Paraphrasing Mr Mehta

For writers, the fashionable dictum of our times is: Keep it short and keep it simple. Fewer words, inclusive styles and conversational vocabulary are readability mantras that writers use as editing guidelines for the first draft. As with every evolution this journey too has many reasons; all satisfyingly, argument worthy. High on my list are the democratization of both writing and reading and, the end-of-century dominance of the ‘American way’ in all things life and living. After all, writability is hardly worth pursuing when the game is one of numbers and anti-anti elitism is the new exclusive club.

What came first is yet another chicken and egg conundrum. Did reading styles, that skim and speed read for take home points, devalue the exercise of crafting a good sentence? Or did the proliferation of writing, as wrap for a couple of readable comments, bring out our closet speed reader? However that argument resolves itself is not relevant to the generally accepted notion that much writing today is driven by the urge to opinionate, not interrogate. Ultimately, canonical faith needs to persuade in simple and familiar language if it wants to propagate belief.

“Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died’ don’t say ‘Mortality rose’”. Famous pithy takes on writing like this quote from the redoubtable CS Lewis, are unfortunately used to make the case that words of more than seven to nine letters make for ponderous prose. It is true that deconstructing highfalutin concepts to comprehensible prose is a fundamental need for the popularization of academic subjects. It is equally true that simplistic prose in commentary cannot hope to stimulate anything more than simple thought. This is proven, without much effort, by the visible degeneration of Opinion columns to little more than, ‘have opinion will write’ drivel.

A writer who breaks this mould is Pratap Bhanu Mehta. His column in the Indian Express is a joy to read not only for the content of his thought, but also, for the style with which he articulates it. Almost every sentence manages the feat of being both scaffold for its kin and a stand alone quotable. His latest in the paper does not fail expectations. Writing on the flaws of the UPA as a cautionary tale for the new government; it is counsel that we would, each of us, do well to read and emulate in our own spheres of influence.

As tongue in cheek response to my own griping and as annoyed counter to a friend’s use of the word ‘pedant’, and also, with apologies to fans of new age wisdom; I have paraphrased his words to fit the standards of ready reckoner readability.

  1. Institutions sustain and enrich our lives. Whether in our personal and professional relationships or in our daily interaction with impersonal systems like the Law; it is worth remembering that each one of us is a cog in the wheel. We need to work on the wheel in order to make it turn and spin our way. Expectations always stand second in line behind responsibilities.
  2. It is more important to be credible than clever. Without the credibility of belief and/or action; argumentation, however cleverly spun, will fall flat.
  3. Plan for the long-term. The short-term is but a rung in the ladder that can be adjusted for height. You don’t have to win every battle. Let go of a few; but (and this is an important but) let go with the clear foresight of a purpose bigger than the moment.
  4. Confidence in self can degenerate, without warning, to intellectual sloth. Channel confidence to build credibility. Validation is a virtuous cycle.
  5. Nurture criticism without rancour. Without honest feedback, you are trapped in an echo chamber where all you will do is wither and fade.
  6. Communicate to get to power. Communicate to stay in power. Communicate to rise in power. In short; communicate. No one is born a mind-reader. Very few study to be mind readers and then, they often get it wrong.
  7. Never underestimate the power of error. Or, the power of others who will drum up your errors for their gain. A rise into grace is never as spectacular as a fall from it.

With this effort, I am assured that all clamour for dour, bulleted, get-to-the-chase prose is doused and that you, my dear reader, have fled this page to the delights of his own meticulously crafted one.

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Responding to #VAW. Once more and again

On a good day; it is hard to find much that’s wrong with Twitter. The bonhomie, the banter, the cerebral and the goofy, all meld together as epitome of all that is wonderful with it. But, the communal nature of the place ensures a downside too. And that, is the sadness which queues up in Timelines with a regularity that’s almost predictable based on who or what you follow. Sorrows happening elsewhere find their way into our lives here, as news feed of obits and, brutalities scroll past disbelieving eyes in varying shades of vile and venal. They come to inform, to instigate grief and outrage and from there, hopefully, to initiate change. That they come with expectations of response is obvious. What the nature of the response should be, is less certain.

Obits have the acronym that sounds more like a barking order than honest grief. Even if, its rampant use seems more like misuse; at least, it is harmless and well intentioned. On the other hand, our insta-response to the more common stories of murder and mayhem, combines rage, abuse, argument and misinformation, is designed to be little more than a vent and must therefore give us some pause. Yet, against every common sense, we rise easy to provocation. Rise in collective reaction as giant waves of outrage that we direct against systems and mind-sets; but, that instead, somehow manage to crash on our own borders as shipwrecked fury. In a rare case, this outpouring leaves behind a ripple of online activism that vows to hold the flame. More commonly, it’s over almost as soon as it started. And we are alone again with the familiar hollow feeling; a nag of: something done but nothing achieved. A feeling of having clanged doors that turned out to be windows and that, still, didn’t open.

