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.

Re-invent Thyself

It is the season for resolutions. Wordy eloquence matches the flight of ones ambitions. Here is dreamy grandeur that would have put Rome in its heydays to shame.

If there is one characteristic that marks out human beings it is in our ability to envision a grand future for ourselves. The heavens of the religious and the certainty of the scientific folks amongst us would assert this.

I have been thinking a little about what resolutions I would take upon myself. A lot of candidates presented themselves. But the essence of all these was simple. Captured in two words, they arrived like a commandment rather than a resolution. 

Re-invent Thyself.

How a Breakup Reinvented the Ramayana

Sita Agni

Myths are archetypes. They seem to hold in them the universal story that encompasses the essence of all that we are.

The test of a living myth is if it provides vivifying waters to the parched mode of individual existence. If it does not connect at the level of the individual psyche and alter the balance within, then it reduces to being a mere story.

Perhaps Joseph Campbell, in the Power of Myth, puts it best when he says-

“The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stands this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.”

Roger Ebert on his blog, speaks about a new rendering of the Ramayana.[Note the entry appeared on my Google Reader, for some reason the link on the header seems to be broken and does not land at the blog itself. Pick it from my shared posts here.]

The common place is often only a perception away from being a profound story of mankind.

A break-up, common in these harrowing times, of Nina Paley, leads her to plunge into the Ramayana. Sri Rama’s treatment of Sita, causing her to commit sati and be re-born, finds a modern echo within Nina. Instead of drowning in the fires of despondency, Nina forges the Ramayana brand new.

A break-up instead of becoming a statistic and a lasting wound, ends up being a catalyst of life-affirming creativity through myth.

I have seen a few stills from another review here and they seem to be amazing.

Not sure what options exist in India to catch this one. Please drop a comment if you have a means to see this movie in Bangalore.

Identity and The Fragmented Self

Free face of a child with eyes closed creative commons

Identity and the Fragmented Self

The question of identity, the who we are part of the riddle, is fraught with a beguiling complexity.

After all what could be more complex than one’s self. This palpable, tangible being that is us. Asserting itself in every pang of hunger, the stir of desire and in the rushing headlong into life.

In the relationships that tether our being within time and a social setup.

In our accomplishments. The pieces of paper that attest to our knowledge.

In the ID cards that brightly announce our affiliation to a soul-less entity.

In our calendars, schedules, the GTDs that have captured the major facets of our living.

No less in our agony and torments than our dreams and aspirations.

Each a mirror, a specific reflection of what we are within a specific context. Of a role that we play.

Remove all these. Relationships. Ideas. Memory. Experiences. Strip away the verbs that somehow seem to imbue our nouns with meaning.

How to define what remains, this enigma? Are we as a child? A pristine spot of consciousness? Or a orphaned animal out in the wild of reality?

Which brings us to the question. Are we merely an aggregation of connection end-points established with the external world, within the bounds of a specific time and space.

Are the pulls and pushes of the external the only terms of our living? Is there no independent existence to the ‘I’?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography

A Thought – On Humility

Robert Fludd, Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet...

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Let me state this upfront. Humility is not weakness, not a weakling standing by the corner..almost apologetic about being there.

Humility is not mock graciousness either.

It is understanding grown so fine and acute that it is aware of what all could have gone wrong, of all that was not known, of all the contributions others have made and above all awareness of the role chance plays in events.

Be it physical characteristics or traits acquired over a life time. Each of these did not happen by our choice. This physical self I was born with was obviously not the outcome of my decision. What I choose to acquire over a life time too, was not my choice.

I don’t mean to say I did not get to choose anything ever. If the thing I chose had not entered my field of consciousness I would not have been aware of its existence and hence would not have known to choose it.

This machinery of life is like an infinite roulette machine. What we end up getting is governed by forces that we don’t understand or know. In spite of the hypothesis about gravitation, mind and consciousness we are still tinkering with a system for which we have no user manual.

Given the precariousness of this setup it would be quite presumptuous for anybody to claim entire credit for the outcome of their actions.

Humility understands this complexity. And knows that the same opportunity may, and will most certainly, be bettered and offered to the next person we look down upon.

Humility is the state of being grateful for the opportunity to be who we are.

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The Contradiction of Belonging

Social systems exist by the willingness of the participants to ‘play’ the game.

Each one is a social system, with an entry criteria and takes ongoing effort to retain. Each of these, apart from the brief privileges it confers does not fundamentally change us.

Each is like a tacked on habit. Habit as in the garment one wears. Something that is acquired, something that is not us, something that is superficial. This is a common behavioral pattern in most human beings.

Each of us by definition sees oneself as unique, irreplaceable. Refuse to be treated like a mere number, subject to distribution curves and power laws.

At the other end of the scale is the tendency to stand out from the crowd. To not belong. To stay away from the cobwebs of habit, to not yield to the fancies of the crowd. This is by definition an individualistic trend.

The Sannyasi in his unwillingness to be defined by the system, seems a sinister figure. Far away from our fragilities, with none of our human compulsions, save the most basic..and even that to a minimum.

Both these extremes seem illusions.

Herein, I believe, is the contradiction. We seem to want both the worlds. To remain unique, yet have that uniqueness validated and displayed amongst others like us, and more prominently displayed against those who do not possess what we do.

So we invent a club with a waiting list of 10years to apply for membership. An elite school to which we are willing to pay ‘donation’ to let our offspring in. An Ivy League college where we wish to be educated.

