A Wile E Coyote Theory of Religion

January 16, 2020

I was listening to the BBC’s In Our Time program / podcast, and it had an episode about the rapture, the Christian belief that at some point God will physically carry people away to heaven:

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the ideas developed by the Anglican priest John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), drawn from his reading of scripture, in which Jesus would suddenly take His believers up into the air, and those left behind would suffer on Earth until He returned with His church to rule for a thousand years before Final Judgement. Some believers would look for signs that civilization was declining, such as wars and natural disasters, or for new Roman Empires that would harbour the Antichrist, and from these predict the time of the Rapture. Darby helped establish the Plymouth Brethren, and later his ideas were picked up in the Scofield Reference Bible (1909) and soon became influential, particularly in the USA.

At one point, one of the panelists said that Vice President of the United States Mike Pence has gone on record saying that he believes in the Rapture, and literally, not as a metaphor. The panelist also said that while many people believe in the rapture, we shouldn’t worry too much about this affecting their actions.

I scoffed and rolled my eyes a bit when I first heard this claim, but after about five minutes, I realised that it was actually plausible. After all, we humans have an amazing capacity for hypocrisy, or to put it in more polite terms, to ignore cognitive dissonance as long as we can get away with it. Even when we believe or know that some things are inevitable or so likely as makes no difference – asteroid strikes, climate change, an earthquake on the Cascadia fault line – we carry on regardless.

As Terry Pratchett put it:

[…] one particular planet whose inhabitants watched, with mild interest, huge continent-wrecking slabs of ice slap into another world which was, in astronomical terms, right next door — and then did nothing about it because that sort of thing only happens in Outer Space.

Yudhishtira telling the Yaksha that the greatest wonder in the world being that everybody knows that death is inevitable, but that they behave as though they will live forever may be one very specific example of our ability to behave as though the future will never happen.

So, yes, your beliefs, logically applied, would lead you to behave in one way. And yet you behave in another way. It happens all the time. To take a trivial and prosaic example from my own life, I knew for a long time that if I made mushrooms along with an omelette for breakfast, it would make me happier. I would buy a box of mushrooms, too. And then, for an entire month, I would wake up in the morning, get the eggs out of the fridge, and completely ignore the mushrooms until remembering after having eaten my breakfast that it would have been much better with mushrooms. Just knowing something doesn’t lead to action.

It makes you wonder about Socrates, who claimed that once somebody knew what was good, they could not act otherwise. Considering all the examples to the contrary, the possible explanations are:

  1. Socrates had superhuman self-discipline, or
  2. Socrates had somebody else to make mushrooms for him, or, to put it in more general terms, Socrates knew what was good, and delegated it to other people

But so much for refutation. Let’s get back to where this train of thought had started, the Rapture, that is. As I said, my personal experience, and the history of the human race points to the face that religious people can believe something, and still act as though it isn’t true.

For a certain kind of atheist, of whom Richard Dawkins is probably the prime voice, this can be exasperating and infuriating. It’s as though the inconsistency is even more annoying to these atheists than the theism itself. How dare these religious believers enjoy the fruits of science, complain these atheists, while completely denying the basic tenets of science? How can you refuse to believe in evolution, while still benefiting from all the pharmaceuticals that couldn’t have been developed if the theory of evolution didn’t check out?

And yes, inconsistency is annoying. But complaining about this inconsistency is a terrible idea. If humans have evolved to the point where they can hold two contradictory opinions together, then for the most part it means that everybody is getting on with life. As long as our brains are performing their superb job of compartmentalisation and keeping us away from cognitive dissonance, we are like Wile E Coyote, blissfully chasing the Roadrunner. Jesus could only walk on water, but we can run on thin air.

If you point out that somebody’s religious belief is inconsistent with their modern way of life, you run the risk that they’ll give up the modern way of life rather than the religious belief. It is like pointing out to the coyote that he is no longer on solid ground. Gravity will take over.

Obviously, this is very disturbing, because pointing out to religious people that their beliefs are disproved by reality is a great source of joy, or if not actually joy, at least smugness. If we give it up, where will we get a substitute source of joy, or at least smugness, in its place? I have no answers yet, but I will keep searching.

Saints, Transhumanists, and Death Eaters

October 9, 2017

In the past few years, my regular reading and podcast listening included:

And a few months ago, I realised that all these books and articles and episodes, which I had read as part of regular subscriptions, or unconnected curiosity, shared a common theme, and a theme, in fact that was linked to my reading from ten years ago: the Harry Potter series. That theme is the quest for immortality, and the pushback against it.

This will require a little bit of detail. Allow me to explain, because summing up will be inadequate. Let’s start with the Peter Brown book.

Reading The Cult of the Saints, you find out just how weird early Christianity was2. There were all sorts of different sects, any holy person could wander off and start his own, and, of course, there was the role the saints played after their lives.

According to The Cult of the Saints, the fact that Christianity made room for saints rather than just holy men was one of the things that helped it spread far and wide (even if with inconsistent practices), especially compared to Judaism. Judaism enjoined you to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which was an onerous task in the ancient world. But with Christianity you could always go to the closest shrine of a saint.

What truly connects the early saints to everything else I mentioned, though, is what people believed about their lives and deaths. Which was this: that the saints weren’t as dead as ordinary people.

The gleaming white shrouds, the incense, the strict control of demonstrations of grief were a triumphal reminder of Christ’s triumph over “black death.”

The “shining way to Paradise” of Christian art and liturgy had in no way rendered translucent the facts of death for the average Mediterranean man.

Hence the emotional force that thrust the graves of the martyrs into prominence. Here, at least, were the graves of the very special dead. They had died in a special way; they lay in the grave in a special way; this fact was shown by the manner in which all that was most delightful and most alive in late-antique life could be though of as concentrated in their tombs and even (perhaps, as we shall see, particularly) in detached fragments of their dead bodies.

The late-antique cult of the martyrs represents, therefore, a consistent imaginative determination to block out the lurking presence, in the cemeteries of the Mediterranean world, of “black death.”

