Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Aggressive Hinduism - II

I consider myself a Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist and Confucian. — Mahatma Gandhi

When I was in IIMA, Anand Patwardhan screened his documentary Ram ke Naam (you can watch it on Youtube) which showed the events leading up to the damage of the Babri Masjid. After the screening, there was a discussion during which there were some claims about there being archaeological findings, satellite photos, etc. (I forget the exact statements) which showed that there was a temple beneath the mosque.  I wondered why some very intelligent and well-educated people were animated about a question in which I had no interest.

It was another manifestation of the saying that whatever you say about India, the opposite is also true. Thus you will get promotion of medical tourism, with advanced medical facilities being provided at low cost while there will also be claims about Ganesha being created by plastic surgery. India will send mission to Mars while there will also be claims that inter-planetary planes existed during the Vedic age. Hindu religious men, who are supposed to preach universal love and brotherhood, will get vials of nuclearised sand from  where India exploded nuclear devices, as sacred offerings.

In one talk, Ashis Nandy said that all ideologies have the characteristic that they have an ambivalent relationship with the audiences they seek to influence. So, for example, feminists will not like most females, Marxists will not like most proletariat, nationalists will not like most of their people etc. They will keep saying that these people are not aggressive enough, not revolutionary enough in implementing all the principles of the  ideology even though it is to their benefit. I suppose Hindu ideologues will similarly dislike most Hindus for not being 'Muslim-enough' in their willingness to do anything for their religion.

Some months back, Obama said that Gandhi would have been shocked by the level of intolerance in India. Predictably - since, like America, we are a preachy people who like to lecture to the rest of the world but don't like it when others point out our faults - there were indignant voices about Obama's double standards in not commenting on the religious freedom in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, about the ridiculousness of lumping together India and Afghanistan  in matters of religion etc.

These are all true of course but it is also true that Gandhi would have been shocked by the level of intolerance in India. The most intolerant will talk a lot about every statement except the one about Gandhi. Then a Hindu temple was vandalised in the US and immediately there were voices saying that US should not dictate  to others when it cannot put its own house in order. I call this the Mahabharata defense.

During the Mahabharata war, Krishna often uses unethical means to help the Pandavas defeat the Kauravas. When the Kauravas  protest, the defense is always of the form: 'You did many unethical things in the past so why are you cribbing if we do something unethical to you now?' It is the sort of thing politicians do in talk shows. You will not improve if you keep comparing yourself to the worst in others.

My views will be similar to that of Tagore's in the second half of his life. Initially, although tolerant of all faiths, Tagore had a tilt towards political Hinduism speaking of a Hindu nation and a revival of Hindu civilization. But after the communal riots in 1906-07 in Bengal, such views disappeared and he spoke only of all Indians.  Sarvepalli Gopal writes in Imperialists, Nationalists, Democrats:
In the years thereafter Tagore spurned ritual and ceremony as 'the fetters of blind observance' and had no use for any religion which claimed a monopoly of the truth.  He repudiated the contention that certain peoples, races, or creeds had been specially chosen by God and hailed Zarathustra as the first prophet who emancipated religion from the exclusive narrowness of the tribal God ...He disapproved of those who did not appreciate the religions of others and who brought the pride of acquisition and the worldliness of sectarianism even into the region of spiritual truth.  To the person genuinely moved by the religious impulse the ultimate truth is one, every religion bears some traces of it, and which particular creed more professes it is a matter of indifference...
If this be the essence of religion, the fact that a society is multi-religious need pose no problems; and the state has no role to play in this matter.  It is this idea, underlying the poems of Tagore and shared by Gandhi and other profoundly religious Indians, which forms the basis of the Indian understanding of secularism and which, after years of fostering since 1947, is today again hard-pressed.  The logical attitude of getting rid of religion altogether is too Utopian for human society.  The more practical answer, in line with the recognition by Tagore and others of religion as a matter of individual experience and action, is the removal of religion from public affairs, the distancing of the state from all faiths and refusal to favour any one creed above all others, the insistence on religion as a private matter with no bearing on civic rights and duties, and freedom for the practice of diverse forms of religious worship provided they do not come into conflict with each other. 
The Indian model of multiculturalism is referred to as a salad bowl model in contrast to a melting pot model. It is like the ingredients of a salad (or thaali) whose individual components retain their identities but together, they provide a good taste. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Aggressive Hinduism - I

