Archives for January 2009

What Life Asks of Us

What life asks of us, is the rhetorical title of the post by David Brooks on NYTimes.

It discusses the guiding principles of an individual’s life and highlights an approach of institutions governing the actions of man. This is in contrast to an individual thrusting his ego, desire and ambition onto the field of action.

David recounts ideas from “On Thinking Institutionally” by political scientist Hugh Heclo. And I quote-

In this way of living, to borrow an old phrase, we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft.

Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do. Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover. Scientists have obligations to the community of researchers. In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are.

New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of. “In taking delivery,” Heclo writes, “institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.”

Romantic as it may sound, I cannot but flinch at the notion of the individual being subservient to the needs and goals of any institution. Of course there are valid scenarios quoted as examples and am sure many more can be brought out if you restrict sampling to the cream of humanity.

My disagreement arises out of the experience of living through the various Indian institutional systems including that of religion, caste and creed to mention but a few. I use the Indian case as a representative sample of what happens elsewhere.

Because when you remove the cultural, and regional, specifics human systems tend to resemble each other a lot.

Now to quote a few of the ills – i) Chaturvarna, the Four fold caste system ii) The impulse to Sanyassa. And before you think these are religious/spiritual aspects not relevant in other cultures, let me quote some secular ills – iii) Institutions of Governance and iv) Educational Institutions

Chaturvana, four-fold caste system

Manu, the mythical founding father of the human race according to Hindu mythology, is said to have classified humans into four classes of beings. The Brahmin, man of knowledge. Kshatriya, the fighter and defender. Vaishya, the trader. And finally Shudra, the worker.

This classification has a dubious record in India. Just about every caste based ill can be traced to it. To anyone with an ounce of subtlety and insight into the symbolic nature of Indian mythology this is immediately apparent as a psychological profiling scheme. Profile so as to have a body of rules that would help govern the individuals actions in this life.

Guess you would have caught the drift of my thought here. A system that had its rightful place by the founder, whoever it was in reality, gets muddled and misused.

The social institution of caste by heredity is a failure.

Today the son of a Brahmin has little in common with the aims of his caste. Perhaps he is an investment banker doing the job a Vaishya is supposed to do. Or even a common foot-soldier in a large corporation, doing the work of a Shudra.

No sane society can let this institution and its methods survive, at least not in the form it is now.

Institution of Sanyasa

Adi Shankara, a founder of Advaita, had a difficult task. The nation was overrun by the nihilism of the Buddha. Nihilism in itself was not the issue, but the fact that Buddha completely denied the ritualistic systems of the Veda was unacceptable. What would remain of Hinduism, the Sanatana Dharma, once you removed the foundation of the Veda! With that as context came the overwhelming Advaita philosophy. And with it the standard of Sanyassa came to be the one mark to distinguish those who were serious about the pursuit of spiritual goals. A race that had once reveled in art and work and beauty was stripped to the bare essentials of a single pointed movement to the Non-dualistic goal of Advaita.

Sanyasa exists today in the various monasteries of India and the countless who linger by temples donning the ochre colored robe.

Nothing wrong in it as such.

But in creating a class whose sole aim was to achieve salvation meant that in a single stroke a deep gulf was established between who could attain to the high states of the soul and who could not. Perceptions were forever skewed.

The householder and common worker could still enter these realms but only as an exception and a special case. Common life was destined to be common. The comprehensive and all-inclusive system of Sanatana Dharma had a rift that remains uncrossed after many hundred years.

Institutions of Governance

The remnants of a colonial past still shackles the nation. The ills of this system are common knowledge. And I shall refrain from dipping into this muck.

Educational Institutions

The purpose of education is to equip an individual with the tools and techniques needed to lead a productive life. But now these are schools of rote learning with little independent thinking encouraged and with absolutely no emphasis on fostering a values driven individual culture.

There is a moral crisis, as the various financial industry scams and widespread corruption will attest. And it is in no small measure due to educational institutions being reduced to being offices that confer paper recognition.

The title stands in lieu of the individual’s knowledge.

And when that happens the goal of men turns out to be to get the title through hook or crook and not the acquisition of knowledge. Of course exceptions remain but by and large educational degrees and certificates have lost their efficacy.

To summarize..