Their holiness meant that their remains didn’t decay3, and that their extant, non-decaying remains made their gravesites sources of powerful holiness that you could tap into to get your wishes fulfilled.

Peter Brown writes further that eventually – with the Protestant reformation and especially the Puritans – Christians came to look on death as natural and sweet grace, but this was very far from how Christianity had started out:

… the distance between early-modern Christian attitudes to death and those applied in late antiquity to the cult of the martyrs. The martyrs had triumphed over death; the iconography of the saints in late antiquity made no attempt to encompass “grim death” and “sweet grace” in one symbol. As Andre Grabar has written, “The imagery of a martyr’s relics is never in any case an imagery of the memento mori; rather it strives by all means in its power to proclaim the suppression of the fact of death.”

This was the first connection I drew: that the attitude of early Christians towards martyred saints was much like the admiration a Death Eater would feel towards Voldemort for managing to overcome death4.

I, who have gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality. You know my goal – to conquer death.

And it was the early modern Christians who took up a more Dumbledorish view of death:

And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life.

Did the obsession with longevity or immortality transitioning into an acceptance of peaceful death happen only with Christianity? I haven’t read enough to say about, for example, Judiasm, Islam, or East Asian religions. But in India, Jainism talks about Tirthankaras having extraordinarily long lives; so a conflation of holiness and immortality is there too. And in Hinduism, where you find all sorts of contradictory statements depending on where you look, we have:

  • The claim that lifespan keeps dropping as we move from the Satyuga into the Kaliyuga; so that longevity is a desirable thing, but one that is associated not just with individual effort, but with the age and environment as a whole
  • As a counterpoint, we have the Mahabharata where Aswatthama is cursed with three thousand years of immortality; in which he will suffer all manners of disease and wounds; while also being isolated from any human contact – again, echoed by Voldemort’s shadow existence in the Harry Potter books.

suppose that the closest Greek myth comes to immortality and warning against it is the story of Orpheus trying to pull Eurydice out of the underworld and failing. But as I said, I’ve not read enough.

Let’s move on now to Hannu Rajaniemi’s trilogy. Because of his simultaneously admirable and frustrating way of never spelling things out so that you, the reader, have to do a lot of the work, it took me some Googling and Wikipedia reading to realise that the Jean le Flambeur trilogy is set in a world that took the ideas of early twentieth century Russian cosmists and set about making them real:

Fedorov argued that evolutionary process was directed towards increased intelligence and its role in the development of life. Humanity is the culmination of evolution, as well as its creator and director. Humans must therefore direct evolution where their reason and morality dictate. Fedorov also argued that mortality is the most obvious indicator of the still imperfect, contradictory nature of humanity and the underlying reason for most evil and nihilism of humankind. Fedorov stated that the struggle against death can become the most natural cause uniting all people of Earth, regardless of their nationality, race, citizenship or wealth (he called this the Common Cause).

Achieving immortality and resurrection of all people who ever lived are two inseparable goals, according to Fedorov. Immortality is impossible, both ethically and physically, without resurrection. We can’t allow our ancestors, who gave us life and culture, to remain buried, or our relatives and friends to die. Achieving immortality for individuals alive today and future generations is only a partial victory over death – only the first stage. The complete victory will be achieved only when everyone is resurrected and transformed to enjoy immortal life.

Fedorov stated that people needed to reconcile the difference between the power of technology and weakness of the human physical form. The transition is overdue from purely technical development, a “prosthetic” civilization, to organic progress, when not just external tools, artificial implements, but the organisms themselves are improved, so that, for example, a person can fly, see far and deep, travel through space, live in any environment. People must become capable of “organodevelopment” that so far only nature was capable of.

(Wikipedia: Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov)

Clearly, Fedorov took things much further than the early Christians (who believed that only saints could conquer death) or the Harry Potter mythos (in which anybody can conquer death but only Voldemort did); and prescribed conquering death for everybody. Without giving detailed spoilers, let me say that Rajaniemi’s books are about how the consequences of this actually happening are horrible.

And more interestingly, the Wikipedia page claims that Fedorov and the other Russian cosmists are the link between Christianity (though the Russian Orthodox flavour and not so much the Mediterranean late-antiquity flavour) and current day transhumanism. That is to say, the cosmists started off from Russian Orthodox Christianity, and came up with cosmism; and cosmism then inspired modern day transhumanists.

I won’t quote in detail from the New Yorker piece or EconTalk episodes, because the links above are free to read or listen; but current day transhumanists and life-extenders certainly do give off a vibe of having decided that any technological means necessary to end death are worth pursuing. To be fair, the article and the podcast both do draw distinctions between the sort of transhumanists who want to increase the quantity of good health and the ones who want to eliminate death altogether, but even so, there is a substantial number of people out there who seem unwilling to accept the finiteness of life.

The New Yorker piece does end with an equivocation about how the human race has always wanted to live longer while also seeing beauty in death; but I think the Peter Brown quotations above show that the two impulses may not have been equal at all times, but ebbed and flowed.

But it has certainly been there for a very long time, I realised recently. Because, in the period of laziness between realising this connection, and actually writing it up, I coincidentally came across one more literary work where the tension between chasing immortality and accepting death, and that literary work is supposedly the first ever piece of human literature: The Epic of Gilgamesh. The In Our Time episode on The Epic of Gilgamesh describes how Gilgamesh, horrified by the death of his friend (and perhaps lover) Enkidu, journeys across the world to find the immortal Utnapishtim and learn how to be immortal himself; only to be told that immortality is no longer on the shelf, and to be content with a life well lived. And Gilgamesh accepts.

Perhaps the transhumanists are right, and this time is different. But if they are, they will be running up against, and overturning a preoccupation that has been with us as a species since we created culture, and one where for the most part, we’ve been on the side of accepting death. Who knows just what painful changes we’ll need to make, to adapt to life without death?

Hope, Faith, Love

August 14, 2017

About a month ago, I read Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues. What a book! In a year where I have read so much great nonfiction, this stands out for voice, ambition, scale, and provocativeness; and I feel that this is one of those books that influences you for life.