Unity cannot be achieved by making a law that all shall be one. - Tagore

Hinduism has always been an amorphous religion with multiple gods, goddesses and texts and people have been free to pick and choose what they like. Ramanujan's 300 Ramayanas shows that even texts revered by many had multiple versions. There have been significant strands of atheistic thought within Hinduism and doubts and debates were common. I came across a stanza in the Rig Veda which said:
Who really knows, who can truly say
When and how did creation start? 
Did He do it? Or did He not?  
Only He, up there, knows, maybe; 
Or perhaps, not even He.
But over the last couple of decades Hinduism has been copying the characteristics of the monotheistic religions, promoting one god (ok, make it two - Rama and Krishna, specifically the Krishna of the Mahabharata not the Krishna of Bhagavata Purana), one book (Gita) and a proposal to make Ayodhya as Hindu Vatican. Many people seem to take pride in wearing religion on their sleeves characterised by the cry 'garv se kaho hum Hindu hain'. I came across a couple of paragraphs in two different books that struck a chord. The first in The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani:
For many in India modernity has been adopted through the conservative filters of religious piety, moralism and domestic virtue.  This has spawned a novel Hinduism, where holographic gods dangle on well-used key chains and cassettes of devotional ragas are played in traffic jams: instances of a religious sentiment freed from its original defining contexts, from the subtle iconography of materials and the punctual divisions of the day into sacred and mundane time. Besides tapping the sentiments of domesticity and piety, political Hinduism also summons up the energies of the young, many of whom have drifted through India's colleges and universities (for most, an idle rite of passage rather than an education).
The other extract is from Anti-utopia by AndrĂ© BĂ©teille :
Hinduism as a system of religious beliefs and practices has been organised very differently from Christianity or Islam.  It has left much room for activities that might be interpreted as either religious or non-religious, according to the inclinations of the individual.  In that sense, though not in every sense, it has a closer  affinity with secularism than Christianity or Islam.  But Hinduism is changing, and one significant change is its tendency to define itself in opposition to other religions, notably Islam.
Broadly speaking, there were two views of India's past, one being tolerant and inclusive, the other being aggressive and exclusivist. Both were attempts to refute the British narrative that India as a unified entity did not exist till they arrived on the scene. This view is illustrated by Churchill's statement that India has as much claim of being a country as the equator. They claimed that in their absence, India would descend into chaos and dictatorship.

The inclusive view was propounded by people like Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru. In The Discovery of India, Nehru says that India is ' “an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously”. He views India's past and celebrates its unique identity as a confluence of various influences which mirrors what he would like India's future to look like.

The other conception of the past was the Savarkarite view of a Hindu race joined by blood kinship. Those who had a racial connection, shared culture and had common laws and rites formed the core and others like Muslims, Christians and tribals were relegated to a secondary status. The Hindu nationalists viewed Hindus as victimised by Muslims and colonialists and laid stress on a martial patriotism as a means of righting this historical wrong.

After partition, many had a simple logic: since there was a Muslim Pakistan there had to be a Hindu India, a religious state driven by narrow nationalism. This view is characterised in the present day by the BJP manifesto of 'one nation, one people, one culture'. For the first couple of decades after Independence, the inclusive view was in ascendancy but the Savarkaite view always lurked in the background and started gaining momentum in the eighties. (It is interesting to note that Jinnah and Savarkar, who wanted a nation formed on the basis of religion were non-religious; while people like Gandhi and Abul Kalam Azad, who wanted a secular nation, were religious.)

