Saturday 6 December 2014

Yoga Editorial From Cults to Culture

The last month was filled with very interesting and exciting developments. Even as this editorial is being written European Union has backed Indian Prime Minister’s call to observe International Yoga Day. "EU supports your initiative for a Yoga Day," the EU President Herman Von Rompuy told the Prime Minister during their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit. About 130 countries, including the US, Canada and China, have signed for a co-sponsorship of a draft resolution which India's UN mission is preparing for declaring June 21 as the International Day of Yoga.

Interestingly the November 2014 issue of ‘Scientific American’ has the benefits of meditation as its cover story. Written by French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard and neuroscientists Antoine Lutz and Richard Davidson, the cover story in the premier American science magazine shows how meditation creates changes in the brain to improve focus and reduce stress. For long the West has been fascinated with Yoga and meditation as health techniques to be integrated with the fast life culture of the consumerist society. Reduction in stress to increase in attention to many correlated physiological and psychological benefits, Yoga and meditation have been viewed as treasures obtained from the exotic West. Curiously except for the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Vedanta school and the school of Buddhism many Indian Gurus of Yogic techniques have often used these benefits to ‘market’ Yoga and build their own personality based cults. The result has been that Yoga has been reduced to a specific set of practices for inner wellbeing in a fast moving consumerist society.

It is in such a context that the voice of Indian Prime Minister becomes very important.  The context in which Prime Minister referred to Yoga was when he was talking about climate change and going back to basics.  As a person inspired by Swami Vivekananda our Prime Minister rightly pointed out that Yoga is not just about fitness or exercise, it is about changing one's lifestyle. Moving away from consumerist lifestyle towards a green eco-friendly earth-friendly lifestyle is what is needed and Yoga should become an instrument towards achieving that. The only other person who has been advocating such a connection between the inner and outer culture through contemplation is His Holiness Dalai Lama the venerable Buddist leader. Both Vedanta and Buddhist meditation traditions emphasis that the quieted mind becomes peaceful and hence non-predatory. When a civilization is built on such a cultivation of mind then that civilization becomes non-expansionist and non-exploitative either of the fellow human beings or of the nature around us.

This has been dramatically brought about by the recent findings of National Geographic magazine. In its study of the planetary friendly consumer behavior of ordinary people from the world nations, which the magazine team conducted during 2008-2014 it consistently found the Indians performing well. India with a score of 61.4 tops the world. As the study says: “Indians' Greendex score has increased very considerably since 2012 and they remain in 1st place overall. Their Housing score has increased greatly, and their Food score has also increased. Their Transportation score has also seen a modest increase.” In the vital area of food consumption the six years based study reveals the following:

·        Indians are among the least frequent consumers of imported foods, and consumption of such foods has decreased since 2009. They are among of the most frequent consumers of self-grown food.
·        They are much less likely to consume beef or pork than are consumers in the other countries surveyed.
·        Indians are among the most frequent consumers of fruits and vegetables. 

It is clearly the cultural impact of Indian life that has led to the eco-friendly food habits of the Indians. This in turn has to be related to the core yoga values that form the Indian cultural and social life – namely moderation in consumption and self-reliance rather than looking for external sources. So when the Prime Minister wanted an International Yoga Day he wanted not just a symbolic act of enacting a mental and physical exercise.

The assertion of Indic roots of Yoga even as we take it globally is very much important for another reason as well. Because there is a two way attack on Yoga – one is deconstruction and another is appropriation. Anti-Hindu academics like Meera Nanda had argued that Yoga itself was only created in recent times based on certain western exercises. Laughable as it is this kind of assertion merely stems from a deeply enslaved mind. Another danger is the appropriation of Yoga by straight jacketing it into a religious theology that is alien to the heart of Yogic culture and spirituality. Thus Yoga is reduced here to mere mental and physical exercises and the sublime spiritual essence is replaced by a monotheistic deity. Such appropriation of Yoga by proselytizing religions has not been adequately challenged even by most of the so-called ‘New age’ Gurus who see this as merely expansion of their market. In such a situation, an enlightened government in India speaking for Yoga as an Indic gift to world humanity is a very welcome sign. Moving beyond individual personality cults Yoga then can be taken as the flag bearer of Indian culture and spirituality. That on the 151st year of Swami Vivekananda a Prime Minister also named Narendra should make a clarion call for such a process is heartwarming and inspiring.

May Yoga bring the planet the peace and harmony.        