…individuals should not be subservient to any institution. The way of having an objective set of standards for an individual to govern his living by has been tried before and it is definitely not the entire solution.

An institution can provide guidelines, or suggestions, and leave it to the individual to mould his worldview, assuming that a strong foundation of values is already in place, and get out of the damned way.

An Idea is a Stumbling Block

the road more travelled

Creative Commons License photo credit: simonsterg

Ideas are dime a dozen. Anyone with imagination, and an ounce of logic, can spin a ton of them. Turning these ideas into reality is always a challenge.

I came across this neat article on MSDN magazine on pushing your ideas to reality. The quote that struck a distinct chord in me was –

It is not the idea that gets people’s attention; it’s your credentials. So if you don’t already have an established track record as an innovator, you will have a harder time getting people to listen to you.

That is exactly what stops many of us from revealing our ideas. Perhaps we were ignored earlier or shot down with disdain or even received a response as to how ridiculous the proposition was.

An Idea is a Fork in the Road

Let us get this straight. Every new idea is a stumbling block. It is like a fork in the road where we expected a straight line. Every fork demands new decisions. New decisions carry a cognitive cost and cause disruption to original cherished goals.

No wonder people do not take ideas seriously. Because it takes effort to recognize the worth of an idea and stand behind it. Note that it is not just a question of what it would cost in resources, namely time and money, but the cognitive cost of evaluating the new possibility and correcting the course that was set much earlier.

Old Goals and Familiar Friends

People grow fond of their goals. Anything that has aged with them tends to have familiarity and they understand it in a lot of detail. Ask anyone who has spent time programming in a particular language for 10years to change their primary language for another. You will find them fighting tooth and nail against that possibility, their mind goes blank. The fluid expertise and productivity will be replaced by an erring and unsure hand.

Structuring, Positioning and Presentation

This is worth bearing in mind the next time you wish to communicate your new idea. Consciously seek to structure your idea, the positioning of it and the presentation of it to reduce the threshold for acceptance as much as possible.

Think like the listener..

..of the idea. Understand their priorities and adapt your message. If you are speaking to senior management you could emphasize how your idea reduces cost, or increases profit margins, or positions a product for market leadership. When speaking to an architect you could emphasize the standard APIs, clean extensibility, open data formats and so on. The MSDN article speaks about this aspect much better than here. Go ahead and read it.

I have merely highlighted the aspect of selling the idea out here. The problem of building enough credibility to get an initial hearing still remains. And that would be the topic of another post!

What do you think? What other impediments exist for idea acceptance?

Twitter as a Platform

Om Malik lays down reasons on why Twitter should not sell. The key point by Om that resonated with some of my own thinking was this

…“it depends” — on whether Twitter sees itself a service or a platform that would help foster a lot of services on top of itself.

I have been a fan of Twitter for some time now. And my thoughts about it have been for usage as a front-end for interacting with cloud based services; along with adding appropriate mechanisms to augment it with metadata.

Twitter, along with its real-time element, has the curious ability to sit comfortably in two distinct interaction styles: i) Publish-Subscribe and ii) Request-Response

Publish-Subscribe

This is the style of interaction commonly used in Twitter. Publish a short 140 chars text and all your subscribers who follow your updates will receive the update. Note that the message delivery characteristics are sufficiently real-time and asynchronous.

Request-Response

This is relatively unrecognized style of interaction possible with Twitter. Given that the identity of participating users is dealt with, it becomes feasible to drive entitlement based services.

Interaction Scenario: Request Response

What do I mean by this and how would it work? Imagine a Twitter user called “AcmeCo”, which is the twitter profile of a company called “Acme Corporation” from whom you have bought a widget. You have registered a bug report with with them. Now you want to check the status of this bug. An easy way would be to send a twitter style status check message, like “check bug id 123”. On the other end there could either be a human user behind the AcmeCo user profile or an automated service. All they would do is to check the status against an internal system and respond with status of the bug.

In this entire interaction there is no question of broadcasting the message to the world. That would defeat the purpose of request response based interactions, especially if it is of a confidential nature.

All these message interaction would be done as a DirectMessage within Twitter, hence essentially private to the systems interacting here.

Shout out a message when you want the world to hear, and possibly respond, or whisper a direct message to the single user from whom you definitely expect some response or action.

What we have now is a request-response style interaction on a publish-subscribe service and it all feels so natural.

