Friday, December 27, 2013

THE BHAGAVAD GITA – A RESPONSE

THE BHAGAVAD GITA – A RESPONSE

After all who am I to talk about the ‘Gita’. I am neither a saint nor a scholar or for that matter ‘God’. I have read it and tried to understand and assimilate what is said there. If you ask me if it has helped me, I would say ‘yes’. Then why should I want to talk about it here?

The motivation to write something came after reading the response of a person who has been described as an excellent mathematician and certainly not an ‘atheist’. I do not claim such credentials but I do have certain submissions to make in this context. Let me make it clear that I am not a diehard ‘theist’. There are times when I question the existence of such a concept. But I am certainly overawed by the existence of such scriptures and writings on the subject of God and how these have contributed to the continuation of mankind and brought it to this level, where we find ourselves in a position to question the roots of our own intelligence.

There are several noteworthy observations of this person which I shall highlight here and give my own opinions, for I guess everyone is entitled to one. I start with the very last sentence where he says –

“It is high time for everyone in the twenty first century to get rid of all kinds of spiritual brainwash”

I feel that it is time for me to get back to an earlier period in time because as per his statement it is ‘high time for everyone in the twenty first century’ for I believe I am still spiritually brainwashed as per his definition. The problem here is that he says ‘everyone’ and that is wrong, he should only talk for himself.

Next I go back to the very first sentence where he says -

“The only problem is that it is doubtful whether the Lord of the Universe ever said so. After all, this is a sloka written by a poet, probably Vyasa, who later imparted 'divinity' to the utterance”

Whether the Lord wrote it or not, my question is, do you find it relevant? What if it is written by a poet (he says ‘probably Vyasa’. He is not on sure ground there)? There could be several reasons why divinity has been attributed to it. To suggest blackmail by threatening that if these divine instructions are not followed one will be punished is tantamount to suggesting that all that has happened over the course of the centuries gone by is all wrong and we now have a chance to make it right. What a weird thought!

Next is the battle of Kurukshetra itself. If you listen to the discourses of the scholars, one would understand that the battle between the good and evil forces is within us. Kurukshetra is within everyone. It should not be tough for a man of the twenty first century to understand the metaphor involved. And of course it has to be told to a confused Arjuna on the battlefield when things come to a head. If he had been all knowing, there would have been no need to teach him, may be like the twenty first century man. A story is necessary for a man of lesser intelligence (pardon me for saying this) for it is difficult for him to grasp the meaning otherwise. Whether Krishna existed or not, whether he was God or not and whether there is a God or not, it cannot be disputed that these have served the purpose of knitting society together and bringing solace and order to the lives of so many.

Let us take another statement that has been made –

“There is even a suspicion among scholars that Adi Sankara interpolated the entire Gita in Mahabharatha, at a place and in a context that is most unsuitable and jarring for it”.

I am ignorant as to the scholars who said that. But if they have, then that is their own view point. May be they were greater scholars. I with my limited intellect find it the most perfect situation for expounding the ‘Gita’ for it has been already said that Arjuna was in a confused state. So when does anyone seek answers?

A reference is made to Swami Vivekanand who is supposed to have said

"Was there a stenographer present in the Kurukshethra battlefield to take down notes when Krishna was speaking?"

This is doing injustice to a great and realised soul. The problem I feel with whoever has written this response is that he has failed to understand what the Swami said in the larger context of things. Swami Vivekanand’s life itself was guided by the Gita and he himself expounded the paths of the four yogas as ways to realisation.

What the Buddha, JesusChrist, Adi Sankara, Mohammed and others have always emphasised is that God is one who is beyond comprehension and one can find him only within himself. Whether you believe there is God or not, you will always seek for answers. So what is the problem if you are enthralled by the Mahabharata and Lord Krishna’s Vishwarupam on the battlefield of Kurukshetra? What if it has been a written by a poet or God himself said it? The scriptures and the epics never cease to excite your imagination. I never fail to watch the Mahabharat on the television every Sunday morning.

But there is one thing that I agree with him when he says –

 “One thing that is certain is that the Lord of the Universe is too busy running the universe, to spend his valuable time talking to a chosen person in private”


I guess that is why we need others to speak to us.

Friday, December 20, 2013

MUSIC IN THE AIR

MUSIC IN THE AIR

Whether the North East monsoon comes or not, come December and there is music in the ‘air’ and it is all over Chennai. I am sure there is no other city in India at least, where music becomes the air you breathe in every nook and corner. They call it the ‘Kutcheri Season’ or music festival which is heralded by the arrival of the Tamil month of ‘Marghazi’ and classical Carnatic music throbs in the veins of the thousands of Rasikas (music lovers) who throng the hundreds of Sabhas spread throughout the city to hear their favourite musicians and encourage the budding ones. This stretches over a period of fifteen to twenty days. Not only music but Indian Classical Dance festivals are held especially in places like Kalakshetra.

Though a music lover I am not a regular attendee at these concerts due to logistic problems – the commuting distance and car parking. But I do look for some of them in the vicinity of the area I live in and try to attend. The last few days have been special for I have been attending the concerts at a place, a kilometre from my house and near the seashore. As I listened to the strains of the flute emanating from the stage in front of me and the cool air from the sea drifting in, caressing my face, I was transported to  a another dimension. In between I got up and walked to the rear gate, which was open and looked out at the dark wide expanse lit only by the light of the moon and the silver streaks dancing on the surface of the sea. The waves were also gentle as if paying obeisance to the music in the air.