There is so much happening in The Bourgeois Virtues and I am so badly out of touch with writing long and focused articles that I can’t do justice to the whole book here. I will say that there’s lots to agree with, lots to disagree with, and even more to go back and reread before committing myself to agreement or disagreement. But for now, here is a quick reflection on the bit of the book that affected me most personally.

McCloskey speaks of seven virtues, and divides them into the four classical or masculine ones:

  1. Justice
  2. Prudence
  3. Courage
  4. Temperance

And the three Christian and feminine ones:

  1. Faith
  2. Hope
  3. Love

At present I can’t say if the reasons she gives for calling them feminine or masculine are faff or not. So let’s not get into that. Let’s not also get into whether her definitions, or expositions, of the virtues are valid or not, and simply take them at face value. What I found interesting was how she chose to talk about the three Christian virtues.

Faith, says McCloskey, need not necessarily be religious faith. Instead, she gives it (among other definitions), a definition that sounds very close to sanskaar. She says that it is a sense of connection with the past, or where you come from, or where you are rooted. So it need not be faith in God, or your church, or your religion. Even a sense of nationalism, or connection with something you were born with, or into, will qualify as faith.

Hope, she says, is the forward looking twin of faith. It isn’t concerned with where you came from, but where you think you’re going. It’s a positive feeling about the future.

And love need not be romantic love. Family relationships, kindness, charity, and any feeling of wishing well for another whether or not you get anything out of it counts as love, according to The Bourgeois Virtues. That’s possibly the widest (and some would say vaguest) scope of the three virtues, and accordingly, the most interesting.

Now, most of the book left me feeling excited but also skeptical and thinking I should read it once (or many more times) again. But the description of these three feminine virtues left me feeling a bit shaken.

Why so? Because looking at my surroundings and circumstances, I find it hard to have faith, even in the expansive way McCloskey describes it. India and Delhi in particular are short on empathy, and heavy on filth and pollution. The religion I was born to, even if it started with magnificent philosophical underpinnings, is now characterised by superstition and pettiness, and the horrific taint of the caste system. Even if I take refuge in having been born into Arya Samaj, a relatively progressive corner of Hinduism, the past few years have left me with the gloomy conviction that Arya Samaj has moved from reforming Hinduism to being coopted as an apology for its excesses to those who want further reform. (That probably needs a blogpost in itself). At best, my faith can be tied to my family’s success and values, but even that requires careful cherry picking and ignoring all the shit my relatives have pulled (fraud, passive aggression, wastefulness, financial insecurity, getting themselves conned, and more). But perhaps those tiny patches of success could form a foundation for faith.

What about hope? Well, it’s there in the short term. But, again, as I look at the world, and see temperature rise hurtling past two degrees Celsius, my hope for the long term is also dwindling.

Which means that the only (feminine) virtue left to me is love. Oh no. Five years ago, I couldn’t have imagined that wishing my fellow humans well was the only path to a virtuous existence. Even today, I feel I would be happier if half the human race didn’t exist (and with the exception of about two hundred people, I wouldn’t really care which half disappeared). And with such an absence of a proclivity for love, I still have to take it up as the only way to lead a useful life.

Well, I had better get to it then.

Artificial Insemination and Drona

July 2, 2017

There are many, many claims in the genre of “All modern technology is to be found in the Hindu scriptures”. They include:

  • “Pushpak Vimana in Ramayana shows that our ancestors had aeroplanes.”
  • “Deadly weapons in Mahabharata show that our ancestors had nuclear weapons.”
  • “Shiva cutting off Ganapati’s head and then replacing it with an elephant’s shows that our ancestors were skilled transplant surgeons.”

All of these assertions are annoying for a variety of reasons. One major one is that a literal reading of the epics makes us think that our ancestors were fabulous scientists and engineers (except for the vital matter of documenting their procedures) while devaluing their skill as creative writers. Another reason is that the corollary of claiming that your ancestor was a brilliant scientist who invented powered flight or interspecies head transplants, is that you are forced to admit that your slightly more recent ancestor was an idiot who lost the knowledge so comprehensively that you had to wait two thousand years for somebody else to invent all this. But so it goes. But there is one assertion which is annoying not only because of the above reasons, but because it is so contrary to reality. I speak, of course, of the claim that the birth of the 100 (plus one) Kauravas, Drona, and Satyavati shows that our ancestors knew all about artificial insemination and cloning.

Specifically, these births are:

  • Satyavati: The king Vasu was called away from his palace and his queen. Never really getting away from this cockblock, he ended up ejaculating while thinking fondly of his wife. He directed the ejaculate on to a leaf, and requested a friendly bird to deliver the payload to his wife. Unfortunately, en route to the palace, this bird was attacked by an eagle, and ended up dropping Vasu’s semen into a river, where it was swallowed by a fish, who then gave birth to Satyavati. (Actually, she didn’t give birth. Satyavati was maintained in utero until the fish was caught by a fisherman, at which point the infant Satyavati was pulled out whole.)
  • Drona: When Bharadwaja went to bathe in the Ganga, he saw the apsara Ghritachi and was so overcome at hear beauty that he ejaculated. Being a neat and orderly person, instead of letting his bodily fluids out anyhow, unlike some current day cabinet ministers, he did this into a pot, called a drona. Out of this semen, and thus, the pot, Drona sprang forward.
  • The Kauravas: at least the conception was reasonably normal here. Vyasa impregnates Gandhari, who then remains pregnant long beyond the expected nine months. In exasperation, she strikes her belly, miscarries a lump, and then the lump is divided into a 101 pieces, placed into jars of ghee, and the lumps then germinate into the 100 Kauravas and there sister.

Because all these births are so removed from the usual way of making babies, some people feel that the Mahabharata shows impressive knowledge of assisted reproductive techniques and human reproduction.

No, you fools! It shows nothing of the sort. What it does show is that both the Mahabharata and you are ignorant of the basic way in which human reproduction works. At least Ved Vyasa lived in an era before human reproduction was studied scientifically. What excuse do you have for not paying attention during the Class IX biology class on Life Processes II? Even if you went to one of the schools where the teacher skipped the chapter out of sheer embarrassment, you could have read it yourself in your free time.

