Tuesday, October 29, 2013

OUTLOOK at 18: Very Dim

OUTLOOK magazine has just celebrated its 18th birthday with an issue that is loony even by its own weird standards.

The “Lead Essay” by Pratap Bhanu Mehta is a loosely linked collection of slack-jawed observations about magazine journalism. Samples:

  • “Writing, writing, writing. The only mantra a magazine has to recite and keep reciting over and over. But how this mantra works is, of course, a more complicated question.”
  • “The number of words a story requires depends on what a well-told story can bear. Story-writing is not a number crunching exercise.” 
  • “Multiple partialities is (sic) not the same thing as objectivity. In a democracy or in any story, it is usually a good idea to make sure all issues and points of view have been considered. But a mere presentation of different points of view is not objectivity. In an age where (sic) everyone’s opinion is a little too readily available, it is not clear that reproducing multiple opinions makes the magazine interesting. The Indian media seems (sic) to think its commitment to objectivity is over simply because it got opposing sides to air their views. Credible mediation requires the ability to sift through opinion.”

The next article is a stupefying piece by British propagandist John Keay, headlined “Leadenhall Street Irregulars.” The subtitle is “1818: The Company licks its chops, counts its acres; Evangelists, in a righteous fury, outvoice a few sane Englishmen.” (The Deal, an oil on canvas painting of Clive and the traitor Mir Jafar at Pilashi, serves as illustration.) 

For those who are not aficionados of British propaganda, let me introduce Keay. He is one of the very few “historians” still wedded to the idea of an Aryan invasion of India.  (Either that, or he is an MI6 stand-in extending the shelf-life of outdated but still serviceable propaganda.)

To defend the idea of the Aryan invasion, Keay in his History of India (a 2000 “Harper Perennial”), asserted that the Ramayana was composed after the Mahabharata instead of several millennia before it. He even dismissed as “interpolation” the “condensed version of the [Ramayana] story told in the Mahabharata.” It had to be, he argued, because “Rama’s capital of Ayodhya lay astride the Uttarapatha and five hundred kilometers east of the Kuru/Pandavas’ Hastinapura,” offering “precious evidence of the continuing spread of Aryanization during the first millennium B.C.” (He seems to be ignorant of both works, for no such deduction can be made: the Mahabharata also shows familiarity with the entire territory of India.)

Keay's article is stupefying because it appears in 2013, in what is ostensibly an Indian magazine.

I wonder if the people responsible for the editorial content of OUTLOOK – Krishna Prasad, Editor-in-Chief, Satish Padmanabhan who edited this issue, and Editorial Chairman Vinod Mehta – realized the extent to which Keay is repeating old imperial propaganda. Or do they agree that the British acquired their Empire “in a fit of absence of mind,” and that 1818 marked the beginning of “Pax Britannica?”

The British advanced those claims to hide their murderous rapacity.

If there was a British peace after 1818, it was that of the crematorium. The great slaughter of the Sikhs that brought the Punjab under the British was still 40 years in the future. A decade after that, the uprising of 1857 gave way to a “pacification” that killed some ten million civilians. That was followed by the unprecedented bloodbath of Hindu-Muslim “riots” the British engineered to Partition India. In leaving, they started up the conflict in Kashmir and created the ISI in Pakistan to carry on killing. And from beginning to end, British rule was marked by massive man-made famines that killed over 100 million people. Pax Britannica indeed!

After Keay’s article comes one by a teacher of history at Delhi University, Anirudh Deshpande, also focused on 1818! It is headlined “Pride, Flash, Glory and Dust” and examines the proposition that the Maratha power “went down in a blaze of futile fury, court intrigue and dangerous folly.” (If the year 1818 had some mystical appeal to the powers that be at OUTLOOK, they might have focused more interestingly on the birth of Karl Marx or the founding of The Friend of India in Serampore, in which The Statesman of Calcutta is rooted.)

The rest of the issue is a wild mélange ranging from interviews with a variety of 18-year olds to articles on “a drive down NH-18,” the place with the 180018 Pin code, notes on several couples who married at 18, and a “new parent-child jam band” showing that 18 “ain’t so angsty.”

There is a shaggy dog discussion by a panel headlined “We can’t wait for anything anymore.” Anjolie Ela Menon has too short a piece on changes in Indian art over the last two decades; 18 authors tell of themselves at 18; Canadian pop star Bryan Adams talks to an interviewer about his middling 1996 hit “18 till I die.” There are also several pages of random facts connected to 18, pix of various celebrities at 18, and bits about OUTLOOK staff.