Even now I can recollect the various times that I have had these sublime trysts with music and to a large extent I can say these were a result of the situations I found myself in. Great music becomes greater when the ambience is also great. Last year I accompanied my daughter to a musical performance by a well known Indian rock band called ‘Indian Ocean’ playing what can be described as fusion music. This was held on the Elliots Beach seashore. The crowd was huge comprising mainly of the younger lot, mostly students. As the group played, the rains came down and they continued playing their music. The crowds danced and the sea roared in the background. We all got wet but it was an awesome experience. Though it was the Bay of Bengal in the backdrop it was the Indian Ocean that was playing that night.

I am sure most of you would have listened to and attended concerts of Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Jasraj, Amjad Ali Khan and others. I have attended many of them at various places in Mumbai, Baroda, Ahmedabad and elsewhere. But I specially remember the concerts which were held at the Durbar Hall of the Laxmi Vilas palace at Baroda. Sitting on the carpeted ground below the golden light emanating from the chandeliers and listening to the artiste on the stage, like disciples in front of the Guru is something I can never forget. As Bhimsen sang his abhangs late into the night making sure to render his favourite ‘Jo Bhaje Hari Ko Sada’ towards the end of the concert, I went back home in a spiritually elevated mood, his voice still ringing in my years as I fell asleep.

I still remember the night when sitting on the lawns of ATIRA, Ahmedabad on a cold winter night with only the stars and the moon above gracing the occasion with their benign presence and listening to the strains of Shiv Kumar Sharma’s santoor rendering raag Bagesri was sheer bliss. This was a night long festival of music which started at around seven o’clock in the evening and went on till the next morning, with performances by various renowned Hindustani classical musicians. In between one would get up to have a cup of hot ‘chai’ which was served free at the venue. I think nearly everyone who came stayed till the end.

And of course I cannot forget the concert ‘A Tribute to the Beatles’ by a group called ‘Rain’ at the Fox theatre in Saint Louis. It took me back decades to my school and college days and I relived every moment.

There have been several such moments but it is necessary to recollect them to really understand the effect of music has on us. All the arts are expressions of the human soul, I prefer to call it that, as there is too much of thought and analysis when the mind is involved and in the process the spontaneity of the moment is lost.

Kierkegaard in his book ‘Either/Or’ examines this aspect. In the chapter on ‘The Immediate Erotic stages’ while talking about an abstract idea says “our concern here is only with an idea that can become the object of an artistic treatment, not with ideas that lend themselves to scientific presentation”. He continues that the most abstract idea conceivable is the spirit of sensuality. It cannot be represented in sculpture, for in itself it is a kind of quality of inwardness. It cannot be painted, for it cannot be grasped in fixed contours. It is an energy, a storm, impatience, passion, and so on, in all their lyrical quality, existing not in a single moment but in a succession of moments, for if it existed in a single moment it could be portrayed or painted. The only medium that can represent it is music, for music has an element of time in it and it does not lapse in time. What it cannot express is the historical in time. Music exists only in the moment of its performance, for however skilful one may be at reading notes and however lively one’s imagination, it cannot be denied that it is only in unreal sense that the music exists when read. It exists really only when it is performed. It is because of this he says that music is a higher spiritual art”.

While all other mediums of self expression have space as their element it is only Language and Music that have time as their element. It is perhaps only music that can hold you a captive during the moments of its performance. I was a captive in all my trysts with music and never desired to be freed


Monday, December 16, 2013

THE DEATH OF A PET

THE DEATH OF A PET

I love cats and dogs. I love having a pet but do not have one, but as age catches on and your children have gone away, you feel the need for something that would cuddle beneath your feet and sit on your lap and look at you with kind eyes. A pat on the head or a scratch behind their ears would be enough to enhance that feeling of togetherness and belonging. You may wonder now why I still do not have a pet.

Way back in my childhood I did have two pets though they never stayed with us at home. The first one was a cat, a beautiful white cat and which I had named as Snow White. Yes it was a female cat. I must have been nine or ten years old. I can never recall when she came into my life and when she left. Now when I look at the classification of cats, I can say she was an outdoor cat for she used to be out most of the time during the day coming only during mealtime. She used to come back at night and park herself in a bin in the backyard and which in course of time became her dwelling place. I do not know how many kittens she delivered in that dwelling of hers. But I remember that every time I used to look into the bin after she had delivered, she would look up at me with those kind eyes and purr softly conveying that she trusted me completely. In course of time the kittens would grow up and find their own way but some would not survive. It was sad seeing her hovering around her dead kitten and then look at me and purr softly, mourning. It was an age when I could not fully comprehend what death was, but Snow White taught me that. I cannot recall whether I cried, but now after so many years when those scenes come back I can feel that intense sadness which comes with the passing away of someone dear. It was after three or four years, that she stopped coming back home, she had disappeared. Every time I saw a white cat from far I would go running there to see if it was her, only to be disappointed for I knew those eyes too well. My grief has always been that I could never really give her a proper send off.

The second was a squirrel. I found it lying injured on the ground in our backyard. I picked it and took it inside the house and tended to it. This was right after my cat had disappeared and may be I was looking for something to fill that void. I named the squirrel Squeaky which for me at that time seemed most appropriate. I put him (to this day I have always presumed it to be a male) in an open cardboard box and which became his house. Squeaky picked up in health soon enough got used to his surroundings. I used to pick him up in my hands and gently stroke his back. I knew he liked it for he would always run on my arms and land up in my palm. I remember taking him with me in my shirt pocket to show off to my friends in school. He would climb on to my shoulders and then come back to rest inside my pocket. The time I spent with Squeaky was very short but enough to ensure a close bonding between us. Then one day he fell sick for he stopped eating and was lying exhausted inside the cardboard box. I did not disturb him though I left some water and a banana inside so that he could have them when he felt like it. A day later I found him dead and stiff and as I slowly lifted his lifeless body from inside something snapped and I started crying. My mother understood and let it pass. The grief was greater than the disappearance of Snow White for by now I had understood what it was to lose a dear one.

