Religion

God in the details

Sometime back, Vedant shared a video on Reader – a Punjab village in 1925. It reminded me of how little of documentation we have as we go further back in time. I could see two factors in this – documentation itself didn’t happen because it was not an easy process, and storage mechanisms that were used then haven’t really endured.

These days, we do a lot of documentation, on the web and offline – pictures, videos, text, creating a lifestream that at this point, looks to be durable, because as each technology gets replaced by another, we are also building means to transfer the data captured. My own lifestreaming experiments have been on for quite a while now. New tools like foursquare only add to it, and I find that I can actually recollect a lot from this information.

I’m inclined to believe that data capture itself will only get better with time, though the reactions to it will definitely be varied. But it did set me thinking. In the enterprise, the more the data, the more we are able to glean information and knowledge about things, people, behaviour, preferences and so on. Do you think, even at a theory level, that if we actually had data of all humans over a really long period of time, we will be able to crack the profound questions that we haven’t found an answer for – why do things/people exist the way they do, the complete effects of one’s action/inaction, the purpose of life itself? Will this data help us unlock dimensions that have been closed to us thus far? Like I’ve asked before, how would that affect our God constructs?

until next time, data and daata :D

Bonus link: Your place in the 7 billion

God Plus

The thread that interested me most in Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver (Volume One of The Baroque Cycle) was on Predestination vs Free Will, something I’ll continue to read up on. The book has a conversation between Daniel Waterhouse, a fictional character and Gottfried Leibniz, in the chapter Daniel and Leibniz Discourse (II), in which Leibniz puts forward a thought that there is an incorporeal organising principle, which organises and informs the body. He calls it the Cogitatio, and later uses it interchangeably with Mind, but different from brain, which is a mechanical phenomenon. With this, he attempts to find a middle ground between free will and predestination by stating that Mind and Matter grew out of a common centre and “I have complete freedom of action… but God knows in advance what I will do, because it is in my nature to act in harmony with the world..” (seems close to Molinism)

While the recent exploits of humans would dispel this last thought in a jiffy, it did set me thinking on another subject of fascination – Singularity, “the hypothetical future emergence of greater-than human intelligence.” I still wonder whether it would be a ‘Skynet’ version (a superb post by Chris Anderson) or a an augmented human. (something I wrote earlier)

The thought is whether God’s design had anticipated a Singularity for humans. A state in which the human being will understand and create things far more ‘advanced’ than God can? What would be the relevance of the idea of God then? And in parallel, what would be the human’s role if machines are the way to technological singularity?

On the flip side, as i wrote in the earlier post, if augmented humans are the way to singularity, would the human mind as we know now exist then? Most probably not, and that would explain why if indeed God did make us in his form, we have no recollection of him or his idea of Singularity.

Or maybe, some among our species already have reached it, without artificial augmentation, and that’s what we call nirvana, when you can bend the spoon, if it exists. :)

until next time, the God complex is also a possibility :)

The wonder eras

The Lanka trip earlier this year, and specifically the Day 2 visit to Sita Kotuwa was quite an experience. Like I said in the post, its difficult to describe the feeling when one sees evidence that points to the actual existence of characters who were  considered a part of stories and mythology. Its one thing to theorise about what our gods really were, or read  historical perspectives, and another to come face to face with the reality of it. Of course, we could debate that Rama was human, and only considered an incarnation, but if the events in the Ramayana did happen, there is enough ‘godness’ in it for us to still wonder.

I read ‘The Rozabal Line’ by Ashwin Sanghi recently, which is a fictional story based on the Jesus in Kashmir theory. The author has done considerable research on this, as evidenced by the notes, acknowledgments and references section of the book that spans more than a dozen pages. The domain the book operates in meant that these trails were fascinating, and I plan to follow them online soon.

Meanwhile, in the book, the author draws parallels to the various messengers of gods who shared a lot of commonalities with Jesus, mostly in terms of events in their lives. They belonged to various cultures and eras before Jesus, thus ‘a great deal of material available to create a story around the historical Jesus Christ’. The existence of Jesus has probably never been in question, as opposed to say Rama/Krishna, but the above, and other things I read in the book, does make him much more human.

Cut to the present. I read an actress’ comment recently – that she wasn’t on social networking sites because it took away the mystique surrounding her. Fair point, and I had to agree, considering how most actors and ‘celebrities’ in general use the sites to showcase feet of clay. I’m not comparing celebrities to gods, not yet, but in the eras before hyper communication tools, and further back, before ubiquitous magazines and television, there was probably more fiction than fact built around celebrities. The persona overshadowed the person. But now, they seem to be just regular people. Not that they aren’t that, but its more in-your-face.