The vacuity of the issue is stunning if we consider that the last 18 years have seen the following momentous milestones:

  • The Indian population rose past a billion
  • We became a nuclear-weapons State 
  • Mobile telephone networks encompassed us in unprecedented connectivity 
  • Archeologists found structures off the Gujarat coast that could date back 9500 years 
  • China and India led the emergence of developing countries as the driving force of the world economy after the 2008 financial meltdown plunged the major developed countries into recession.
  • The BJP gained and lost power in Delhi. The Communists lost power in Kerala and West Bengal and the National Election Commission ruled that the Party is no longer a national entity.
  • Communal violence rose to a new high afterthe demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and the post-Godhra bloodletting in Gujarat. 
  • Terrorism rose to new heights with Mumbai a primary target. 
  • K. R. Narayanan and Prathiba Patel became the country’s first dalit and woman Presidents. 
  • Pakistani squatters in Kargil were driven out. 
  • “Super cyclones” hit Andhra and Orissa, one taking a toll of some 2000 lives and the other killing about 10,000.
  • India and the United States became strategic partners and Washington executed a “pivot to Asia” as it responded to the new calculus of global power. President Jiang Zemin became the first Chinese Head of State to visit India. 
There’s only one good thing I can say about OUTLOOK at 18. There’s nothing in it by either Arundhati Roy or Suhel Seth.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

UN Day #68: What Have We Learned?

Today is United Nations Day, commemorating the 68th anniversary of the coming into force of the organization's founding Charter.

It is an occasion to reflect on what we have learned, not just from the experience of the last two generations, but from a process that began with the creation of such small technical agencies as the International Telegraphic Union (1865), the International Meteorological Organization (1873) and the Universal Postal Union (1874).

They were created to meet the need for international cooperation imposed by the growing use of standardized transport and communications technologies.

International use of the telegraph obviously needed such cooperation; so did the sharing of meteorological information important for shipping and agriculture. The UPU became necessary because the booming volume of mail carried by the railways and steamships made it impossible to continue the old system of weighing and paying for mailbags at each international border; it put in place a multilateral payments system.

Ironically, at the same time as international cooperation was making a quantum jump, the use of industrial technologies led to much higher levels of conflict. Violent competition for the raw materials and markets essential for factory-scale production involved a succession of colonial wars, and they cascaded into the First World War (1915-1919).

In the wake of that "war to end all wars," the major Powers set up the League of Nations, but undermined it comprehensively with a range of aggressions and economic manipulations.

Their no-holds barred economic competition created such instability in world markets that trade went into a decline, and then into a free fall, setting off the Great Depression of the 1930s.   

What happened was that as trade declined, so did manufacturing, and millions of people lost their jobs. As their consumption of goods and services dropped, manufacturing took another hit, and more factories closed, swelling still more the ranks of the unemployed.   

 The League tried to get governments to cooperate in reviving the world economy, but had no success. Governments were too locked into their own defensive-aggressive postures.

The acute misery of millions of Europeans allowed the rise of fascist demagogues like Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy. Britain and France initially supported their rise in the expectation that fascism would counter Communism, which had taken over Russia during WW-I.

The fascists did destroy or weaken the Communist movements in Western Europe, but instead of then confronting the Soviet Union as Britain and France expected, they turned on weaker countries; that set off World War II (1939-1945)

The First World War had killed an estimated 10 million people; the Second took a toll so large it has been impossible to agree on a precise number; various estimates put it between 50 and 70 million.

As the war wound to a close, the United States initiated talks on a successor organization.

President Franklin Roosevelt dubbed his brainchild the "United Nations," but by the time its Charter was signed in San Francisco, he was dead and the nuclear weapons that ended WW-II had destroyed the concept of "collective security" enshrined in the UN Security Council.

The subsequent outbreak of the Cold War and the Soviet acquisition of nuclear weapons effectively stalemated the Security Council for the next 4+ decades.

Another tectonic shift was the Churchill-Ismay coup against American constitutional government in March 1946: it brought into power a military-industrial clique in Washington that pursued a policy of endemic war over the next six decades.

These developments turned the UN into a spare wheel, called into service whenever the imperial Powers needed it, otherwise left to languish in ever-increasing inertia and corruption.

However, those decades also saw the rise of developing countries in the face of tremendous odds, and beginning in the early 1970s, the pursuit of a "New International Economic Order" through intensified cooperation among themselves. Developing countries are now the most dynamic portion of the world economy, and in another decade just three of them, China, India and Brazil, will have more of world GDP than all of Western Europe and the United States.

All these trends, as well as some new ones, are at work in the UN of 2013.

The new ones include the end of American dependence on Middle Eastern oil that has allowed Washington to stop supporting the feudal regimes in that region and a weakening of the unconstitutional power nexus the British had established in Washington.  

The impact of all this on the UN will be profound, but no one can predict the direction of change.

What, for instance, are we to make of Saudi Arabia's refusal to take the Security Council seat it had lobbied for and won?

There is much speculation about Riyadh's U-turn; I suspect it was the realization that US support for its entry into the Council did not mean closer ties but just the opposite.

With the US and Russia closing ranks on Syria and Washington making overtures to Tehran -- Saudi Arabia's primary rival in its own region -- it must have become obvious to Riyadh that Council membership would only bring an uncomfortable level of international accountability.

However the Saudi-Security Council relationship develops, there is little doubt that the international situation is in a rarely seen danger zone, with mutual trust at a low ebb among traditional allies, especially Europe and the United States.

Exactly how dangerous the situation is, we can only guess.