Ever since I never had a pet nor did I go in for one. A very close friend of mine lost his golden retriever dog some time ago. I felt sad on hearing about it and can imagine what his family and especially his daughter would have gone through. The last time when I had been to his house, I found the handsome bouncy big fellow come sniffing around my legs and then with a leap parked himself on his master’s lap. One morning they found him dead in the garden after having eaten something on which insecticide was sprayed.

You see the relationship with an animal is entirely an affair of the heart. There is no mind involved and as such no expectations. The only thing that it wants is food and affection in return for affection and loyalty. The life span of a domestic animal being much lesser maybe a sixth or seventh of a human, the chances that one will experience the loss of a pet is very great. This could be traumatic in the case of a child and a deep sense of loss in adults. As long as the pet is young and healthy they can be great stress relievers but as they grow old and sick and exhibit the symptoms of an aging parent, our concern also grows.

I read somewhere that parents while choosing pets for their children take the life expectancy of the pet in to consideration, as the child is more likely to be emotionally distraught if the pet dies, while some others might see a pet’s death as a chance to teach their children about death. But I do not know how far this works. For me I did not choose my pets, it just happened. They chose me.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

RITUALS AND BELIEFS

RITUALS AND BELIEFS

In her blog post at http://varshaukenagpal.blogspot.in/2013/12/think-and-question.html ‘Think and Question’ Varsha has raised certain issues with regard to rituals. She says –

‘We all have grown up with a lot of beliefs ingrained in us. Most of us blindly follow what our parents tell us”.

She says that the gullible amongst us are being exploited in the name of superstition and rituals. She ends by asking us ‘For once please think and question these rituals’.

Yes, we have grown up with a lot of beliefs and values which have been passed on to us by our parents. We have retained some and shed some of them in course of time when we find that these are not really relevant   and acceptable in our lives. We start living our lives with new beliefs and newer values and try to pass it on to our children who in turn may accept or reject them. Beliefs are an integral part of our living. We cannot do without beliefs. Whether what you believe is right or wrong is always judged by the next generation as you pass the mantle to them. But despite all this the one reality that has not changed and continues to occupy our thinking is our end.

It is man’s innate fear of termination that has given rise to a belief in after life, superstitions and rituals. That death is the final frontier and there is nothing beyond is something that is not acceptable to most of us. The existentialists believe that there is nothing beyond this life but they do seek redemption in their own way.

So when someone comes along and says ‘I shall show you the way to immortality and redemption’ you willingly follow. I believe that’s how religion was born. It is when you are shown the path that, rituals come into existence. By definition, rituals are ‘a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions according to a prescribed order’. The problem arises with ‘prescribed order’. This by itself would mean subjugation of the individual ego and following a path without protestations in accordance with the prescription. The next question is who is the prescriber? We have seen that blind acceptance has led to exploitation and discrimination down the ages. This still happens in some form or the other and will continue as long as man’s desire to dominate and possess is present. Exploitation can never end till human greed is completely wiped out and which does not seem a possibility, for I do not believe that an ideal world can ever exist. Old rituals in course of time get replaced by new ones.

I have myself undergone some harrowing experiences in the name of beliefs and rituals. I consider myself as a rational person who does not accept without questioning. Still I have allowed myself to be consumed in the vortex of certain situations despite my efforts to avoid them, whether it was in Varanasi or the Kali temple in Kolkata, the Jagannath temple in Puri or some of the temples in the south. I am sure that this is a universal situation.

Whether religious ceremonies and rituals have any relevance at all is something that we should ask ourselves and find the answers. We cannot be dismissive of people who do follow and believe in them. The ultimate yardstick is whether they are good people. We find good and bad in all spheres of life. I can talk for myself and say that I am totally a non religious person under the value system in which I have been brought up but I am an extremely religious person as per the value system I have created for myself. We will always find exploiters and discriminators whether in the places of religious worship or outside them.

I remember when my father passed away fifty years ago, I sat alongside my elder brother who was performing the thirteen day ceremonies as per our beliefs. At that time as I listened to the chanting of the mantras and the explanations regarding the soul’s journey to the other world, I found great strength and solace in overcoming my grief. As a rational person now, having seen and experienced life in its entirety, whether I believe in a God or not, or in those ceremonies, or in a life after death, I have to accept that those religious ceremonies did serve their purpose and helped me back to normalcy. I am sure that despite the exploitations of ‘Guardians of God’ they still continue to serve their purpose to the multitudes. Sometime ago I had posted in my blog ‘Letters to God - 3’ where I talked about the ‘Guardians of God’, which I think relevant to reproduce here –

“Your Guardians have made you into a commodity and sell you and you keep watching. Of course you can be sold because there are buyers. The number of people wanting to see touch and ask you for favours is ever increasing. So you see the demand is far outstripping the supply and maybe that’s why you have these Guardians. But how many come for your sake, to understand you and be with you?”

I am a very religious person when it comes to my meditation. But I do observe certain rituals before I start. I chant the Gayathri mantra while doing the pranayama. It not only keeps time regulating the entire exercise, but also creates an inner vibration.