The idea of making India a Hindu Rashtra is a mirror image of the idea of Pakistan - of a homogeneous nation created on the basis of religion, a familiar model of the Western nation-state where unity is derived from uniformity of religion, culture and language. The proponents of such a view regard internal difference as a sign of weakness. But as Sunil Khilnani points out in The Idea of India:
If one looks beneath the confusion and black arts of India's politics, one sees in its democratic experience evidence of something that James Madison and his Federalist colleagues well understood more than two hundred years ago. Large republics with diverse and conflicting interests can be a better home for liberty, a safer haven against tyranny, than homogeneous and exclusive ones.  Within them, factions and differences can check one another, moderating ideological fervour and softening power.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A memorable meeting

In a previous post, I had shown a photograph from a school picnic when I was in Little Flower School (LFS) Jamshedpur.


The person in front of me (in the middle wearing a white T-shirt)is Sir Joseph who had taught me Physics in Std.XI and XII. He had learnt of my stroke from a classmate of mine. When he was in Coimbatore a couple of months ago in connection with a wedding, he was kind enough to visit us along with his wife and two of of his children. Needless to say, I was delighted.

Sitting in front - Sir Joesph and me
Standing (from left) - my mom, Sir's daughter, home nurse, my sister, Mrs. Joesph, Jaya and her father
We exchanged reminiscences about our time in LFS. He told us about his interview before joining LFS and about how it came about that he had to set the question paper for selection to KG! I asked him to sing an old Malayalam song and he responded by singing a medley of the opening lines of 27 hit Malayalam songs.

A brief note about LFS: When you are young you take many things for granted and only later do you realise how lucky you were. As they say, life is lived forwards and analysed backwards. One of these lucky breaks that I had was being able to study in LFS., a fact that was brought home to me more forcefully by the idea I got of Coimbatore schools. My days in LFS with the teachers and friends there are among my most treasured memories. It was not NIT,Trichy or IIMA but LFS that had the biggest influence on me both academically and in terms of values (which I think is at least as important).

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Two illiterate nurses - II

Soon after the previous nurse I had written about, I got another nurse who had never gone to school. Apparently, girls in  her village (near Trichy in Tamil Nadu) were never sent to school. (This was some decades ago. Things have changed now - her daughter is in college now.)

She was a bit better at telling the time as compared to the previous nurse so giving feeding and medicines on time was not a major concern. This nurse was a Tamilian but she could also manage some broken Hindi and broken Malayalam, having picked up these languages while working in the houses of various patients. For some reason, she concluded that I did not understand Tamil inspite of numerous pieces of evidence  to the contrary. She persisted for over 20 days speaking to me in half-baked Hindi and Malayalam and I couldn't understand half the things she said.

She seemed to love the sound of her own voice. She would keep talking even if no one was paying attention. She would sometimes talk to herself in the same loud voice which would often make me think that she was talking to someone. Because of her constant chatter, I couldn't hear a word on TV when I was listening to the news but her conversation was fun to listen to so it was ok.

She had a peculiar habit of  speaking in the first person. Her name was Kamakshi, so she will say, 'Today Kamakshi is not feeling well.' Or, 'Kamakshi has a headache.' Or, 'Kamakshi is not feeling hungry now.'

At most times she talked to me with the realisation that I understood what she said. But sometimes she lapsed into thinking that I didn't understand anything. Once she told me, 'I am going to the terrace to bring back your cloths'. I blinked 'ok'. She said, 'I had hung them out to dry., I blinked 'ok'.  She said, ' They would have dried by now, I'll get them.' I blinked 'ok'. She said, 'If I don't get them, you will not have cloths to wear tomorrow.' I blinked hard - 'OK dammit'. I breathed a sigh of relief when she finally went to the terrace.