According to Helen Caldicott, the US Army fired the General in charge of its nuclear missiles on a matter of "trust," just as Washington was in the final phase of its debt limit negotiations. That suggests a chilling new implication for the phrase "nuclear option." Did the British bid to destroy the US$ as the world's reserve currency, elicit a starker threat?

Even if nothing like that happened, there are other near doomsday scenarios. There are the continuing uncertainties of the Eurozone and China, the threats to the Indian elections of 2014, and the possibilities for mayhem in Arab-Iran-Israel relations. If any of those situations gets out of hand, it could mushroom into a global disaster. 

What can we say about the UN in such a world scenario?

Not much, but it is grim.

If the power struggle between Britain's hidden Empire and its victims ends up with cataclysmic scenarios, the future of internationalism will depend on who is still standing after the rubble has stopped bouncing.  

If there is no great crisis and the ghost of Empire is laid at last to rest, the UN will have to be radically reinvented for an electronically networked world.

Either way, we're in a period of fateful decision.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Nitwit Commercials

Do corporate bigwigs in India pay any attention at all to what their ad men are putting out?

On the basis of the idiocy of commercials selling major brands, I would say they're quite oblivious.

Consider the assortment of animals (goldfish, dog, parakeet, monkey and tiger) starring in the commercial for a new Hyundai model.

Did anyone at the car company ask about the commercial's intended target audience? Are there enough five-year-old car buyers to warrant the pitch? 

If Tata had asked such questions before the launch of the NANO perhaps they could have avoided the major marketing disaster that followed commercials presenting the car as a step-up from the scooter for the lower middle class. 

Think how different the NANO image would be if the launch campaign had shown it as fun wheels for 20-something foursomes.

Or consider the mindless Nerolac commercial now playing that shows Keralites unfurling giant umbrellas over their houses while a mocking Shah Rukh Khan offers them a paint-job instead.

Did anyone at the company question the wisdom of reprising the South Indian bashing theme of SRK's recent films?

With the Indian Formula 1 struggling to establish an audience, has anyone done a postmortem of the advertising so far?

The people who planned and executed that campaign were evidently trying to sell the idea that the sport is sexy: their commercials showed Indian girls ecstatic over some weedy white men in driver suits.

Perhaps someone should have sat them down and explained the reason why the sport is sexy.

It's the fast powerful cars.

Boys like them. Girls like boys.

If you cut out the cars, the whole thing loses energy.

Also, showing teenage Indian girls starry-eyed over some White guys who appear to be decidedly over the hill might go over big in Europe; here, it's pathetic.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Cancel Prince Charles' Visit to India

New Delhi should cancel the projected Indian tour of Britain’s Prince Charles and spouse Camilla set for November 6 to14.

Their nine-day perambulation (Delhi, Dehradun, Mumbai, Pune, Kochi), will add immeasurably to the difficulties of maintaining a secure environment in the country as it holds the first of five Assembly polls on 11 November.

In fact, security will be virtually impossible to maintain, for there are multiple indicators that the Brits are moving toward a radical endgame to the India-Pakistan face-off they initiated with Partition in 1947.

They have tried this twice before. In 1984, a visit by Princess Anne provided the distraction that allowed the Game of Thrones assassination of Indira Gandhi, followed by anti-Sikh riots calculated to wreck Indian unity. In 1991, Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of the Tamil Tigers – the killers brought their own cameraman to ensure that everyone would know who did it – was clearly supposed to set off anti Tamil riots, but failed in that.

This time around, I think the target will be another candidate for Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

If the assassin is a Muslim – easily ensured by people who control the ISI and its many proxies – it could precipitate communal bloodletting on a scale that would make Gujarat 2002 look like a nosebleed, set off an India-Pakistan war and balkanize India.

There are numerous indicators that such a scenario is in the works. They include the steep escalation of Pakistan’s outrageous aggressions in Kashmir, General V. K. Singh’s treacheries, Baba Ramdev’s 2011 boast that he could field an armed force, recent attempts to push large quantities of lethal weapons into India, and Navaz Sharif’s bid to get Washington to play a part in Kashmir. (The firm American denial of any such role will not stand when a nuclear war is in the offing.)

William Dalrymple’s bizarre essayA Deadly Triangle: Afghanistan, Pakistan and India,” published by the Brookings Institution a few weeks ago set the scene for American intervention. In arguing that India-Pakistan rivalry was the main reason for the Afghan war it ignored entirely the Cold War roots of the conflict and the drug trade out of Afghanistan that is now its primary reason for continuing. The trade sluices some $60 billion into the British-run global black market annually (with $2 billion of that going to the ISI/Taliban).

The 1984 and 1991 assassinations show that the plan to destroy India is not new; and a 20 May 2011 article in The Financial Times made quite clear that it is being dusted off for use again.

The article, headlined “Henry Kissinger talks to Simon Schama,” ended thus:

Kissinger laughs even as he sketches a scenario for an Afghanistan even grimmer than anything anyone has yet imagined, where the presence or absence of al-Qaeda will be the least of its problems. What might happen, he says, is a de facto partition, with India and Russia reconstituting the Northern Alliance, and Pakistan hooked to the Taliban as a backstop against their own encirclement.

