Buddhism

A working theory of Karma

Karma is one of two aspects of Buddhism that I have not been able to reconcile with my thinking, the other being a related phenomenon – reincarnation/rebirth. My understanding was only based on the limited reading I had done on the subject, this was something I hoped to correct in the medium term. But recently, a post on awareness by Umair Haque put Karma in a nuanced new light.

More searching (google, not within ūüėČ ) took me to Two Meanings of Karma. The author distinguishes between universal and psychological karma. The former is the cosmos driven moral justice model, probably influenced by the Hinduism version of karma, which I was finding difficult to reconcile. The latter is in line with the one Umair Haque has written about. Our innate sense of morality.¬† More

Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River

Alice Albinia 

I am showing signs of travelogue addiction, and this is the kind of book that creates it! It’s not just the content of the book, which is marvelous and makes for a treasure trove of information, but the sheer tenacity and guts the author displays, that has made me a fan. Spanning four countries, this book is the story of the river Indus, from its source to its destination, though not in a linear way. What it succeeds in doing, like the best travelogues do, is to also allow us to travel through time, in this case, even to the time before man existed. From Hindu mythology to the Harappa civilisation to Partition and the Kargil conflict and China’s occupation of Tibet, the book is not just the story, but the history of a subcontinent (at least a part of it) and the civilisations that rose and fell.

The preface gives us an idea of the expanse of the river through its various names, given across lands and by everyone from Greek soldiers to Sufi saints.

There are nuggets everywhere right from the beginning – the comparison of the arrangements of the Quran and the Rig Veda, the integrity shown by a citizen in the early days of Pakistan’s formation, a modern day citizen blaming Jinnah for the country’s authoritarian culture, a nation’s search for identity, and the vision of its founder, who was only human. The first chapter ‘Ramzan in Karachi’ is a book in itself, and this can be said of all the chapters! ‘Conquering the classic river’ is a slice of the Company’s India exploits, ‘Ethiopia’s first fruit’ shows the amazing ‘presence’ of Africa in the subcontinent’s history and present, and the facets of their absorption into the mainstream. ‘River Saints’ is about Sufism and its modern day remnants who are not beyond politics, religious conflicts and feudalism.

‘Up the Khyber’ is about the exploits of Mahmud of Ghazni, the sexual preferences in the frontier province, and the beginning of the author’s more difficult challenges as she zigs and zags through Taliban and smuggler territory. ‘Buddha on the Silk Road’ is an awesome chapter on the meeting of 3 great religions – Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism and how they influence each other in the area, down to the destruction of the ancient Bamiyan statues more recently. In ‘Alexander at the outer ocean’, the author stubbornly walks, despite very serious hardships, the route that the Sikunder-e-azam took. ‘Indra’s Beverage’ takes us back to Rig Veda times, the Aryans and ancient Stonehenge like relics that survive to this day, along with the Kalash tribe, which follows a religion that goes back beyond Hinduism. Some areas, as the vivid prose describes them, seem to exist the same way they did in Rig Vedic times. The incredibly advanced Harappa civilisation is showcased in ‘Alluvial Cities’, though the reason for their fall is still contested. Kashmir’s archaeological treasures are the focus in ‘Huntress of the lithic’ and it’s interesting to see how the same ‘painting’ has been reinterpreted across time by various people to suit their needs. In the final chapter, the author captures the startling contrast of man’s attempts to conquer nature and at the other end of the scale, his ever decreasing ability to live in harmony. This chapter is also a testament to her commitment to the book, and the mentions of Kailash and the possibilities of Meru were extremely interesting to someone like me, who is interested in Hindu mythology. The book’s final words, which makes us wonder how long the river which spawned civilisations will be around, is a melancholic gaze into the future.

At 300 odd pages, every page of this book is packed, and there is no respite. But it’s completely worth it!

Food for the soul

Thanks to Zomato, I got to spend some bak bak time with Mayur back in February. Along with Rocky, this guy gets to do the two things I’d rather do always – eat and travel. While it was a fun meet up, it was impossible to agree on the subject of meat. Most of the others around were fanatical carnivores – like myself (and I was wearing a tee with the message above) – so we traded insults with him for the first few minutes before the man silenced us with “food is like religion, and you should not piss on other people’s temples”.

After that the conversation quickly moved to life philosophy. I (along with at least one other person) was curious to know how he kept himself interested in the food + travel routine. Wouldn’t it get monotonous? We talked of retaining child-like levels of curiosity and wonder, an openness to experiences, of starting the day asking what newness can be done today and realised that as we grow older, we look for reasons not to do things, as opposed to the reverse.