Aravindan Neelakandan

Wednesday 15 October 2014

Need for Integral Education…

Manjul Bhargava became one of the youngest fulltime professors at Princeton University when he was 28. At 40 he is again one of the youngest mathematician to have won the prestigious ‘Fields Medal’ the Nobel equivalent for Mathematics. His work extends the work of classical mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. His parents, especially his mother Mira Bhargava, herself a mathematician and grandparents interested him in Sanskrit literature. Bhargava sees his work as a continuation of the legacy of Brahmagupta. The young cheerful professor of mathematics said thus in a recent interview:

Growing up, I had a chance to read some of the works of the masters: the great linguists/poets such as Panini, Pingala, and Hemachandra, as well as the great mathematicians Aryabhata, Bhaskara, and of course Brahmagupta.  Their works contain incredible mathematical discoveries, and were very inspirational to me as a young mathematician. The classic works of Pingala, Hemachandra, and Brahmagupta have been particularly influential in my own work. … While growing up, I learned from my grandfather how much incredible mathematics was discovered in ancient times by scholars who considered themselves not mathematicians, but poets (or linguists).  Linguists such as Panini, Pingala, Hemachandra, and Narayana discovered some wonderful and deep mathematical concepts while studying poetry.  The stories that my grandfather told me about them were very inspirational to me.

Yuva Bharathi congratulates the young mathematician on this achievement wishing him all the best in his exploration into the fascinating realm of numbers.

This is not the first time the Indic heritage has provided a basis for Indian achievement in modern science. Eminent Neurologist V.S.Ramachandran has provided neurological basis for Advaitic experiences and their relation to the formulation of ethics. Theoretical physicist E.C.George Sudarshan has pointed out how Vaishesika conceptualization of atom is closer to the modern quantum mechanics than the Greek model of atom developed by Democritus. Prof. G.N.Ramachandran employed Syaad Nyaaya of Jain tradition to evolve a new formulation of sentential logic. He created a matrix for the identification of possible molecular structures of complicated bio-molecules. Prof. Subash Kak works on integrating some basic aspects of quantum phenomena and the problem of consciousness. He acknowledges the influence and guidance of Indic knowledge tradition. 

Yet these are exceptions. The understanding of the philosophical heritage of Indic knowledge systems came to each of these individuals either through their family milieu or through their individual efforts. There is no system in Indian education to make the students familiarize themselves with the approaches of Indic systems to the basic questions of Existence. The relevance of Panini to linguistics and that of Patanjali to neurology of religion remain largely untouched by Indian researchers. The West has already started systematizing these knowledge realms.    

Let us consider the following. It is impossible for a serious student of modern physics in the West to get her PhD without knowing Plato, Pythagoras, Aristotle and Democritus. Yet it is perfectly natural in India for a physics research scholar to remain ignorant of Ganatha and Kapila. The way pre-Christian Greek philosophical traditions have influenced the development of modern physics in the West cannot be overstated. Werner Heisenberg, one of the principal architects of quantum mechanics points out the continuity:

With regard to this question modern physics takes a definite stand against the materialism of Democritus and for Plato and the Pythagoreans. ... But the resemblance of the modern views to those of Plato and the Pythagoreans can be carried somewhat further. The elementary particles in Plato's Timaeus are finally not substances but mathematical forms.  (Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy, p.71)

Interestingly in a confident understanding of the worldview revealed by the modern physics, Heisenberg was helped by Indian philosophical systems. Physicist Fritjof Capra records:

In  1929  Heisenberg  spent  some  time  in  India  as  the  guest of  the  celebrated  Indian  poet  Rabindranath  Tagore,  with  whom he  had  long  conversations  about  science  and  Indian  philosophy. This  introduction  to  Indian  thought  brought  Heisenberg  great comfort,  he  told  me.  He  began to  see  that  the  recognition  of  relativity,  interconnectedness,  and  impermanence  as  fundamental aspects  of  physical  reality,  which  had  been  so  difficult  for  himself  and  his  fellow  physicists,  was  the  very  basis  of  the  Indian spiritual  traditions.  "After  these  conversations  with  Tagore,"  he said,  "some  of  the  ideas  that  had  seemed  so  crazy  suddenly made much more sense.  That was a great help for me." (Capra, ‘Uncommon Wisdom’, 1988, p.43)

What these show is that with the artificial removal of Indian metaphysics from the curriculum the educational system is absolutely wasting its scientific human resource by denying them exposure to Indic knowledge systems. This artificial divorce between Indic tradition and educational curriculum effected during the Nehruvian regime has cost us heavily. It has alienated the Indian mind from the pursuit of science. The result is that though India produces the highest number of science graduates in the world, the same graduates are among the least innovative.

We need to integrate the philosophical systems of India with the modern curriculum. It is neither false glorification of past nor inventing science in ancient scriptures. In fact it is not about beliefs but inducing the human mind to fearlessly explore the mysteries of existence with rootedness. This should not definitely be the juvenile attempt to read the new discoveries of science in religious scriptures as done by some fundamentalists. On the contrary this demands hard work on the part of curriculum framers. They have to thoroughly grasp the Indic philosophical traditions, their relevance in providing epistemological tools in exploring the deeper questions of science (e.g. the hard problem of consciousness).  Then the curriculum framers have to design modules to suit the different grades in schools and different streams in the colleges.

