Why we need the comfort food of religion and tribes more than ever today

The older one grows – not just by age but by experiences – the more one understands that not everything needs changing. Things are there for a reason, and mostly the reason is intended to assure your well-being.

Take religion for instance. Its fashionable for young people today to embrace atheism or spiritualism. Both are heady endeavours – one is the quest for rational thought as the individual strives to make a personal sense of his world, the other is a quest for experimental fulfilment as the seeker tries to experience reality as it is. Both are laudable pursuits and fulfilling – but terribly lonely. Success is hard to come by, and you are on a quest to reach the mountain with very little support from those around you. And others on the quest can be seen as competition adding to the pressure – and its easy to brand oneself a loser when someone (and there will always be someone!) seems to be progressing better.

Religion on the other hand is more forgiving. The tribe takes centre stage. There’s a God somewhere in the background who is nursing you and your tribe – and she will make sure everything is fine. Rituals buffet you against seismic events like funerals and give you reasons to celebrate wildly at weddings and other functions. Emotions are drawn out in so many ways indeed. Sacred places like temples encourage congregation, where people can converse with each other or vent their feelings to thier all-knowing god without holding back – for after all, we are but humans, we don’t have to hold ourselves to too-lofty-a-standard. The God knows everyone’s troubles already, doesn’t he? The set of shared values encoded into rules and rituals also keep you in touch with the seasons of the world and your growth.

And yes, most religions allow you to outgrow them when you are ready. Saints, Sufis, Monks, Nuns are all folks ready and strong to venture on their own into the unknown – leaving the cosy world of religion and the material behind. They are not escaping religion but rather expanding the frontiers of their religions so the tribe can use them as signposts should they want to.

The mind and the spirit are great quests on their own. The heart however demands company – and its the heart that religion embraces. And I do believe we need religions and the language of shared experiences and heart for the health of our tribes – even more today in an increasingly volatile world. Would you agree?

The Guest House

The master needs no preamble. Let’s partake of Rumi’s illuminating poem “The Guest House”

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture,
Still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be cleaning you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each one has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

– Rumi

Musings on Life’s purpose

The last few weeks have brought on smiles, chuckles, frowns – a rainbow of emotions – an invariable event when the World Cup is on. This blog too tended to stay away from brooding for a few weeks, however a question from a friend got me reflecting back on more heady matters.

The question was one of those really simple yet profound ones that keep popping up unexpectedly, race around the brain for a while and then just disappear.

“What really is driving us – and how do we define success?”

Philosophers – I know – have engaged this question in plenty of detail and come back with detailed explanations. I thought I’d ask a few acquaintances – and here’s what I came up with:

Most live their lives for a future result – in many cases, one they may not live to experience in the flesh in this life. Consider:

1. Many are driven by the legacy they will leave behind:
– Biological genes (As in kids and grandkids who will change the world).

– Ideas (these are the guys who hope to leave behind an invention that will propel mankind further)

– Sagas (People who leave behind stories that will inspire future generations by their deeds)

2. Some are driven by a belief (from religion/ society) –

– Many devout christians live so they are called to the right side of the ledger on judgement day, many hindus live so they earn the right karma for a favourable rebirth and so on..

– Some live propelled by the vision of a better world they can help establish – usually by eradicating some blemish of society. Feminists, Caste(race)-free and Minority-right crusaders all live for a cause they believe in very strongly – though they know they may not live to see it happen in their lifetime

Interestingly, there are some people who don’t live for the future – but live in the present. Consider:

– Sages – they live as witnesses, unaffected by life but fully contributing to it.Think “ramana maharishi” for instance.

– Many scientists and even technocrats live by this credo – where they live not for the success of their experiments but for the joy of participating in the experiment and driven by curiosity more than anything else. This is best of course exemplified by Steve Job’s quote “The journey is the reward”. Or Robert Pirsig’s view that “sometimes its a little better to travel than to arrive”.