Despite these misgivings, I’ve been on Twitter long enough to know that its outrage is rarely ignored. The swell from here spills over onto the MSM and from there to the powers that be. That ought to feel like a good thing. Yet, it reeks of short-term gain with no definitive long term outcome. More unhappily, that short-term gain is usually nothing more than mere tokenism but it seems to satisfy and the storm of our rage is allowed to dissipate.

Violence against women (#VAW) is one such example. It is episodic, complexly intertwined with many other social determinants, and is often happening elsewhere and to someone else. Every now and then, a particularly unspeakable horror is inflicted on another hapless sister, our carefully constructed assurances crumble once more and again, we rise in a clamor of outrage. The same cycle repeats and it goes like this: We convince ourselves the sound of our sinking sorrow is actually the cadence of our rising voices. The noise hits tipping point, some token response is crumbled our way (the standard for rape now seems to be – fast-track courts), we pipe down, carry the grief around awhile, and limp back to the routines of our lives. Most of us have neither the time nor the energy to be single-minded about staying on course with something that is periodic and happening elsewhere. That last about it ‘happening elsewhere’ is often used as accusatory judgment. In reality, no ‘elsewhere’ is that far that we don’t feel the desecration each time as if it was our own. The next time too (and there will be a shameful next time) we will return to re-enact the stages of our public grief. Excoriate ourselves for not doing enough. Set ourselves up to be judged by cynical eyes that view our reactions as, flavor-of-the-moment activism. Every woman knows in her bones the falseness of that charge. But, Twitter after all is the giant sinkhole that sublimates our closet dilettante.

WSJ Graphics         A Rape Map Of India: Pic Source

This time, it was Badaun. We are still going through the stages as I write. Nothing new; nothing different. Even the standard diversionary shift is down pat. In this case, it is an argument over photographs – should they have been posted online. Meanwhile, the children are dead. Tokenism is out in full force and our grief seems to be waning.

It’s embarrassing. And distressing. That a matter of such importance is colored by so much drama and so little gravitas. What difference are we really making? What difference has been wrought? What are we hoping to spur with photographs? What are we doing here that is changing anything on the ground.

The Delhi protests against the Dec ‘12 rape of a student (called by many monikers, none of which I like; but, uncertain of what the law says on the subject of naming her, I’ll toe the line and call her Nirbhaya too) were indeed a defining moment. Out of that came: the Verma commission report, a 1000 Crore fund in Nirbhaya’s name, the Vishaka guidelines for workplace harassment (originally espoused in 1997) passed into Law and six dedicated fast track courts that were set up for Delhi alone.

Unsurprisingly, all of them have problems. The 1000 Crore fund proved to be one in name -barely a Rupee has been allocated; the Verma Commission’s suggested changes to the Vishaka guidelines have not been incorporated and the jury is still out on the benefits of fast track courts. Most of the Verma Commission’s recommendations, though considered thorough and comprehensive, are yet to be implemented. The only heartening news is that the number of reported and registered complaints of harassment and rape have gone up. But, here too, the convictions continue to be few and far between.

In light of this, of what use is outrage? The scrolling stream of erupting emotion seems to have little, if any, teeth to mobilize actionable change on the ground. In despair, this time, I tried tagging the Prime Minister – an exercise in foolishness for someone with my modest profile and as expected, it yielded nothing.

Our response to rape and #VAW might yield a better result if it is channeled at a specific target and is incisive and persistent in its attack. The problem of rape has thrown up two such targets. One: Police reform. A factor that has time and again been cited as a potential game changer for gender abuse. And, two: Inadequate sanitation. Badaun has once again brought to the fore the horrific chance-consequence of a lack of sanitation. What for us is a matter-of-fact guarantee as to not even merit a second’s thought; for these children, is a matter of life and death. The simple ordinariness of a humble toilet should become something that girls and women get used to having in the relative safety of their homes, schools and communities.

As with most other things; for outrage to be effective it must be directed at a precise target. The word ‘Rape’ doesn’t fit the bill anymore. ‘Police reform’ and ‘toilets for girls’ do and are actionable targets. Activism directed at them will be a harbinger of a more lasting change.

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Jallikattu – a case for cultural evolution and responsible activism

This is a very hard subject to write about. But, it must be done since I am now answerable (to myself primarily) for commenting on Twitter, twice, both times without having considered the issues particularly incident to the case. It must also be done because I am an ardent believer in animal rights and support activism for the cause.