An interesting incident happened once when I was watching TV. There was a cartoon of Narendra Modi who she didn't appear to recognise. She just said, 'Isn't that person looking scary!' I asked Jaya to find out if she knew who the PM was. She didn't seem to know. She just knew that during elections, there was one party led by Jayalalithaa and another one led by Karunanidhi.

I was surprised by a comment that she made. She said that she would not mind having to do things like sponging, washing clothes, etc. the whole day but what she found difficult was having to turn the pages of books! I had thought that it was the other way around.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Two illiterate nurses - I

So far, the agencies had been sending me nurses who had gone to school but had dropped out before completing Std. X. This time, they sent me a nurse who had never been to school and didn't know how to read and write although she could speak two languages ( her native tongue which was Malayalam and Tamil.). It was fascinating to watch her methods to negotiate a world which requires some literacy at various times.

She didn't know how to tell the time by looking at a clock. She could tell the hour from the clock (eg, one o' clock) but she couldn't tell the in-between times (eg. 1 : 15). But she was the most punctual of all the nurses, getting up at exactly six in the morning without ever glancing at the clock. She woke up half an hour early couple of times but the darkness must have told her the time  was not quite right. She looked carefully at the clock for a few minutes, thought that something about the positions of the needles didn't look ok and went back to sleep. She got up half an hour later and knew without looking at the clock and knew it was the right time.

Since the nurse could not read, she could not identify the names that were stored on her mobile phone. She could only redial the last number that she had dialed. If she had to call someone else or a new number had to be stored, she had to tell somebody to  do it. If she wanted to call her daughter early in the morning, she would tell Jaya the previous night to pick out the correct  number so that she just has to press it in the morning.

She was confident of travelling anywhere within Kerala and Tamil Nadu since she knew the local languages. You just had to make her board the correct bus. Before boarding the bus, she will ask Jaya to select in her mobile the number of the person who is waiting for her. After that she was only in contact with that person. It was too risky to ask a stranger to change the number since she couldn't be sure that it was the right number.

Once there was a minor dispute about a date. She said that she  had joined duty on 5th January with which we agreed.  But she insisted that it was a Tuesday and we said that it was a Monday . Jaya began to show her the calender but then realised that it was useless since she couldn't read. There didn't seem to be a way to show her what day it was so we had no option but to accept her statement.

When she had to keep a book in the bookstand for me to read, she would not be sure whether the book was upside down or which was its front cover. She would take a minute or two to determine the correct orientation from the pictures on the  front and back covers.

Her major passtime was watching TV serials. She was not interested in watching anything else, not even movies. She used to be downcast on weekends because serials are telecast only on weekdays. She would watch a particular Malayalam channel for most of the day which would include repeat telecasts of serials which she had already watched. Even if she was watching the same episode for the third time during the day she would watch it with wide-eyed interest. It used to remind me of a Wodehouse description in A Damsel in Distress:
These all belonged to the class which will gather round and watch silently while a motorist mends a tyre.  They are not impatient.  They do not call for rapid and continuous action. A mere hole in the ground, which of all sights is perhaps the least vivid and dramatic, is enough to grip their attention for hours at a time.  
(Come to think of it, I may not be too different. My favorite movie is Sholay which I would have watched  dozens of times. I still watch it every time it comes on TV with the same level of interest that I had when I first saw it almost 40 years ago. There is no accounting for human tastes.)



Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Mentioning institute affiliations is not enough - IV

The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible .- Oscar Wilde

In his piece, Sanjeev fails to differentiate between levels of analysis. For example he asks, 'which particular cell or atom or subatomic particle feels it all?' This is like asking, 'When you stretch a rubber band, which atoms undergo the maximum stretch? 'Chemists will talk of interactions between atoms and molecules. A car mechanic will talk of larger aggregates of matter like cylinders and spark plugs. As Richard Dawkins says in The Extended Phenotype, 'At every level the units interact with each other following laws appropriate to that level, laws which are not conveniently reducible  to laws at lower levels.'