The thing about human reproduction is that it needs a human sperm and a human egg. What we see from the stories of Satyavati and Drona, is that the Mahabharata thinks that all you need is semen. This was a common misunderstanding back in the day. Aristotle, too, claimed that only men had generative capacity, while women were mere incubators. Reading the Mahabharata in translation, chapter after chapter suggests that the view it has of human reproduction is that semen is like a plant seed. We know today, of course, that a plant seed too is formed from fertilisation of two different gametes; and that the comparable analogue to a seed is not semen, but a fertilised egg. But the Mahabharata didn’t. This is such a fundamental and conceptual shortcoming of knowledge that it would make reproductive technology impossible. Where assisted reproduction is concerned, there’s no wiggle room to claim that the ancients had the knowledge, but the not-so-ancients lost it. The ancients didn’t even have the knowledge. With what they knew and recorded, it would have been impossible to make a baby. At least with pushpaka vimanas you can conspiracy-theorise that there was a flying machine, but all documentation on how to build it was lost, and there is no archaeological trace of actual vimanas, but that art and literature are enough proof. Here, the art and literature directly refute the possibility.

Can we at least claim, then, that the weird births of Satyavati and Drona are poetry, or symbolic, or allegory of some sort? Where the Satyavati story is concerned, it’s so full of weird details that I can’t even draw a well formed allegory out of it, and have to conclude that it was just a total storytelling trip. But maybe with Drona, there is a moral to be drawn.

I made the claim above that the Mahabharata thinks that biologically, only semen is needed to create a baby. But it would have taken wildly obtuse people to completely ignore the empirical reality that children do inherit the traits of their mother. So perhaps, in the worldview of the Mahabharata, semen is sufficient to create a body, but the body is imprinted with traits from whoever gestates it.

In Satyavati’s case, this means that she smells of fish. So it goes. But what of Drona? He doesn’t even have a fish-mother, and is born out of a pot. I think that this is a foreshadowing of his personality – filled with rage, carrying grudges all his life, and although born a Brahmin, acting like a Kshatriya.

It’s as though, born without a mother, Drona is also possessed of no feminine – or at least what stereotypes portray to be feminine – traits. He lacks compassion, humility, and and a sense of proportion. Karthikeya aka Subramanya aka Murugan too is born of semen alone, and ends up being the god of war. But he at least has adoptive mothers – the Kritikkas and eventually Parvati. Drona, born and brought up without either female nature or nurture, can only put his immense knowledge and training towards ultraviolence.

This too, is stereotypical and melodramatic, but, hey, at least it’s a step up from making a human being without an ovum and then germinating it inside a fish.

Different Boons

May 24, 2015

Last November, I started reading the K M Ganguli translation of the Mahabharata (the only English translation of the complete, unabridged Mahabharata before Bibek Debroy completed his translation).  Seven months on, I’ve only managed to finish the Bhishma Parva. On the one hand this means that I’ve finished everything leading up to the war and ten days of the war itself. On the other hand there are twelve out of eighteen parvas to go. In all this while, I’ve read nothing else; and this month I finally decided to take a break from the Mahabharata just so that I could read SevenevesThe House That BJ Built, and Royal Wedding.

And since I’m taking this pause, I might as well use it to write about something I noticed in the first six parvas – that is, that the boons various characters receive from various gods and goddesses play out very differently.

  • Boons granted by Shiva or Brahma: Usually, these boons are won by demons through severe austerity or devotion, after which Brahma or Shiva rewards the petitioner with an excellent boon. After that, the recipient of the boon uses it to terrorise the natural order, and finally Vishnu (on in one case, Durga) has to step in and exploit a loophole in the boon to restore status quo. Examples: Ravana, Mahishasura, Bakasura, and so forth. The only exception I’ve seen to this pattern so far is Shiva’s boon to Amba that she will be transformed into Shikhandin in her next birth in order to slay Bhishma – with this boon, there is no interference by Vishnu.
  • Boons granted by Indra or Agni: Indra or Agni ask Arjuna to go to war with somebody. In Indra’s case, this is the Nivatakavacha asuras. In Agni’s case, Agni asks Arjuna to battle Indra himself, so that he can burn the Khandava forest without worrying about Indra’s rain putting out his fires. Once Arjuna has successfully won his battles, these gods grant him weapons.
  • Boons granted by Surya or Savitri: Somebody will ask for a boon. Savitri will say “No, I will not grant you what you are asking for. But instead I will give you this. Accept it graciously.” What Savitri promises eventually takes place. And then, through a series of coincidences, that will lead to what was originally asked for.
  • Boons granted by Shakti (Mahadevi or Durga): These are straightforward. You ask for something. You get it. But perhaps you bring about the dawn of Kalyug in the process.

I wonder which of these story structures arose out of poetry, which out of allegory and metaphor, and which out of plain old sectarian “My god is better than yours”.

Why Hindutva is Like Dog Breeding

January 31, 2014

I have had an insight. Admittedly it was one of those insights which you get at 1 am when you can’t sleep because you had the last cappuccino of the day a little too late in the day; but despite the circumstances in which it arose, I think it is a valuable insight. And it is basically this: the two extreme views of what Hinduism actually is correspond exactly to the two extreme views dog lovers have about how you should go about getting a dog as a pet.

Explaining the analogy means I will have to first provide context.

For many years, I was mystified by the fact that Hindutvawadis could hold these two beliefs simultaneously:

  1. Hinduism is really awesome
  2. Hinduism is under grave, horrible threat and must be preserved at all costs from any combination of:
    1. Sickular Media
    2. CONgis
    3. Love Jihad
    4. Vatican Missionaries
    5. The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty
    6. Ramachandra Guha
    7. Twitter Secret Santa

These simultaneous beliefs would manifest into calls for legal and illegal action against anybody who criticised or denigrated Hinduism in any way, no matter their actual intent.