The majority of us however seem to live defined by our constraints. If you were to ask such folks what propells them, they’d not be able to define it – they can however very clearly define what constrains their journey (we would have all heard these sometime!):
– financial dependence
– inadequate family support/ need to support family
– not the best childhood/ pedigree..

Some actually define their life in terms of sacrifices made – these are the career “victims”. They always a have a story of how much nature/ world/ family/ Colleagues/ fate always stunted “what could have been”. Many a time, “the what may have been” is vague – leaving life unfulfilled….

I am of course unqualified to say which one of these is the best one – or even if there is a better set that I haven’t been exposed yet to. What I do know is some of this exchanges today’s joys for a belief in what tomorrow would bring – though in many instances, its these belief’s that underpin actions to provide us with a stable society. This is the “mind” winning over the “heart” – conservative, thoughtful, planned.

In sharp contradistinction, the other option brings in joy today – with a neigh a care for what will happen tomorrow. There’s an acceptance of “what will be, will be” – no point worrying about it. Those from this group often have a song in their hearts and their joy inspires our spirits as well. This is the maverick at work – joyous, spontaneous, wild.

The question really I guess is – which one of these are we? And is that who we want to be…

Navarathi – Celebration unlimited and some uncommon reasoning!

Today is dusshera, the 10th day of what is surely India’s longest festival and arguably the most fun of them all. As with all Indian festivals, there are many legends underpinning the “why” for the festival – the most popular being the slaying of Ravana, the 10 headed demon by Ram, India’s most gentlemanly god – ever.

But this is not a post about all of that. For its not the “whys” that make this festival so poplar, it’s the “hows” of celebration that make it so. Consider for instance:

In South India, women folk and children get together, evolve intricate doll houses and display them eagerly to their neighbours. They swap recipes (and some good local gossip we suspect!), extend their artistic skills to everything around the house – and generally have a darn-good-time. Child-like creativity abounds – and soap operas and pressing family concerns take a back seat for once. Its so good – the Harvard innovation gurus’ would do well to visit and take notes on innovation!

In Gujarat, the dandidya raas – a supreme dance takes over the entire state. For once teenage daughters can look their mom in the eye and let them know that they are going dancing with the neighbourhood hunks (all in aid of prayers and goodwill for the family of course!) and the mom nods her assent and smiles wistfully as remembers her childhood dandiya escapades. And if she’s sporting enough, she decides to joins the dance too – and with gusto the family teach their young ones a thing or too about being cool!

Kolkata – the home of Durga and kali – worships the goddesses fervently – and the whole state is transformed with colour, sweets (remember the famous Bengali sweets?) and a gumption that can only be experienced. Politics, Society’s strains and such go on holiday for this period as human goodness, joy and celebration taking centre-stage.

And so on it goes everywhere…….The Mysore palace is decked in finery as are other momnuments…. ….. India powders her face, adds a touch of makeup and lets her hair down and everyone who has the good fortune to see her stands awed –such majesty, such colour – and such fun.

And if you have been reading closely, you would have noticed stress on the feminine part through the writeup – for this festival is truly a celebration of the feminine. And for those who have placed even more closer inspection and say but isn’t it celebrated for a male God (Ram) – we answer “not entirely ” – there is an equally popular legend on the celebrations being in honour of the Godess killing a ferocious demon – and the celebrations honor the feminine in all its aspects (keep reading for some explanation from revered sages on this).

So truly, here’s a celebration for the goddesses, with women leading the celebrations and artistry, creativity and genius unleashed like never before. And when you consider that this is the longest celebration – one imagines the ancients had kind of got the society’s priorities right..

The intellectuals are sifting in their seats: “ok – we got it – everyone’s having a gala good time, but why are we celebrating it – don’t we need a good reason?”

So we sigh, and move on – it was too good to last anyway huh…..

First up are the legends – and there are many, here are a few that will help satiate one’s curiosity for a few hours.