It is hard to write; for, the exercise necessarily entails I appraise myself of the details and circumstances of abuse are very hard to read and digest. Sometimes, you simply don’t want to know the grit on the ground. Floating in the abstractness of the measure of blue in the sky (very interesting by the way) is so much more comforting by contrast but, you then shouldn’t be mouthing off on activism. So, suitably chastened, I set out to understand the facts about Jallikattu with as bipartisan a view as I could summon.

History

Jallikattu lays claim to a hoary history and antecedence from the Tamil Sangam period (300 BC- 300 AD). A celebrated literary work of the time – the Silapadikkaram, describes a bull-fighting sport which also seems to have doubled as a Swayamvaram (a festival wherein prospective grooms had to demonstrate their suitability by passing a series of obstacle tests). Clearly, the sport has evolved from then. The modern day version is traced back 400 years to the reign of the then King of Madurai, Thirumala Nayikar. Today, it is neither a bull-fighting sport; nor a test for matrimonial suitability. It is now diluted to a bull-taming festival but retains a vestige of masculine preening and is meant to be practiced thus: ‘aggressive’ bulls are released from their pens into enclosures and young trained men demonstrate their valour by charging the bull and holding onto its greased body for as long as they can; before, either the bull flings them down or, the men quiet it down. Generations of selective breeding have resulted in recognizable groups of especially mighty and temperamental bulls; the more famous among them is called, Pulikulam.

Controversy

Jallikattu is considered cultural tradition in the deep South districts of Tamil Nadu where it is practised. Apart from heralding the harvest festival Pongal, it is also seen as mandatory to auspicious fortune. But, a sport that involves a battle of strength and wits between powerful bulls and headstrong men cannot be docile. Whether due to heightening animal activism, religious globalization or simple tourism; the sport has come under increasing scrutiny in the past decade. Further, in an unfortunate collision with the flat-world hypothesis, an equivalence is alleged between the tortured cruelty of the Spanish bull-fights and this bull-taming sport despite ample knowledge that the bull (by every account) is neither ever killed nor is it intended to be. Yet, in recent years (and again, this finds consensus), the practice has become more violent and has changed character. Bulls are put through abusive and cruel treatment on the day of the event by subjecting them to both substance abuse (alcohol or by application to the skin of irritants) and physical abuse (I do not wish to detail such torments but Clause 17 of the SC judgment quotes the AWBI report in depth and it is a wrenching read). Verified and documented incidents of cruelty, torture and abuse of the bulls, on the day of the sport, have led to frequent run-ins with animal rights activists. Things finally got to a head and the matter was taken to court.

Litigation history

The AWBI (Animal Welfare Board of India – a statutory body) and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – the largest not-for-profit corporation for animal rights in the world) sought a ban on the grounds of animal abuse and public safety. In 2006, the Tamil Nadu HC delivered a ban under the provisions of the PCA Act (Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act). From then, for the past eight years, the ban has gone through many stages of cyclical negotiation when it has been alternately lifted, revoked and diluted. In 2009, the State, in an effort to reconcile the parties, passed the TNJRA (TN Jallikattu Regulation Act) which imposed stringent terms for the sport to continue  under non-abusive conditions. One of which, was that Jallikattu could only be allowed under the watchful supervision of the district collector, superintendent of police and AWBI representatives. The JRA has laid down the rules hard and consequently, the number of Jallikattus has steadily dwindled from 2000 participating villages to a mere 25 this year. Yet, 2010 alone witnessed 12 deaths (human deaths) and 1614 injuries (both animal and human, I presume). While the regulation ensured the practice was restricted to large groups and to a few months of the year; it failed to deliver on conditional requirements of the PCA. The affiliations between the State and organizers ensured that the act was reduced to hogwash. The matter reached the Supreme Court with both the TN government and the organizers are defendants and after deliberations, the SC delivered its final verdict last month banning the sport.

The Prosecution argued on the basis of ‘flight response’ and that the PCA should override the JRA. The Defence argued for cultural preservation, cultural tourism, and insisted  that the ‘degree of suffering’ of the bulls was not enough to come under the ambit of the PCA. The Court ruled that the JRA was anthropocentric in contrast to the eco-centric welfare legislation of the PCA and as such, the latter had pre-eminence. The ban was upheld and its reasoning detailed in a long judgment of staggering scope and scholarship (recommended reading).

The consequences have been swift and harsh. Yesterday’s papers reported; many bull-owners have had to sell the bulls to the slaughterhouse. An outcome, I am sure, no animal activist would have wanted.

Opinion

Despite their deeply entrenched faith in the veracity of their individual positions, both sides have uncomfortable questions to face.