You cannot analyse the lowest level using the laws used at the highest  level. If a chemist thinks in terms of spark plugs or a mechanic thinks in terms of atoms both will become dysfunctional. The building blocks used at one level (say, sense organs) are analysed in detail at another level (say, the cells that make up those sense organs). Each provides some information that adds to the overall picture but none of the levels can be fully understood if they are studied in isolation without any reference to other levels.

Sanjeev also does not distinguish between proximate and ultimate causes. A proximate cause is an event which is closest to, or immediately responsible for causing, some observed result. It explains biological function in terms of immediate physiological or environmental factors. The ultimate cause is one which is usually thought of as the "real" reason something occurred. In biology, ultimate causation explains traits in terms of evolutionary forces acting on them. For e.g., take the case of a cheetah chasing a gazelle.

You can say that the cheetah's visual system registers the gazelle, its hunger pangs cause its brain to secrete some hormones which cause the relevant muscles to contract. You could step back a bit and talk about the genes that made the proteins that make up the hormones and muscles, about the effect of a mutation on one of those genes, etc. You could step further back and look at the evolutionary history and say that cheetahs that could run a bit faster than others in the population caught more gazelles when they were hungry, so they survived better and produced more offspring on average and over many generations their genes came to dominate the population. Most of the energy for the evolutionary process is obtained from sunlight.

Now if you omit all the intermediate processes and just say that the cheetah chases the gazelle because the sun shines, it sounds strange. Sanjeev does a similar thing when he says that thoughts and emotions are caused by chemical reactions.Such blurring of the dichotomy between the immediate short-term explanation and the underlying long-term explanation of the same behavior is done by Indian gurus. IIT graduates are expected to to do better.


If not his IIM connection, Sanjeev's IIT connection should have given him a better appreciation of the methods of science. But as the Salem hypothesis - It holds that people who claim science expertise, whilst advocating creationism, tend to be formally trained as engineers - shows, engineers seem to have difficulty with biology. As for me, having studied engineering, I find biology, especially evolutionary biology, more interesting. Jerry Coyne says in Why Evolution is True:
Among the wonders that  science has uncovered about the universe in which we dwell, no subject has caused more fascination and fury than evolution. That is probably because no majestic galaxy or fleeting neutrino has implications that are so personal. Learning about evolution can transform us in a deep way. It shows us our place in the whole splendid panoply of life. It unites us with every living thing on earth today and with myriads of creatures long dead. Evolution gives us the true account of our origins, replacing the myths that satisfied us for thousands of years. Some find this deeply frightening, others ineffably thrilling.
No points for guessing which group I belong to. I find the idea that I am related to a cabbage fascinating rather than disturbing. Sanjeev seems to be uncomfortable about scientists saying that life is chemistry. Whether he likes it or not, it is true but life is more than 'just' chemistry just as football is more than 'just' physics.

Analysing the chemical composition of chocolate doesn't mean you lose the ability to taste chocolate. Regarding a flower as a lure sculpted by evolution over millenia to attract pollinating agents does not mean that one can't appreciate the beauty of a flower. Regarding a bird as a small dinosaur does not mean one can't appreciate its splendor (or indeed, a poem about it; one of my favourite poems is  Shelley's To a Skylark). As Richard Feynman said, scientific knowledge adds to the beauty of nature; it doesn't subtract.

(I wanted to write a bit more but felt that these posts were becoming too long and decided to stop. Ever since I got the neuro-headset, I have flouted the fundamental idea of the Elizabeth Taylor school of blogging. And if you are wondering what that is, she is supposed to have told a husband of hers, 'I shan't keep you for long.' In other words, I have not erred on the side of brevity and conciseness for quite a while.)


