Friday, August 29, 2014

The keys of the kingdom - the gates to heaven

The voice of religion is essentially simple. An expansion of consciousness, an all embracing empathy, a deep sense of justice and equality that transcends boundaries of color and culture; and a vision of God that is closely tied to earth, however transcendent its metaphysics may be. The thousand fragments of established religions try to bury this honest truth under rubbles of theology, customs and inane morality: the Catholic versus protestant; the Shia versus Sunni, the Hindu versus Buddhist - these are but variations of a single universal theme of oneness emphasized and practiced in different denominations. A J Cronin’s novel “the Keys of the kingdom” written in 1941 captured the essence of this doctrine in the life of a Christian missionary, sent to far eastern China to establish the word of God among “natives”. It proves to be an uphill struggle for the young handsome priest Francis to enter the realms of faith and trust in the hearts of practical Chinese, whose philosophy of Confucianism have taught them to be prudent, wise and worldly before being spiritual. In the midst of poverty and civil war, they see Christian missions as only a means to satisfy their bellies and purses, and have scant regard for the doctrinal infusions and digressions of Christian faith. But the simple toil, honesty and diligence of father Francis, along with his trusted inmates soon transform the skepticism of his town into loving adoration; and a beautiful church, study and community develops under their loving care and embrace. The novel traces in simple terms the directness of human compassion and love in times of violence and unrest. Cronin, with moving sensitivity, presents a tale that attempts to establish that innocent and unyielding faith in the goodness of life, without the polluting mixture of ideology is enough to penetrate the deepest mysteries of religion. The inner promptings of one’s heart is often a truer guide to God than the committed exhortations of myriad holy texts.

This book was adapted into a movie in 1944, featuring the charismatic, young and debonair Gregory peck in the role of Father Francis Chisholm. This was only his second screen appearance in a long and illustrious career. Even here, one can see the unsure steps of a promising actor learning the nuances and rudiments of acting. His handsome figure is evident, even then, under the robes of a priest; but the nonchalant grace and screen presence that he later came to develop, symbolize and so passionately personify, still lay latent and was just beginning to sprout in this performance. That is natural enough! How often does a budding actor get to play a serious role of a pious priest groveling in dust, blood and heat with no romance, after debuting as a dashing soldier saving his lady love in his first movie “Days of Glory?” The Academy of Motion pictures acknowledged his effort and gave their nod for Best actor - the first of his five nominations. He would later win this coveted prize for his meticulous performance in “To kill a mocking bird”, arguably, one of the greatest Hollywood movies ever made.

In my opinion, “The keys of the kingdom” is one of those rare movies, which did more than mere justice to the book. I thought that novel was a trifle too long, with unnecessary peregrinations into secondary plots. The film, however, captured the essence of Cronin’s vision with poignant brevity and honesty. If one reads the book, after seeing the movie, the story would read better. Also, the Black and white cinematography lent a depth to the tale, which color, otherwise may not have been able to provide. The lilting background score by Alfred Newman; interspersing Chinese tunes with Irish violins, provided a wonderful background to the unfolding drama. In all, it is one of those satisfying movie experiences, where things are kept simple and straight. In an age where the measure of a film lies in its extravagance, “The keys of the Kingdom” provides a nostalgic trip back in time, to the good old days, when dialogues, story and theme was as important, if not more, than the artists themselves..

On a final note, I like the title of Cronin’s book. In Mathew 16:19 of the Bible, Jesus hands over his spiritual mantle to Peter with these words:

‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’..

It was with this wonderful blessing that the Christian church was consecrated by Peter. Words of universal wisdom; Timeless, and yet so humane….

God bless…

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sir Richard Attenborough - A tribute

Sir Richard Attenborough - A tribute

Scarcely would you find in the world of Visual arts and drama, an artist singularly dedicated to a project over three decades, channeling his entire life force to the consummation of a world vision and philosophy that needed an audacious and honest interpretation in modern times; surmounting obstacles - financially, bureaucratically and physically, in bringing to screen the biography of a man whose life was nothing short of a miracle in an age and time that he “walked” on earth, a life widely acknowledged by the global community as befitting a saint amongst statesmen in an otherwise incarnadined history of independence struggles. Richard Attenborough, who created the celluloid consecration of Mahatma Gandhi quietly left us a couple of days ago, without a whimper, in the fullness of ninety one years. His wife Sim, with whom he had lived his entire married life of seventy odd years lay lost and unperturbed in her delusionary dream world caused by aging dementia in the next room. She is ninety years… A life intertwined, so full, energetic and intensely passionate.

The Attenborough’s were an academically oriented family. The Second World War transformed their lives and gave three boys (Richard, David and John) their distinctive vocations to follow. The high moral and ethical standards were evident when their parents adopted two Jewish girls from the holocaust, bought them to England, educated and gave them a life of dignity and opportunity. Richard joined the air force, permanently damaged an ear, and began taking part in an air force filming unit covering the war. Our director learnt the rudiments of movie making in the midst of commotions on a battlefield!!! The Theater and movies began to absorb more of Richard’s time, and soon, he was performing supporting roles in films. Interestingly, Richard was a part of the original cast of Agatha Christie’s drama “The Mouse Trap” - an acclaimed mystery that premiered in 1952, and is still running in St Martin’s theatre in London. A record for the longest performing play in history of Drama (My niece got to see the play on her tour of London in 2011!!!…). Richard got a royalty of ten percent on profits, which came in handy when Gandhi went through rough weather during its production.