And thus I wonder, about the gods of yore. In those times, news got around much slower, and it was perhaps easier for legends to be born and for facts to be coated liberally with fiction. It was also perhaps easier to believe. So when I see images and statues of Jesus these days, I wonder what the real story and who the real person was.

Ashwin Sanghi took 2 years of reading and 18 months of writing to complete this book. You see, the other thrill of ‘The Rozabal Line’ was having a conversation with its author, while I was reading it. Wonders never cease. :)

until next time, acts of faith

Recycling Gods

Sometime back, I’d written a post about super powered individuals who later came to be known as Gods, and how technology is perhaps taking us closer and closer to these versions of gods. And sometime back, Vimoh too wrote a very thought provoking post on the evolution of Hindu gods, and how, over a period of time, important Vedic gods like Indra, Varuna, Agni etc have lost their importance to a newer set who rose to prominence according to the stage of our civilisation – Ganesha, Saraswati, whose ‘hidden’ characteristics were brought to light. An evolution from gods “that govern the elements of nature to gods that govern abstract concepts of the mind”. He also hypothesises that  in the future, the list will be further transformed when man realises that the universe is more of a network than a hierarchy and when he finds himself at par with the highest of gods and the lowest of forms, he will realise his divinity.

I’ve always wondered whether the original set of gods was a small number and as needs arose, historical characters were pushed into divinity, their stories exaggerated, and for later generations they served as gods. The original triumvirate – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva have remained more or less a constant in their importance, though Brahma lost out in terms of places of worship.  But the evolution of gods is something I completely agree with.  As our needs changed and the things we could control changed, it was perhaps inevitable that the things we attributed to them would change. More importantly, they also changed with out interpretations of good and evil. Since our gods have always been close to us, their character and behaviour also reflected this change in ethos.  Huffington Post says they’re now pop culture, through Bollywood movies, for example. But yes, they were always more human, and ‘approachable’ anyway.

It does bring up a point though. I wonder how our current depiction of Hindu Gods would affect how later generations perceive them. The modern retelling, which sometimes adds layers hitherto absent. Imagine a future generation treating Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana the way we treat the vedas now simply because earlier sources may not stand the test of time. If they saw Sippy’s Mahabharat and also saw Jha’s Rajneeti, would they be able to grasp the parallel? Or would they miss it because they haven’t ‘lived’ with the gods like we have? ‘Sita’ in the television series was ‘Deepika’, the actress, who has also played other roles in serials and movies. So, without a context, it might be just another role she did. There is a reason I’m thinking this way. Any of the gods could be just a role play – incarnations/manifestations – different roles in different contexts at different times. We rely on certain images and certain texts which are possibly incomplete in their current form. And thus rises the question that invariably gets asked in such discussions – who created who?

Each age fills up the void of its unknown with its own versions of God or his opposite number. Like Vimoh states at the end of his post, the future explorer will be an amalgamation – with knowledge from many disciplines. For now, we pursue the mystery from among the tools we choose based on our interest, bias, and faith – science, religion, philosophy, and so on. The question is, will we ever reach a point when everything is known, and the God shaped hole would be finally filled with our knowledge. Maybe that’s the point when the current Brahma gets irritated and presses the ‘Delete All’ button, and the Brahman starts with the next Brahma. :)

until next time, divine grapevines :)

Lankan reams – Day 3 – Kandy

After two days of early starts, this one was more relaxed, since the only agenda for the day was the Tooth Relic Temple. Okay, and some hazy culinary plans. Breakfast was a pleasant affair, largely because I got to have Milk Rice and chicken curry with some amazing onion based chutneys! Breakfast, imagine! Sigh.

The Tooth relic Temple is probably why Kandy is known as the heart of Buddhism in Lanka. There seemed to be three prayers that were open to the public – Dawn, Morning and Dusk. Security was quite high. The LTTE had done of their suicide bomb acts here too.