Friday, June 26, 2015

Mentioning institute affiliations is not enough - III

Man is a Reasoning Animal. Such is the claim. I think it is open to dispute. - Mark Twain

In this post Sanjeev says, 'I could never get a satisfactory answer to what the source of this consciousness is. If I fear death, feel pain and pleasure, who is this I actually?' Many people think that we are more than just chemicals and electrical impulses. Thoughts, beliefs, choices etc. seem to suggest Decarte's concept of mind-body duality - the body is made of material stuff but the mind is not. It seems difficult to accept that the mind is the emergent property of the brain.

There is plenty of neurological evidence to show that all aspects of our mental lives depends solely on physiological activities in brain tissues. When some part of our brain tissue dies some part of the mind disappears. As I heard Sam Harris say in a discussion about life after death, when different bits of brain tissue is destroyed, people lose different abilities, yet they seem to think that when the whole brain is destroyed on death, they will rise up perfectly intact, recognising grandma and speaking English. As Steven Pinker says in The Blank Slate:
...it is still tempting to think of the brain as it was shown in old educational cartoons as a control panel with gauges and levers operated by a user - the self, the soul, the ghost, the person, the "me". But cognitive neuroscience is  showing that the self, too, is just another network of brain systems.
The hint first came from the case of Phineas Gage, a 19th century railroad worker. While at work, a sudden explosion blasted a rod straight through his brain, left eye and skull and lay meters behind him. There was a hole in his head where his frontal cortex had been. Incredibly he was only briefly stunned and was able to walk and talk soon afterward. He seemed okay but from the next day, as one co-worker put it, 'Gage was no longer Gage'. His personality had changed.

From a pleasant, reliable, popular person, he had changed to someone who lied and cheated uncontrollably.He lost his sense of responsibility, his moral compass had degenerated and he was not able to hold a job for the rest of his life. In one lecture during his Human Behavioural Biology course at Stanford, Robert Sapolsky gives several instances of problems with frontal cortex damage.This shows that consciousness  is not some disembodied concept mediated only by culture and religion. Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else about us.

There isn't even a single 'I'; the brain just gives the illusion that a single 'I' is in control. It is not just in fiction that Dr. Jekyll turns into Mr. Hyde. In an earlier post, I had mentioned several brain disorders like anosognosia, hemineglect, blindsight, Capgras Sndrome, Cotard's syndrome etc. But the realisation that genes have a role to play in deciding one's morality need not make Sanjeev have such existential hopelessness as to make him say that his fate 'was decided in the first nanosecond of big-bang or even less'. In most cases the effects of genes are probabilistic in nature and depends on a complicated interaction with nurture. Moreover, most DNA are non-coding i.e. they don't seem to do anything.

Complex traits are affected by multiple genes with individually small and typically fickle effects. Most genes are pleotropic i.e. they have multiple effects, and most behaviours are polygenic i.e. they are mediated many genes working in a network having positive and negative feedback loops.Also some DNA sequences are regulatory elements i.e. they regulate the actions of genes near them, often under the influence of environmental factors.

 Thus most human behaviours can't be predicted with 100% accuracy. The reason is that the causation involved is so complex and deeply probabilistic that it is, in effect, unpredictable even if we were to try to enumerate all the contributing factors. Thus for all practical purposes, we are indeed free.As Robert Sapolsky says in Monkeyluv:
...you've have got nature - neurons, brain chemicals, hormones, and, of course, at the bottom of the cereal box, genes. And then there's nurture, all those environmental breezes gusting about. And the biggest cliche in this field is how it is meaningless to talk about nature or nurture, only about their interaction.  And somehow, that truism rarely sticks.
Sgmund Freud said, “Humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science three great outrages upon its naive self-love. The first was when it realized that our earth was not the center of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable...The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world, implying an ineradicable animal nature in him...But man's craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow from present-day psychological research which is endeavoring to prove to the ego of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind." Neurological findings have increased the third outrage and many are not willing  to acknowledge it.