It is the individual’s angst and anger against these ‘Guardians of God’ that has produced religious and social reformers from time to time through the centuries and I am sure that they will be appearing again and again. Though they have been successful to a certain extent in bringing about a change in the thinking process and uplifting the exploited, we find that rituals and beliefs in some form or the other will continue to exist. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

‘ARE YOU REALLY HAPPY?’ by DEEPAK CHATTERJEE - BOOK REVIEW

‘ARE YOU REALLY HAPPY?’ by DEEPAK CHATTERJEE
BOOK REVIEW

“Am I really happy?” was the question that I posed to myself after reading Deepak Chatterjee’s book ‘Are You Really Happy?’ If I had been asked ‘Are you happy?’ I would have found it easier to answer for there have been moments when I did feel happy, but these moments like others had always moved on to be replaced by other feelings. So when he says ‘Really happy’, I understand it as a more permanent state, the key word being ‘really’. A state one reaches after a journey through pain, fear, anxiety and having understood and risen above such feelings to a state of eternal bliss.

When he let’s us have a peek into the factors that pushed him on his quest to ‘Fundamental Happiness’, I could immediately connect and empathise for my journey has been similar and I suppose it is true to many of us also. While most have been overwhelmed by their experiences, compromised and settled down with whatever life has to offer, Deepak has chosen to share the solutions that have helped him overcome his anxieties, his fear of death and nothingness.

By classification this would fall under the category of ‘self help’ books. I have myself kept away from such literature for I have always felt that ultimately each individual will strive to find his own way to happiness or whatever he understands of it. But the sharing of experiences does matter for it could trigger that something which you recognise as a path you have tread and opens up alternate possibilities to achieve your goal. I did read Deepak’s ‘Fundamental Happiness’ till the end, not only since it struck a chord in me, but because I found lucidity and a sincerity of purpose in his presentation. He wants to help.

When he talks of ‘Fundamental Happiness’ my understanding is, that it lies at the core of each individual and can be discovered only through an inward journey starting with our normal existence which is always covered with a security blanket (the diagram on page 67) and which is the cause of ‘Fundamental Unhappiness’. The only way forward is by shedding these layers you can achieve fundamental happiness. Fundamental as I understand is the basic state of existence and that defines the characteristics of the subject in question. So I personally have an objection to the use of the word ‘Fundamental Unhappiness’. At the core we are all in a state of bliss and that could be the only true state of our existence. This is covered by all our negative feelings- as per what he calls as our security blanket. Throw away the coverings and you find yourself and this is what Deepak is trying to say. But it was interesting to note his point of view that one should stop one step below the ultimate ‘Fundamental Happiness’. That is the step of – authenticity, higher vision, depth, richness, insight and practically no pain and this helped him immensely in his leadership positions, including his current role as a CEO. This is a very positive and constructive suggestion for he realises that it is necessary for us to be as authentic as possible in our present roles which we cannot shirk and go away into the forests like the Buddha did in search of ‘Nirvana’, after all we are lesser mortals.

The author is to a large extent influenced by existential thought and like the later existentialists like Sartre tries to find a solution in the authenticity of our living. Existentialism dwells on the sense of the meaninglessness and nothingness of human existence and the anxiety and depression which pervade each human life. Whether it is the Buddha or Kierkegaard the starting point for their quest to the meaning in life has been human anxiety. While the Buddha attained that state of ultimate bliss or Nirvana and sought to disseminate it to all through his eight fold path leading to the cessation of suffering and achieving self awareness, Kierkegaard or for the other existentialists there is no such thing as an ultimate state of bliss. They sought ways of overcoming this anxiety which they recognised as the basic human condition. For me the classic examples of existential angst and redemption have been Sartre’s ‘Nausea’ and Camus’s ‘The Outsider’.

Deepak does elaborate on the basic dilemma that an individual finds himself, in trying to breakaway from the shackles that bind him. He says that this is a waiting game “We are either in the future, waiting for something, or we dwell in the past. Future causes anxiety and past creates depression”. He gives the example of Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’. I was also reminded of Kafka’s ‘The Castle’ and the ‘Trial’. He also talks of shedding of attachments and surrender as a manifestation of wisdom. In this sense I would call him a religious existentialist.

The Chapter 20 which comes at the end ‘Death’ I would say is the starting point and the motivation for this book. In his own words –
“This fear of death gave way to more fundamental and unanswered questions within me about the meaning of life, aimlessness, search for ultimate fulfilment and then on to depression, anxiety and emptiness.”
He ends this chapter by saying “We might be very effective in avoiding the deep fear, but the fact that death remains a mystery for mankind cannot be denied”.


The book is an easy read and easy to connect. Whether all what he says is attainable or not there is no doubting the author’s honesty. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

‘FALL’ by VIJAY RAGHAV- BOOK REVIEW

  ‘FALL’ by VIJAY RAGHAV- BOOK REVIEW

Over the past few months there have been two book releases which interested me. They are the ‘Fall’ by Vijay Raghav and ‘Are you Really Happy?’ by Deepak Chatterjee. Both colleagues and who I know. Both bankers by profession and serving in the financial services industry and in that sense they fall in to the club of Ravi Subramanian who though is an award winning author of a number of popular thrillers about banking and bankers. These two writers are first timers and their genre is entirely different. While the ‘Fall’ belongs to the love murder-mystery thrillers, the second is a more serious and introspective work. I decided to write a review of ‘Fall’ first, reserving the latter for a subsequent post.

I was intrigued by the title ‘Fall’. To me ‘The Fall’ by Albert Camus has been a bible and it was only natural that my attention was drawn to the book. In the first page the author defines ‘Fall’ as - to descend freely by the force of gravity, to hang freely or to drop oneself to a lower level. But I presume that the author decided on this title from his own prose-poetry ‘Autumn Leaves’ which is central to the theme of his novel. Autumn has always been associated with introspection and in poetry is associated with melancholy. As the leaves wither away and the tree stands stripped of all its grandeur to be slowly covered by the snow of winter, one is overcome by a feeling of sorrow at the process of aging and approaching death. The book starts in early spring and ends with the onset of winter and in that sense moving through all the stages of love, passion, glory, decay and death.