Suddenly, spring goes chilly. The prospect looms of a centennial commemoration of the First World War through a half-awake re-enactment … Sarajevo. Think proxy half-states; the paranoia of encirclement; the bristling arsenals, in this case nuclear; the nervous, beleaguered Pakistanis lashing out in passive-aggressive insecurity. “An India-Pakistan war becomes more probable. Eventually,” says the Doctor, his voice a deep pond of calm. “Therefore some kind of international process in which these issues are discussed might generate enough restraints so that Pakistan does not feel itself encircled by India and doesn’t see a strategic reserve in the Taliban.” He looks directly at me. “Is it possible to do this? I don’t know. But I know if we let matters drift this could become the Balkans of the next world war.”

What this makes crystal clear is that very powerful forces outside India plan to make the 2014 general elections our last. The reference to the “next world war” indicates that there will be attendant crises also in Russia and China.

It should also make very clear to the BJP that its British supporters are not interested in Modi’s promise of a reformed and well administered India. They want India broken up and at their mercy.

If Charles-Camilla are not in the loop of these plans, they also have cause to worry. The coldblooded strategists of Empire would think nothing of sacrificing them at the altar of a really believable crisis.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Britain and Hinduism 9: Ending the Kali Yuga

Bhima traveling alone through a forest finds the path blocked by a large monkey who claims to be too old and weak to move out of the way. The strongest of the Pandavas tries to lift his tail and pass by, but cannot move it a hair. Realizing someone of awesome power is before him, Bhima falls to his knees and asks the monkey who he is. It is Hanuman, the son of Vayu from a previous age, and thus Bhima’s older brother. In telling when he is from, Hanuman sums up briefly a uniquely Hindu aspect of Time: it has a moral dimension reflected in the quality of human virtue that changes in a cycle of four Yugas (eons).

In the first, the Krita (Perfect) Yuga, Virtue is whole and stands firmly on four legs. Life is effortless and the Vedas are an integral whole open to all eyes. In the Treta Yuga Virtue diminishes by a quarter but is still stable on three legs. Various diseases, lust, and natural calamities afflict people, and they undertake sacrifices and penances to avoid them. The Ramayana is set in the latter part of this period.

In the Dwapara Yuga half of Virtue remains intact, maintaining an unsteady balance on two legs. Dishonesty is a growing factor in human relationships and meritorious achievement requires great effort. The Vedas are in four parts and unknown to many. The war at Kurukshetra occurs at the end of this period and only Krishna’s presence on earth prevents the immediate onset of the degenerate Kali Yuga, when only a quarter of Virtue survives, standing unsteadily on a single leg. Evil is rampant in this final phase. Most people no longer remember the Vedas or know their own spiritual nature; only one in four is honest.

We are now in the Kali Yuga that began with the death of Krishna 16 years after the end of the Kurukshetra war. Gandhi’s political advent in South Africa a century ago marked the beginning of a period of transition, and the hugely positive changes since then signal that we are moving towards a new age of virtue. The Brahma Kumaris say we are now in a time of “Confluence,” with potential for revolutionary positive change.

How rapidly we realize that potential depends on each of us becoming aware that the corruptions of the Kali Yuga have blinded us to the nature of the world and of our own true selves. This whole series of posts has aimed to remedy that situation and in this one I look specifically at the origins and significance of Hinduism.

Who We Are

In September 2009, Nature published the report of a genetic mapping project by an Indo-American team of scientists that had studied some 500,000 genetic markers in a diverse sampling of the Indian population. As one of the senior researchers told the Press, the team found evidence that “castes grew directly out of tribe-like organizations during the formation of Indian society,” and that the proportion of shared genes in the population ranged from 49 to 80 percent.

That evidence blew out of the water the ludicrous colonial-era theory that the caste system was a means of preserving the racial purity of White blond protoEuropean “Aryans” from the Caucasus, the “original Brahmins” the British credited with composing the Vedas while driving their chariots and cattle up and down the high Himalayan passes.

The genetic evidence pointed to the emergence of the caste system from an accommodation among indigenous tribes.

How did that happen? 

Most probably, it was the result of a successful effort to end the conflicts endemic among the many tribes of India by compiling their sacred lore into a work all could revere, the Vedas. Supporting that theory is the fact that the Vedas are the only Hindu texts considered divine in origin (shruti); all the rest are remembered works of human composition (smriti). The distinction makes sense only if the former contains the ageless Seen reality (veda) of the tribes. It is likely the compilation was done by the Saptarishis, the seven sages memorialized by ancient tradition as the stars pointing to Polaris.

