Saturday, February 25, 2006

Gyan-Vigyan I

“India Shining!” Not withstanding the politics surrounding this phrase, very few people refuse to accept that we are doing well. Since 1990, in addition to successfully facing the MNCs that entered our country, our companies are now venturing out into other countries and competing for their markets. Contrary to what a few cynics want us to believe, it is not just our software industry that is doing well, Indian Industry is doing well.

Of course we do have frequent, well founded, warnings from a few wise men that our much highlighted achievements should not be reserved to the service sector, and that we should have more Indian companies that compete with the world in manufacturing sector. Some believe that we need to build 'Made in India' to the level of 'Made in Japan', and if economics don't recommend such a goal, we should settle for making 'Made by India' as the benchmark for quality.

Considering the success of a few institutions in achieving something in this area, realizing such a goal does not appear to be an unreasonable expectation. Many in the present generation earn much more than our previous generations did, and more importantly many enjoy comforts on par with the rest of the world. We pride ourselves in having beaten the Chinese in one area since 1990, we are now a 'BPO Superpower'. Unlike in the manufacturing sector, where the Chinese had an early lead over us, it is not just manpower and low-wages that count, language matters. And that is our advantage: we are an English-speaking nation!

And that precisely is our problem: we are an English speaking nation. We, the descendants of the oldest civilization (no one has proved otherwise, so we ARE), prefer to call ourselves by a name given by some one in Greece. We prefer to conduct much of our official transactions in English, rather than in our mother-tongue. Though we are one of the best in the service sector, much of our population never benefits from it.

We pride ourselves for having some of the world's best graduates in Science and Engineering, and from my limited experience in the US, our pride is not misplaced. And this is the area where the problem is the most acute. We learn science in English and restrict our scientific debate to English. It remains an alien field for most of us, irreconcilable with our culture, a culture that we claim was scientifically the most advanced of its age- but we only claim that, we do not believe it enough to express the current scientific knowledge in our languages. Of course we have schools teaching science in local languages, but we force every one aspiring for a career in science to shift to English. So our efforts in this direction have only been half-hearted to this date.

We know the number system that our ancestors conceptualized by the name of some one else who learned it from us. This demonstrates the deplorable state that we have allowed ourselves to get into. It is time we remedied this state before it is too late. If not, we have enough examples in the present world to imagine where our future lies. The Arabs enriched their culture from the scientific knowledge that they gained from our ancestors, and so did the Europeans who came out of their Dark Ages and went on to rule the world. Accessibility of scientific knowledge to everyone, along with its internalization with one's culture, is necessary for a civilization to achieve the technological progress similar to that of any civilization that dominated the world in its age. If we fail to do so, we might still grow rich and strong but can not achieve a position similar to that of our ancestors.

Many mistakenly believe that our languages lack the vocabulary for much of scientific terminology, all the while failing to realize that it is our inability to integrate the modern science with our culture/language that makes it difficult to engage in scientific debate and spread the scientific knowledge in our languages. It is we who have to enrich our language by integrating scientific terminology into it, expecting our ancestors to have thought of terms for modern science is escapism at best. Most of us believe that our languages are better than English (spelling-pronunciation being a simple test for the doubtful), but still we do not feel compelled to do something to improve the situation, probably because most of us considered it an unimportant issue.

Had the Arabs and Europeans not translated the knowledge of Bharat into their own languages, could the Europeans have made those significant scientific and technological advances that brought such prosperity to their lands? Would the world be what it now is?

We should remember that the Airplane was first built not by any institutionally funded research group, but by two bicycle shop owners. Nor was the light bulb invented by a person with a host of formal degrees in science or engineering. Neither would've been possible if science was limited to Samskrit or even Latin. Much of our population considers science as a western concept, and hence against our culture. Another manifestation of the rift is the wide-spread tendency among the educated community of refusing to acknowledge scientific thought shown by those with no formal higher education. If we want to lead the world and live up to our heritage, we need to immediately attend to the widening rift between our culture and the scientific knowledge that we cannot live without. Science is our livelihood, Culture is our life. It is in our own interests to not let them be at opposing ends.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Wealth of Traditional Knowledge System

Yoga schools, teaching, CD’s, videos and magazines constitute a multi billion dollar business in US which is twice the software exports of India to US today. Despite Yoga being a product of India, not a single paisa comes to India. Worse, it is not even acknowledged as Indian. It has become purely an American business. Churches are quick to appropriate Yoga into their fold and now there is Christian Yoga.