But do festivals or rituals really need a reason? “Rituals by definition are irrational…and they exist in a context” argues Devdutt pattanaik, India’s leading mythologist. . “Rituals exist in a context. People outside the context will never understand it. Those who are in it, follow it, experience it and are thus recipients of subliminal communications. I often see foreigners wondering why Hindus worship trees. This is genuine curiosity as they are from another context and find this behavior strange. When Indians travel abroad and watch men and women kissing each other passionately in public, they will find it equally strange.”

The intellectuals are still not satisfied I see – and if I am not coming up with something soon, this post will be relegated to the “good tries” section too…. So I do some swift thinking and get a couple of links that do great justice to the “why”.

First up, no one can beat Wikipedia on listing the legends involved!

Here’s a very insightful post by Jaggi Vasudev, the Sadguru from Isha foundation – where he explains how one can gain either or physical strength, material abundance or knowledge from participating in this festival. Indeed he says, for the discriminating few – you could also transcend all of these and experience something even more beyond…..

And a couple from Sri Sri Ravishankar from the ArtOfLiving Blog, where he digs into the etymology and comes up with some more insights. Paramount among them is the association with the number 9 – and no we are not talking about the Brazilian striker Ronaldo’s jersey number here!

So that’s enough for the intellectuals, but the self help aficionados are still not happy. “We’ve got to learn something from the event, else its time wasted”, they protest. So a quick visit to Wikipedia reveals that dusshera means dasha (10) hara (kill) or killing ten negative qualities. And if you are wondering which qualities you need to kill, here is the list (again from the ever helpful Wikipedia):
1. Kama vasana (Lust)
2. Krodha (Anger)
3. Moha (Attachment)
4. Lobha (Greed)
5. Mada (Over Pride)
6. Matsara (Jealousy)
7. Swartha (Selfishness)
8. Anyaaya (Injustice)
9. Amanavta (Cruelty)
10. Ahankara (Ego).

Speaking of which – I know you are wondering if you eliminated these ten from your lives – what would you do with life – would it be worth it?!!!

Don’t ask me – ask quora.com – or better still why not try eliminating them this year and reporting the results in time for next year’s festivities?!!

Eulogy time..

A good collegue, a friend passed away this morning. A gentle man devoured by a ravaging cancer. Over time, the disease took away his appetite,  his mobility, his stamina. It could of course do little about his smile, which continued to shine through – amidst  grimacing pain. It’s this smile, and his gentle habit that I know will inspire his family and friends forever. 

Death forces us to ponder on bigger themes.

On the fickleness of life and the futility of trying to caliberate the effectiveness of our minute lifetimes, foibles and stresses on the grand scale of evolution. What’s a hundred years (or less) matter in an evolutionary history of eons – our mountains fade away into molehills when seen in perspective. And should this insight not destress us as we understand that our life’s events are for the most part insignificant on a world scale?

It also encourages us to acknowledge the ancients wisdom in codifying a religion embracing concepts of immortality. When nature takes away a loved one from the reaches of our eye and touch, it is religion that assures us of the loved ones not being lost forever – only to our five senses. Sometimes we need to augment the scientist’s facts with religion’s truths – the mind needs the solace of the soul so to speak.

As I write this, I know its a normal day for nature – though a devastating day for ones experiencing the loss. Time and prayers will heal some, in the meantime its perhaps best to pack some goodness, a comforting shoulder and a thoughtful mind and offer these to the many who need it…..and maybe saying a hero’s story or two in praise of the departed one would help too.

Now its an ode to a very affable God…

Let’s start with an exercise, close your eyes and imagine (don’t ask me how you can read this sentence if your eyes are closed though!) a plumb largish figure seated on a small mouse (yes, you got that right!). Sweets of numerous kinds are placed at his feet (yes, it’s a he). You are surprised to see he has multiple hands – some holding weapons of destruction (a trident for instance) while one hand is raised in a blessing. You move your gaze upward – and you are astonished to see an elephant’s face looking back to you – with large flapping ears, trunk and tusks (albeit one is broken). There’s a serene smile on his face, a sense of prosperity all around him and his wisdom envelops you. Here’s an image that may help with the visualization.