I, and other likeminded people would be bewildered and say things like “If Hinduism is so great, surely it can withstand these very minor criticisms.” In fact, it was really polite people like Salil Tripathi who would say such things. I used to say much more outrageous things like “Boss if Hinduism is this vulnerable to criticism, why are you even bothering with something so weak? Start practicing a more robust religion like Islam or Thor-worship or some such. Persisting with Hinduism can only lead to tears and misery as you watch it collapse around you.”

It was not until this month that I realised that this argument was totally pointless because it assumes that we were thinking of Hinduism in the same way. We weren’t. I was thinking of Hinduism in the way that Gautam John and Anoopa Anand think of Indian Pi Dogs. They were thinking of Hinduism in the way that pug owners regard their pugs1 (or actually, any purebreed dog, but pugs are fashionable these days, so the analogy becomes clearer – and actually more forceful, as we’ll see later on). In fact, considering how loaded the terms Hindutvawadi and liberal have become these days, using the terms Pug view of Hinduism and Pi View of Hinduism might actually be more enlightening in the general discourse2. More so if you consider that Hindutvawadi could refer to actual behaviour or actions, while Pug View and Pi View very clearly refer to mindsets.

If you are Good Guy Gautam, or somebody similar, then resilience, health, and being robust are necessary conditions of being awesome. You think pi dogs make great pets and companions because they’re healthy, active, and friendly. A wide genetic stock, you feel, allows for a pleasing variety of very resilient specimens. Extending the analogy to religion, what you like most about Hinduism are the practices or beliefs that are easy to live with and carry on, and its ability to absorb influences from other religions if they’re good ideas. 

But if you’re on the other extreme, you’re not bothered about health and resilience at all. What you’re concerned about is pure breeding, even if the result of this breeding creates an animal that is so strangely shaped that more than two out of every three of its kind have diseases that are directly traceable to its weird shape. The strange, disease prone, almost nonviable form of the pug (which, along with the modern bulldog, exemplifies selective breeding run amok) is a feature, not a bug, because it makes the pug look so cute and distinctive.

Extending this to religion, the weirdest parts of Hinduism, that make it so difficult and cumbersome to practice, and which also seem so totally pointless to the disinterested observer, are precisely what the devoted but threatened promoter of Hinduism thinks are the whole point. It is irrelevant that fasting for your husbands’ good health, letting your own or other peoples’ gotra or caste influence your decisions, practicing a sattvik diet, or going through elaborate rituals to qualify as a proper Hindu have not made them happier, more prosperous, or more productive than the rest of the world that has happily gotten along without all these.  It is because it is difficult to maintain, easy to go wrong, and serves little purpose, that this sort of Hinduism is so valuable – it shows that for hundreds of years, you’ve managed to keep something largely unviable going in its pure form.

Actually, an obsession with purity is the kinder interpretation of why the Pug View of Hinduism likes the bizarre bits of Hinduism so much. I could be more conspiracy minded (like the Pughindus themselves) and suggest that they want Hinduism to be this unsustainable so that, like a pug, it is completely dependent on the owner and in its power. But this would be mean. Besides, there’s some other support for the hypothesis that it’s driven by an obsession with purity: their insistence that Hinduism is a way of life and not a religion and so you can only be born a Hindu and can’t become one through practice.

It also is supported by how horrified Pughindus are at the thought of other Hindus doing anything that is not found within Pughinduism, no matter whether this activity is good or bad. A Pughindu is appalled at people playing Twitter Secret Santa because it might be a covert attempt to spread Christianity. It doesn’t matter that by playing secret Santa you have successfully detached the gift giving part of Christmas from the accepting Jesus Christ as your saviour part of Christianity. It also doesn’t matter that the more people who aren’t practicing Christians go around wishing others a merry Christmas in a spirit of goodwill and warmth, the more it actually changes Christianity from the violent and genocidal religion that Hindutvawadis say they hate, to an actual religion of brotherhood and love that can’t threaten Hinduism with genocide. It doesn’t even matter that prosocial behaviour like gifting is correlated with an increase in happiness for the gifter and not just the giftee. The suggestion of cross breeding and tainting the bloodline is enough to horrify them.

Tragically, this obsession with purity puts Pughindus makes the suffer from dreadful envy and a Catch 22 situation. By keeping their vision of Hinduism pure, they have made it either impossible, unappealing, or too time-consuming to practice; and thus people keep deserting it in favour of Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Buddhism, or secular humanism. Worse is when these people keep mocking Pughinduism for being so odd; which then leads to them crying up and down3 about how Hinduism is threatened; much as pug owners keep crying up and down about veterinary bills.

Which means that Pughindus see Islam in particular the way pug-owners see Indian street dogs. Pug owners look at pi dogs, and envy their robust good health, and wish that their pug were as healthy and capable, but are horrified at the thought of breeding their pug with it, or even letting it into their houses. The Pughindus are miserable when they see the united front that Muslims appear to present, and wish that Hinduism itself had it4, without realising that it is the type of Hinduism they practice that makes it impossible to present that united front.

Also, if you agree that the Pug View of Hinduism looks at Islam the way posh people think of street dogs –  healthier, gregarious, but also dirty and not something they want around – you will suddenly understand why a certain analogy that compared massacre victims to a puppy under the wheels of a car makes perfect sense.

Meanwhile, Pihindus, who are quite happy to practice a mongrel Hinduism with lots of cross breeding in its pedigree are not concerned about the health of their Hinduism at all, and don’t suffer this agonising envy. About religion, anyway. They might feel envious about other things like smartphones or whatnot.

But the upshot is that while they share a religion, Pughindus and Pihindus see it in completely different ways. And until this fundamental disagreement over what it is they are actually talking about is resolved, nothing useful can ever  come out when they talk about their own religion. There will be only noise and no light, until we have a reformer who can talk to the two sides, explain the difference they have that must be reconciled, and perhaps, bring about the end of the religious equivalent of puppy mills. Until then, we will keep struggling on, talking but not understanding. It is very sad, but there it is.