This book is a love murder-mystery thriller and as such is not open to serious introspection. It has been written solely for the purpose of engaging the reader only for that period of time till he finishes it. In this the author has succeeded, for the book is well crafted and written in a very lucid style. It makes you want to complete the book at one stretch and which of course is what happened to me. It was after a long time that I was reading a book of this genre.

The author is a young finance professional and this is his first attempt at publication. I do not know how he was able to manage both the job and the book. This could have happened only if he had been writing for along time. The poems in the book slacken the pace and I personally felt that it was not necessary to give so much space for them in the book, but they do reflect a sensitive and creative mind.

The entire scene of action is in France and Vijay as has written it so authentically that one would think he had stayed in France for a long period of time. It is evident that he has done a lot of research in this aspect. Of course the question arose in my mind as to why he did not base it in Chennai or in Mumbai, both places he is familiar with and which could have lent additional authenticity to his writing. I could find three reasons – one that he wanted to cater to an international audience and the more important reason being that the kind of relationships he depicts in the book are not possible here. I felt that the relationships between the main characters, is a bit too impulsive and contrived, and of course we do not have a Fall season here, which is central to the book and which is woven around ‘Autumn Leaves’. Only the author can answer that.

The book could also have been named as ‘The Closed Door Murders’ but this would have taken the focus away from the author’s intention to highlight the poems in the book. Since there are a number of books with a similar title it could have also been named as ‘Autumn Leaves’. But that is the author’s choice.

There are two or three pages which are devoted to the solving of a puzzle important to the clues to the happenings in the book. Though interesting, they may sound like a lecture on mathematics and may not hold the attention of some readers.   

One should acknowledge that the book does keep you engrossed till the end. A good and well developed plot and well told. The author has a way of narrating in simple words and sentences and this makes it easy reading.

It is mentioned that though this is Vijay Raghav’s first published novel, he has also published a collection of poetic essays ‘The Peak of all Thoughts’. I am yet to read it but I am sure that he will be getting into some more serious writing as he has already tested the waters now.


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

ALBERT CAMUS – CENTENNIAL


ALBERT CAMUS – CENTENNIAL



Albert Camus was born on 7th November 1913 into a largely illiterate family in the slums of Algiers and died on 4th January 1960 at the age of forty seven as a Nobel Laureate in a tragic car accident. In an article on Camus in the September/October 2013 issue of the magazine ‘Philosophy Now’ Ray Cavanaugh writes –

“Among the wreckage was the incomplete manuscript for his book The First Man, and in his pocket the train ticket that he hadn’t used after accepting the lift to Paris. In an instant, Camus had gone from being a generational voice to being a corpse on the side of a highway. One wonders what meaning can be derived from such a sudden change. Or perhaps life is simply absurd.”

One cannot but wonder that the master of the absurd met such a fate. Through all his novels and essays the central underlying theme has been the individual’s quest to understand and overcome the meaninglessness of life. Ironically the very first novel that Camus wrote but published subsequently to ‘The Outsider’ was called ‘A Happy Death’. The heroes of both the novels are called ‘Mersault’. We never know if Camus had found that elusive happiness which the hero of ‘A Happy Death’ searches. Some quotes from the book are revealing –

"Only it takes time to be happy, a lot of time. Happiness, too, is a long patience. And in almost every case, we use up our lives making money, when we should be using our money to gain time." The book is actually in two parts – ‘Natural Death’ and ‘Conscious Death’. In the first the hero kills a rich man for his money so that he can create time for himself and in the second towards the end he buys a house near the sea in a village and lives alone, consciously moving towards death being severely ill. In Camus’s own words-
"At this hour of night, his life seemed so remote to him, he was so solitary and indifferent to everything and to himself as well, that Mersault felt he had at last attained what he was seeking, that the peace which filled him now was born of that patient self-abandonment he had pursued and achieved with the help of this warm world so willing to deny him without anger." Severely ill, he dies a happy death: "And stone among the stones, he returned in the joy of his heart to the truth of the motionless worlds."
But Camus’s death was neither natural nor conscious but accidental, something to which none of his heroes were subjected to. Maybe we should find comfort in his words “What did it matter if he existed for two or for twenty years? Happiness was the fact that he had existed.” 

On happiness itself he had this to say in the book, “You make the mistake of thinking you have to choose, that you have to do what you want, that there are conditions for happiness. What matters- all that matters, really- is the will to happiness, a kind of enormous, ever present consciousness. The rest, women, art, success is nothing but excuses, a canvas, waiting for our embroideries.” 

This book is less talked about than his others, maybe because it was published much after ‘The Outsider’. It was published in 1971 ten years after Camus death. The other outstanding novel of his is ‘The Plague’ for which he won the Nobel Prize for literature in the year 1957 at the age forty four, one of the youngest recipients. For the first time in ‘The Plague’ one gets an insight into Camus’s views on God –

I'm fumbling in the dark, struggling to make something out. But I've long ceased finding that original”

“Every country priest who visits his parishioners and has heard a man gasping for breath on his deathbed thinks as I do. He'd try to relieve human suffering before trying to point out its excellence."

“I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when all this ends. For the moment I know this; there are sick people and they need curing.”

“Since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn't it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?"