  • The argument that the bulls are ‘naturally’ aggressive can’t hold much water with most ethologists. These bulls are trained to be temperamental but, despite that, a clear flight response is documented every time.
  • That the bull-owners pamper and invest (according to some reports, upwards of 15K a month) in the upkeep of the bulls is not contested. That, however, is an irrelevant defense against cruelty considering that the abusive treatment is meted out on the day of the event. Section 3 of the PCA clearly defines the duties of animal caretakers (bull-owners in this case) to include both, caring for the welfare and the well-being of the animal and, at the same time, protecting it from harm, suffering or abuse.
  • If the bull-owners were seriously interested in the welfare of their animals or in cultural tradition; they would not have allowed the degeneration of the tradition to an exercise in hostile and unruly behavior. Cultural tradition is something that is actively supported and protected; you cannot fall back on it as convenient excuse for degenerate versions of what might have once been aesthetic. The learned judges opine on this very point with an excellent quote from Professor Salmond: “Custom is the embodiment of those principles which  have commended themselves to the national conscience as the  principles of justice and public utility”.
  • Much talk circulates about the investment of money in the sport. There is, however, scant information on how much money is made living off and through these bulls for sport and stud services.
  • While lamenting the bulls that have already been sold to the slaughterhouse because of the ban; there is silence on what happens to these bulls once they become old and infirm? What is their fate then? Is what happened yesterday only an acceleration of an inevitable destiny?

Animal rights activism is a very tough grapple when it comes to the rights of domesticated animals. These animals have their agency usurped twice – once by the process of domestication; and then again, by activism that, having argued and won the case against the first, is stranded on a course of action from thereon. It is wise to tread slowly in such areas and with humility. The effort to cast this battle in the false dichotomy of good and evil/ right and wrong will yield disastrous consequences, most of which are then borne by the very animals you set out to save. It is often the case, that the people who work closely with these animals are more knowledgeable and equally empathetic and these qualities allow for easy negotiation of a middle ground. In this particular case; what strategy did PETA and/or AWBI, have for these mighty creatures once the ban took effect.  The sight of these gorgeous bulls being used for commerce in their own death as they were in life, is especially painful to bear. PETA is also answerable for selective targeting of practices. The use of animals for sport is equally odious in ‘glamorous’ horse racing and I expect and hope that PETA will  stay true by targeting the Turf Clubs next.

Our culture has always seen man as one of many creatures, of and by nature (the judgment quotes the Ishopanishad to illustrate this point; I have added the verse below). Hinduism does not accord our species a foolish exceptionalism above and beyond all others. Our folklore is rife with stories of animal law and justice. We practice a benign sharing of resources with other animals exemplified best in the cows that inhabit traffic islands and our street dogs who negotiate traffic crossings with aplomb. But apart from this genial side; there is also a dark underbelly of torture and cruelty towards animals. It is impossible for me to say how recent a phenomenon it is; but it would not be illogical to deduce that it is relatively recent and has paralleled the crumbling of social structures elsewhere. Culture is ever evolving. Each time, it evolves in aspiration of a higher ground. With Jallikattu too; the practice has evolved from the time of the Sangam and should continue to evolve if it wants to stay afloat. If only to save the fate of the bulls and their owners for this current generation; the practice must be allowed to stay albeit with strict conditions to evolve and with immediate effect to, at best, a bull-race. There are better avenues for entertainment in the 21st century than the sadism of using animals for sport.

——————————————————————————————-

From the IshOpanishad; as quoted in the judgment:

“The universe along with its creatures belongs to the land.   No
creature is superior to any other.  Human beings should not  be  above
nature.  Let no one species encroach over the rights and privileges of
other species.”

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The Culture Of Conservatism

The dust-up over Mr. Muthalik’s acceptance into the BJP served fresh grist into the mills of the culture-and-politics debate. With the BJP poised to make a comeback, the talk raging in clubs and canteens alike, is expectedly getting heated and will likely stay that way until May’s answer to this Umm al-electoral Maarik. After which, interest might vane awhile; but make no mistake, the argumentation has at long last found firm ground and is here to stay. For, there is a larger something at the nub of it; something that transcends politics – the recognition of the right to own and express cultural identity by Hindu Indians without being dubbed fascist or fundamentalist.

In everyday parlance, culture wars pit conservatives and liberals against each other on either side of a fence. Often, that is a doubly reinforced electric fence with poison tipped spikes for backup. Seriousness aside; try transposing common understanding of these terms to the Indian context and the cognitive dissonance becomes obvious when, suddenly, Left, Right, their Wings, Conservatives, Progressives, etc., all morph into un-unravelable skeins of woolly definition. The terms translate this way here: Indian Left is the motley bunch of usual culprits; Indian Right is Right Wing loony; Indian Liberals only get their rosettes if they belong to the upper echelons of one (just one) political party and/or circumnavigate the concentric whorls of the literary sphere and Indian Conservatives are the indescribable NOTA group. Leaving aside ‘Left’ and ‘Liberal’ which play somewhat true to righteous type; it is ‘Right’, ‘Right-Wing’ and ‘Conservative’ that consistently enmesh to belie definition.