1: Full Disclosure: Some months ago, I had a highly unpleasant meeting with somebody who, over the course of the meeting, whined about not enjoying their holiday in the Philippines because it was so third world, about how they didn’t want to take up their only job offer because it was in Mumbai which was unsafe compared to living in the Delhi family home, and how their undergraduate class in Delhi was full of uncool students from small town India and Delhi University should reserve seats for people from Delhi who otherwise wouldn’t even be able to get in with high marks (which I found a particularly staggering demand considering that this person had gone to America for their MBA). The person in question also had a pug, which was paralysed, and in a heart rending display of the problems only the very rich face, kept slipping while attempting to walk, because the floors in the house were of marble. It is possible that I am now contemptuous towards pug owners as a class, based only on my animosity towards this one spilling over.

2: This may seem like a really arrogant expectation, but ‘Sainath Fallacy‘ has now slowly started being used by a wide variety of people on Twitter, two years after I coined it. So it may soon make the jump to mainstream media; and Pi View and Pug View may follow a similar trajectory. I can dream.

3: The phrase ‘crying up and down’ is of course one that was much beloved by HIM. It is used in a spirit of focusing the mind on the divine, but should not be allowed to degenerate into mere idol worship. Even after HIS departure, we have found HIM in other manifestations.

4: When Pughindus wish that Hindus were united, the subtext is that other Hindus should become more Pughindu and do the hard work of changing their lifestyle by, for instance, going vegetarian or spending money and time on elaborate rituals or pilgrimages. Pughindus never consider working for Hindu unity by becoming like other Hindus who, when they hear Radha, dance instead of entering an outraged frenzy. This insistence on other people doing all the hard work has a parallel in the way it’s usually Indian pug owners’ domestic servants who have to clean up the pug’s poop.

That Radha Song

February 11, 2013

Last year, I managed to get three Hindi songs stuck in my head, or on my playlist, for extended periods of time. (In 2013, the only one so far has been Khamakha from Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola.) The first one was Subha Hone Na De from Desi Boyz, and that happened because it was what me and friends flashmobbed the Kodhi-VaiBa wedding reception with. The suggestion to use Subha Hone Na De had come from Pushy – thanks to him, the image of Deepika Padukone looking shattered at having her trust violated is now indelibly marked on my brain. The second song is Abhee Naa Jaao Chhorrh Ke (अभी न जाओ छोड़ कर). That kicked in just after the wedding, largely because the song’s wistful desire for a tryst to be just a little bit longer seemed to capture my feelings about having to leave Chennai and my flat there. Then, for about four months, no Hindi song particularly stuck, until the morning of Bhai Dooj, when I heard Radha from the Student of the Year soundtrack for the first time, courtesy my brother, who likes to have a Bollywood radio station on when he’s driving.

While this was the first time I’d heard the song, it wasn’t my first exposure. For a couple of weeks before Diwali, my timeline on Twitter would, every so often, break out with people (particularly @CookyDoh and @ShwetaKapur) tweeting the lyrics of the refrain. I’d also heard that a bunch of jobless wastefellows (such as this one) had been outraged at the lyrics saying that Radha had a sexy body because saying such things about goddesses is Not Done. But the controversy and the tweets had left me thinking that the song itself was a piece of disposable dance pop, and not worth actually listening to. Oh, how wrong I was.

Because while my earlier earworm, Subha Hone Na De, is inane lyrics carried on the backs of just as inane tune and musical arrangement, and makes me confess my addiction to it in a guilty, shamefaced manner, Radha is above that. True, the tune is simplistic and the synthetic trill after ‘राधा तेरी नटखट नजरिया (Raadhaa teree naTkhaT najareeyaa)’ is particularly grating. But the lyrics, oh, the lyrics! They’re iconoclastic and cheekily feminist, and turn this piece of dance pop into an unlikely anthem for freethinking, For the next few paragraphs, I am going to share my thoughts (and I admit freely that these are possibly far more thoughts than the song warrants) about the lyrics. So here we go.

Assume first, as many believers do, that the Kanja and the Radha of the song are also the Krishna and Radha of the Krishna-and-the-Gopis myths, and moreover, that that Krishna is also the Krishna of the Bhagvad Gita. (Scholars of language and myth will point out that the Gopi stories and the Bhagvad Gita probably came from different times and places, and later on fused so that two very different characters became a single Krishna-as-Supreme-Being. And now, having assumed all that, consider the repeated punchline: ‘But Radha wants more!’

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that the entire universe, all of creation in fact, is contained within himself. (Pssst. Note how I managed to bring in a Vishwaroopam connect.) There is nothing outside of, beyond, or greater than Krishna. And you don’t have to look only at the Bhagavad Gita for this: there’s also the story where Yashodha angrily opens baby Krishna’s mouth to see if he’s been stealing butter, only to find that he has the whole universe inside his mouth, after which she freaks out.

And with this background, we suddenly find Shreya Ghoshal’s backup vocalists claiming that Radha wants more. More than the universe! More than all of creation! Either she’s insatiable, or she’s rejecting the notion that Krishna encompasses everything there is – and in the process, overturning the Bhagavad Gita. See what I meant about the iconoclasm?

But there’s more than just the refrain. Pay attention to the rest of the lyrics, and you’ll discover a Krishna and Radha dramatically different from the Amar Chitra Katha or Ramanand Sagar versions. In ACK, Krishna is the centre of attention, with hundreds of gopis vying – pining, in fact – for his louw, and Radha just happens to be the one gopi who’s most attractive to Krishna. Other men don’t enter the picture. The song, though, flips things around – now Kanha is the one pining for Radha, and Radha is the one with the pick of lovers, because she has the whole town running after her (पीछे पीछे सारी नगरिया , peechhe peechhe saaree nagareeyaa). Krishna is now just another guy, and not even particularly interesting.

And that particular line about the whole town running after Radha is something that gets me geeking out even more. Krishna has to settle for rustic gopis. But Radha has a pick of urban and presumably urbane city slickers. This is a bigger deal for me than for other people because of my severe antipathy to the countryside and its people, but looking at migration trends and the preferences they reveal, I’m clearly not alone in this.