In 2004, US patent office granted a patent on a sequence of 26 asanas to an Indian-American yoga practitioner. You might wonder or express disbelief. How could anyone claim ownership over a 5,000-year-old tradition? But, unfortunately that is the state of affairs in the world today.

Actually this is not a single such case. For example, 80% of 5,000 patents on plant-based formulations granted by the US in 2000 were of Indian origin. This is only in the category of medicine and there is more to the list if we take into account of other cultural products such as food, architecture and other oral knowledge passed down from our ancestors.

Two prominent cases which India fought successfully in recent times are patents on neem and turmeric.

US government filed a patent application on neem tree at European patent office in 1990 and was granted patent in 1994. Neem, having its origin in India has been used for centuries as an insecticide, medicine for humans and animals and in cosmetics. How could such common sense medicine be patented? The issuing of patent was challenged by environmental activists calling it a biopiracy. Finally after 15 years, the case was won in favor of environmentalists and the patent was withheld.

In 1995, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), India challenged a US patent on turmeric granted to two non resident Indians associated with University of Mississipi Medical Centre. Turmeric is a common medicine in Indian households and has been used for thousands of years for healing wounds and rashes. CSIR won the case and the US Patent Office cancelled the patent.

Indian traditional knowledge system is vast and largely under-explored by today’s Indians. However, it has been under scanner by western countries for long time. With the help of intellectual property rights and patent laws, West is making a great use of our traditional knowledge for their benefits. Imagine if turmeric was patented, your mother would be infringing US patent laws if she applied it to heal your wounds.

Who are to blame for all these? Westerners who are hawkish on anything to mint money out of it or ourselves who are incapable of recognizing value of our traditional knowledge system?

I believe part of the problem lies with us.

There are Indians whose minds are still colonized. They trash any traditional knowledge system as regressive, primitive and anti-modern. Anything that is Indian is a shame to these people.

And there are generous and calm Indians who think knowledge is for sharing among all humans alike. Not at all bad actually, but these people have not woken up to modern challenges of global business.

Colonization still rules prominent Indian minds. Otherwise, how can anyone explain the fact that we are not taught anything about Indian traditional knowledge system in our schools?

In my experience, it is difficult to answer whenever Koreans asked me if I practice Yoga. My answer is negative as is the case for many Indians. ‘Isn’t it taught in schools in India?’ I am asked. My answer is negative again. They find it difficult to believe my answers, for Korean traditions are taught in their schools.

In this season of secularism, I have no hopes of seeing Indian education undergoing a reformation to teach at least some important aspects of our tradition.

Well, let me not digress into educational reforms.

Is India doing something to safeguard our traditional knowledge systems?

Fortunately, yes.

CSIR scientists led by their chief, Dr R A Mashelkar in collaboration with bureaucrats and intellectual property lawyers have initiated a project to safeguard intellectual property of Indian traditional knowledge system by making it digital. Some excerpts from the news are reproduced below (first link in references).

“Over the coming months, India will unveil a first-of-its-kind encyclopedia of 30 million pages, containing thousands of herbal remedies and eventually everything from indigenous construction techniques to yoga exercises”

“The Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) aims to prevent foreign entrepreneurs from claiming Indian lore as novel, and thus patenting it.”

“Already, the CSIR is creating databases on traditional Indian foods, indigenous architecture and construction techniques, and oral tribal knowledge, in what Dr. Mashelkar calls "defensive protection".

Yes, being defensive is the first step. But why not make business out of our traditional knowledge? Shouldn’t we be doing what we are good at?

If we setup state of the art traditional knowledge based institutions (Yoga, Architecture, Ayurveda and Meditation to name a few) in India and abroad, that would generate a lot of wealth for India.