Modern readers usually find Vedic hymns repetitive and often mundane, but to their original tribal audiences they must have been powerfully evocative of their commonalities of worship and ritual. The hymns celebrated Agni, sacred to all as ruler of altar and the hearth, cleanser, protector, receiver of sacrifices and messenger to the gods. They praised all things the tribes held in awe, the Sun and the Moon, Wind Thunder and Storm, the starry wheel of heaven and the lovely dawn. They propitiated the gods of the hunt and husbandry, weapons of war and the tools that built altar and home. They expressed wonder at the eternal mysteries of the spirit-world that lay beneath the great cycles of seasonal growth, death and rebirth. In all things the Vedas made obvious the deep kinship of the tribes, ending conflicts and allowing them to settle into a system of interdependent castes.

The next step in the evolution of Indian society involved discussions (Upanishads) among the country’s best and brightest that led, over time, to a coherent philosophy, a universal worldview and a humane value system. The Upanishads postulated an indefinably abstract and undifferentiated Brahman as the basic reality of the universe. From its manifestation as the Universal Soul (Paramatma) there emerged the endless diversity of Creation, governed by a Law (Dharma/Rita/Satya) inherent in every particle and pervading the cosmic reaches of Space and Time. A flux of endless delusion (Maya) cloaked the unity of Vasudev Kutumbakham, God’s family.

The Upanishads asserted that individual souls are of the same divine substance as the Universal Soul and thus immortal; but blinded by Maya, they are unaware of their true nature and must learn of it through long experience of repeated material reincarnations. The most enlightened souls escape the cycle of rebirths by merging with the Universal Soul (moksha); all others continue to be reborn until the cataclysmic end of all things (pralaya) at the conclusion of a Mahayuga.

In this dispensation the highest attribute of virtue/wisdom is the dispassionate observance of personal dharma; death is of little consequence as it only opens the door to a new life; and possessions are a hindrance to those seeking a clear view of the realities governing their soul’s progress.

The Ramayana and Mahabharata

The spare and noble philosophy of the Upanishads entered the everyday life of India through the Ramayana and Mahabharata, composed millennia apart and entirely different in significance and spirit, but unified in their concepts of what is of value in life and what is without worth. Celebrated by every generation in sacred legend, drama, dance and song, the two epics laid the foundations of a unified Indian culture and consolidated it as a civilization. They also marked key stages in the political evolution of Indian society.

The Ramayana records and extols the step up from caste-federation to unitary State. It is important to note how differently this change occurred in Europe and India. In Europe, unity came through conquest and oppression. India accomplished the transition peacefully because the Kshatriyas already had the established role of ensuring security, and it was necessary only to define the qualities and responsibilities of the king.

The Ramayana takes that in hand. Rama is not a military dictator. In the devotion to his father, love for Sita, loyalty to Laxman, and generosity towards Kaikei, he is the archetype of the good family man. He goes to war not to extend his kingdom or for profit but to regain his wife. In misfortune, he is graceful, in victory, modest. Rama is the God-king next door, neighborly, considerate and kind. Those qualities make him accessible to all Indians regardless of caste or social status, a point the Ramayana is at pains to underline. The gods applaud Rama sitting comfortably on the ground with the lowborn forest-dweller Guha. The Prince of Ayodhya eats the fruit a poor woman offers him after biting into it to make sure it is sweet; Lakshman protests but Rama silences him; she acts out of love. That unforced love of the ruler is the basis for Ramrajya, the ideal State.

The Ramayana also makes clear the iron commitment necessary from the ruler. Rama goes willingly into exile to uphold a pledge his father made; he sends away his beloved wife because of murmurs among the citizens of Ayodhya that Sita’s pregnancy soon after returning from Ravana’s clutches implied a violation that made her unfit to be queen. The lesson in both cases is the same: the integrity of the ruler is the ultimate guarantor of the safety and security of the State; it must be beyond moral reproach. The personal happiness of the king cannot take precedence over that fundamental consideration.

Ravana serves as a negative foil to Rama in every way. Although a man of great accomplishments –thus the ten heads – he is arrogant, vicious, tyrannical, feared, and endlessly self-indulgent. Ramarajya is a time of golden contentment to the people of Ayodhya; Ravana’s rule brings disaster and ruin to Lanka.

The Mahabharata tells of a much later stage in India’s national life, when the ideals of Ramrajya are long gone and corrupt power-hungry men have control of the State. The whole work is a guide to survival in dark and confusing times. Ugrasrava, the narrator of the epic, lauds its high worth. “As the sun dispels the darkness, so does the Bharata by its discourses on religion, profit, pleasure and final release, dispel the ignorance of men. As the full moon by its mild light expands the buds of the water lily, so this Purana broadens the human intellect. With the lamp of history it illumines the whole mansion of nature.” The Mahabharata is the “fifth Veda” he says, outweighing the others because it makes their mysteries explicit.

Some 3000 years after its composition, the epic remains a sophisticated and surprisingly relevant work of political, philosophical and moral guidance. Consider, for example, the hidden significance of the origin and nature of the Pandavas and Kauravas.

Although always referred to as “cousins,” the two sets of siblings, are unrelated by blood. Pandu cannot father children because he is cursed with instant death if he has sex; his five sons are the progeny of different gods invoked by his two wives. Yudhisthira the firstborn is the son of Dharma. Maruti the Wind begets Bhima of immense strength. Indra king of the gods and wielder of the thunderbolt fathers Arjuna, the perfect warrior. The twin Aswins, skilled in the arts and husbandry that support life, are the parents of Nakula and Sahadeva.