Never was a film so painstakingly made, or with so much passion. It took Richard thirty years to conceive and execute this panoramic drama. Numerous setbacks: death of key bureaucrats who supported the venture, untimely demise of Nehru whose blessing was an impetus to make this movie, ill-famed declaration of emergency by his daughter Indira disrupting the project by years, the vacillating consistency of his actors, financial ebbs and flows, controversies and legal impediments - any of which would have deterred a lesser man to give up, but not Richard. The decades of preparation finally took off on 26th November 1980 and ended on 10th May 1981; just under a year, when the master rolled out his lifelong ambition into rolls of reels. And what a massive enterprise it was! Mobilizing resources by thousands, orchestrating critical historical moments in Gandhi’s life with an accuracy which is staggering in his truthfulness and focus; getting Ben kingsley transform himself into Gandhi, because nothing less can do justice to this epic; capturing the essential world vision and deep philosophy of Nonviolence that ran through India’s independence struggle, occasionally broken by rapacious strokes of bloodshed; the genesis of split between Hindu and Muslim, Gandhi’s emotional dilemma and possibly his only political failure - all of them needed to told with a gusto and impeccable integrity. Richard knew that he was carving out an epochal moment in cinematic history, and he left nothing to chance in creating this masterpiece.

The world shook its head in wonder and disbelief when the movie was screened in early 1983. In three hour and three minutes of screenplay, Gandhi was bought back to life with a vividity and realism that was not only kaleidoscopic in conception, but more importantly, sensitive and well balanced. The meticulous research Attenborough had bought to the subject, gave a new interpretation and relevance to Gandhi’s life and work for modern generations. It was an artistically complete film. With this biopic, Like Cecil demille or David Niven, Richard had entered the pantheon of select few movie makers - whose style, finesse and narrative brilliance set new bench marks for historical dramas. Not surprisingly, it swept almost all the Academy awards that year, including the Best director for Richard Attenborough.

Einstein’s famous quote : “Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth…” was perhaps slightly mistaken, because he had not made allowances for Sir Richard Attenborough and his “Gandhi”. Now, generations to come will not only believe, but also get to see in celluloid flesh and blood the life story of a man who transformed the meaning of political struggle for mankind forever, giving it a spiritual twist that only a mind fermented in Indian tradition could have conceived. We shall be grateful to him for this magnificent tribute.

Rest blissfully sir... It has been a full life, well led…

God bless...

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The psychology of addiction.. - a conversation

“Can reason overcome addiction?” this young lady asked me with a quizzical look on her face, as we were sitting in Delta’s lounge in the airport. It is was seven in the morning, and my flight was due in a couple of hours. I was sipping a cup of coffee, reading Will Durant’s “Interpretations of Life”, when she stumbled on to a bar stool nearby, and hastily requested for a shot of Makers mark. I could see her fingers trembling a bit, and she seemed rather restless. The moment the generous bartender (as they always are in airline lounge’s...) slid the glass to her with a warm greeting, she grabbed it with both her hands and gulped it down her throat. As the liquid wound its serpentine way to her stomach, her face and body palpably began relaxing; a flush of satisfaction coursed through her face coloring her cheeks with a faint flush of redness – a sign of an overwhelming ache, satiated.

It was then that she noticed me watching her, and gently nodded her head. I put down the book I was reading, and asked “Are you alright?” She realized that I had witnessed her helplessness for those brief few minutes, and apologetically told me “I had a terrible hangover, I needed this drink so very badly”. I acknowledged, and continued my reading. After ten minutes or so, we started having stray conversation, and she had by that time drowned in two more shots, but less slowly and more peacefully than the first one. Her body language was more confident, and her composure seemed to have returned. I gathered that she worked as a Business analyst for an energy company, a single parent, with two grown up girls. As we kept talking, she suddenly interjected “I had been sober for nearly five years. After my girls started going to middle school and we moved out of my ex-husband’s house, I decided to give up alcohol. I did... Went through a rehab, attended some AA sessions, and with my career on the rise, I abstained from it completely. I sincerely believed that I had sufficiently reasoned out with my doctor, friends and family that drinking is not good for me, or my children, or work… The nature of my job does put me in many situations where I am surrounded by people drinking and frolicking. During those moments, when the urge would raise its head, I would quietly slither out to the rest room, or call my kids, or quickly eat dinner to appease this dry, consuming, irritating thirst. And after that, the urge would pass away, and it felt good…

“However, over the last three months, I have relapsed. And the descent has been pretty steep. As you can see, I needed a drink at 7 in the morning…” With this she ended her monologue and paused to take a breath. I was caught in two minds here. A part of me wanted to give her piece of my realization, and the other half nudged me to keep quiet. Anyway, I decided to go ahead to say what I had in mind: “Catherine (name changed), I know exactly what you are talking about. But tell me, do you really want to quit drinking? She gave a startled look and said “of course, I do…”