From the above abstracts from The Plague, we get the impression that he had never really arrived at a conclusion regarding the existence of God. His concern is more with the plight of the individual and what he should do alleviate his sufferings and live an authentic life. The two sentences – “He'd try to relieve human suffering before trying to point out its excellence” and “there are sick people and they need curing” are a testimony to his belief. In the book these words are spoken by a doctor who is in the midst of a plague epidemic. It is the story of medical workers finding solidarity in their labour. Camus tries to portray that we ultimately have no control over life and this irrationality is inevitable. His accidental death is a testimony to his beliefs.

He believed that God is an idea, an abstract concept constructed by us, made to sit in judgement over what is morally right and wrong. He continues to believe that making God sit in judgement over us makes him as mortal as we are and thus ultimately killing him in our heart. It is in this context that we try to understand Nietzsche when he says “God is dead”. The absurdity arises when we raise the question as to what is morally right and what is morally wrong. This cannot be possible without reward and punishment, in which case there has to be an authority to sit in judgement over our actions. This is a catch-22 situation and so, is all the more absurd. This is a situation that we find ourselves in, may be like Sisyphus. But the redeeming part of Camus’s philosophy is that one has to rebel against this absurdity and not succumb. He says “Man in order to exist must decide to act”. Doesn’t this ring a bell for all of us who are bred on the Hindu view of life, of Karma yoga? Ultimately it is doing one’s duty without expecting the fruits of action, is a way to redemption. This is brought out so poignantly in that sentence- “there are sick people and they need curing” uttered by the doctor whose only concern was discharging his duties as a doctor, and what does one expect in the middle of a plague epidemic except that he can cure as many people as possible and therein lies his redemption.

I have resisted the temptation to refer to his other novels as I have briefly tried to cover them in my earlier post of February 2012 ‘A Tribute to Albert Camus’. But today on the occasion of the centennial of his birth, I cannot but refrain from remembering the tragic circumstances of his death at a very young age. May be if he had lived longer we would have had the pleasure of more of his works. Though some find his works depressing, which of course is the case with all existentialist thought, for me reading him for the first time, his book ‘The Fall’ did prove to be one of the turning points in my life, my awakening as I call it. But it is ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ and the subsequent ‘The Rebel’ that bring out the core of Camus’s philosophy. All great literature has been centred around recognising the conditions of human existence and finding solutions

Though Camus was clubbed along with Sartre and called an existentialist, he never wanted to be labelled either as an existentialist or an absurdist. In fact Camus says that the only book of ideas which he published ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ was directed against the existentialist philosophers.

One cannot also really call him an absurdist for in the ultimate analysis when one considers ‘The Rebel’ we understand that he was trying to find a solution to problems of human existence. His thoughts on this “If we assume nothing has any meaning, then we must conclude that the world is absurd. But does nothing have any meaning? I have never believed we could remain at this point” are very revealing.

So much has been written about him and his works that one is always in danger of repeating what has been said. But it was the irony involved in the way he died, that the first thought which came to my mind was ‘A Happy Death’. The celebration of the centennial of his birth cannot but make us remember the loss that the literary world suffered.

The very fact that despite having a ticket to travel by train, he opted for a lift in a car and travel by road, would make us, who are believers in God and destiny, that this was destined to happen, something preordained. But for Camus it would have been a random event in a world that was devoid of any inherent meaning.

Apart from my own impressions of Albert Camus it was necessary for me to refer to the actual quotes from his novels as well as other commentators on the subject. This was necessary so that a truer and a more authentic picture of a man who is considered as one of the great philosopher/writers of the twentieth century is presented. I thought that this would be my fitting tribute to a man who said “Man in order to exist, must decide to act”.






Monday, November 4, 2013

SHAKESPEARE AND CAMUS

SHAKESPEARE AND CAMUS

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
 — Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)

This perhaps is the most profound soliloquy of all Shakespeare’s works. 
Back in school, Macbeth (the complete play) was part of our English literature curriculum. I was nicknamed Macbeth by my classmates, not that I had murdered someone or was villainous by nature but because I had the entire book by heart. I still remember most of the passages and would recite them even while working in the bank. Please do not conclude that I did not do any work. It was a way of getting the staff to work and sometimes it did have the desired effect. In fact I remember that the most effective one was –
 If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well
It were done quickly. If th' assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,

Most of them could not follow what I had said but they were left in awe at my ‘profound knowledge’. I did get the desired respect and the work was completed. I never let them in to a secret- that I seriously did not know what else to do to get them to work, after efforts at cajoling and threats had failed. Shakespeare I guess should get the credit for this. Of course I refrained from quoting this in my credit proposals for I knew that the response would be-