Together, the sons of Pandu represent the strengths essential to any civilization: Law, Power, the capacity for war and the skills for peace. Despite their disparate parentage the Pandavas share an indissoluble brotherhood, and Vyasa clearly intends the brothers to exemplify India's unity in diversity; it requires no stretch of the imagination to see in Draupadi the beautiful and fruitful land that all of them love.

The Kauravas are also not the natural sons of blind Dhritrashtra. His wife Gandhari (from Gandhara, modern Afghanistan), is childless and becomes pregnant only through the magical intercession of Vyasa. Throughout the Mahabharata Vyasa’s appearance signals didactic intent, and in this instance it underlines a theme that drives the narrative to the end. Gandhari’s pregnancy is abnormally prolonged, and upon hearing of the birth of Pandu’s first son she loses patience and induces birth. What emerges from her womb is not a baby but a horrible ball of flesh, hard as iron. Vyasa returns to remonstrate with her. If she had not lost patience, her son would have been of unrivaled splendor. However, all is not lost: he cuts up the ball of flesh into a hundred and one pieces, putting each in a separate jar. When the test-tube babies emerge, all boys except for the youngest, they seem normal, even splendid; but the Kauravas are inescapably demonic.

As the Pandavas exemplify the attributes of a healthy society, the Kauravas illustrate the monstrous consequences of incontinence. Dhrithrashtra’s congenital blindness and Gandhari’s decision on her wedding day to assume a permanent blindfold, establish a theme Vyasa returns to repeatedly in his depiction of the Kauravas: Evil is rooted in the incapacity or willful refusal to see reality. Every fateful choice as they spiral down to doom illustrates the delusive power of egotism, greed, anger, hate and envy. No Satan plots their downfall, for Hinduism has no such entity; what seals their fate is a failure of compassion, the inability to see the kinship of all things underlying the world’s vast differentiation; without that spiritual cognition, they lack understanding and misjudge reality at every turn.

Such hidden teachings appear throughout the narrative and have generally gone unremarked because attention has focused overwhelmingly on the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna’s counsel to Arjuna on the battlefield at Kurukshetra. The spiritual teachings of the Gita have also overshadowed the advice on matters relevant to social and political governance in the Book of Peace (the longest section of the epic) and Book of Instruction, which follow immediately after the profound lamentation of the Stree Parva (Book of Women) at the end of the war.

It is important to note that while Vyasa emphasizes Kshatriya dharma in Krishna's counsel to Arjuna and the whole narrative hinges on a great war, the epic is solidly against the chest-thumping warrior code.

Understanding the Caste System

After the end of the Kurukshetra war Bhisma, the revered granduncle of the Bharata clan, lies impaled on a bed of arrows for an excruciating 58 days, waiting for the most auspicious time to die. It is the second dramatic freeze frame in the narrative. As the receding roar of armies underlined the urgency of Krishna’s advice to Arjuna on waging the battle of life, so Bhisma’s agony gives poignance and edge to the practical guidance he offers to Yudhisthira, the new Emperor. 

An issue he addresses at length and with the highest authority is the nature and significance of the caste system. Quoting no less a personage than Shiva, Bhisma says: “Brahma himself said during the process of creation” that the “distribution of human beings into the four orders dependent on birth is only for purposes of classification. Neither birth, nor purifying rites, nor learning, nor offspring, can be regarded as grounds for conferring the Twice Born status. Verily, conduct is the only ground.” Any “pious person “imbued with knowledge and science, purified from all dross, and fully conversant with the Vedas,” should be considered a Brahmin.” It is “by such acts that a Sudra may become a Brahmin refined of all stains and possessed of Vedic lore. … A Sudra who has purified his soul by pure deeds and subjugated all his senses deserves to be waited upon and served with reverence.” Contrarily, a Brahmin who does not conduct himself like one deserves no respect.

That was not just ideal theory; it was the lived reality of caste through most of Indian history, attested to by British observers before the great uprising of 1857 gave them a political incentive to lie. Monstuart Elphinstone’s 1841 History of India, written after many years in the country, noted that: “In the main, the Brahmin rules of life have been greatly relaxed. The castes below the Kshatriyas have now become extremely mixed and extremely numerous; a servile caste no longer exists. A man who loses caste is excluded both from all the privileges of citizenship and all the amenities of private life. As a rule, however, the recovery of caste by expiation is an easy matter.”

The report of the first census of British India in 1871 said of the Brahmin caste: “there are few trades in which some of its members are not engaged. So minute and endless are the ramifications of caste, that, when Mr. Prinsep took a census of Benares in 1834, no less than 107 distinct castes of Brahmins were found in that one city.” That was nothing new: Bhisma noted a long list of occupations that disqualified a Brahmin from officiating at a religious ceremony.