India: Breathe in, and hands off our yoga

TKDL- A safeguard for Indian traditional knowledge by Nirupa Sen

The U-Turn Theory: An Introduction by Rajiv Malhotra

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Gods and Goddesses in Hinduism

Gods and Goddesses in Hinduism

The Gods and Goddesses in Hindu dharma has always been a subject of curiosity and for much time a thing to ridicule for abrahamic religions. The sheer number of them i.e. 330 million is just baffling. Among Hindus themselves, beyond the dreary statement of “all gods are representation of same Ishwara (supreme God) you will not get much explanation or understanding about it. Here I will attempt to give a simple view of Gods and Goddesses in Hinduism, their divine powers and functions, hierarchical setup, correct terminology and how common men are influenced from them.

The Hindu system of Gods can be easily understood with a simple comparative study with administrative body of any country. I have drawn parallel between hierarchical setup of Gods and administrative body to drive this point home. To start with I have put a simple sketch of administration of a country in Figure 1. It consists of multiple tiers beginning with lowest one being home and highest one being head of the nation.

An individual is always associated with three important entities, parents, family and friends who form essential characteristics of his identity. This combination forms an envelope or sphere through which he interacts with the outside world. The character and knowledge of an individual is heavily influenced by this sphere. Hence the interactions of an individual in outside world and his success greatly depend on the knowledge he has gained from these three entities of sphere.
Outside this sphere comes the society or the world whatever you call it. It consists of neighbors, wards, villages, towns, districts, states, nations and beyond. These entities have been organized in the form of a multi tiered administrative body in order to ensure smooth functioning of all the elements of society and ensure prosperity, freedom and protection. This body is built in such a way so as to help an individual in day today life to function better and achieve his desired goal and at the same time help society/nation to develop further. Each of the constituents of society have a distinct place and function in the multi tiered administrative system. Each tier of this administrative body is under the control of higher tier but functions independently within the set guidelines. So to say, the higher tiers hold an indirect control without interfering in the day today affairs of local bodies. The relationship of person with this body is of give and take. Individuals pay tax towards administrative services and in return expect to get security and good atmosphere for socio economic progress. The place of person in society is decided by his reach towards the higher tiers. As an individuals reach extend further from first tier to second and higher, he carries more weight in society and gets better privileges and often exerts influence over the lower tiers. The entities of the first tier (village/town) form the fundamental unit of multi tier system. Hundreds of such tiers form a second tier (state), in turn many second tiers clubbed together constitutes the third tier (nation).
The first tier consists of various elements of society with whom an individual interacts in day to day life. This includes neighbors, civil servants, doctors, engineers, laborers, farmers, vendors, police, domestic animals, etc. Various antisocial elements like, robbers, thieves, terrorist, etc also form a part of his life. This tier is generally known as Village/Town/County and forms the first pillar of multi tiered administrative body. Common men have the maximum interactions within this tier, and probably more than 99% never make it beyond this tier. Since most of the people are well aware about actual functioning of this tier and those above it, namely second tier (state) and third tier (nation) I will not discuss more on it.
Now with this background to administrative body, we’ll have look at the Hindu system of Gods and Goddesses. Using a similar approach as above, I have given a multi tiered pictorial representation of Hindu system of Gods below.

With the creation of universe, variety of species and forces came into existence. In order to facilitate smooth functioning of universe, maintain order and guide the highest evolved souls, the Human beings towards their ultimate goal of mokshya, the creator formed an extensive system of divine administrators called Devatas (Gods and Goddesses). Since the Atman has entered the material life in the form of human being, it represents a fallen state from eternal Brahman, and the individual has to overcome the balance of karma in order to return back to the higher state. Here Devatas play a vital role in guiding an individual to live life according to the four principles of sanatan dharma (namely Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksya) and also help an individual to achieve things beyond his personal capacity, facilitate material and spiritual progress and provide protection, guidance in day to day life. The human beings would worship different devatas by means of prayers and offerings and in turn devatas would fulfill their wishes using their variety of supernatural powers or siddhis.. These Devatas were organized in form of different tiers or levels based on their power, function and have wide ranging authority over day today functioning of individual’s life and the universe. This multi tiered system is discussed below in detail.

Like in the case of material world, an individual in spiritual world too have an intimate sphere or envelope through which he interacts (or should) with outer spiritual world. This sphere is formed by, the Kuladevata (family deity), Gramadevata (village deity) and his peetres (ancestors).