I dare say it’s a touch tough to imagine this – but if you have done so, congratulations – you have just been introduced to one of our most beloved gods, Ganesha. Note that I don’t say feared – but loved – for this is a god that is comforting, generous and loving and today is the day he is worshipped all over the country (and indeed the world) – so what else can be right but to pen some perspectives (as usual reaching for perspectives as opposed to scripture – which are plentiful on the internet and more authoritative too.

A visual tale – breaking down the barriers

The most interesting thing to me is how his image immediately breaks down reservations about believing him. People may break into laughter, they may feel like cuddling the odd-shaped baby god or playfully pulling his ear. The image does not command undue courtesy or formalism, there’s really no “holier than thou” image at play here. No censure, no rules, no long faces, no qualifications – if a god can come and meet you in this format – he really should be accessible you feel. And before you know it, you like him and if you are lucky, you can move on to discover the amazing nuances of this affable god.

Prosperity – before spirituality

Man needs money, he needs hope. He needs his genuine desires to become realities. He needs these before he can set his sights on elevated spiritual truths.

This model is accepted by the vedas and they therefore describe us as each having seven chakras (or seven energy centers) which lead us from an earth-bound life to universal truths. The base chakra is called the root chakra (muladhara chakra) and when this flowers in an human being, he is able to realize fulfillment (and interestingly also aspire only the things that are essential!) and remove obstacles. And the lord for this particular chakra is none other than Ganesha.

In every Hindu temple, his is the first shrine people visit and he grants them the will and the skill to fulfill their key needs before moving further. So whether it’s a new bike, that condo, the private jet or the need to pass a tough paper – this is the guy you should go to.

Symbolism – for moving you to other planes

Most of us stop at the above level. We also prostrate to him in a unique way (holding our ears and squatting a few times) – something that the ancients say is a very beneficial physical activity. But some of us have a few unanswered “why’s”…
– Why does he have that mouse, and why does it look so obedient?
– Why does he have those sweets and gifts placed at his beck and call?
– Why does he have an elephant’s head and why is the trunk broken? And so many more…
This curiosity takes us into the very heart of the Hindu way of becoming a great man or woman. The mouse we are told represents the ego – its best to make it small and keep it at our control (unless you want to become an egomaniac – in which case we need another role model!). If your ego (and your desires) is under control, paradoxically all the riches of the world will be at your disposal too say the scriptures.

We are told the elephant uniquely possesses the strength to destroy as well as the finesse to pick a pin in its trunk – suddenly we are given clues on what makes a man successful – and fulfilled. We of course pick lots of very interesting trivia as well. And every aspect of the image thus enthralls us with grandmotherly, scientific and even scholarly truths.

And onto wisdom we move

That’s when they tell us about his wisdom. Infact he is considered the wisest among gods (another aspect we are celebrating this day) and has written the “mahabharatha” which was dictated byanother great sage( vyasa). We are told that the great sage and ganesha had an agreement that they would dictate and write – in one continuous cycle – and to slow down ganesha, the sage had said the god had to first internalize the truths expounded (and believe me the mahabharatha has multi-layered truths as well) and then write it down. This god is truly wisdom personified – but to only those who have moved beyond the need for desire fulfillment and have satisfied their intellectual questions (through an understanding of symbolism). To them there are several moving poems which illustrate the various aspects of this lord and move one to what seem to be calling “the present state of oneness” these days.

Turning the pages of history and mythology

For those who are interested in pedigree – ganesha is the son of shiva (one of the tallest, darkest, most-mystical gods who dwells among the lofty peaks of the Himalayas!) and parvathi (considered the fairest among her kin!). Shiva also epitomizes “the spirit principle”, while parvathy epitomizes “the matter principle” – and hence ganesha as their offspring also symbolically represents the earth and all of what we know.