Even without value judgments about the relative merits of being chased by country bumpkins (bumpkettes?) as opposed to city slickers, Radha looking for (or rather, at) options other than Krishna remains a revolutionary idea. Another of the old Radha stories talks about the parting of Radha and Krishna, and describes Radha being upset, but accepting (or to use the desi phrase, adjusting) and telling him that if he must leave he should at least thereafter be known as Radhakrishna and not just Krishna, so that his name is forever a mark of their love.

This is a remarkable lack of ambition. Of all things in the world, Radha only wants to be remembered as the one who Krishna loved the most (and vice versa). Think about it for a little while, and it’s alarmingly short on self esteem if your greatest desire is to be defined i relation to your (ex-) boyfriend. Also, considering I personally know one Radhakrishnan P, but a Krishan Agarwal, a Krishna Sundaresan, a Krishna Thirungavedam, a Krish Ashok, a Krish Raghav, and several Krishnamoorthis or Krishnamanis, the ambition was never even realised. In the song, though, Radha can’t be bothered. She’s ready to look for other people, who aren’t so boring, or whose approach to romance isn’t harassment (भूलेगा तो सताना and छेड़े है हमका दैया are the lines I mean). This Radha is a player, not a doormat. Meanwhile, Krishna, totally at a loss, is reduced to persuading Radha to be with him because she won’t find anybody else (मिलेगा न कोई सावरिया, milegaa na koee saawareeyaa), and because everyone knows that they’re meant to be together (सारी ही दुनिया यह मानी है, शुरू हमसे तेरी यह कहानी है, saaree hee duneeyaa yah maanee hai, shuroo hamse teree yah kahaanee hai). And not because, you know, he possesses any good boyfriend qualities. The song’s Krishna is utterly useless.

And despite this utter devaluation of Krishna, the only thing religious nutcases found to protest about was Radha’s body being described as sexy – protests which were neatly sidestepped by rereleasing the song with ‘sexy’ replaced by ‘desi’, and nothing more. It reminds me of what Douglas Adams wrote about the Sirius Cybernetic Corporation’s products:

It is very easy to be blinded to the essential uselessness of them by the sense of achievement you get from getting them to work at all.

In other words – and this is the rock solid principle on which the whole of the Corporation’s Galaxy-wide success is founded – their fundamental design flaws are completely hidden by their superficial design flaws.

Similarly, the song’s superficially outrageous lyrics conceal its fundamentally outrageous lyrics. Genius.

Personally, I find the transmogrification of Radha’s sexy body to a desi one to be one of the few instances where a censored version of something is as naughty (and possibly naughtier) than the original. A sexy Radha body isn’t particularly interesting, but a desi Radha body conjures up images of a dark-skinned, long limbed young girl, perhaps with a Bangalore accent. Ahem. Pardon me while I fan myself.

But now, the bad news. Despite the intense badassery of the song, I expect it to have zero impact. Zip. Nada.

This is not because the song’s potential for radicalising the masses is visible only to my fevered mind, though that possibility can’t be ruled out either. No, even if it turns out that everyone else is reading between the lines in the same way that I am, nothing’s going to come out of it.

The reason for that is the way Hinduism, and Vaishnavism in particular, deals with threats: it co-opts them. (If I recall correctly, Sir Humphrey Appleby had independently discovered this technique.)

It works like this: faced with something that challenges the status quo of Hinduism, you start claiming that in fact, due to Hinduism’s inclusive nature, it is actually already part of Hinduism. The catch is that it’s important enough to be acknowledged, but not important enough to be allowed to change mainstream practices or status quo.

Faced with atheism? Point out the existence of the Carvaka school of philosophy, while gliding over the fact that its teachings never became mainstream, and are never discussed today except for the fact of their existence. Buddhism? No worries, declare that the Buddha is actually an avatar of Vishnu – and in the process you make the Vishnu cult even stronger. This is reminiscent of how Shang Tsung gains power by absorbing the souls of the warriors he’s defeated, but I digress. For an intramural example of Vaishnavite co-option, there is the way Iyengars turned Ganapati into Thumbikai Azhwar.

So with this horrendous track record of Vishnu-bhakti assimilating its challengers into a Borglike collective, I expect that the eventual fate of the party loving Radha will be to be upheld as Hinduism’s token independent woman. People will say “But of course Hinduism has a feminist side to it! Look at how Radha turned down Krishna! And with that established, please get back to exalting gods for their creepy woman-attacking ways!”

Tangentially related, there was an old Devdutt Pattanaik column that started doing the rounds again on twitter recently about how Indian Hindu myths are full of examples of both womens’ bodies being treated as somebody else’s property, and of women being people in their own right. Pattanaik asks rhetorically why Hinduism is so often placed on the defensive and made to answer for its misogyny instead of being applauded for its positive female characters. The rhetorical answer to that is to point out that the misogyny is central and the positive women are footnotes.

That may be because Hinduism’s assimilative, acquire-everything nature has no filters on what it assimilates. And when it assimilates every idea it encounters, without any concern about their ethical content, the nastiest ideas end up beating the other ideas out in the quest for mindspace, in a sort of Gresham’s Law of Memes. This is probably why every reform movement that has challenged hierarchy – Sikhism, the Arya Samaj, the Brahmo Samaj, and what have you –  has caught on, expanded the liberal space a little, added adherents, and then sunk into stasis. It makes me pessimistic, and worry that the only way to shatter the Vaishnavite death grip on societal renewal is the Kulothunga Chozha method.

Pessimistic as I am, there’s a small mercy that can’t be denied: in the face of all this co-option, Radha will still have a beat that you can dance to.

Software Development Models and Weddings

June 23, 2010

In comments, BJ says that he has a fair idea of why I think TamBrahm weddings are like ERP implementations, and asks me to confirm his suspicions with a post on this. I don’t know if he is zinking what I am zinking, but here goes.

As someone who had only seen Arya Samaji weddings (and also one sardar wedding) up until the age of 21, I was utterly flabbergasted the first time I saw a TamBrahm wedding. The whole point of Arya Samaj was that if you were going to involve yourself with religion, you should bloody well understand what you’re getting into. So if you don’t speak Sanskrit, the priest must translate everything, and give a proper explanation while he’s doing so.

