RIP Encyclopedia Brittanica

Advertisement for Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1913

Encyclopedia Brittanica is dead. After 244 years the go-to source for world knowledge is no more.

Of course there has been much coverage over the web. I found a post on NYTimes and Tim Carmody‘s take most insightful.

The causes seem to be many, ranging from how online information made dead tree publishing moot, or how personal computer caused its demise and so on. What interests me though is how society has begun to regard authority in general. And specifically around how news publishers, universities, governments, democracies run by pseudo monarchies and institutions of dogma spreading their brand of intolerance worldwide. The basic principle has been the same, an ignorant populace will offer its obedience as subscription revenue or in fidelity to a faith.

Encyclopedia Brittanica was a classic example of being a popular authority on knowledge of the world. Whilst there is nothing explicitly wrong in any entity playing that role, it only allowed perspectives of a handful of people based in a certain location, with specific conceptual lenses and from a specific region.

So what is the issue here? Issue is that a common man would consider this limited perspective to be the entire deal. This would be your Bible, every other possibility of being in touch with Spirituality would be to you a heresy, something only barbaric pagans would do.

For example if you were an Indian, Chinese, or from the Middle-East, then the entire complex tapestry of your Nation, Culture and all else would be given a summary treatment. Just as Tendulkar‘s achievements would barely get a couple of columns on the NY Times. They are not interested, they don’t know or if politics entered the picture they don’t want any one else to know.

FYI, look at the copy at top of picture…has accompanied the Anglo-Saxon along with the Bible..not the picture of objectivity I would think.

Thankfully we have the internet, with its Wikipedia, Twitter, Blogs, Facebook and more. Before we had a comfortable single version of an event. Now we have many perspectives, many possibilities. And that is a good thing in more ways than one would think.

First we balk at this flood of data. But if we persisted, slowly we find our conceptual boundaries expand. I have found that music of my culture is but one strain of some infinite Music, I heard harmonies that are universal and how each culture brings its flavor of joy forward. I have found better science and equally good literature outside. And have understood the nuances that drive a few of these cultures. I have also found where my culture is better, in how it teaches me to let each man take his own path to a spiritual destiny, and not prattle that mine is the one true way.

We begin to evaluate and judge everything by what we have seen before. Our ability to discriminate becomes subtle. Yes, some would still choose to peddle their dogma with renewed vigor. But others begin to see through the charade and become wiser. And in that possibility is our hope. And the hope for a humanity that outgrows its robes of dogma and allows infinite diversity to co-exist harmoniously.

Bottom line? RIP Encyclopedia Brittanica, one more ‘authority’ down!

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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.

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.