Workshops on consciousness studies by both scientists and scholars of Indian philosophy conducted by Sri Ramakrishna Institute of Culture, is a welcome step in this direction at the level of research.  The textbook 'The Systems View of Life: A unifying vision' by Fritjof Capra and biochemist Pier Luigi Luisi (Cambridge University Press, 2014) is another important book in this respect.  Here the autopoietic networks of cognition replacing the mechanistic deterministic models defining life at the basic level. Again Eastern wisdom traditions from Vedanta to Buddhism have much to offer in providing philosophical substratum for such scientific explorations. This has implications for biological, ecological, psychological and social sciences, particularly for developing societies like India.

The Government of India today is committed to the rejuvenation of the nation. For this pedagogic systems integrating Indic philosophical traditions with modern education need to be created. So while Yuva Bharathi with rightful pride congratulates Prof. Manjul Bhargava, we also emphasize the need to work hard to create the integral educational system that will make more Bhargavas flower in our campuses as a routine rather than as exceptions. 
S. Aravindan Neelakandan

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Silent Genocide of the Peacock People

When Saddam Hussein regime built the gigantic Saddam Dam on the Tigris River in 1985 it was not yet the ‘terror state’ and was aided actively by super powers aiming for geo-strategic advantages. Then it started a systematic removal of a particular religious sect in the Kurdish region. Many recorded individual testimonies pinpoint the date to September 23 or 24 1988 when the displaced persons were asked to present themselves to the police station without delay. Ali Hassan al-Majid who was in-charge of the campaign had stated that ‘they should arabize their area’.

Who were these people?

They were the Yezidis. They spoke a language called Kurmanji. They had been consistently termed as devil worshippers by the dominant Abrahamic religionists. They worship no devil but a divinity on a peacock. They have no concept of evil. Their worldview is monist. And they consider themselves as the original Kurds. For centuries this colourful sect of people had lived in freedom and had syncretistic assimilation of many streams of local as well as alien spiritual traditions. But with the advent of Abrahamic monocultures of belief a new saga of organized persecution started taking shape. Islamic regimes raided them, displaced them and exploited them. With the advent of European Christianity the missionary sketches of these people started fanning a picture of devil worshipping exotic cult. Soon they entered the popular psyche of modern world through fictionalized accounts. From pulp fiction writer Robert Howard to philosophical writer George Gurdjieff they were devil worshippers.    

They were the last pagan people of the Arabian Peninsula. Today after the Turkish caliphs, Iraqi dictators, the warlords of the colonial period, they are being mercilessly and humiliatingly being driven to extinction by the dreaded ISIS. Only today the conscience of the world has woken to the human tragedy of Yezidi extinction. It may be mainly because of the social media which is more decentralized and hence does not suffer from the Abrahamic bias of the mainstream corporate media. Throughout history the massacre, genocide, persecution and extinction of non-Abrahamic pagan societies have never got the same attention as the persecution of their Abrahamic counterparts – real or perceived.

For example the world very rightly is agitated over the holocaust of Jews in the Second World War. But the attitude of Winston Churchill towards Hindus was as hate-filled as the attitude of Hitler towards the Jews. And his attitude translated into action in the form of engineering the great Bengal famine. The holocaust of Gypsies-Roma do not yet have a memorial though the Gypsies went to the Nazi gas chambers along with Jews.  Even to this day Roma get persecuted throughout the West. While the anti-Semitism of Idi Amin had been well documented and criticized, his ethnic cleansing of Indian people from Uganda had never been criticized or even documented enough to enter the mind of the world conscience. In 1972 Idi Amin claimed that Allah told him to expel the Indians from Uganda. Even today 20,000 Indians are unaccounted for. The loss of 20,000 Indian lives is no subject matter for any major Hollywood movie or a Pulitzer winning literary account.
It is agonizing that it is always ethnic communities of Indian origin that have been facing the worst persecution for ages followed by genocide or mass murder. Today it is happening to the Yazidis. ISIS is abducting women and children and is starving them to death. It is subjecting them to the worst abuses. Even before ISIS, Yazidis have been systematically subjected to persecution, torture, humiliation and occasional mass murder. Even other Kurds who have been otherwise at the receiving end of the minority Sunni theocracy of Iraq do not worry about the discrimination and suffering the Yazidis face. Worse, the Arabs have joined ISIS to loot and destroy this miniscule minority. US tries to help but airlifting these people – what will happen to them if they are uprooted from their native land and made another ethnic group in US? They will become prey to evangelical forces in the US –destroying their spirituality in exchange to US citizenship.

In this connection it is worthwhile to remember what Swami Vivekananda said about the persecuted communities in the world history and the approach of India to them. In his September 11 address to the World Parliament of Religions he spoke of Mother India as : “… a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation.”  

Today the cultural and ethnic children of Mother India settled in different parts of the planet due to various historic reasons expect the world community to treat them as their Great Mother treated them all. Is that too much to ask? If not then make it a point to shed a tear for the Yazidis and raise your voice for their freedom and safety.

Aravindan Neelakandan