The peetres are the deceased ancestors of a family, though they don’t come under the category of devatas, they are at a higher level than human beings and are capable of guiding their decedents towards right path and means. They have the strongest bonding towards their family and hence would do everything possible for better of their offspring’s, though they don’t have much supernatural powers. Also they are dependent of their offspring’s for getting proper position in peetrulok, hence if offspring’s fail to honor their duties, peetres feel pained and will bring bad fortune for the decedents. Most of the Hindu families have means to interact with peetres through a spiritual guru’s and get to know their inclination.

The next and the most important figure within the sphere is Kula-devata. Every hindu family has specific family deity and is common to a kula (lineage). Kuladevata can be superficially compared to a family doctor. Just like family doctor knows health of each family member, their ailments and hereditary diseases to which they are prone, Kuladevata knows the full karma of the family, the bad and good that has gone over the generations, and their likely repercussions. Kuladevata’s main purpose is to protect the family and guide members towards overall prosperity. After peetres, Kuladevata is the next most attached entity towards the family, since the devata doesn’t have much function beyond their own kula. Most of the interactions with Kuladevata are via the Kuladevata temple priest, and deity can offer solution to almost any problem associated with persons life or sometime refer to a higher level devatas. Good rapport between a person and his Kuladevata results in enormous benefits in material and spiritual world. In troubled times, Kuladevata is the main solace for man, and throughout Indian history there are enough examples of kings and queens obtaining help from the deity. Just like kids who are in embrace of parents are protected, families under the embrace of Kuladevata are always under divine protection. It is the beauty of the Hindu system of Gods and Goddesses that every family has a devata to attend to day today material and spiritual needs exclusively.

The Gramadevata or the village deity also constitutes important part of a person’s intimate sphere. The Gramadevata is the care taker of complete village/town. This devata controls most of the super human spirits within the first tier and protects the community from evil forces. The deity provides protection or warns about impending danger to the community from any natural or supernatural forces. For an individual, Gramadevata can offer precious advice towards his interactions with higher tiers

Outside this sphere comes the vast range of super-human spirits and devatas, the Gods and Goddesses. They are well organized in the form of multi tiered body similar to the administrative body of a nation. Each devatas have well defined role in this system, lower level devatas who interacts extensively with individuals to higher level devatas, who exert an indirect influence. We will deal with them in from of different tiers

The first tier is the most extensive one and common men have the maximum interactions with it. This sphere includes vast number of super-human spirits and devatas, such as Yakshya, Yakshini, Dakini, Bhoota, Vetala, Naga, Jaladevata, Sati, Bhairava, Krutya etc. Sometimes they are spirits of the place (the crossroads, the boundary line), spirits of those who die a violent or untimely death, and serpent spirits. They are worshiped in the form of earthenware icons or shapeless stones, established in simple shrines or on platforms set up under a village tree, and only occasionally in more imposing buildings. All over India you will find n number small temples below tree, near river, roadside, entrance of village devoted to these lower level spirits and devatas. These are actually under the command of higher tier Gods or are local representatives of them, but most of the times act independently unless there is direct command from superior. Since these are lowest level of devatas, they will do anything possible for someone who worships them, irrespective of good or bad. Along with usual offering used during puja, they are often worshipped using lower level offering like, meat, alcohol, etc. They bring prosperity to people who worship them and trouble their enemies even if they are innocent. However they can’t harm any individual who are under protection from their superior devatas. Village mantric and tantrics generally worship these spirits and hold sway over common people. Individuals who solely worship these deities never ever are able to rise higher in spiritual level, and after death become companions of these deities. They wield enough powers to affect the day today life of individuals and can become a great nuisance if they are against someone, or someone directs them against you. They are easy to be won over using simple offerings and worships. The moral conduct of worshippers of these deities is seldom worth of a look, and this alone is self explanatory. However just like in administrative body, the local contacts in village/town deserves respect/attention to get things done, as they are the ones who finally execute orders received from superiors, local deities in village/town needs to be given enough respect to get immediate protection/help when need be.