Conservatives and Liberals split fundamentally on economics and culture. In recent years the field of Political Physiology has ensured that the divide gets more evolved company. Biology too now finds its place alongside culture and economics as a credible separator of political preference. There are defined psychological and biological explanations for behavioral differences (twin studies ascribe as much as 40% to DNA) between the two and it is possible that evolution might have selected for that variance to exist. While the arguments over economics have had their fair share of the Sun; considered debate on culture is near absent. What stands in its stead is the noise of outrage. Over freedom of speech, Khaps, marriage and family values, moral policing and patriarchy.

The more traditional socio-religious conservatism has two broad divisions – cultural conservatism and social conservatism; Right and Right-Wing respectively. While there are overlapping areas of interest;  in the Indian context the distinctions are more defined (but underreported) than the overlap which typically, is generalized and overplayed. The two preeminent issues that social conservatism in India is pre-occupied with are – freedom of expression (often demonstrated as aggressive protest over published word or art) and moral policing or vigilantism. Ugly demonstrations of muscle power are indeed more media worthy than critical thinking but, that is not the only reason social conservatism finds pre-eminence in the debate. It is also, artfully deployed as a whipping boy to muzzle conservative thought and voice. More egregious than this however, is the canard that secularism reposes safe only in the cocooned custody of Left and/or Liberal. This unfounded argument of calculated convenience is used to daub the entire mass on the other side of the fence as fascist and communal. It is more than a worrying possibility that the rise in social conservatism is a reactionary response to the relentless ridicule of Hindu customs, belief and thought.

Matters get more interesting when contemplating conservatism from a cultural context. As the term implies, culture and traditional orders of life and living inform the ideology to a great extent and, it is therefore a natural next step to ask: what is the culture in question that is in play here. In the modern context; cultural and religious identity might not be directly interchangeable. Yet, religion is a major feeder of cultural identity and group culture is often rooted in religious affiliation even if individuals are at personal liberty to transcend these definitions. Being thus identified as a prime driver of identity; the principles of Hinduism merit scrutiny. Attempts to do so have immediately raised the clamour that the sum of creeds that rest under the classified banner of Hinduism can’t be corralled similarly under the ideological. Such pronouncements are not just self-indulgent celebrations of ignorance (the subject of texts is addressed, here); they raise suspicion of ulterior motive because of the stubborn refusal to educate and engage. Here verily is a case fit for the dictum: Suppressio veri; suggestio falsi.

There is a commonly held belief that monotheistic religions that have a single codex to follow are more ‘religions’ than those that are not. This is only one perspective (a human one at that) and not a supernatural decree or diktat for how or what a religion is. Yet, that this narrow view spread and took root is hardly surprising given that it is both studied and propagated as such. The most celebratory characteristic of Hinduism is its immense and extraordinary diversity that is yet tethered firmly to a nodal commonality. Features of Hinduism that I describe here-under are not interpretations but direct transmissions of learning from texts of Hinduism and which any practitioner or seer will attest to.

  • Hinduism does not see man as separate and apart from nature and his surroundings. An equal respect for all manner of life-forms whether elemental or complex; human or animal is reiterated in every text.
  • It is not dogmatic and does not seek to be organized into a fixed creed.
  • The two fundamental and distinctive features of Hinduism are Dharma and tolerance. Dharma can be variously construed as duty, law or morality. It is best understood when described as, ‘the law that governs the conduct of man’.
  • Rather than insisting on a credo to experience God and living; Hinduism through its numerous texts directs the seeker to realize the supremacy of the Self over all else. Such thought has an immense capacity for the tolerant acceptance of all belief; even the belief of doubt. It neither preaches violent defence of its principles and/or faith nor, equally, does it believe in asserting its supremacy over other creeds as the sole and only path to Divinity. Rather than occupy itself with converting others to its point of view; it has ever been absorbed with – in the words of the great philosopher, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan – ‘an eternal quest of the mind’.

With this understanding, Hindu cultural conservatism starts to morph, Maya-like, into a Liberal Humanism and the reasons for the confusion with terms becomes clear. From an evolutionary perspective, political liberalism is the new kid on the block; but it has stayed long enough to find itself a permanent seat at the political table. In a scenario where some of our political beliefs might be chromosomally entrenched; the obvious path forward is to embrace diversity rather than attempt to change it – a common characteristic that Hindu cultural conservatives share with liberals.

Hinduism preaches a conservatism for the Self and/or micro-group and a detached liberalism for the community at large. Cultural conservatives in the Hindu context are concerned with preserving this ethic and philosophy of living. As for the economics, for a country like India that has 840 million living under two dollars a day, it is naïve to envisage a development that does not include the active participation of government. Cultural conservatism would ensure the coexistence of the practiced principle of responsibility alongside the morality of a right.