“No, Pls do not mistake me. The intent of my question was to ask whether you feel in it your bones, in your heartbeat that drinking is not good for your happiness. You see, It is my opinion that unless we experience the futility of alcohol deep down as an existential fact, not merely reasoning it out, or thinking or justifying it; one never ever gets over it that way. The point can be very simply illustrated: One can spell out all the acquired wisdom, biological and scientific reasons for not poking one’s finger into fire, but nothing will deter us from doing so until the body “feels” the great discomfort, the agonizing and excruciating pain it generates on contact with it. Once the heat is suffered, then no reasoning is required to make one stay away from it. A fundamental mutation takes place inside… In fact, after that one can be as close to fire as we want to, bask in its warmth, be an inch away from it; but one will never put a finger into a glowing ember voluntarily again. Alcohol induced pleasure also takes the same route. The thinking, reasoning mind can give us all the reasons to abstain from this ephemeral bliss, but like fire, if we could feel the intensity of its inner corrosion, the utter vacuousness, the helpless dependency, the slow degeneration of everything valuable and rich around us, and above all the neurotic sense of victimization and isolation that it fosters within; it drops away, just as a dead leaf detaches itself from its branch. The fundamental principle of life is that every being aspires to be happy and peaceful. And if the psycho-somatic intelligence perceives that its happiness and peace is being sacrificed or compromised at the altar of drug induced intoxication, then it will cease to crave for it. The entire mechanism of addiction breaks down, and its place will be found a newly discovered freedom that is far more deep, satisfying and fulfilling than ever experienced. Reasoning can provide a firm scaffolding around such a realization, but rarely can it bring about the change by itself… There is a very thin line between casually entertaining alcohol and serious abuse. And it is again reasoning that provides the rationale for that thin line. But to me, to be rid of this habit is to get it out completely, irrevocably through a candid perception of its effect without any justification. This question will have to be asked deep within oneself, and the answer will flower of its own, when ripe… Until then, one has to be diligent….”

The Lounge hostess came over and reminded me that an announcement for boarding has been made. As I was leaving, Catherine shook my hands and said “It’s been a pretty useful conversation, Thanks….”

“Yes, it has… I hope you find your inner poise soon…” With that I rejoined the humdrum of the concourse outside.

During the flight, it stuck me rather forcefully how almost everything Man touches becomes an addiction of some sort. “Man is largely a creature of Habit…” Dr Stanley Hall, wrote nearly a century ago. A habit is a thought repeating itself ad nauseam... Even the most precious, intimate feelings are turned into such automatized reflexes. We have ascribed so much of importance to this one aspect of our being – “The rational brain”, that it permeates every experience that we are capable of. Love, compassion, goodness, order – all of them are measured on scales acceptable to our rationality. Aldous Huxley’s work “The brave new world” projected this dilemma at the turn of last century. The truth is: the actuality of life can never be defined by thought; it is always an aftermath. It is dead wood, never the living, vibrant, effervescent, impermanent, beautiful thing called “life” - whose patterns are ever new. Every rose that flowers is a new rose, never a dull repetition; every cloud a fresh tremulous formation, every heartbeat pulsates with renewed birth, every wave a sprightly unique crescendo. Such intimacy of living brings its own order into life; and in that unforced order one finds the suffocating clasp of abstract thought giving way to a wholesome dissolution into life; and every experience lived and enjoyed without the compulsive push of a thought encrusted brain…

God bless….

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Cont : An examined life - A brief study of two lives.

Cont. : An examined life - A brief study of two lives

Unlike Spinoza, whose life was spurred by an excommunication decree by Temple elders; Jiddu Krishnamurti was embraced by a sect as its next World Messiah. His entire childhood was a preparation for him to ascend a spiritual throne that would have given him unlimited power, authority and sway. But unlike Spinoza again, JK (as he is popularly known) voluntarily cut asunder the ties that bound him, abdicated his position as a leader and declared himself unconditionally free. His story needs to be told in slightly more detail…

The term Theosophy, etymologically derives from its root “God’s wisdom”. It is a kind of syncretistic philosophy, which included esoteric elements from various streams of religious thought: Islamist Sufi doctrines, the mystery of kabbalah, the tantric rumblings of ancient India - all found a place in this system. Its origins can be traced to very beginnings of the Christian era, and has remained in vogue though the ages, often in secret societies, or shrouded as institutions that worked under different names. It is not until the eighteenth century that it started developing a global voice based on writings of Jacob Boehme and Swedenborgian ideas. However, it was left to Russian Helena Blavatsky whose interest in occult and hidden mysteries led to form the Theosophical society, along with Alcott in 1875. The society solidified the fluid beliefs of this ancient movement into a coherent picture of Man’s reality, his relationship with the Universe, and a detailed journey to ascend steps to liberation. “Isis unveiled” and “The secret doctrine” - two books that flowed from the pen of Madame Blavatsky, remain to this day the standard bible for theosophists around the world. To even attempt to read them is an arduous exercise. Unless one is an initiate the Book is never handed over. It is a secret, nocturnal nectar meant only for select prepared individuals. And it was the organizational mission of Theosophy to till the intellectual, moral and spiritual ground of humanity for the coming of the Messiah - an incarnation of Lord Maitreya, a theosophical godhead who incarnates time and again.

It was in such a milieu, in 1909, that Jiddu Krishnamurti was discovered by Charles Leadbeater, a theosophical initiate and a close friend of Annie Besant (President of the society), on the beaches of Adyar in Southern India. JK was the eighth child in his family, and was bought to Madras by his father to continue his education. A picture of Krishnamurti then would have presented a lanky lad, with oiled hair, an aquiline face, broad dark eyes that bespoke a dreamy attitude. Leadbeater was apparently convinced through his occult vision that JK was the sought after Messiah, the reincarnation that they have been so eagerly waiting for. Both Ms. Besant and he, adopted Krishnamurti along with his brother Nitya to their fold. And thus began a period of indoctrination into the mysteries of Theosophy, a purification of the vessel for descent of God. JK was cloistered and sheltered from public appearances. They wanted to get him ready before proclaiming to its members, which incidentally ran into thousands across the world that the Messiah had arrived. The brothers were sent to England for a more well-rounded education, and also to get JK out of his genetically shy self. The plan seemed to work, and JK soon began to embrace the dignity and manners a western education could provide, and his thinking and talks reflected the new born maturity in this handsome young man.