After taking my trip with a food quote, (and underlining his instant wit) he went off to talk to other folks, and the rest of discussed how this also translates to how we interact with other people. Earlier, we used to trust others until they gave us a reason not to, and these days, it’s exactly the reverse. I wondered if this is probably related to the ‘openness to experiences’ we had talked of earlier.¬† More

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. :)

Relative..reality

For some strange reason, I’ve read Pankaj Mishra’s books in reverse order..well, almost. I read The Romantics first, a long time before, and it remains a book I’m very attached to. Its a good book, but I’ve never figured out the exact reason for this strange bond, in spite of making a rare exception and reading it a second time. Maybe it was the time I first read it (a stage of life) or its characters or its title, someday I hope to know, it will tell me a bit more about myself, perhaps. But meanwhile, from The Romantics, I was lured straight to ‘Temptations of the West‘. A few months later, I read ‘An End to Suffering‘, which served as a kind of introduction to Buddhism for me, as Mishra mapped it on to his own spiritual evolution. I finally completed his first book, ‘Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in small town India’ more recently. Though its title would indicate so, calling it a travelogue would be a gross injustice, as it also manages to recreate the India of the 90’s. So, yes, it is a travelogue, but like many of its ilk, it works in space and time. No, this is not really a review. :)

I’m quite glad that I read his books in the order I did. If I read it earlier, I might have been irritated by the cynicism in the book. But having read his later books, I felt almost as though I was with him, as his thoughts and personality evolved. The book gives you loads of nostalgia triggers – from Baba Sehgal’s ‘Main bhi Madonna’ (i still remember the Magnasound casette cover :D) to mentions of Nonie and Mamta Kulkarni, it draws upon tiny incidents of those forgotten days.

Many of you may not be able to associate at all with those three people mentioned above, for me, they bring back an era, their importance is relative. I even wondered whether, in future, we will have nostalgia townships, like we have the amusement parks now. The 70s, 80s, 90s re-created in terms of people, music, movies, fashion and all the elements of pop culture that can be attributed to an era. So, when you have those nostalgia pangs, you can call a few friends and take a vacation to bring back a period in your life. :)

A common theme struck me as I ‘moved’ through the book’s pages. Mishra mentions Murshidabad looking towards Calcutta in hope, for job prospects and a better life in general. In many people’s perception, Kolkata is perhaps the worst of the metros on those terms. He writes about the ‘immense cultural vacuum of North india’, and ‘looking towards Bengal for instruction’, and the decline of Allahabad and Benaras. But I realised that for me, those two places were perhaps teeming with culture and history. Again, in Murshidabad, he talks to a person who considers the Babri Masjid as just another mosque, while a nation still burns at regular intervals – the repercussions of an act long ago. The common theme is the relative nature of these things – they means different things to different people, all relative versions of the same thing equally real, when considered from each point of view.

I remember thinking about progress during my Andaman visit. I saw it in its current state, and can visualise it in the years to come, as tourism becomes a larger factor in the scheme of things, and the changes it will invariably bring in, into a way of life. To quote from the book we’ve been discussing

Civilisation, however, is on the move, and as E.M.Cioran remarks, nothing more characterises the civilised man than the zeal to impose his discontents on those so far exempt from them.

When the tourist money flows into the system, it will help the locals afford many things that they perhaps didn’t have access to. But even those who do not wish to change might be sucked into this new way of life because it would be a question of survival. Were they better off and happier before all this happens to them? I don’t know, because after all, even happiness is so relative now.

Objectivity –¬† based on observable phenomena and uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices, and not the result of any judgments made by a conscious entity. But everything is relative. Things not seen from one’s own perspective don’t seem to matter, and objectivity’s definition would suggest “no one’s perspective”. Maybe that’s why we don’t care for it much anymore?

until next time, time, space and relativism

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.

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Temptations of the West

Pankaj Mishra

A commentary on life in the subcontinent, that vividly portrays issues that pertain to the region- from the university politics of Uttar Pradesh to the lanes of Bollywood and from Ram Janmabhoomi to the plight of Kashmir, and thats only one country.
It also shows the role of Pakistan in the cold war, its dealings with the US , the mujahideen, communists and the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Touches on Nepal and the Maoists vs Monarchy tussle. Most importantly it also throws light on how religion can fuel the fires of jihad (Afghanistan) as well as serve as a cohesive force that becomes a source of cultural identity (Tibet).
While it could be claimed that he does not devote the deserved attention to each part of the sub continent and therefore leaves the work incomplete, what I liked was that though Mishra tries his best to remain objective in his understanding of the issues, he is also not dispassionate, and tries to bring in a perspective that reflects the views and experiences of the resident population. If you’ve read his earlier work, ‘The Romantics’, you’ll feel a sense of deja vu, not just in the content, but in the tone too.
Read it at a good time since the outcome of a lot of things discussed in the book is happening now – Prachanda’s triumph in Nepal, the return of the Kasmiri pundits, the Tibetan protests.
The other good take out was his projecting of Buddhism as possibly the last bulwark against capitalism. No, I’m not a communist anymore, but strongly believe that our society needs an anti thesis, an option against the unbridled arrogance of money.