In contrast, at TamBrahm weddings (and any religious ceremony for that matter – we did a bhoomi poojan at the Kanchipuram factory with local priests), the involvement of the concerned parties is minimal. They just sit around while the priests chant stuff they don’t understand.

This makes TamBrahm weddings very much like the common, or garden-variety ERP implementation. The ERP consultants are parallel to the priests. Because nobody can understand them, you have to take their word for it that they’re experts and know what’s going on. Then, there is a long and painful period in which the priests/ ERP consultants do lots of stuff that looks impressive, but nobody actually knows if it’s accomplishing anything. Finally, they collect their fees, and leave the company/ happy couple to sort things out on their own.

Extending the analogy, Punjabi Arya Samaji weddings are like installing Windows. You’re given the opportunity to read the whole end-user license agreement and cancel if you’re not happy with it. But everyone is so excited about the bling and cool new features that they skip reading it, or just nod along to whatever the shastri says and install it. After the honeymoon period, you suddenly realise that this thing is taking up far more resources than you’d anticipated.

North Indian Sanatan Dharmi weddings are like the Apple App Store. Everything looks incredibly cool and blingy, but the license agreement is completely opaque and nobody has any clue what they’re getting into.

Living in is like installing and running Linux without a GUI and only with a console. And that too by compiling the source with gcc and not from some cool Ubuntu disc or Red Hat Package manager. It seems hardcore and revolutionary, but when you get down to the specifics, is really just a lot of housework without any bling.

The analogy has now gone far enough. That’s it for the post.

Saxon Engineering

March 22, 2010

I had mentioned in the post about my February reading that Tom Holland’s Millennium addressed the issue of how Christianity and monarchy spread throughout Europe after 800 AD. While it addresses the issue of how Scandinavia and the Vikings became Christian, Germania was converted before 800 AD, so the book doesn’t deal with that. I had to rely on Wikipedia to inform me that Germany became Christian thanks to the work of Theodosius, who outlawed paganism altogether. Constantine merely made Christianity official without actually persecuting the traditional religions.

The whole thing makes me very wistful. On Twitter, I have often said that anything will sound more badass if it is said in German; and the badassery of German Engineering is also widely acknowledged. If only the Germans had retained their Pagan religion, the sheer coolness of the cultural context would have made their engineering even more badass. I for one would delight in driving a Polo even more if I knew that Volkswagen had invoked Wotan and Donar while designing it. And if the resolution of quality defects or poor after-sales service involved battle-axes, even better. And I am quite sure that in such an ideal world, advertising would include Valkyries.

The other thing is that according to Millennium, the Scandinavians were persuaded to convert to Christianity by the Germans. So if the Germans themselves had never converted, the Norsemen (and women) would today be raising flagons of mead to Baldur and Thor.

Extend the implications of this a little further. Back in the 1950s, Jawaharlal Nehru and King Gustav of Sweden signed an economic co-operation treaty, as a result of which Pune is the India (and even Asia) headquarters for a bunch of Swedish companies. It has the offices and manufacturing facilities for Atlas Copco, Sandvik, ABB, BASF, and probably even more companies I can’t recall right now. Now imagine that Scandinavia remained pagan, but everything else stayed the same, including the economic cooperation agreement. Pune would still be a Swedish centre, except now the Swedes would now not be Protestant Christians but Vikings.

It would be awesome, especially if they joined in with the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations. Picture a host of fur-clad berserkers escorting their Ganesh idol to the local lake; all the while chanting invocations to Vinayak… but with umlauts! And think how awesome the cheers and waves would be during the home matches for the new IPL team. Boat Club Quiz Club sessions would be even more entertaining, because every so often they would get to see a longboat bursting into flame as it carried the soul of a recently deceased expat manager to Valhalla. And assorted Marathi Manoos Senas would probably be far more circumspect about beating up immigrants if the immigrant was inclined to suddenly turn around and use the Marathi Manoos to make a Blood Eagle.

Unfortunately, it is not to be. India’s power cuts will never be addressed by a Mjollnir AB, labour organisers will not start industrial disputes in the name of Loki, and Ajay Shah will never get to campaign for full convertibility of the rupee against the gold ring. The Maytag repairman will not occupy his free time by stringing up Roman legionaries with their own insides; Krupp will not forge steel using their knowledge of Nibelung-lore, and Bayer will not patent pharmaceuticals using the knowledge of their druids.

It’s a cruel, harsh, dispiriting world; and it’s all Theodosius’ fault.

The (Uncertain) Glory of Amla

October 25, 2009

The Padma Purana contains the following story about the amla fruit:

Once upon a time, a chandala went into the forest for hunting. He hunted many deer and birds. Feeling hungry, he saw an amla tree and climbed up the tree. This way he satiated his hunger by eating sweet amla fruits. Unfortunately while he was climbing down the tree, he fell down and died. When the attendants of Yamaraj arrived to take back his soul, they could not do so even after repeated attempts. The attendants of Yamaraj became very surprised and went to the sages for clarification. The sages revealed to the attendants that they could not go near the chandala’s dead body, because he had eaten amla just before his death.

Such is the glory of amla!

I don’t know if this is a problem in the original text itself, or only in the English translation, but one crucial question remains unanswered – what happened to the dead guy afterwards? As far as I can see, the glory of amla is that it’s a Yamdoot repellent. What did it do for the unfortunate hunter?

Yamraj and his flunkies can’t take away the soul, so now the poor chap is stuck with a dead body and a soul that can’t move on. What happens next? Does he become a ghost that can’t move on? Does he wait for the effect of the amla to wear off so that Yamraj can collect his soul? Is that even possible, given the glory of amla?

Or – and this is the coolest alternative – does his soul re-animate the corpse and does he become a Puranic zombie hungering for braaaaaaiiiiiiins? Like Pride and Prejudice, Adi Shankaracharya’s debates with the members of the other sects would only become more awesome if they were attacked by zombies. (Pssst). (Also, pssst, this one via Kunal),

It is tragic that the Padma Purana (or perhaps its translators) did not inform us more. If dying while eating amla has adverse consequences, we would be able to take the appropriate precautions.