It was in 1922 that the brothers, for the first time since their adoption, found themselves alone in Ojai, California, without the hawk like supervision of Theosophists. Jk’s brother Nitya was diagnosed with Tuberculosis, and the valley proved to be ambrosic to his deteriorating health. JK’s mind, by then was saturated, inundated with theosophist propaganda and practices. Dreamy by nature, the serene atmosphere of this retreat, in the fullness of Californian spring, bought in him a vague sense of unrest. He was becoming increasingly disinterested in authority, and his psyche began to undergo a definitive transformation. He constantly spoke of “The otherness” during those times - A state of being that was utterly unpolluted by dogmas and beliefs. And then in 1925, His brother Nitya died, despite assurances by his masters that he would survive. In that intense heat of grief, JK underwent an inner mutation, the mind rolling back into itself, completely freeing himself of all philosophical encumbrances. The change was cataclysmic, irreversible. For the next few years, his public speeches indicated his dis-allegiance with the movement, and spoke of truth in terms antithetical to Theosophical principles. Finally, in 1929, during the world wide convention held in Netherlands, Krishnamurti formally disbanded the order of the star (a hierarchical structure in theosophy). In one of the moving statements in spiritual history, Jk set him totally, unconditionally free of all obligations in his search for truth. Hear it in his own words:

..”I maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or coerce people along a particular path. ... This is no magnificent deed, because I do not want followers, and I mean this. The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth. I am not concerned whether you pay attention to what I say or not. I want to do a certain thing in the world and I am going to do it with unwavering concentration. I am concerning myself with only one essential thing: to set man free. I desire to free him from all cages, from all fears, and not to found religions, new sects, nor to establish new theories and new philosophies...”

With this short, poignant, radical speech, JK abdicated his role in Theosophy. He spent the next 60 years of his life, travelling all over the globe, talking to varied audiences, gently indicating to them the cunning structure of authority, and the blasphemy of transformation according to a religious tradition. What Satre, Kafka , Camus and Kierkegaard started in contemporary literature; of Man having to find his inner way to salvation alone, without any props whatsoever – is consummated in JK; whose world view , unlike them was optimistic, regenerative and therapeutic. Scientists, educators, writers, men and women from diverse walks of life; discovered in his conversations a sudden insight into the nature of their own selves; and often became better human beings than anything else…

What then is his essential message! For one, he did not believe in gradual transformation of Man. Any system, no matter how subtle and profound it may be, cannot be a path that could lead to individual liberation – (he never used the term God). It is by understanding the very structure of thought, memory and process of “self”; not to overcome it, or modify it – but just by perceiving its movement that one realizes the core of one being as completely free, undivided and limitless. His core philosophy is that there cannot be any discovery with a conclusion. He urged open dialogues, dialectic, public and private talks - always urging and warning his listeners not to take him at face value, but to think and discover along with him. His disillusionment with Theosophy percolated into every fiber of his being and manifested itself as a complete and unequivocal disassociation with any kind of religious faith throughout his life.

His works, talks and writings have been collected in more than twenty volumes. I personally enjoy and recommend his three volumes of diaries titled “The commentaries on Living”. It is the most accessible of all his works. In it, in a series of common place events, dialogues and circumstances, JK draws vivid insights into the web of one’s psyche and root of disorder. The language, the humaneness and his extraordinary sensitivity to life is captured with rare literary felicity worthy of a Marcus Aurelius.

So, in conclusion, Both Spinoza and JK spent a lifetime standing outside the pale of received wisdom. To each, a truth was vouchsafed, and they lived by it, every inch of their lives. Such truth must indeed have had great strength and veracity; otherwise, how else could we justify the tremendous courage, integrity and power they bought to bear upon life. The intellectual tremors from their existence still vibrate noiselessly in the corridors of philosophy the world over - touching and transforming the fabric of existence.

God bless…

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Examining life - A brief study of two lives

More than two thousand years ago, in the “Apologies”, so majestically conceived by Plato, Socrates utters these powerful words: “An unexamined life is not worth living...” This has been the credo of the thinking West since then. All science, Metaphysics, logic, philosophy stemmed from this singular need to observe life in its own terms, and not live in the fantasy world of imagination, superstition and indoctrinated beliefs that had held Mankind in its sway since the dawn of recorded civilization. However even a casual study of history will vindicate that this has never been an easy task. For nearly fifteen centuries, since the crucifixion of Christ, both Science and religion were brutally submerged in cults, institutions, fabricated realities, deceptive truths and a labored body of dogma – that it was quite impossible to live the Socratic creed of introspection that had originally set the tone. The tides of history did throw up, every now and then, men and women who managed to break through shackles of psychological bondage imposed, and glimpse at a horizon of truth that lay beyond the pale of decrepit notions. Those were the harbingers of modern mind - the mind that freed itself during the age of renaissance , questioning not only the cosmology of observed world outside, but also turning the introspective flash light inwards to face the stark reality of Man’s inner state, and realizing the limits of his understanding and the paucity of moral and religious foundations. This is not to say, that only after the fifteenth century, the light of inquiring wisdom was lit. Multitudes of thinkers and mystics, have in the past, questioned this structure of society, and voiced them as well; but such is cosmic will that, only once in a while, it chooses to consummate its full force of realization in the bosom of a few chosen individuals, setting them completely free from the twisted chains of heritage, culture and accepted beliefs; making them stand alone in their contemplation of life and Man’s place in it.. These blessed few leave the intellectual horizon expanded forever, inaugurating an era of tremendous change in quality of thinking in the rich ocean of Human consciousness.