It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
I remember back in school, the English literature class was taken by the Principal, a Patrician Brother (as they were called) himself. Apart from teaching us he used to enact the characters in the play with such conviction that we used to look forward to this period. Now looking back I can attribute my retentive capabilities as far as Macbeth is concerned, to him even to this day.
That of course was a light hearted banter. But coming back to the main purpose of this post is that soliloquy which I quoted in the beginning. After the passage of so many years this is no longer an attempt to pass an exam but an attempt to understand the underlying philosophy. We have our own views on what life is, from the experiences we have been through. But the thought process has not changed despite the advancements in science. The idea of God, redemption, punishment and ultimately the meaninglessness of life still predominates. We have hope and despair and we talk of good and evil and of a moral fabric that governs our lives. 
Macbeth is a good man, a brave warrior and a loyal subject, who gets corrupted by external forces in a quest for power and position. It is after the deed is done that he is slowly eaten away by the guilt of his actions and realizes his own folly and is killed in the end. It is through this passage that Shakespeare brings out Macbeth’s ultimate realization and in a way his redemption.
It was way back in the sixteenth century that Shakespeare wrote all this but we can see an echo of it in the thoughts of the subsequent modern day philosophers, especially Sartre and Camus and other existentialists and in the writings of Dostoevsky especially in his Crime and Punishment.
It is in ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ that Camus examines the meaninglessness of life and the absurd condition of man. He likens our condition to Sisyphus who was condemned by the Gods to roll a rock up the hill for eternity. As soon as he reaches the top, it rolls down again and the entire process is repeated. We live every day in the hope of a better tomorrow. But every tomorrow gives rise to another tomorrow and slowly this brings us closer to death. This is what the first four lines of the soliloquy signify. In his book Camus says that the really tragic moment is when Sisyphus starts his trek down the hill when he realizes that he has undergo the exercise again and again. There is no hope. But when he recognises the futility of his condition and the certainty of his fate he is freed. Similarly in the play ‘Macbeth’ Shakespeare brings out the true redemption of Macbeth in this play where he acknowledges that all he had achieved was for nothing, as he was slowly moving towards his death. He equates our life to that of an actor who as long as he is on stage performs and then vanishes as soon as his act is finished.
In another of the famous soliloquy from ‘Hamlet’ Shakespeare examines the existential question ‘Why live? For death could be a worse condition’
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; 
The dread is that one does not return from the dead. Here Hamlet is contemplating suicide but ultimately decides against it in this passage-
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Suicide is not an option. In, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ Camus says that the only philosophical question is prolongation of life or to end it. When man is faced with the meaninglessness of life and the absurd nature of his condition, he faces the question of suicide. Camus says that this should not be an option for one does not know death. He says that once the truth is acknowledged for that is the only way you can overcome it you should ‘revolt’. This in fact is the subject of his next book ‘The Rebel’

Though the underlying philosophy of two great literary figures separated by four centuries find an echo in each others thoughts, their way of getting the message across differs, Shakespeare the dramatist and Camus the philosopher novelist. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

GOD AND THE DEVIL – A CONVERSATION

GOD AND THE DEVIL – A CONVERSATION

And finally God said “I give up!”

“You can’t do that!” said the devil with a start.

“It’s just not possible. I can’t run heaven anymore” continued God, “there are not enough number of people coming over here. How do you expect me to carry on with this big establishment? A pleasure house full of all the comforts conceivable, call it a treasure trove of all that you can ask for. You think it is easy maintaining this? Where do you think I can muster up the resources for such an enterprise when there are no takers? No it is just not possible. I can’t carry on”.

“You can’t do that”, repeated the devil in exasperation. “How do you think I can carry on without you? My very existence depends on you being here. See if you close down heaven then I will have to contend with the hordes that will overrun my kingdom, and you know what trouble I have taken to build it up. I will not be able to keep the fires burning. There will be long queues and traffic jams and I do not have the forces to control them. Don’t desert me now”.

The devil continued “Can’t you see it’s all your fault? You have specified the cut off marks for entry into heaven at a very high level. How then can you expect more people to come over there? You cannot get more people over there unless you dilute your standards. As it is your expectations are very high. You call yourself the creator and still churn out all those imperfect ones. Of course I accept that I owe my existence to your own imperfections and that has kept me occupied. But I did not bargain for what is happening now. I can’t handle it alone. You have to accept responsibility for this situation.”

God looked at the devil with scorn and said “You blame me? Look at what you have done, throwing all those freebies around. I can see from here all those people scrambling over there for a piece of the cake you have left in their midst. They have forgotten that it is I who grants them their wishes. They do not see me for you have pulled a veil over their faces with your antics. So why blame me? I have never resorted to such gimmicks to lure them.  It is not what I am”.

“Ha ha, that’s a laugh! Why do you yourself resort to lies? You know fully well that the greatest enticement you offer is ‘Hope’. You fool people and have been doing so through the ages. Once in a while you threaten them saying that they shall carry the results of their deeds in this life to the next. Thereby obliquely telling them that if they do not fall within the scheme of things you have ordained for them, you will punish them when they are born again. When they look up to you and things don’t happen the way you promised will happen, they turn away. How long can they carry on waiting for things to happen? You see, you offer them something intangible and call it salvation. No one is sure what it is or when it will happen or whether it will happen at all. Why lead them on? You cannot blame them if they turn to me. I do not tell them anything of the life hereafter. I give them the pleasures they seek in their present life itself and so their disillusionment with you drives them towards me. Many are prepared to face the fires of hell rather than burn in them in their life. You see they have come to a stage where they are no longer sure whether there is a heaven or a hell, so why not live life as if there is nothing beyond it. But I did not bargain for this influx in to my domain in such large numbers.”

God was silent for a long time. For the first time he wondered whether he had played into the devil’s hands. He knew that as a part of his grand design he had created the devil also and now it was also his responsibility to ensure that the devil did not grow out of his bounds. In a sense he was relieved that the devil had expressed that he could no longer manage the situation. It was a question of giving the finger and losing the hand. Was it really true that the people had started choosing damnation to salvation? He thought of Dr. Faustus who had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power and signed a pact for eternal damnation. What he had started as a Divine Comedy was slowly turning into a Divine Tragedy.

But God had ‘faith’ in his own abilities to check the rot. Yes that’s what he had been telling to his creations ‘Have Faith’. His own inner voice said “Have faith in yourself and you can do it. After all haven’t you gone down there from time to time to bring back things to normalcy? It’s time now to go back there. But it is going to be tougher job.”