The two devatas mentioned earlier, namely kuladevata and gramadevta has an immense role to play in this system. Since they have powers almost equal or more than Tier-I deities, they can provide protection against any harm from Tier-I deities. Here comes the importance of good rapport with kula and grama devata, in absence of which individual can go through lot of hardship (even if they worship much higher tier devatas, explained later)

The second tier consists of much superior deities compared to Tier – I. They include King of Gods (devas), Indra along with other devas like, Agni, Yama, Varuna, Vayu, Kubera, Ishan, Naitruti, Navagraha and their companions like, Gandhrva, Kinnara, Apsara etc. They ensure smooth functioning of the universe. It is duty of the human beings to worship these gods and give them offerings, and in return these gods will bring prosperity to the worshippers. Worship of these gods needs much higher standing of moral values and conduct. These gods upon worship can fulfill almost any material wishes of the devotee and help in spiritual progress.
Just like Tier-I devatas, these are also dependent on offering from the human being and failure to do so can provoke anger from them. During most of Hindu ceremonies and rituals, most of these devatas are invoked and offerings are made in order to obtain their blessings. often attends to their devotees through Tier-II devatas. The dependence of devatas on human being ends here. The higher tier devatas or more correctly Deva/Devi are complete in themselves, and function only to provide supreme rewards to the worshippers without much interfering in day to day life. All the lower tier devatas follow the orders from them, and most of the time wishes of devotees are fulfilled through them.

In Hindu system of Gods and Goddesses, for every aspect of individuals needs there are various devas/devatas, like Kubera/Lakshmi for wealth, Ganapati/Saraswati for knowledge, Ashwinikumar for health/medicines, Vishwakarma for construction Navagrahas for past life doshas. Individual desiring excellence/boon in a particular area can attain so by worshiping a particular devata/deva.

The third tier consists of three most important devas/devi’s responsible for the existence of universe along with their companions. They are Brahama-Sarasvati, Vishnu-Kamala (Lakshmi), Shiva-Parvati, with their companions, Ganapati, Kartikeya, Narada, Garuda, Dashaavatara (like Nrusinha, Varaha - Rama, Krishna), Dattatreya, etc. Worship of the higher order devas/devis like, Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, Hanumana, Gayatri, Kartikeya, Lakshmi, Ganapati, Dattatreya, is generally practiced for overall material/spiritual boons beyond the reach of lower tier devatas. The common practice of worship include, daily puja, reading of 1000 names or specific text- Strothra (like Shree Suktha, Saptashati, Ramcharitamanas, Rudradhyaya, etc), Havan/Yagnya, vrata (keeping fast) etc.

One need to be very careful with regards to the worship of higher tier devatas and expected result out of it. Though these devatas are very powerful equipped with all mahasiddis capable of bestowing almost anything to the worshipper it takes lot of time and effort for an individual to develop a connection with them. The worshipper needs to follow yama and niyama as best as possible and raise his/her spiritual level. The results of years of worship depend on the moral/social conduct of the worshipper. An ordinary worshipper hardly makes any progress or sees any visible benefits even after decades of (sincere?) worship. So in case of emergency people often find that they are deserted and blame the devas/devatas for not helping them in times of need. Finally he blames god and gives up worship all together and becomes atheist. Here comes the importance of kula and grama devatas who can provide emergency help on time. To say it in simple way, people try to develop good rapport with chief minister/governors (which doesn’t work out for >99% of public throughout their lifetime) ignoring the local administrators who are exclusively posted to serve them. So in times of need neither local administrator have good connection with you nor do the higher authorities know you, so you feel deserted and loose faith. Best is to know where you stand, whether it is material world or spiritual world, don’t have any illusions or false pride!

Considering this particular problem a special arrangement is made in order to have direct interaction of the worshipper with higher tier devatas, and this is called Temple. The Temples has the maximum deva/devata presence possible compared to any other place. Along with the presiding devata of the temple, many other lower tier devatas will also be associated with the temple who acts on the orders of presiding devata. All ordinary people with no spiritual ability to barge into the higher tiers of devatas can have the best possible interaction and give offering to their favorite devatas. The temples can be considered like government emergency aid centers for impoverished public. Finally, to whatever extent one worships the Gods and Goddesses, you need to know what maximum can be expected. More on this will be in my next post (Upasana – Our Worship)Another important aspect of Hinduism is the presence of numerous “God realized souls or Saints’ and “Avatari Purusha (incarnations of God)”. They constitute an important part in the dialogue between human beings and devatas. Almost in every village or district in India there will be or would have been some such Saint and general public will get immense guidance in their pursuit of material and spiritual progress.