In this essay, I focus on two individuals from different continents and age, whose rejection of their times and thought was so very radical; that it seems almost like a fairy tale, sometimes. One was born into an orthodox Sephardic Jewish family in the seventeenth century, the other was born as a Brahmin boy in southern part of India during the twentieth century. One was raised with all the theological immunization that is so integral to a Jewish upbringing, the other was adopted into a worldwide movement as its heralded world Messiah. One was excommunicated for life for upholding heretical views, the other voluntary gave up his stewardship of a global congregation on seeing the futility of it. One was a “God intoxicated atheist”, the other was an “iconoclastic existentialist”. One was a recluse, the other austerely charismatic… Two so very different lives, yet both explored an unchartered territory in the journey of truth, and followed their deep convictions and search with an audacity and integrity that was nothing short of stunning and original. The key to both of them was their utter solitude in the midst of buzzing criticism and entrenched ideologies. They questioned the premise of every belief that they were taught to believe; and in the intense fire of their scrutiny, every idea metamorphosed into a newer understanding. I am referring to Benedict De Spinoza and Jiddu Krishnamurti. Let’s first talk about Spinoza in this essay:

Of all the mainstream religions in the world, Judaism has a unique history, place and character. Its practitioners have, and to this date believe that God has entered into a special covenant with them; vouchsafed to Abraham by Yahweh. They live as though they are the only chosen ones. This seminal belief in their destiny has been both a blessing and an ominous curse to them. Guided by sixty three tractates of the Talmud, the Jewish community have suffered terrible travails in their four thousand odd years of tumultuous history; driven from one country after another; mercilessly hounded by Christian inquisition in middle ages; living under direst of circumstances under the patronage of unlikely but obliging hosts; victims of the most abominable genocide in the last century – in the midst of all this upheaval, the Jews have striven to maintain their faith in the purest strain possible despite every reason they had to discard it. In the annals of Human history, the saga of the Jews is a story of astounding devotion and belief in the literal word of God. However, Seventeenth century Amsterdam was a relative haven for the Sephardic Jews (immigrant Jews). It was a much longed sanctuary after the persistent prosecution of the last three hundred years. Our hero Spinoza was born in such a time and place. An astute boy, a brilliant student of rabbinical studies; his parents and tutors were predicting a bright future for him in the synagogue. But destiny decreed otherwise. Very soon, Spinoza developed a deep strain of criticism, doubt and self-examination. His study of Christian texts and commentaries, and his own incisive thinking on the origins of their holy book and the message of Godhead contained in it began taking a radical turn. To his transparent, razor sharp intellect the Creator in Holy books seemed more a fictional character created by a bunch of scholars, than a product of reasoned study of essential principles of existence. He was beginning to speak more openly about the inadequacy and his reservations on such a scriptural God. Naturally, the Rabbis were upset. They did not want, or could afford, any divergence from established faith. To them, even the slightest of doctrinal deviation was reason enough for excommunication for a certain period of time followed by public recompense; which, they exercised at every possible occasion with stern disciplinary action and mandatory obedience. The purity of their race, they believed, lay in adhering to the tenets of their covenant. The Jewish records spill over with admonitions and commands of punishment for an even an iota of transgression. Spinoza was reprimanded twice by the fraternity, urging him to mend his ways. But it was too late, as Spinoza’s insights had already broken through the fault lines of accepted dogmatic reasoning. It was then that the Rabbis took the unprecedented step of excommunicating Spinoza for life. It is not very clear as to what prompted such an extreme act of denunciation by the clergy. Nonetheless, in one of the most damning documents in world history, Spinoza was not only cast away from the fold, but was made an outcaste within the Jewish society that nurtured him forever. His letter of excommunication cannot be read, even at this distance of four hundred years, without a chill passing through our spine. The vehemence, the vituperation and extreme vindictiveness numbs the reader. Read then a part of this proclamation of condemnation. It is worth quoting in some length:

"By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law. But you that cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day….”

This demonical curse on Spinoza ends with this scathing command:

"….That no one should communicate with him neither in writing nor accord him any favor nor stay with him under the same roof nor within four cubits in his vicinity; nor shall he read any treatise composed or written by him."

When Spinoza was informed of his excommunication for life, our philosopher replied with an equanimity that is staggering in its simplicity and acceptance. He said: "Very well; this does not force me to do anything that I would not have done of my own accord, had I not been afraid of a scandal….” - Words from a Man who has transcended the ethos of his age.

Nothing can be more terrible than being an outcaste in one’s own society. It is worst possible incarceration that can be inflicted. But not so for Spinoza, his complete detachment from all theological encrustations of his faith, and now his forced seclusion, allowed him to examine the substance of existence with the only tool available to him - that was reason. He knew and acknowledged the irreproachable logic of mathematics and geometry, and under the intense focus of his intellect, the laws of being, morality, God, nature, emotions - all of them begin to gather into a coherent system of axioms, theorem , postulates and proofs. Just as three angles of any “Triangle” is equal to two right angles, Spinoza’s intellectual God is derived from a compendium of logic and proofs, that are irrefutable in its domain…

He lived the rest of his life in a rented boarding house in a quiet corner of Amsterdam, working assiduously on his Magnum opus “The Ethics”. During the day, he worked as Lens grinder (which incidentally he was known to be very good at…). Hardly any friends to speak of, he spent most of time in quiet contemplation, allowing his reason to wander in the byways of Universal laws. Though he was offered academic posts in Universities outside, he declined them stating that a life of academecia does not augur well for a philosopher like him. He died at the age of forty two, of a lung disease caused by the fine glass powder that he ground with so much care and love. None of his writings were ever published during his lifetime. In fact, for many years after his death, His name was banned from public discussions, and none were allowed to quote or refer to his works. Such is the price one pays for living an “examined life”.