How did we get the idea that caste preserved pure bloodlines and was an iron system of class oppression? We got it from European theorists who judged Indian realities by their own historical experience of societies formed by layers of defeated tribes. The conclusion that conquering Brahmins imposed the caste system on the diversity of India is patently absurd if we consider that they are about 4 per cent of the population.

Caste conflicts as they now exist are a legacy of the 1871 census which, for the first time, enumerated  groups and presented the system's fluid realities in a Procrustean hierarchy. It set off a great and rancorous competition among groups that was without precedent because it was never before necessary: throughout Indian history, evident in such illustrious examples as Chandragupta Maurya and Shivaji, caste status was open to radical adjustment.

The hierarchical British ordering of castes was deliberately malignant; as Dharampal noted, two-thirds of royal families in pre-colonial India belonged to groups now classified as “Other Backward Castes.” That was nothing new; the Mahabharata mentions Eklavya not only as the low caste boy brutally treated by Drona but also as the Nishada king who led an army at Kurukshetra.

From the British perspective, downgrading the status of influential castes was effective psychological warfare and sound political strategy. It set off bitter inter-caste altercations at every level as groups jockeyed for status; and the issues were petty beyond belief because there was nothing substantive involved. The murderous quarrels we read about today over such things as an upturned mustache or a turban tied too high were as unknown in precolonial India as the Hindu-Muslim “riots” the British engineered.

The Indian Intellectual Tradition

The compilation of the Vedas by the Saptarishis, the formulation of the philosophy of the Upanishads, the didactic use of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, all indicate the extraordinary capacity of Indian society to understand and meet existential challenges. The intellectualism evident in the formation of Indian civilization came to rich fruition in the millennia that followed.

Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950), perhaps the most articulate voice of the Indian Renaissance in the early 20th Century, noted in an essay in Arya the “strong intellectuality” of Indian tradition. It was “at once austere and rich, robust and minute, powerful and delicate, massive in principle and curious in detail. Its chief impulse was that of order and arrangement … a seeking for the inner law and truth of things … of each human or cosmic activity.” Ancient India had assembled a “colossal literature” on “philosophy and theology, religion and Yoga, logic and rhetoric and grammar and linguistics, poetry and drama, medicine and astronomy and the sciences.”

India’s curiosity had “embraced all life, politics and society, all the arts from painting to dancing; all the 64 accomplishments, everything then known that could be useful to life or interesting to the mind.” Even on “such practical side minutiae as the breeding and training of horses and elephants,” each topic “had its Shastra and its art, its apparatus of technical terms, its copious literature.” Such intellectual labour had “no parallel before the invention of printing and the facilities of modern science,” Aurobindo noted; all “that mass of research and production and curiosity of detail was accomplished … with no better record than the memory and for an aid the perishable palm-leaf.”

He did not note two attendant marvels.

One was that when travel was slow, difficult and dangerous, India sustained across its vast distances an intellectual community that shared works, debated differences, and agreed on conceptual outcomes. Benares was the hub of that community; the Buddha came there from the foothills of the Himalayas, Adi Sankara traveled up from Kerala, Guru Nanak came from the Punjab and Raja Rammohun Roy and Swami Vivekananda from Bengal. These are only some of the most prominent of the millions of Indian travelers who brought to life the rich cultural and intellectual life of a civilization all recognized as a unity spreading from the Himalayas to the seas lapping the peninsular spread of the country east, west and south. The role of masses of anonymous itinerants in shaping Indian society and carrying its impact to the rest of the world has been little noted. They took our cosmology, the Zero and differential calculus to China, Persia and Arabia (from where they spread to Europe). The Tamil gopuram traveled across the Himalayas to become the Pagoda of East Asia. The unarmed combat taught in the Kalaris of Kerala went with the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma to the Shaolin monastery in China, and the manual he wrote there disseminated the art throughout the region. 

The other marvel, unremarked not only by Aurobindo but by everyone I have ever read, is that Indian society and civilization were possible only because of the quality of the general mass of our people. Their reverence for the divine, their respect for learning and their generosity of spirit are the bedrock on which our leaders built. Those qualities allowed the Saptarishis to unify the tribes by compiling the Vedas; they assured the impact of the epic compositions of Valmiki and Vyasa; without them, Gandhi could not have succeeded. The fact that Indians for many millennia have accepted Rama as the ideal man and Krishna as the exemplar of wise leadership speaks to the quality of the devotee as much as to the objects of worship. The “Indian Dream,” even at the nadir of the Kali Yuga, has always been of God, and that has shaped our intellectual constructs, our expectations from life, our destiny.

The Nature of Reality

In the heyday of their arrogant power Europeans were given to dismissing Indians as fatalistic losers and contrasting our backwardness with their own world-beating "progress." Those attitudes persist even after the poisonous nature of that progress is widely known and hundreds of millions of people have paid with their lives in imperial contests for its temporary fruits. Many Indians continue to think that our traditions are a drag on progress, that bhakti is superstition, and that Western Science is a superior form of knowledge. There is an element of truth in those assessments to the extent that tradition is tied to ignorance, bhakti to scoundrels, and science to the healing arts. But beyond that, the European intellectual tradition is not superior or even equal to that of our own. To see why, we have to ask about the reasons for seeking knowledge and the nature of reality. Compare, for instance, the vision of the cosmos presented in the Mahabharata (the language has been thinly edited), with what Science has to say on the matter:

In the darkness there appeared the mighty golden egg Mahadivya containing the true light, the eternal Brahman, wonderful and inconceivable, present alike in all places, the invisible and subtle cause of entity and non-entity, progenitor of all things seen and unseen. From Brahman there emerged … after many eons the oceans, the heavens, the earth, the air, the sky, the points of the heavens, the years, the seasons, the months, the fortnights, days and nights, and all things known to man.