So in this sense, he is all there is.

Like him for his looks, request him to fulfill your wishes (a year round santa claus if you will), spend time exercising your intellectual muscles and interpreting the symbolism or simply give in to the charm and internalize the wisdom – any which way it’s a win-win. Let’s raise a toast to this most popular of gods on this very auspicious day.

Priceless? And wishes for a great new year…

No, I am not a visa salesman. Another year has come and gone (or nearly so) and I’d like to think they are both priceless for each of us (not priced less!).

I’d like to wish you erudition and information – but we seem to have too much of it anyway. We also have InternetEverywhere, TimeNowhere and PeaceAnywhere but here!

What we need therefore seems to be not more information but a means to transform all that information into wisdom. To do that, it seems to me we need to learn to unlearn – a skill that will I trust befit the title of this piece.

What do we do to unlearn you ask – here’s a little list I hope will do the trick for starters…

1. Read a book, bungy jump (!) or watch a video that pushes you out of your comfort zone and makes no sense logically (of course i don’t mean anything like the “dumb and dumber” movie). Here’s an osho video for instance that while in no sense educational, breaks stereotypes. The thought of an Indian mystic with a Japanese name and a hundred rolls-royces, discoursing to a suited man on jacuzzis and designer wristwatches  – has me in splits every time while becoming open to the fact that we haven’t seen it all yet!

2. Get inspired through an example of sheer courage – A terminally ill man (and one of scientific temperament at that) delivering a heartwarming and inspirational lecture on achieving childhood dreams – this is one of my all time favorites. Talk about Randy Pausch’s courage and compassion in the face of death – lots of unlearning lessons (how’s that work eh?) on how long faces, strong coffee and sailor language isn’t the only antidote for pressure-cooker situations.

3. Deciding on our stand on religion – do you want to be curious about religion or a policeman (or women) for religion? A lot of Indians were affronted (justified no doubt as they observed this to be an insult to their culture and beliefs) when the USSR recently banned a translation of the Bhagavad Gita – I continue to wonder however on how many of those protesting had read even a bit of this great book. The gita is the most pragmatic course in self unfoldment that i know of – and its hero, Sri Krishna sizes us up, diagnoses our particular condition and delivers specific solutions – all within 800 short verses (need a working manual for mass customization, anybody?). The curious would have found multiple paths (and signposts) to a better life – using the intellect (the path of knowledge), emotion (through devotion), societal (through service to others) etc. and picked up skills to still the mind, become responsive to our body’s responses…. The police(wo)man would have been left with a political adversary and a troubled mind.

4. Relate to the fact that social media = discovery. We can discover friends, hobbies, skills, vocations, places and -what the heck – even life. No age is too aged for a plunge into this world.

5. Finally management (had to bring that in somewhere!). Where resources are limited, we need to be aware of how we are using them, else we risk running out of the already limited resource. This is especially so when we are dealing with things that are unlimited by their very nature. Time and money for instance are limited – the things we can use them on (information, gadgets, travel, emotions) are unlimited. When we treat them as we would when we enter a fancy restaurant with limited cash (and no credit cards), all is generally well.

6. Most important – we need to distinguish between what we “care” about and what we “lust” for. The difference is really simple – we care about things/ people for their benefit and our mutual growth together (you care about your spouse or children for instance) while we lust for things for enhancing our own ego (buying a Ferrari not because we are a car connoisseur but because our competitor bought one – make sense?). Care gives us purpose in life and does not follow the diminishing curve (over time value goes up actually), while lust gives us ego trips and (mostly!) lighter wallets and a sense not being fulfilled. The lesson here – unlearn lusty habits (while strengthening the “care” ones!).

And that brings me full circle. Life reminds us it’s priceless everyday, and here’s wishing everyone a year that will make us priceless as well (and no I don’t mean we’ll go to work for visa!!….)