Above all these tiers comes the last one, which is of the supreme creator Ishwara along with his companion Maha-maya. Only with the blessings of Ishwara, can a soul reach to a stage of self realization and ultimate mokshya. Maha-maya puts an invisible barrier in between dnyan and adnyan which keeps the ordinary individuals in the cycle of birth and death. With the help of lower tier Gods and Goddesses, an individual can slowly raise himself higher in spiritual level and finally come close to Ishwara. All other tiers can be bypassed if someone is out of material world and have direct interactions with Ishwara through Omkar meditation.

With this I will conclude my description on Gods and Goddesses in Hinduism. I will update it once more if need be for some of the points that might have been missed out. Feel free to post your comments or mail me : dgporob at gmail dot com.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

An Outsider at JNU

The moment one enters Jawahar Lal Nehru University (JNU), opposite the first bus stop, one finds a heap of trash, definitely not a good advertisement for the citadel of left-wing ideology. However, as one ventures further inside, one finds quite a beautiful campus marked by dilapidated buildings. One can't shake off the impression of being inside a loss making PSU (public sector undertaking), the kind that Mumbai based business magazines would like to get rid of.

The annual fee for any course at JNU is less than Rs. 500/-, though a technocrat would wonder why anyone with sense would opt for a course like Persian studies or the Study of Social systems. The government spends a few lakhs on educating each student, but in my opinion, a cost/benefit analysis of the spending on the various teaching and research programmes at JNU could yield a negative result. The career options at JNU are limited to NGOs and media houses, a majority of which are foreign funded, which is ironical, as foreign capital in the technology sector is taboo for a majority of the students of JNU. As a friend from the Delhi School of Economics mentioned, the red flag has always attracted the educated unemployed who are unfit for wielding either a hammer or a sickle.

Another interesting feauture of JNU is the number of posters dotting the walls of all (without exception) buildings. According to my estimates, the amount of paper spent on preparing the posters should provide enough fuel for the mid-day meal scheme of a rural school for a year. AISA, AISF, SFI, NSUI, ABVP, I'm afraid if I keep rolling out the abbreviations, all possible permuations that can be formed from the letters of the English alphabet would be exhausted.
The student unions can be broadly divided into three categories based on the three major ideological groups, the left (CPI (X), where X can be substituted for M, M-L, etc..), Indian National Congress (NSUI) and the Sangh parivar (ABVP). To be fair, the left student unions are intellectually better equipped than either the NSUI or ABVP, which favour rowdyism to rational debate.

Two popular words that attracted my attention and can be found in almost all the posters at JNU are 'demand' and 'protest'. This provides insights into the mentality of the student unions, all sound and no fury. A lot of empty vessels, all of them, unfit to produce leaders who can actually solve problems instead of creating them. But the most devastating feature of present day JNU is the ubiquitous mobile phone and a universal consumerist class that a typical Marxist textbook would exhort to exterminate. Given this background, I am convinced that JNU's capacity for rabble rousing is overestimated, anti-left intellectuals need not lose much sleep over it. Withdrawl of the government from various sectors coupled with economic reform should despatch such regressive forces to oblivion.

I am more than convinced that our political/bureaucratic/intellectual class (a product of JNU type universities) is completely bankrupt. Most of the members of the above category can't generate a single paisa. Neither are they fit to govern/guide this country. This is a golden opportunity for a lot of entrepreneurs to get into the business of politics, sidelining the criminal/intellectual type of candidates traditionally thrown up by college student unions. The future of our country may depend on it.

Tailpiece: If my memory serves me right, in an article, S. Gurumurthy, columnist for The New Indian Express, had mentioned that a condom-vending machine had been installed in the JNU campus. I had a look at the machine and it dishes out soft-drinks and biscuits as well. One shouldn't depend too much on hearsay.

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