ritual - from Sandhyavandanam,  Sarasvathi Pooja or Amvasya Tharpanam.  The usual answers can be broadly grouped as:

a.  It is good Karma.  If you perform it, the Gods or the ancestors would be pleased and would make sure your life is smooth.  I haven't met a person who is clear about what or who this God is.  There are readymade answers like omnipotent, omnipresent, etc etc.  And talking of ancestors, I haven't met a person who knows beyond the name of his grandfather's grandfather.  It doesn't convince me for I know Karma is too complex a phenomenon that I don't bother to understand.

b. There is (pseudo) science behind it.  If you perform Sandhyavandam, it is a good exercise, works on your neurons to make you do your Math better.  Why do you think the earlier generations of TamBrahms were so good at Maths and Science?  I know a handful of TamBrahms who were very good at Maths and Science, but am not sure if they performed Sandhyavandam regularly.  In fact, some of those who used perform it religiously were struggling to get out of poverty.  They couldn't care much about Science or Maths.

So, I wouldn't give these reasons to the next generation of TamBrahms.  But I discovered a nice explanation, that is appealing to me.  My explanation has no belief in it, nor does it have any science in it.

Our rituals have a definite pattern to it.  Let me take the case of the various pooja that we do or the last rites for a departed.  The imaginary God or the ancestor who's in the performer's mind, is invoked in a physical object or a person.  Symbolically offerings are made to the object or the person.  In the absence of exact flowers or food items, alternates can be offered. The whole ritual is symbolic.  I would compare this to a child's role play.  A bit romantic, very comforting if you can observe the feeling.

Dig a little deeper. You might find nuggets of geography, history, tribal beliefs and what not.  As you perform and start observing, you get a picture of the culture that made you as who you are.  Of course, none of these are obvious and can't be taught.  Gain some interest, observe it, try to find the origin of a custom, it gets more and more interesting.

My uncle who was a history teacher had a theory that a section of TamBrahms migrated from the southern banks of Narmada.  He referred a shloka that is part of Sandhyavandam that is specific to the Vadama community.  He may be right or wrong, but it opens up a thinking and if you are passionate about history, you can start tracing it.

I had performed most of the rituals just for the experience.  The discoveries happened over time.  It can happen to you too.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Let's walk a few steps together

I saw this man waiting near the postbox near my home.  He was looking for someone.  He was getting ready to walk.  As another man came near him, they both started walking.

A very common event, that we come across almost everyday.  We walk together with others.  I wonder at the ability of our brains to do something as simple as walking together.

Walking, by itself demands a lot of coordination between the brain and the limbs.  That's out of scope for this blog.  Other than that, a lot of processing goes on in our brains to walk together.  The first one is to identify the other as someone related.  Note that we don't attempt to walk together with total strangers.  This is followed by continuously adjusting the pace of walking.  The brains of both the walkers continue to go through this process.

Do animals exhibit this capability?  Dogs do, probably due to their long association with humans.  With other animals, this is a rarity.  A herd walking together isn't the same as two individuals walking.  For a herd,  the direction and the pace is controlled by an external agent.  It could be a shepherd herding them together or a predator chasing them.  If a member is left out, the herd doesn't usually wait for the left out animal. Elephants could be an exception in this case.  Elephants exhibit a social behavior similar to humans.

Simulating walking-together on robots could be an interesting problem to solve.  That would be just a simulation.  For humans, it is involuntary.  The simple social skill is hardwired in the brain.

Hindu myths give importance to this social skill

  • Savithri refers it to Yama when Yama takes away her husband.
  • In Mahabharata, Yudishtra takes a dog as his friend as the dog walked with him.
  • Hindu marriages treat walking together for seven steps as a lifelong friendship and companionship.  At the time of marriage, the couple take seven steps and say:

"By these seven steps you have taken with me, you have become my best friend. I will never move out of this relationship. God has united us in this bondage. We shall perform all activities together with love and affection and with good feelings. Let us be friendly in our thoughts. Let us observe our duties and rituals together. If you are the lyrics, I am the music. If you are the music I am the lyrics. If I am the heavenly body You are the earthly world. While I am the life source and you are the carrier of the same. I am the thoughts and you are the speech. When you are like the words, you work with me who is like the meaning of it. With your sweet words, come with me to lead a prosperous life begetting our progeny with children."

Closing this write-up with a beautiful scene from the movie Gandhi.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Two Policemen

"I owe it all to the two policemen.", said Balram with a smile.  I looked at the two policemen sipping tea at the next table.

"No, I don't mean them." continued Balram.

"How old are you?"

"Mmm... thirty."

"Yeah, you wouldn't know.  You must have been five or six then.  There were these two policemen from Haryana."

He paused take a bite of sandwich.

Balram was in his early fifties, fond of talking.  He must have had lot of friends during his younger age.

"These two policemen were caught snooping on Rajiv Gandhi.  Apparently they were sent by a Haryana strongman to spy on Rajiv.  Rajiv got upset with the government that he was supporting. He promptly decided to withdraw his support."

"Chandrasekar was the PM, he had no option but to quit.  I liked Chandrasekar.  A very sad looking man, as if he had all the worries of countries in his head."  he chuckled.  "And I also think he had enough of it.  Just a couple of years earlier, V P Singh back-stabbed him.  You should have seen Chandrasekar's face when Devilal proposed VP's name for Prime Minister-ship.  And eventually when Chandra got to be the PM the economy was in terrible state.  For debt servicing, the country had to pledge the gold reserve.  Conservative people like my parents would have had heart-attack - pledging gold for debt servicing.  Where were we going?"

I looked at my watch.  Balram didn't notice or chose to not notice.  He wanted to talk.

"Rajiv gets assassinated during the election campaign.  Who'd have thought Narshimha Rao would become the PM.  The man had retired from active politics, shifted to Hyderabad for a relaxed life, feeding pigeons."

"But he was brilliant.  Look at the way he handled Pawar, Arjun Singh, Pranab and other oldies of Congress.  He kept his enemies close by, watching them all the time.  I liked him a lot.  He knew eight languages and chose to spoke none."

Balram was on a roll.  I know he's not going to stop till he covers all those years between Rao and now.

"With empty coffers he had no option but to open up the economy.  And that's when us, the middleclass saw a ray of hope.  We could look for jobs in multi-nationals and don't have to wait for a bank job.  There were just two jobs for a fresh graduates then.  If you had studied science, you become a medical representative.  If you had done commerce, you can try to be a bank clerk.  I must say, the competition was too much."

"The economy opened up, people put in their money in stock market.  There were jobs like Finance controller, CFO that people like us would have never dreamed of.  But for that change, I would have been an auditor in Nagappattinam auditing accounts of wholesale dealers and beedi manufacturers."

I again looked at my watch.  This time he noticed.  "Wait.. we still have time."

"I got to be a finance controller.  I came to know of terms like insider trading which I'm sure my father would have never heard of in his eighty years."

"But for that opening up of the economy, do you think we would have seen this prosperity?  Look at the way the middle class spends the money.  We can't get a seat in this restaurant during the weekend.  We all got greedy.  The owner of this restaurant must have greased the palms of enough  government officials even to run this business. It all started with those two policemen."

He was getting bitter.  I saw the policemen getting up.  One of them turned to Balram.

"Sir, we must go now.  Your hearing would start in the next 15 minutes."