The word ‘temple’ is used rightly, because considering the rush, it was like say Guruvayoor or Sabarimala, in India. To me, this place nailed Buddhism clearly as a religion. I somehow doubt that was what the Buddha had in mind. So, like most religions, interpretations rule, and when you disagree, you form a new sect. ‘Ahimsa’ is interpreted enough to allow non-vegetarianism, just another way of life. I like to believe in one’s own notion of faith,  but it was difficult to miss the fact that a tooth was being worshiped. It also struck me that Buddhism in Lanka was a sort of passed on faith. The Buddha never went to Lanka and Buddhism came to Lanka long after the Buddha died. Perhaps it is because I am an Indian Hindu and used to ‘owning’ my gods that this thought came to me. Anyway, thanks to my high expectations of Buddhism, its Lanka version and the ochre / bright orange clad monks didn’t command the respect their counterparts in Leh did. Cameraman was on auto-mode.

Though we didn’t take the Kandy Express, we managed to climb up the hill and visit two tourist shopping destinations the guide recommended. The first was a Batik store, where they showed us the entire process after which D went into a shopping frenzy. She was revived much later, after we’d also finished the wood workshop and gallery. If you’re willing to suffer a little on the ‘authenticity’ retail  setting, you’d actually find the Odel ( a retail chain) store in Colombo a better place to buy knickknacks.

Arthur Seat offered a splendid view of Kandy city. We had lunch at a place called Oak Ray – strictly ok, and then moved on to a jewelry store to learn about gems. My eyes were opened wide, not from amazement, but to prevent them from closing. To be fair, the gemstone mining process was interesting. Siesta mode is auto activated whenever I’m on vacation!

In the evening, we decided to walk a bit. Kandy reminded me a little of Trichur, where almost everything of note is located near that massive round. In this case its the Kandy lake. The mango juice at Bakehouse, touted on travel wiki as phenomenal was a few notches south of ordinary!! We also roamed inside the open market, but it was just like any other. The Kandy lake is really a pretty picture at night, and we sat on a non-bird-toilet bench and watched life pass by, passing comments, noticing the co-existence of Lankan and Indian sari wearing styles and scoffing at people sporting umbrellas in the twilight.

When it was time for dinner, we were in a quandary. The Lyon’s cafe was highly recommended in travel wiki, as was Devon. We didn’t like the setting of the former much and the Captain’s Table restaurant in the latter semmed to serve only Indian and Chinese. We finally climbed up to ‘The Pub’ above Bakehouse, and watched Kandy life pass by as Bakehouse redeemed itself with a fabulous dinner. We also tasted Lankan Arrack (made from coconut) via a cocktail called Elephant’s Kiss. It was quite bad, and D wasn’t thrilled when I wondered whether there had been a typo – after all K and P are pretty close on the keyboard! Everyone – Kandy people, D, crows – had their revenge when a large splotch of fresh crow shit was discovered on the back of my tee.

Star World and Masterchef were sorely missed, and we went to sleep early, since the next day required a transformation from city and zen to beachbumming.

Next up Day 4. Click for Days 0, 1 and 2.

PS: Thia also happens to be Post # 800 on this blog. Thanks for reading. :)

Storied

The best thing about buying second hand books is that they might contain stories. No, I haven’t completely lost it, I meant additional stories. Messages, notes on the side, bookmarks from previous owners – they’re all stories. Stories that give you a tiny glimpse of the person who wrote it, or the person it was meant for. The last one I saw – in Pico Iyer’s ‘Abandon’, was very interesting. It said

Dearest A****,

Though this seems, and is the last day at C-72, I promise that its the first day and a nev be start to the best days of our life together.

Yours

S*******

30/Aug/03

I thought there was an amazing sense of romance in that little note. A story from almost seven years back. I wonder why A sold the book. Did they break up? Maybe she didn’t like this genre? Maybe they shifted, and there was no way to carry this. It was an empty page, A could’ve torn it off, she didn’t. Maybe she didn’t have time, maybe she didn’t care.  Maybe she didn’t remember. Maybe, God forbid, something happened, and S didn’t want any memories? Maybe  she returned it to S after they split, and he sold it. Maybe S never gave it to A, and instead sold it because some memory was too painful? Now you see the possibilities? But, to quote from the book itself “We are no greater than the height of our perceptions”.