Yet, the thoughts and insights of Spinoza could not be held underground for long. Copies of “The Ethics” began to be surreptitiously printed and circulated, and the world began to realize the impact of this lonely heretical philosopher. Scholars, metaphysicists, scientists, theologians understood the deep significance of his cosmic view that spawned a system of morality untouched by empirical facts. The rigor of his exposition was logical enough to prove the non-existence of an independent Creator. In fact, Albert Einstein was an avowed Spinozoan. He considered Spinoza’s orderly universe that need not have any first causes or God, as his intrinsic scientific belief as well. During the later years of his life, Einstein made a pilgrimage to Spinoza’s little home in Amsterdam, and signed the guest list. Soon after he composed a poem on his love for Spinoza - Very odd indeed for the greatest scientific brain to resonate with a great metaphysicist.

Well then, “The Ethics” itself is perhaps one of the most difficult books to read, less to understand. It is a condensation of a masterly brain at work. Like Euclid’s theorems, Spinoza attempts to define, postulate and prove the laws of this Universe in which God and nature are products of intellectual ecstasy, and individual ethics lies in aligning one’s life to reasoned laws. None can claim to understand the drift of his thoughts in a casual read. It needs a complete involvement, almost a dissolution into the pathways of logic to appreciate the beauty of his system. Will Durant advises “…Read the book not all at once, but in small portions at many many sittings. And having finished it, consider that you have but began to understand it…. When you have finished it a second time you will remain forever a lover of philosophy..,”

In the next installment, we shall look at the extraordinary life of J Krishnamurti.

God bless…

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

God - An investigation - part 9 - the mythical lore

The genesis of this article lies in a conversation I had with a Young South Indian mother in Cleveland airport. She was travelling to India to perform the rites of Upanayanam for her son, about twelve years old. It was a two hour long wait and conversation blossomed. I could sense that she was not very happy going through this ceremony. She said “You know, neither my Husband nor me believe in this silly ritual. Both our parents are alive, and they have been insisting on this for some time. We didn't want to disappoint them. They believe that this ritual ought to be performed, and we just want to go along with them. Personally, what difference does a foot long thread hung diagonally over one’s shoulder going to make... ’ She chuckled at her wisdom and continued: “… It’s all a ‘myth’ and an unnecessary ritual. Rahul (name changed), my son, does not know that he is in for a long tiring two days hard work. Well, if it keeps everyone happy, we are Ok with it…”

I paused for a moment and said “Yes Mam, you are right... But if I could request or suggest something - do not let the boy know that this ritual is a big joke. Probably, this event, this elaborate function may after all do him some good. So let him take it seriously. This tradition, myth or ritual, call it whatever you may want, has been around for hundreds of years, and it signified a state of transition in Human life. One discards an old idea only if it is no more relevant, or superseded by a superior understanding. The ceremony of “Upanayanam” is symbolic of inner transformation, and this has not changed since the dawn of time. I see that you have been married traditionally (she was wearing her bridal chain…) and I am sure you value it more than anything else. It is because of its underlying meaning that we value a symbol, not the other way around. It is not about a foot long thread, but what it symbolizes or stands for that is important. After all, social life is all about symbolism. Drop the symbol and what remains is emptiness. And the symbol is only important till such time one sees what it is pointing to, then it drops away by itself. In fact, this foot long thread is in a way a reminder of our lost, misplaced, hidden self, and the function of Upanayanam is investing the thread with this symbolic significance. So, if your husband and you can look into it, you may end up discovering that this is probably the most important ceremony in your boy’s life as he crosses the threshold of childhood, and then probably help in educating him to integrate better within himself and his world around…”

She listened to me with great attention, and then turned away her face in contemplation. A little while later, she motioned to me and asked “Do you know of any book that can elucidate or teach me this better…?” I smiled and said “Your interest is in itself the beginning of understanding….”

What the modern age lacks are serious myths to live by. The last two hundred of human history has robbed us of our beliefs, unwavering faith and left us in kind of limbo that is exploding into symptoms of increasing violence, restlessness, insecurity and certainly a lack of inner sense of direction that we see all around. The term “myth” is probably the most abused word in the language. The etymology of this word lies in its hoary past when it meant a system or collage of verbal communication that made sense of our world around. It is a unique attribute of Human species, that we can tell stories, verbalize experiences, and clothe the splendor of our awe, fear and wonder in rich tapestry of words, pictures and sequences; and also be able pass it on generation after generation to our progeny. It is this wonderful cultural continuity of man that sets him apart. Long before words became written scripts, his voice echoed through ages in trembling tones assembling together a coherent understanding of this vast universe with fragmentary bits of knowledge available. What is most amazing in this process is the unbelievable continuity of such myths across cultures, civilizations, people and times. In Jungian terms, the universal “archetypes”, or in Kantian terminology “a priori knowledge” – that seamlessly weaves into the fabric of Human life, no matter what the circumstances are. It is such a travesty of justice that the word “myth” has now come to connote a lie, an untrue fact, and a story of disrepute. Nothing can be farther from the truth and more illustrative of Modern Man’s superficiality and insensitivity to life than this misconstrued, illiterate understanding of its past, and a blatant misuse of a profound word its legacy.

“Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths…” wrote Joseph Campbell, while talking about the symbolic inner journey of Man personified in Mythical lore. The problem arises when myths are taken literally, or one wishes to rationalize its significance in contemporary terms. The mistaken understanding that a “scientific temper” often means to disregard ideas that cannot be proven – is the biggest bane of our public education system. On one hand, we have succumbed to a mechanical repetition of myths handed over, haunting us with a gnawing fear that if they are not adhered to, calamity can befall us; or we have taken the vivid imagery of these beautiful myths to be a literal rendition of the world surrounding us; or we belittle them as childish prattles not worthy enough to be considered by a mature adult. The sum of it is that we are unsure, confused and bereft of solid ground under our feet. We have lost that equipoise, the integration that is so very required for sane living, which Mythology provided us in ample measure in the past

In my opinion, more than the West, it is the East, which is rotting in its own debris. For a culture that gave birth to the most profound, deepest and incisive understanding of the Universe; spun out myths, philosophies and allegories that touched the origin of beings, we have sadly neglected and relegated this rich repository of unspeakable beauty to a level, which is not only a mockery, but clearly shred and devoid of any meaning and purpose whatsoever. While the West is drawing its inspiration from the well springs of the East for the last century, we, in turn, have let go of this literature that was nurtured on our very own soil. I have heard many people ridiculing rituals and its associated paraphernalia. I can only smile in derision over such ignorance. Rituals are enactments of meaningful symbology. While it is true that none of them will make any sense independently; but enacted within the rich meaning of myths surrounding it they assume extraordinary heights of beauty and significance that transcends rational thought and touches something that is beyond it. It is in these acts of conscious ritualization that man evolves during every stage of his life. The Human child takes the longest gestation period of nearly twelve years, or sometimes more, to graduate from gross dependency on Parental care to adulthood. Apart from the biological instincts which serve him during this time, the cultural insignia that is imposed on him to perform social roles within the communal body needs to be forcefully achieved; often through education, emulation, chastisement, discipline and endless other means. It is a not a natural biological mutation. The traditional mythic ceremonies on naming, puberty, marriage, education and nature festivals are overblown reactions to startle the mind and intellect to wake up to a newer dimension. Every such ritual is a consecration of life and its possibilities.

But the point is: there has to be a reinterpretation of myths in the light of modern times. Cultural milieus may change, knowledge of our external world may increase exponentially, geographical and social barriers may dim; but, the inner life of man has essentially remained the same. We are moved by the same impulses, cravings, beauty, suffering and all the rest of it; as our ancestors’ eons ago. The cave paintings at Lascaux, the carvings at Ellora, or the tombs of pharaohs depict the same archetypal human emotions that sway us even today. The surreal dream of an everlasting truth that have moved Men and Women to build, paint, procreate, stabilize, conquer is still virginally fresh in all of us. And it is that spring of coiled energy the Myths and rituals awaken within. A proper study of Mythology and rituals lies not in ridiculing, trivializing or getting habituated to them, but to look within, and sense the tremendous currents of Human consciousness flowing underneath the seemingly puerile imagery conjured in hearts and minds of Man, for whom life was very intimate, palpable; and hence in a way more real than to many of us…

God bless…

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The virulent epidemic - A study in Human fragility by Camus

Each time I read or hear about a potential violent epidemic, I am reminded of Albert Camus “The plague” and his vision of Human absurdism in the face of terrible irrationality of the Universe. It is amazing how century upon century, Mankind has been afflicted by one pestilential disease after the other, leaving in its wake a devastation, a sordid fear of existence and a numbing blow to his pride, vanity, arrogance and misplaced sense of superiority. More lives have been lost to debilitating epidemics than all wars put together. It is almost as if a curse rips through life, and purges the Earth of its burden in its own inimitable manner. I was watching the reportage on the outbreak of Ebola on national television and was stuck by the poignancy of Camus’s conception of his novel, and how true and realistic were his story, characterization and philosophy of Man’s essential loneliness in this pitiless Universe.

Plague has played a very important role in Human history: The ten biblical plagues forced the Pharaohs of Egypt to recant on slavery and thus began an exodus that continues till date to have a deep repercussion on world history, the aftermath of Justinian plague in the years 541-544 irrevocably changed the social and political landscape of western Europe laying foundations for a strong agrarian society and a feudal system, the “Black death “in the thirteenth century devastated the moral fiber of medieval church; forcing it to invent new divine laws, myths and rituals that forever changed the way Christianity was viewed or worshiped; the Great plague of London in 1666 was a seminal turning point in cultural and scientific renaissance that saw the efflorescence of a new creative spirit ,and a renewed optimism that spread out across the world, promulgating an era of unprecedented material advancement and Human freedom..

Albert Camus begins his novel with an outbreak of plague in Oran, a French village. Slowly, imperceptibly and with a growing sense of dread, its inhabitants realize that they are caught in the vortex of a virulent epidemic. The city is quarantined; and thus begins a penetrating journey into the minds and hearts of common folk who react to this forced seclusion in their own peculiar way. In fact, the origin of the word quarantine has an interesting history. It was first used in Venice during the period of "Black death" to isolate suspected victims of Plague for a period of thirty days - ‘Trentena’. But later, it was revised to forty days of seclusion in tune with the Christian period of Lent, and hence called Quarantine. The disease then, began to take connotations of divine retribution. The freedom that man takes so much for granted in modern society is only appreciated when it is denied. It is this theme that Camus slowly unravels; bringing into focus the paralysis of the Human heart, and general degeneration of moral and ethical behavior in contrast to heroic survival by some. Each moment of incarceration increases the intensity of boredom and lack of any motivation, and a “turning away” from actuality of living. In one of the finest observations on Human behavior Camus writes “the truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits…’ As sickness ravages through the city, Men and women become docile and incapable of living, and merely go through the motions, with nerves as taut as a tightly stringed instrument, waiting to snap at the slightest possible provocation. The utter helplessness of an Individual in the midst of such a calamity is bought forth in stunning candidness in the terse narrative of Camus. Though he disliked being called an existentialist, his writings focused on the predicament of an individual in socially orchestrated world. He believed that Man as a social animal carries his need to conform to social taboos to absurd levels of obedience and adherence, and when he is cut off from it, his life becomes meaningless and defeated. Perhaps one can sum up his philosophy in his own words, which I believe is the message of “The plague” as well: “... You know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don't really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man….”