Culture is a living breathing organism that directly influences and moulds the lives of millions. It is not a curio to be exhibited behind glass panes, in galleries, that seems to say: “Look and admire. But don’t touch; don’t feel; don’t practice or participate. I am not you anymore; I am the other”. Finally and perhaps most pertinent of all, culture and cognition feed into and off each other in a virtuous cycle. The effort to divide and isolate us from our own culture has predictably boomeranged and we are now faced with the problem of an unthinking and exploitable social conservatism that has found its voice on the streets.

Post-script:

This is a hymn from the concluding SUktham of the RigVeda which, according to the Paramacharya of Kanchi, – one of the greatest seers of Hinduism in recent times – is the prime dictum for all Hindus and one that should have greater significance than the national anthem of any country:

“May mankind be of one mind; May it have a common goal; May all hearts be united in love. And with the mind and the goal being one may all of us live in happiness”

It can be read in Sanskrit, here: “Sangacchadhvam Samvadadhvam..

Post – PostScript:

This recitation of the hymn http://youtu.be/B-5pcQ3dEck was shared with me by http://manasataramgini.wordpress.com/ Many thanks to them for the share.

 

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Hinduism’s Canon

It is often said of Hinduism that, unlike the Abrahamic religions, it is not a religion of the book; that it does not have a cornerstone scripture serving as congregator. More than being completely erroneous, this is an uninformed canard that implicitly suggests, Hinduism’s true place is more in line with Paganism than with any religion or creed. Books are not just the foundational bricks of Theology; they are also essential for congealing communities of belief. The unifying force of a book is integral to the survival and propagation of organized religion. Additionally and apart from that self-serving purpose; scripture illustrates the philosophy and thought of the religion which in turn, serves as a bulwark for cultural belief and evolution. That texts are important to religion is thus established. However, the notion that ritual use of a single book by all practitioners, is a necessary determinant of established religion is one that must be countered.

Hinduism does not have only one text; it has a whole canon comprising fourteen texts. But, the way in which these texts are used, in and by the faith, is very different from other religions. Hinduism is as much a creed of learning as it is of the Divine. Learning and the advancement of the intellect is deeply intertwined with the practice; deep enough to not be seen as distinct from it. ‘Pramana’ or, the ‘means to knowledge’ has three core elements – perception, inference and textual knowledge or Shabdha. The Hindu Canon is considered to be just one of the ways of realization (of self and divine). It falls under the category of Shabdha.

In Sanskrit; these texts are called Shastras or the Chaturdasha Vidya (Chaturdasha – fourteen; Vidya – learning). There are an additional four that are more akin to subject specializations; but these too are sometimes included raising the number of primary texts to eighteen. All eighteen are extant. Crowning these texts are the Vedas – the prime scripture of Hinduism. The texts are individually distinct in both content and scope and consequently, do not share the same degree of importance. At the same time, however, they also don’t submit to being categorized into a traditional hierarchy of greatest to least. On the contrary, the onus of intellectual hierarchy is on the learner/ practitioner of the faith. Hinduism’s texts recognize the spiritual and intellectual stage of development of the individual and cater to that hierarchy of personal evolution in the reader, the seeker or, believer. Like learning, Bhakthi or belief, is also understood as subjective experience and is treated accordingly. The philosophy of – to each is given a unique place and purpose and to each too, the responsibility to serve it well – is exemplified by the collected works in the Canon. Irrespective of the stage at which a text has unique appeal; not one of these texts ever becomes irrelevant. Just as cliches acquire new meaning when revisited with personal experience; similarly, each text when revisited enhances the reader with new shades and depth of meaning.

To most English readers of Hinduism the classification of these texts can be baffling. In my own experience (admittedly limited), most books do not classify or detail the texts in a simple format that facilitates both understanding and recall. This perhaps is a contributory factor for the in-vogue misrepresentations. From reading collated across numerous sources an easily comprehensible classification is detailed below that should put paid to the myth of the absent book.

It is common to divide the Chaturdasha Vidya into Shruthi and Smrithi. Shruthi (literally, that which is heard) are the older texts learnt by the oral tradition and do not have a known author. Smrithi (that which is memorized and lived by) are auxiliary texts to the Shruthi. They are explanatory decoders of the Shruthi and, unlike them, have identifiable human authors. Many learned authorities differ from this dichotomous division in that, it implies a difference between the two. In reality, the Smrithis are best described as one of many auxiliary texts that contain extensions, additions and commentaries of the Shruthi.

A more felicitous way to classify the texts and their subjects is in the manner of the branching of the tree – main trunk, limbs and branches.