What is seen in the universe, whether animate or inanimate, of created things, will at the end of the world, and after the expiration of the Yuga, be again confounded. At the commencement of other Yugas, all things will be renovated, and, like the various fruits of the earth, succeed each other in the due order of their seasons. Thus continues perpetually to revolve in the world, without beginning and without end, this wheel of Time that causes the destruction of all things.

Science has validated part of that vision, finding evidence of Mahadivya in the Big Bang; but it has not ventured to express an opinion on what comes before the universe winks into existence and what will follow its extinction. That is because both Beginning and End are “Singularities,” beyond which basic scientific laws are presumed not to hold. Past those points, Science is blind.

On what basis does Hindu cosmology assert a continuity of cycles, each beginning with a Mahadiya? How does it venture the view that in between cycles Brahman continues to exist as unmoving Witness, holding incipient the explosive energy of the next Mahadivya? What significance should we attach to the overall Hindu concept?

To answer those questions we have to look at the nature of thought. Does each individual generate his or her own thoughts? Or are thoughts preexisting constructs that we merely perceive?

The entirety of Hindu tradition leans towards the latter. In our schema for training the intellect, the student phase is aimed at finding out what is known already and gaining the right orientation of spirit to allow the pursuit of knowledge, an essentially intuitive process. To be successful, the seeker must be in full control of his passions and have the mind in a state of fine concentration; then, prolonged tapasya (worship oriented to understanding), will reveal the truth about the specific object of inquiry. Put another way, the dedicated seeker with a finely trained intellect will be able to read the thought forms that constitute the universe. 

The evidence-based approach of Western Science is also oriented to discovering the laws that order the Universe; where it differs from India’s insight-based tradition is in motive and aim.

Science seeks understanding in order to manipulate and profit; the sages of India seek it to know the will and direction of the Universe.

Because of that difference, even when Science focuses on pure theory, it must proceed on hard evidence, quantifiable proof; and when the secrets of the universe are unlocked, the “applied Sciences” take over to turn erstwhile mysteries into profit or power. We can see the unavoidably demonic results in a world economy that is killing the planet's life systems, in the existence of nuclear and biological weapons that could end all life, in obscene inequalities of wealth and poverty, and the use of mass fear to control the world.

What this means is that our self-discovery in exiting from the Kali Yuga must be more than regaining memory of the past; it must look to the future and understand how to respond to the grim context of Western modernity; it must envision and move towards a better world.


Part 10 will focus on what we can do to accelerate the end of the Kali Yuga

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8

Saturday, October 12, 2013

US Debt: The Nuclear Option

The "nuclear option" in President Obama's confrontation with Congressional Republicans over the budget and statutory debt ceiling was supposed to be the threat that Social Security checks would not be sent out if the current deadlock is not broken before 17 October.

He suggested such a possibility after the Republicans forced a government shut down, but instead of the expected mushroom cloud over Congress there was only the tiniest "poof" of a damp squib.
The small band of Tea Party Republicans holding Congress hostage obviously don't care if they lose the Senior Citizen vote.

They also don't seen to care that a US default on its debt could destroy the role of the American dollar as the world's reserve currency.

The New York Times just carried a story headlining the lack of influence of major financiers of the Republican Party; it quoted business leaders mystified at their sudden lack of weight.

No one seems to have an explanation for the behavior of the Republican leadership.

It seems unbelievable that they would trash the party's political viability to derail popular health reforms that have been adopted, signed into law and upheld by the Supreme Court; yet that is exactly what is happening.

The explanation, it seems to me, is that the Tea Party gang is not in the same game as the rest of America. To understand what they are doing we have to look to the developments in American politics I noted in Making Sense of Syria

The clique that enabled a British-sponsored unconstitutional power center in Washington is making a last-ditch effort to prevent its own demise.

If that is so, we should not expect a last-minute deal to avoid a US default. The Tea Party's elite transatlantic clientele stand to gain enormously from global economic chaos and the demise of the dollar as the world's reserve currency. There would  be little to prevent Bitcoin from filling the gap and taking the global financial system into money laundering heaven.

For those heavily invested in the global black market that would be a fantastic turn of luck; instead of worrying about how to safeguard their assets from increasingly assertive bank regulators in the US and Europe, they could pursue their criminal agendas without a thought of the money police.

For everyone else, it would be unmitigated disaster. Among the End Times scenarios being examined is an economic collapse far worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s combined with hyper-inflation.

Nuclear option indeed!