For the idea of Twitter as a platform to work there is lots more to be done beyond the API currently in place. Some immediate areas to focus are around transport security, message integrity and service reliability.

With these sorted, I feel the idea of Twitter as a platform will get more credence and traction than the stand-alone service that is being talked about now.

Manifesto Proposal – Dealing With a Job Loss

ChangeThis is a repository for manifestos. Leading thinkers from a variety of domains share their thoughts in a free and open manner.

In the spirit of sharing the little that I know, I have proposed to flesh out my thoughts on dealing with a job loss.

There is plenty of material of on the net dealing with using social networks to get out the situation. But I find that they do not focus on the end to end process- as in moving from the initial shock of being laid off, or made redundant, moving through the job hunt itself and finally landing a job.

There is a logical progression of phases and I feel that a distinct set of activities and mindset is required to negotiate each one.

An initial version of the process is covered in my blog post here.

If you feel you like the post, do vote for the manifesto here. Once there are a sufficient number of votes I will be allowed to write it up. Do pass it to your friends who are in the job hunt mode, I hope it will be of some utility to them.

The Symbolism of Indian Art

Great minds have weighed in on the nature of Indian art. Its grandeur, the suffusion of riches, sometimes even a suffocating bewildering maze of beauty heaped pell-mell. Check the excesses of this race here.

It seems there was not the clear path, a logical progression, like say the clearly delineated phases of styles like in western art. The Indian method, if there ever was one, was like the actions of spy who had gone rogue. There are hints of a method, but its context, the conditions and its aims seem foreign to the mind of the modern viewer.

The Indian mind lived a dream world and out of it birthed forms of wonder.

To one who does not posses the key to this dream vocabulary the works of magnificence appear even as the labored efforts of a primitive race – snatches of beauty appear to gleam out from a few perspectives, we appreciate the scale, the engineering aspect of hewing rock and stone, but the piety that birthed gods from inert nature is unseen.

Yesterday I stumbled upon an instance of art so simple in its execution that it instantly yielded a clue to the nature of Indian mind.

Lord of Beginnings

A simple rock, rough and unfinished. Much like the unregenerateness that is man. With no characteristics that would distinguish if it were to lay by the street corner. Perhaps even serve as a stepping stone to span a pothole on a crowded pavement. A simple stone that patiently bears the footfalls of men, men more inert than itself perhaps.

Hosted on a frame. The shape is irregular. Almost like a triangle, or is it a parallelogram?, but one that did not yield to Greek world view.

Upon this stone were drawn three short parallel lines in white, with a red dot right in centre.

Four strokes is all it would have taken. Like the meaningless incantations of an Occultist. Gestures that made no sense to our pragmatic world-view. But that dipped into some mystic sky to gather some of its hue and splash on stone.

Lo, now we have Ganesha, the Lord of Beginnings.

In a flash the mundane is made profound. A time-born inertness stands as a monument in time to the eternal. From now, Indian society would revere this stone. Offer its devotion, oblations from its prayers and let the light from a sacred fire leap out and touch the God in time. From now this would be a symbol, a conduit for the mind of the aspirant to pass through.

And in this symbolic world-view resides the key to understanding ancient Indian art. Not to compel nature into regular forms, to suffocate her infinite variety within the confines of geometry.

No, the Indian mind allowed nature, and hence art, to course the free skies of the intuitive mind. Every object it saw- cow, dog, tree, stone, could be made profound. The temples were the artistic assertions of Kings. But the devotee did not need them, not essential to the progress of his soul. In the thickness of the jungle, or beside the banks of a stream, the pebble shaped as the form of his devotion would do. By that devotion the God will be brought down into the pebble. A temple more grand and sublime than any made by hands will be erected in the vastness of his heart. And the mantras that burn through his mind shall create the pedestal, the flowers, the offerings. Every ritualistic injunction shall be followed, no rule overruled. Here will prayer be made perfect.

This is the key. Every object could aid in the soul’s turning to the Divine. Here at last was a race that could practically live out the idea of a Divine’s Omnipresence. Every object could be God. All it took was a flash from the intuitive mind.

Ignore this symbolic thinking, and one is as a child wandering the halls of heavens wondering if the shining hosts were the legends of his comics come alive. One would still enjoy the color and flash and splendor. And in doing so walk away from doors of eternity because it did not speak the rational language of men.