The Prime Scripture: Four Vedas (Rig, Yajur, AtharvanA, SAma)

Each Veda has further divisions based on structure and function. Structurally, there are three sections – SamhitA, BrAhmanA and the AranyakA. Functionally, two – the KarmakAndA and JnanakAndA. The Samhita and the BrAhmanA together comprise the KarmakAndA. These sections concern themselves with recitations, work and worship rituals. The AranyakA along with the Upanishads are intellectual and philosophical expositions of the KarmakAndA.

The text and its divisions have been likened metaphorically to a fruit bearing tree. Wherein the trunk is the Vedas; the forked limbs – the KarmakAndA and the JnanakAndA; the branches – the Samhita; leaves – the BrAhmanAs, flowers – the AranyakAs and finally the fruit of the entire endeavour – the Upanishads.

Auxiliary subjects: The primary division called AngAs; the secondary, called UpAngAs.

The six AngAs:

  • 1. Shiksha – Phonetics
  • 2. VyAkarana – Grammar
  • 3. Chandas – Prosody
  • 4. NirUktA – Etymology
  • 5. JyotishA – Cosmology and science
  • 6. KalpA – Application manuals

The four UpAngAs

  • 1. MImAmsA – Is an exegesis of the Vedas. It’s also one of the six systems of thought or DarshanA. MimAmsA has two divisions along the lines of the Kandas of the Vedas – the Purva-mImAmsA and the Uttara-MimAmsA. The two differ from each other and from Vedanta on the role and nature of Ishvara – God.
  • 2. NyAyA – Logic or reasoning. Is also one of the six systems of thought or DarshanA
  • 3. PurAnAs – Eighteen in number. The collected chronicles and legends of history that are used to elaborate the philosophy and the teachings of the Vedas. The PurAnAs are some of the most important texts of Hinduism; both that they are beloved and are in more common use by the multitude than the other texts.
  • 3a. ItihAsA – The Epics: RAmAyanA and MahAbhArathA. The importance of these two to the Hindu Canon is so great that they have often been called the Fifth Veda
  • 4. DharmashAstrAs – are the SmrithIs. They are auxiliary texts that serve as explanatory reference, manuals and commentaries on the Shruthi. In this respect; they are very similar to KalpA and are an extension of it. Law, the conduct of rituals, personal conduct are elaborated in detail here.

Unlike the Abrahamic books, the Hindu canon does not assert an eternal and insurmountable distinction between God and man. The purpose of these texts is not directed at cementing the influence of the creed but at the intellectual and spiritual growth of the individual. When and if approached in the prescribed method of learning, the seeker is gradually steered away from belief, ritual and materialism to seek and realize the divinity within. The religion, thus, actively promotes a movement from the religious to the philosophical.

Hindu Philosophy is not an esoteric external rumination but an active process (incorporated in daily living) of contemplation, realization and renunciation. In socio-political terms, the religion steers the growth and/or shift of the individual from the practice of duties as conservative householder to those of a progressive intellectual. Once the structure for belief and thought is mastered, the believer is set free to explore his learning in pastures of his own creation, even if, that exercise leads him to denounce the very faith. There are no condemnations here of heretics, apostates and agnostics. Even the denial of faith is approached as its mere converse and is respected and welcomed as a contributory advancement of thought.

Viewed through the lens of time, it is fairly reasonable to assume that a single book of God might struggle to withstand the test of humankind’s insatiable quest for the unknown. That, it continues to thrive as the oldest living religion, perhaps suggests that the multiplicity of Hinduism’s texts is a theological example of successful evolutionary survival.

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See something; Say something

Black boots and bundled bulk in an uniform march of purposeful ugliness

Ceiling droppings of a watch as a phone. Buy ugliness big

Same black brew in same size cups. Even if avatar-ed in ten different names

Food vends pretty into spout and bowl. The ugly; battered and beaten on the floor of steel coffin boxes

A piano, a baby grand, sits in absurd splendor. In front of the yoghurt, abreast and to the right of the News

Mozart gamely drowns himself in every distraction and a train hoots and eases into track

A working animal walks by. If, maybe, he noticed too, my alien state, he doesn’t say

But I am glad he went by anyway.

And, again, the announce in collected calm: ‘See something; say something’.

 

Table 4’s feet pull out of Lego tower shoes.

Table 9’s perfect face in perfect disdain; betrays no strain: ‘will he give me what he must’

Table 10’s lecherous males look my way; I plump myself to meet their gaze

By the road, to Sudbury, a parallel track on another train; same destination different ends

A wind blows the snow off the trees; sweeps the branches and boughs clean

That tangled in the shriveled oak leaves will wait some more. To fall; and then, to melt

A turnstile cracks; I rise along with pounding feet. Pick my box of arranged memories

Empty spaces tactically left for new; Old snagged uglies must wait for a new dawn’s light to vaporize.