I’d only started on the book, but it had already given me a thought. “The death of the author is a way of talking about the death of God. The world itself becomes a poem whose author disappeared long ago.” So the poet dies, the poem remains, the artist dies, the art remains, the author dies, the book remains, God dies, his creation remains, to be interpreted and shaped by us, the ones who see and experience it, limited by the ‘height of their perception’. Maybe the creation was never completed? Like the stories that remain in the head, never to be told. Like the pages that fill the waste baskets. Like the blog’s draft folder? :)

Meanwhile, on the next page of the book, there is a signature now, dated 10/04/10. He thinks he won’t sell any of his books.. ever. But then, stories have a way of twisting themselves in time. :)

until next time, home pages :)

When Man was God…

A few days back, I read this amazing article ‘Why everything you’ve been told about evolution is wrong‘, thanks to Surekha. Though it begins by rubbishing ‘creation by God’, it thankfully moves soon enough into Darwin’s theory of evolution and the epigenome (the protective package of proteins around which DNA is wrapped), which plays a role in deciding which genes get to express themselves in a creature’s traits and how much. It talks further of how a change in the surrounding environment for even a relatively small time can affect the way genes express themselves in future generations. This raises a question mark on the ‘random mutation + environment filtering’ basis of Darwin’s theory, and suggests that the environment had a hand in creating those ‘random’ traits. Lifestyle alters heredity.

(Kindly read the remainder of the post before confronting your grandparents)

I don’t have a hard stance against anything to do with God/faith, because I find around me many things that are not really explained, many dimensions which we haven’t been able to crack. Maybe, we will, in the future, but that doesn’t mean I will be arrogant about science now. There are so many wonderful things around me that awes my mind because of the mix of complexity and simplicity, that I like to have faith in a system/being at a higher level.

But the article made me think about the way we have reached where we are, and our concepts of God and evolution. And that’s how I wondered whether man was ‘God’ at some far off point, and had some fun. A half-ass thought. For this scenario I’m accommodating both versions – i.e. God created man in his image OR nature threw up enough random genes to create a version of man with super powers.

So at some point a long way back, we have a set of humans on the planet, all of them with superpowers – lifespan, various controls over elements etc, and thanks to that, a complete disregard for everything around them. The system (God or evolution/epigenome) realises this is a bad thing and starts turning down the super powers slowly. Or maybe they fought amongst themselves and turned off each others’ powers, until only a few had them. Their lifestyle tampered with their heredity. In later generations, they appeared in patches, say in a few  who are now known as rishis/sadhus/saints. These generations however, knew that earlier beings had superpowers and begin to regard them as Gods. They also began to fear the power of nature as they experienced calamities and lost things and people that were dear to them. Man now thinks that he should be beyond the control of nature. Technology  makes its entry and is man’s weapon against everything that nature can throw at him.

Where does it go from here? Maybe nature is working to a plan – pushing man to increasingly rely on technology until the point he can no longer think for himself. And then attack man with all it has got when he’s at his most vulnerable.

until next time, a 20:20 vision we might never have :)

Juley

In my mind, I can still hear that Ladakhi greeting, though its been a few days since our return from Leh. There are stories of mountains and mountains of stories I could tell you. Of the trip that almost didn’t start because the taxi service got the day and month right, and booked us a cab for 2010!! Of the Delhi weather which over delivered on the warm welcome premise at 40 deg C.

Of the jovial captain of the Leh flight, who said that one third of our trip cost would be ‘made up’ by the first view of Leh. Of him being proven right by a sight so magical that one could hear a collective gasp as the lofty snowy peaks were seen for the first time through the windows. Of the mountains that for one moment looked the magnificent phenomena they were, and in another looked like clay models that kids made for school exhibitions.  Of another statement the captain delivered on – a free camel ride, he called it – the landing at the Kushok Bakula Rimpoche Airport.

Of being on a high already and wondering whether one would be hit by the much written about high altitude sickness. Of being phlegmatic while popping pills and drinking bitter cough syrup at the first sign of phlegm. Of wandering through streets where tiny wrinkled old people chanted with prayer wheels in hand, and the next generation listened to heavy metal and peddled rock bands’ skull tees. Of wandering up mazes to see the ruins of the old palace and then lazing in the relatively palatial comforts of the hotel. Of waking up at dawn and setting out on journeys in which every view was click worthy, of getting tired of clicking and relying on the video mode far too much, even as the mind captured images. Of the visit to the gurudwara, where one was caught between the twin pleasures of the awesome sweet tea and the warmth from the cup.

Of gazing at the mighty river that spawned a civilisation, and wondering how much has changed for the nomadic tribes that live in tents and roam about with their Dzo (a hybrid of yak and cow). Of the noisy rush of air as one climbed up mountains to gompas (monasteries) that awed you with their silence. Of glass cases that carefully and lovingly stored centuries old manuscripts and a realisation of the tiny timeframe of six years of blogging. Of the excitement of staying in a tent, quickly followed by the realisation of how exactly one could feeze to death, and then feeling an intense thankfulness for one’s supple and warm bed companion, despite the rubbery exterior -the hot water bag.