Patterns for Winning Product Teams

My first guest post on the subject of structuring winning software product teams, titled Hierarchy of Equals is up here.

Some background –

Engineering software, especially product software, is a complex challenge. The technology complexity of building a functionally complete, flexible and cost-effective solution is only one part of the problem. This aspect is adequately dealt with in patterns for design, architecture and development processes.

What is largely ignored or does not have the same extent of shared vocabulary is how teams that build these products are organized.

The people aspect almost always gets drowned either in the technological details or by the drive to processes that attempt to standardize actions at an organizational level.

If product engineering skills have to become mainstream, we need to focus on the people who build it and how the working rhythm is established. Too long has the IT discipline swung towards the extremes of the lone code jockey or the CMM certification touting services organization.

I take a first stab at identifying some patterns for winning product teams. These patterns have emerged from experience in dealing with the heat and grind of delivering products over many long years.

Click here to read the post Hierarchy of Equals.

And don’t forget to drop a comment. You could reach me on twitter. Or on mail via cr dot mahesh at gmail dot com.

Subrata Majumdar, a colleague of mine, who runs a insightful blog called Confessions of a Digital Immigrant is the host of my guest post. He couples deep knowledge of the financial sector in particular and business in general. With a keen eye for detail , he serves insights with irony and humor. Don’t miss what he writes!

The Benevolent Tyrant

anantavishnu

I had grown deaf to thy call, the flute was heard no more;
And thou dost come with the sword of the warrior.
No longer the promise of eternal embraces,
Now is the cold grasp of mortality.
But thou dost hunt with an infinite sight
And I have grown too large for any lair.
Thou art dire O Beloved,
But I know thy embrace shall cancel my opposites.
Come then, Benevolent Tyrant, I shall run no more.

To the aspirant beset with the travails of karma and circumstance, the world seems a veritable hell. All turns into a fount of his continued misery. The future is no more, only a painful lingering of the past.

One is reminded of an aphorism by Sri Aurobindo – 

I used to hate and avoid pain and resent its infliction; but now I find that had I not so suffered, I would not now possess, trained and perfected, this infinitely and multitudinously sensible capacity of delight in my mind, heart and body. God justifies himself in the end even when He has masked Himself as a bully and a tyrant.

Is the “justifies in the end” bit what we usually paraphrase and call as hope? Or faith?

No Lucifer in Hinduism

icarus2

Idea of eternal damnation is an impossibility within Hinduism.

There is a hell, Naraka, for sure..and the hindu versions of boiling oil and other assorted cruelties remain. But the idea that an act, however heinous, once done condemns forever is not possible.

Allow me to explain. Every Asura, Rakshasa and other principalities of the nether world are all incarnations of a older, often nobler principle. Who by the deviance of their wills, or the pride of their powers, start their descent into the offices of ignorance.

Every chief power of the dark realm finds his or her end at the hands of a Divine manifestation within Hindu mythology. Death to evil in this case acts as a salvation, a redemption of the fallen soul.

Sometimes, one does not wait for Death to redeem. Either at the gates of death. Or in events that bring the full force of death, redemption is granted.

This idea of release from the karmic bonds of existence, however dire and twisted it may be, offers a hope which is absent elsewhere.

Shiva, in a poem by Sri Aurobindo, is referred thus “Is he God then, whom the forsaken seek, things of sin?”.

nrsimhadev

Hiranyakashipu, a demon who compels the descent of Vishnu as Narasimha, gains his powers by performing sever austerities to Brahma. Killed by Narasimha, the soul released from the shackles of the perverted self, would go back to its source after working out the fruit of its karma.

Ravana, said to be an ardent devotee of Shiva, had Vishnu as Sri Rama to come and stop him. Again, killed by a Godhead and the soul returns to source after karmic debts are paid.

The idea that God, who exceeds all our measures of morality, should be vengeful or wrathful to a tribe or people or non-believers, is to make Him or Her or It very limited in conception.

Above all to limit individual action by the notion of eternal condemnation is a brutal idea. Perhaps effective in keeping the simplistic lot under the umbrella of a particular creed. But utterly useless to anyone who ventures to think deeply.