We believe our destinies, if there is one at all, is not in statistics but in the stars, or even in the ether that escapes and stands far above our mortal understanding. And yet subscribe to the taxonomies that society chooses to organize itself into groups.

The point of all this? Well, this blog has been included in AllTop, the Yoga section. 🙂

AllTop is pitched as an ‘Online Magazine Rack’. The user experience is really elegant, almost like a real-world magazine rack.

The best part is the human validated choice of content, grouped by categories. Not as in a very formal classification scheme, but more folksonomy like identification scheme / faceting mechanism. Highly recommend a look, if you have not seen it before.

And boy, does it feel good to be touched by a single strand of the Kawasaki brush.

Religion is Dead, Long Live Religion

Religion as a system of living is dead.

What remains is only ritual, some archaic pictorial descriptions and a strained existence with a society that wants answers now.

Promises of nubile maidens, an unstrained existence, of honey and wine amidst Mediterranean climes, harps and precious little actual work to do don’t hold water anymore.

Instead of religion being the equalizer and opener of minds and doors, now it is money that plays religion’s role.

Money is the disinfectant for all notional ideas, the grand flattener of various mental terrains. Religion, social structures, moral values, caste & creed and every damned ism vanishes with money.

Religion is nothing but a few spiritual best practices that helped the individual connect with their higher goal . A set of best practices that have worked for a few and been codified into systems.

Let us not get into what the goal itself is. Each race and time seems to have its own definition of it.

The point to note is who checks if these steps work now. Whether the ism and systems hold validity, who would stand up and question its efficacy?

Does the crossing of the fingers to symbolize a cross work? Does the gesture of bowing the head to a temple passing by gain the attention of the god? Or the call to the faithful, does it rouse the spirit? Do these gestures done over a life time, accumulate in some way, and open a path to the rare heights?

The religion and the ritual has lost its efficacy. We need to step back and re-invent the methods and means of our aspirations.

Whether it is in the bunch of universal values we adopt. Or in the rigorous monitoring of our motives. Or even the curtailing of our appetites. The time has come to better understand the residual effect of our thoughts and actions, or as some would say to be aware of the Karmic impact of our actions.

In a sense we have to return to first principles, to begin anew. To discover the forms that are relevant to the current age and time.

And in doing so build the next version of religion. A personal religion. Intensely private. Of infinite variations.

What would such a religion look like? It would allow me to be born with the Vedic chant, sit at the foot of the Cross-bearer and learn of fortitude, cavort with the Dark-Hued one besides the banks of Yamuna, bow in utter obeisance to the fierce protection of the All-Mighty Mother, smile a little at the humor of a Rishi and allow me to join my brothers at their fasting.

I shall not be confined to a single strain of joy. Delight in its infinite variations shall come unto me.

I shall not be circumscribed by a single taxonomy. All methods shall be mine but none shall call me their own.

Within me Zeus and Indra shall discuss the finer aspects of their bolts. Adam and Manu shall wonder together what it means to be the first beings to aspire. The triune of the Bible and the triune of the Veda and Purana shall discover their shared identity.

With the middle man and the chatter of a mindless crowd gone, my paltry breast shall be big enough to hold the universe of truths.

The individual ‘I’ shall discover its oneness with all that is. And the many shall cease to baffle me.

This I shall learn to be the true religion.

Long live religion!

Mutiny at the Cubicle

I know how you feel. Let me state this now. With all the emphasis a life of sweat and effort and anguish and diligent, even devout, application of skill you have earned, you think to yourself.

“Is this how revolutions are bred? To cast a sand-grain of ignorance upon a fertile soup of ideas, of experience wrought in the crucible and snatched from the whim of destiny.”

Oh the folly of smugness, to abstract limitless detail with a “I know”.

Without even lingering by a “For Dummies” title for a few minutes! How gallantly the fools sweep over insurmountable mines of radioactive ambiguity.

Do they not know, that every idea-offspring to ever issue from them would be contaminated with gaps in credulity?

The sand-grain has been sown. When the pearl of freedom shall issue forth we do not know. But it shall come one day, resplendent.

The mutiny at the cubicle has begun.

A Thought – On Boons and Curses

Distrust every boon

Know this, for every wish that has been granted an infinity of possibilities, minus the thing granted, has been denied to you.

Be not glad at the handful of gifts you clutch, eternity has escaped your grasp. 

Embrace your curses

Hidden inside every bitterness is a reward that escapes understanding.

The direness is but a mask.

The Undecided, akin to the Undead?

To be actively involved in change requires a conscious participation. A willingness to have your assumptions questioned is also key, otherwise change sweeps you along in spite of yourself.

Seth Godin, takes a crack at this topic of those who can’t decide, in context of around 35% of those polled could not decide whether to go for Obama or McCain. Leave aside the politics for a moment and soak in this thought from Master Godin.

The reason that so many people don’t vote…because inertia is compelling. Inertia absolves them of responsibility.

This is absolutely key. Those who wish to have an impact on society or an organization have to either foster, or even impede, its progress. It is the time-wasters, those who hang on, that are a blemish on the system.

To quote from an earlier post of mine on the importance of participation

What good is a million bucks in the bank if it does not alleviate you from poverty. Potential is just notional value. For it to be actualized one needs to act.

To take the context of functioning within an organization. It is not enough if we stick to the traditional role definitions.

All significant change involves questioning, willingness to take ownership, be exposed to potential risks and the gall to dream of the goal and snatch it for yourself and your team.

It is good to live, not so bad to die. But to be the undead sucks.

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