 

I am almost there. A couple of miles out under the fruit trees; you will see

The same blue sky and white clouds the same. From this or any distance; pine tree and steeple are but black dots in a landscape

The train hoots around the bend. The very one that is heard, if listened

Strain. To hear. To come and listen. To see and say. Something much or nothing at all

We turn the bend. Sun glare lights the grimy glass.

I noiseless draw the blinds down and in a while again, the calm announce:

‘Westboro. See something; say something’.

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Indian men; Why we love talking about you

The fracas over the recent article on Good Indian Men is telling of the form of discourse in which style often trumps substance and the thrust of the argument is quickly buried (hopefully intentionally) in verbal and print duels on turn of phrase and literary device. Anything on gender relations is bound to get heated and devolve into one such and this well intentioned, if problematic, article provided ample grist for the mill. If ‘feral’ was hash-tagged it might have trended on Twitter and, ‘undead’ and ‘muscular’, would have been fighting for second place. The thrust of the argument here was the role played by family values in fostering the mental and emotional stability of individuals. Is this something new? No. Is it wrong? No; A good amount of research backs it. Was it an attempt to balance the endless recounting of the predator Indian male? Yes. Did it succeed? Yes and no. Was caste at the core of it? Or, patriarchy? Not to the unprejudiced eye.

Where it does not succeed is the unfortunate and erroneous attempt at conflation that is the last paragraph. A couple of sentences and the argument rapidly descends into the death-trap of causality. Along the way, family values was seamlessly immingled with gender values setting the stage for the backlash. It is indeed true that Indian men have a high degree of familial commitment and responsibility and are wonderfully supportive friends. It is also true that many of our achievements have had the able and steering support of men; both elders and peers. But, it is not the lack of these generally ubiquitous family values or that of ‘nestling in family and community’ that causes or contributes to the specter of violence against women. That happens within or without familial communities and the reasons why are (as is fondly said in Medicine), multifactorial.

The livewire of gender debate routinely sparks a stack of instantaneous reactions in which, moderation is the proverbial needle. The average response on Twitter and elsewhere was negative with repetitive reference to caste and patriarchy although there was nothing in the article to suggest either. A more considered response highlighted the unproved assumptions of class and sexual violence but articulated its criticism from the tough terrain of nurture/nature and interpretations of civilization.

Viewed from any angle, civilization is indeed a process of domestication and withdrawal from nature. That is in both the environmental and behavioral sense. Adaptation, behavioral and otherwise, is our evolutionary counter to nature. The process of understanding nature cannot and should not be equated with sanction. The point is not man’s natural predisposition to sexual violence. Although it has been tried; these and other efforts have been stoutly discredited due to shoddy science. Violence and sexuality continue to be subjects of study in evolutionary psychology but, for now, the lack of evidence makes the discussion moot. On the other hand, the influence of nurture on behavior has been in continuous focus with promising results. Rape has been documented in a plethora of cultures and in other species even. What is uniquely on display in our species, is the plasticity of conscious mental process and its impact on behavioral and physical response.

Gender violence spans a wide swath of perverse behavior that range through degrees of abuse to rape and assault. The impact of nurture on the lower end of the scale is well documented and is the focus of worldwide initiatives aimed at gender parity. Attitudes that might otherwise be superior and dominant (due to any reason) can be conditioned and molded by nurture; talk of socio-cultural reasons for rape implicitly acknowledge nurture’s role and it is here, with nurture, that family values gets precedence over gender values. While the former is inculcated in children both by example and practice; the latter is given short shrift. What families must impart along with and apart from family values of support and commitment are parity values of respect, fairness and restraint, while discouraging, at the same time, entitlement and domination. Not every woman fits into the easily slottable maa, behen and beti definitions. The need of the hour is the extension of the same genteel treatment to otherness; for those who reside on the outer lines of comfort and don’t wear these familiar badges. Family values are what lead to the relative stability of marital relationships in India; but it is gender values that will leave a lasting impact on parity and equalization. The impact of nurture on physical violence and assault is less clear at the higher end of the abuse spectrum where the entanglement of causal factors is complex.

Debate on gender in India has other troubling aspects. A forced veiling of all things female in the pre-approved garb of patriarchy, domesticity and caste wins in exchange the legitimacy of the faith. But, the social order is not a Pleistocene fossil. It is dynamic and is changing across every cultural spread. Yes, the pace of change does not match our desire and its influence is not uniform. Yet, it serves our collective interests to keep it going and nudge it along. Sweeping generalizations that do not fit many realities serve the opposite purpose of hardening stances. The road to reparation is faster traversed by nurturing cooperation; not by an ever-accusatory harangue. After all, if we believe that criminals can be reformed; we can easily give our good and decent men a fighting chance with our trust.

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