The devil continued “even if you go down there now to set things right as per what you think, it is going to be a tough job. You see there are many Gods down there who promise salvation and deliverance from the miseries the people suffer. They have grown powerful and rich but I know they will ultimately have to come to me. But they are not bothered as long as they are having a free reign over there now. If and when you decide to go down there, you will have to compete with them to prove you are the genuine one. If you can do that, then at least you will have lessened my burden of having to tackle this influx. I shall pray for you but I am not sure to whom. Is there a greater God?”

And so God said “I have ‘Hope’ and the faith that the people have ‘Hope’ in me.”


Friday, September 27, 2013

A TRIBUTE TO MS SUBBULAKSHMI

A TRIBUTE TO MS SUBBULAKSHMI

This is a daunting task for one who has not had a formal training in music, does not know the grammar and generally cannot engage himself on a discussion on the nuances, movements etc. etc. which are the attributes of a music critic. For me it is simply a question of whether the music appeals to me or not, not whether it is good or bad for I am no judge. So I write what I feel and share it with my friends and this is my tribute to a great musician.

21st September 2013 was a special evening arranged at the Kalakshetra, Chennai, to pay tribute to one of India’s greatest musicians – ‘MS’ as she is fondly called. The programme called ‘Miradasi–A tribute to MS Subbulakshmi’, consisted of a selection of hindi bhajans sung by MS and made famous by her. Apart from the superb rendering of the Bhajans by the young artists, the evening was brought alive by the introduction and narration at the beginning of each bhajan by Gowri Ramnarayan a grand niece of MS. She recalled those episodes from her childhood, memories of the time spent by her at MS’s home. What was special is that the music was composed by R.Vaidyanathan also known as Remaji by his followers. Very few people know who he was, but his compositions speak of a musical genius who never really bothered to hit the centre stage. While writing this I was never really sure whether I was writing this as a tribute to MS or Remaji. But both combined have given us all those soul stirring bhajans which even today lift us to those ecstatic heights of Bhakti. I have tried to highlight here certain very enlightening portions of the narration in a bid to understand both the musician and the music composer and what goes in to the making of great music in taking us on a transcendental experience.

It was in 1947 a week before Gandhiji’s birthday that a request was made by him that he wanted to hear his favourite Mira bhajan ‘Hari Tum Haro’ to be sung by MS. As she did not know the song and it was too short a time for a proper composition and also it was inconvenient for her to go to Delhi due to some personal matters, she had to decline politely. But since Gandhiji wanted to listen to the bhajan in MS’s voice only, it was recorded at Madras at AIR and the spool was sent to Delhi and his wish was fulfilled. It was only later she learnt that Gandhiji had said “Her voice is exceedingly sweet. To sing a bhajan is one thing; to sing it by losing oneself in God is quite different”. Pained by the violence unleashed at the time of partition and feeling depressed Gandhi wanted this bhajan only in which Mira pleads to her lord to remove the sufferings of his slaves.

But it is the effort that went into the music composition which brings out the genius of the music composer. It was an all night recording session as Vaidyanathan set it to music and for MS to learn and record it immediately. The song was composed in the raag Darbari Kaanada which expresses pathos as well as grandeur.

From an article in ‘The Hindu’ written by one of his disciples Meera Grimes we get a glimpse of the person Vaidyanathan was. She says-

“With all his rare attributes, Remaji chose to be anonymous. He was a person with many dimensions. He was a philosopher, musician, scientist, administrator and much more. He preferred to keep a low profile and hence, the world knows little or nothing about him. However, he had a group of disciples, who benefited immensely from his association in terms of spiritual solace. Vaidyanathan, born in 1913, in Chennai, was a prodigy in music, but was trained to be a scientist in physics. An alumnus of the Presidency College, Chennai, he went to Cambridge, England, to study the atom under Lord Rutherford (in fact the narrator said that he was a contemporary of Nobel Laureate S.Chandrasekhar and Dr. Homi Bhabha)”. After what he calls a spiritual awakening, he decided to call it a day and returned back to India to pursue his interest in music and spirituality. He evolved a philosophy that embraced all faiths. He was adept in playing the piano, flute and the violin and in western and Indian classical music- both Carnatic and Hindustani. In the words of his disciple “He used his musical knowledge just to get shelter and food. He used his leisure to do his research to find the cause of human suffering and a solution. But then he was not a well-known philosopher either. The answer is, he wanted all or nothing and nothing in between and he stood by his principle until the end, even in very trying situations.” He passed away in Amritsar in the year 1990 at the age of seventy seven.

Coming back to the bhajans, I have listened to them sung by MS herself. There could not have been a better person to render the compositions of those great souls – Surdas, Tulsidas, Kabir and Mira, so filled with fervour and love for the divine. Music knows no boundaries or barriers, this is amply demonstrated by the fact that one of the bhajans was composed by Ras Khan, who a muslim by birth settled down in Brindavan and became a devotee of Krishna. I have had the occasion of attending some concerts of MS earlier in my life and the one image that keeps recurring in my memory is of her rendering these songs with her eyes closed, oblivious of what surrounded her, as if she was totally lost in the fervour of the composition and seeking communion with the Divine, in the process also transporting us to ephemeral heights. At the end of the concert one always left with a sense of elation, call it spiritual or by any other name, for during that entire period all your existential angst was pushed to the background and you felt that after all this life was worth living. You realise that music not only breaks down the barriers separating our different personalities but teaches us to be humble, accepting and a total surrender to the creator. The concept of total surrender to the divine or God as we call may not be acceptable to many of us. But total surrender here should be understood as a total erasing out of the ego. Humility is a result of this and this is what makes us genuine, for when this is present, we will not feel the necessity for wearing a mask. MS was always a picture of humility both in her manners and the conduct of her life.