I recently read yet another wonderful book by Geraldine brooks “ years of wonder”. Again, set in sixteenth century against a backdrop of Plague stricken England, Brook’s novel is more factual than Camus’s. Samuel Pepys’s diaries chronicled those terrible times for posterity and this book draws heavily on its material. Nonetheless, the artistic prose of Brooks and her incisive study of Human nature provide a deep understanding of those terrible times.

I was prompted to write this essay when I saw the sensationalizing of Ebola outbreak on television and newspaper. The trauma of living through such a catastrophe can never be captured by raw reportage or media journalism. It can only be achieved by sensitive literature. It takes a great deal of empathy to sink into the soul of a victim caught in throes of such a natural disaster, and few writers are gifted with that kind of aesthetic ability. And they fulfill the true goal of all literature - to hold a mirror and look at oneself in the white candid light of truth…

God bless..

Saturday, August 2, 2014

"March" - by Geraldine Brooks , a tale of sublime sensitivity..

I have always loved the genre of historical fiction. Some of my most memorable reading experiences have been books that entertain as well as educate. Coleen McCullough's bulky, meticulously researched tomes of Roman history; or the admirable chronicles of English royalty by Philippa Gregory; or James Cavell's magical journey of eastern culture in six glorious volumes; or Leon Uris's wonderful modern and ancient historical dramas; or James Michener's unparalleled stories of diverse seminal societies; or Irving stone's throbbing biographies of intellectual, political and artistic giants; or Edward Rutherford's penetrating study of English origins;; or Hillary Mantel's insights into sixteenth century Cromwellian era; or Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer winning novels on World wars; or Sir Walter Raleigh’s breathtaking stories of the knight Templars; or Ellis Peter’s ecclesiastical mysteries seen through the eyes of brother Cadfael; or Umberto Eco’s bibliophilic tales of crime; or John Jakes romping twelve volume fictionalized account of American history -  all of these and more than I could ever name in a single essay - have over the years given me unbridled reading pleasure..

But as I put down “March” by Geraldine brooks, I knew for certain that I had read something sublimely beautiful; and, most definitely, a rare gem in this category of writing. ‘March” is set during the American civil war, when a newly born nation did not clearly understand what is that they were fighting for. Was it emancipation of the Negroes, or their redemption from slavery? The one did not necessarily imply the other. It was in those tumultuous times, in 1868, Mary Louis Alcott published the first teenage fiction in literature titled “Little women”. It was a coming of age kind of story of three girls growing up during the first blush of American freedom, opportunity and emergence of Female individuality. The girls grow up with their strong independent mother, having seen their father - a Chaplain join the civil war, and absent for most part of the story. The cult of American adolescent writing started with this book. Geraldine brooks uses the context of “little woman” to weave a story of breathtaking sensitivity. “March” is based on the experiences of the absent father during the war. His view of this calamity as no-win situation for both sides; the painful effects of racial hatred and brutality; the flowering of beauty and grace under the most unexpected conditions; his reevaluation of priorities and reconciliation to hard tempests of historical forces and its step sister – destiny; his reunion with his wife, tempered with a maturity that comes out of the crucible of fiery experiences gathered from nauseating violence and reproachable greed; the unlikely help that comes in the form of long buried love and flickering waves of passion – all find deep expressions in the facile pen of Brooks. A journalist by profession, she chisels paragraphs with clear strokes of a master. Her research into that complex era is fused seamlessly into the literary cadence of her prose. With a few brush strokes of sentences, she manages to evoke a crystal clear image of that unsettling period in our minds and hearts. It is not a bulky piece of fiction, but the nonetheless brings together diverse elements of classic story telling into vivid focus. As I read chapter after chapter, I could feel the creative juice that would have flowed through the writer, as this story germinated and unfolded in her mind- that raw sensation of being in the grove, words forming and pouring our torrentially in a grip of artistic fever; the intellect seized with the drama, pain and joy of its protagonists – and above all, the sure grip over the medium of written word that conjures a reality of its own.. A true work of passion….

As I finished the book at Detroit airport yesterday, my eyes fell upon television screens showing images of the brutal civil war in Gaza. The Israeli’s and Palestinians fighting an ideological war that is eating up thousands of life. It is not so much the pathways of blood, or the bodies that pile up, that affect me – it is the irreparable damage done to individual psyche; of young children growing up in such a milieu, watching this carnage over ideas that they do not fathom, or war cries that make no sense to them. All that their young, innocent eyes witness is a valueless society; utterly decadent and depraved. In a sense, Geraldine brook’s “March” is about this acute inner pain that war and its aftermath causes. No one can come out a battlefield unscathed. It changes perspectives, alters relationships and dehumanizes an individual, or at the very least shifts his inner equilibrium… The wonder that is life is sacrificed at the altar of an idea, and nothing can be more insane or demeaning than this.

“March” won the Pulitzer award in 2006, and a richly deserved one too. I recommend this to any serious lover of literature.

God bless…