An Omniscient God would, by definition, pervade all things. Including the evil that befalls the world. Including the other sundry godheads that may piggyback on His Omnipotence. His infinite variety would not be limited to a single name. Or form.

The Highest God would be compassion and love, instead of breathing fire. One day he might come as warrior, as the cleanser of our souls. Another day as the lover, who woos us with the music of heavens. Yet another day perhaps he might come as the mother who lulls us into a primordial sleep. Each manifestation would take the most beneficial aspect towards the child-soul.

The next time, someone condemns you in the name of religion, remember the karmic dues might take an eternity to pay but your reaching the highest goal, to the very bosom of the Infinite, is a done thing.

Lucifer and his ilk, are the spiritual counterparts of Icarus, not examples to prove the irreversibility of the effects of sin. Let your heart be not worried.

 

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The Mystique of the Curse in Hinduism

Durvasa flees, his curse backfires

A curse is hard to escape. Within the tomes of Hindu mythology and its epics, the occurrence of a curse is a frequent certainty. Most ancient civilizations, ancient Greek, Biblical, Egyptian etc., had curse practitioners.

The practitioners were almost always someone wronged. Someone whom the laws of Dharma were to protect but failed to. Instances of cursers include chaste women, short-tempered Rishis and incarnate manifestations of the Divine. The curse was the last resort of the weak and the oppressed. The final card that would play out in time.

The recipient of the curse were just about anybody. Gods yielded in silent submission to law greater than their omnipotence, for they too were subject to the causal laws. Cities were subject to it. Kings. Gods. Nothing was spared.

Framework of Laws

The Hindu conception of laws of life had many layers to it. The individual was said to be governed by the law of Karma, cause and effect to be worked out within this framework of life. The notion of Dharma, or the principle of righteousness, provided for laws the individual and the larger collective had to adhere to. Kaala, or Time, was also seen as a law that governed the lives of men. Above all this, as an inscrutable element, was the notion of Lila, or Divine Play, something mounted for the purpose of the immanent Divine to realize and savor within the scope of Time.

Time-bound Laws Were Mutable

Each of these co-existed, overlapped and even cross wired many a time. Everything was subject to ignorance and error. Even Kaala, or Time, could err. Ensuring the short-term survival of the wicked and the tyrant. But Lila stood far above as the chief arbiter who could correct every wrong. What a short-sighted God yielded as a boon to the Rakshasa would be overcome and negated by the Avatar who would come later.

Idea of Lila, or Divine Play

Lila was above the idea of Karma, or Dharma, or even Kaala. Sri Krishna in the Mahabharata exemplified this idea of Lila. Superficial notions of individual and time based morality were shattered for the wider perception of Dharma. Time bound ideas of Dharma were exceeded in the expression of the supreme Lila.

But the Lila and the certainty of it was only given to the Avatar. Not for common mortals or the lesser gods. Here is where the curse comes handy. How do you compel an unyielding Time or the Supreme Divine to hear your case? When all else fails you curse.

Qualities for a Curser

The curse required some basic qualities if it had to be effective. If you were a Rishi you had to acquire Tapas, the spiritual strength that is born of introspection. A woman had to be chaste – chastity was seen as a shield that even the Gods would fail to conquer. A householder and commoner had to adhere to his Svadharma, the law of his personal evolution. Each of these would ensure there was enough charge for the Curse to work.

Deflection of a Curse

The nullification of curse was almost never managed head on. It always had to be deflected, a workaround had to be sought. This required the knowledge of someone who exceeded the spiritual stature of the curser. If it was a someone who had acquired some spiritual merit then a Rishi could figure out the workaround. If it was a Rishi who cursed then you had to head to a Godhead to redeem yourself. But the key aspect was this – An incarnate Godhead never cursed, never ever cursed. In fact he took on any curse with equanimity, it was the price he would pay..even with his life if need be in sticking to the laws of Time.

And overarching all this was the idea of the Lila, the Divine Play of existence.

Summary

The curse was an instrument of action. It was intent vocalized towards a specific result. The target could be anything as long as the practitioner had the spiritual merit. Laws of existence could be superseded by curses. 

What is next?

There is much more to explore on this particular topic especially in comparison to how a curse was perceived in other ancient civilizations and specific instances of how the curse is not what it seems on the surface within Hindu mythology.

Appreciate any feedback, even a curse, for putting you through this! 🙂