Of boarding passes that got you to 35000 ft in no time, and mountain passes at half the height that made you crawl for almost three hours to get to them. Of being driven up narrow mountain roads, slipping on snow every now and then, and wondering if your final destination was going to be up or down. Of pitying the military guys who lived in the severe cold, and then muttering at them for making decisions that cost us an entire day. Of creating yellow snow after getting tired of holes in the ground and portable loos that cleared up the blocked sinuses in no time!! Of seeing a lake at 13500 ft- Pangong, shared by two countries, that competed with the sky for the shades of blue that could be displayed. Of a heavy snow fall that forced one to get out of the comforts of the push back seats in the vehicle and attempt to push the vehicle, which pushed back!! Of the disappointment of knowing that nature took only a few minutes to shatter one’s well laid plans. Of begging and pleading and cajoling cops to let us through after the official closing time.

But most importantly, of the wonderful wonderful person who took it upon himself to make sure that we got to see all the sights we wanted to – Tsewang. He, who confessed after much questioning, that he was having his first meal of the day at 3 pm after driving 9 straight hours through horrible conditions at altitudes above 14000 ft.  And then proceeded to drive up to Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable road at 18380 ft-  all in a day’s work, he said. Nothing I said or did could assuage my guilt.

The long journeys through the mountainscape pushed random thoughts into my head- of heaven, and whether living at such high altitudes meant that one was closer to God. :) Of whether the milieu that nature offered in these places instilled the compassion and concern for fellow humans, that I saw in many around, and if that was the secret behind the peaceful and happy faces, despite the hard conditions and lack of even common facilities in several places. The great heights and its citizens gave me perspectives and a sense of harmony that I still seem to be carrying with me, hoping that the daily grind won’t take it away.

As I looked at Leh before I stepped into the airplane, I realised that this might be the only time I’d visit this place. I also realised that perhaps my memories would fade, and I might forget the images I could now easily recollect in my mind. But I like to think that there’s one picture that will never go away – the lofty peaks of the mighty Himalayas, glistening with snow, and a light breeze that causes the flags at the monastery to flutter silently, all of this can only make up the background for the innocent, peaceful joy on Tsewang’s face as he plays with the Lama kids, and as he sees me approaching, he  asks me with his customary smile, if I’m ready to continue the journey.

until next time, a daily lama

PS. You can catch a few photos here.

collage1

Siddhartha

Herman Hesse

Somewhere in Pankaj Mishra’s ‘The Romantics’, there’s a conversation about ‘Siddhartha’ and it being a reason for a Westerner’s interest in Buddhism and India. A conversation, not my view :) That, and the fact that it also finds mention in Mishra’s other book ‘An End to suffering’ is primarily what led me to the book.
The book is best described as the story of an alternate version of the Buddha, and the Buddha features in the story too, including a conversation.
The message is perhaps like a quote I read somewhere, which amounts to “There are many ways to the top of the mountain, but once there, the view is the same”
The arguments are compelling, and makes you think, not just about the end, but also about the ways in which you get there. I especially liked the thoughts on the concept of time, the ‘goal vision’ obscuring everything else, and ‘the opposite of every truth is also true’.
Forget Buddhism, it is an excellent read on life, what we strive for, and my favourite paradox – the meaningfulness and the meaninglessness of our existence.

Religiously following….

I’ve always maintained that even religion should have a shelf life. This comes from a belief that religions were created at different times, basis the prevalent culture, accommodating the scenarios- natural and human created, and lifestyles in those times. The teachings were aimed at a more meaningful existence for fellow human beings, considering their existence then. Religion is a function of time and times.

However, we seem to have held on to the words, more than the spirit, and thus perhaps failed to internalise the messages that are built into the texts. That could be the reason for the strife around us.

Does a new time warrant a new religion? I don’t think so. In times when the mass shrinks and the individual and customisation rises, perhaps the opium of the masses needs to be re-looked at too.  I think spirituality and the connection to a higher force is a deeply personal thing, and should not be subject to the constraints of a religion. It should come from within rather than without, and I think such an understanding might lead to better lessons with a much longer shelf life. These lessons would make us better human beings, with a deeper understanding and compassion for everything around us, and therefore make the world a better place.

Religion is not the path to salvation. A life lived with a better understanding of the spirit of the messages in it, could be. What say you?

until next time, keep the faith