Believer, CNN: Aslan and the Aghoris

Reza Aslan is a theologian. He makes videos for CNN on what he wants to share with the world about obscure religious practices that he researches.

His latest video is about Aghoris, a sect numbering about 72,000 according to the US-based Joshua Project that supports Christian conversions in India.

https://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/16178/IN

The Aghoris are a sect of Shaivites, or Shiva-worshippers. Their primary deity is Dattatreya, who is an incarnation of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva – the holy trinity of Sanatana Dharma representing creation, preservation and destruction – united in a single body.

The Aghoris basically maintain that all opposites are ultimately illusory. All the things they do that have been excitedly captured by Reza Aslan are ritualistic expressions of this one perfectly sound belief: all opposites are ultimately illusory. The Aghoris are strange, but there are so many types of strange in the world, and this is just one of them.

Reza Aslan was born Muslim, converted to Christianity for a bit, then re-converted to Islam and has said in an interview that he would be happy if one of his children wanted to have a bar mitzvah! Is he confused, or is he Baha’i? If he is Baha’i, great. Bahaullah’s original 19th century teachings are closest to what the world needs today.

Technically, the word Hindu is a geographical reference used by Persians and Greeks for people living beyond the Indus river. There is no such religion as Hinduism. I think ‘Hinduism’ is British for whatever Robert Clive and co. didn’t understand about Indian culture.

Our faith is actually called Sanatana Dharma. In some languages – like Spanish – they don’t ask “What is your name?” but rather “What do they call you?” ‘Hinduism’ is what other people call Sanatana Dharma.

Shiva is a Hindu god. He is the same as the Greek Dionysus. Dionysus = Dios of Nysa, Nysa being a place near Jalalabad in Afghanistan. He is also the same as Bacchus. I don’t know if these are established facts; I’m quoting from ‘A Brief History of India’ by the historian Alain Daniélou that I read a few years ago.

Every religion has mythology and rituals that don’t make sense to the rest of the world. I don’t snigger when my Catholic friends take the holy communion and refer to the tiny piece of bread as the body of Christ and the sip of wine as the blood of Jesus. It is a ritual that is meaningful to them. Would I ridicule it as mental cannibalism? Certainly not. A religion is much more than its mythology, rituals and iconography.

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This is a picture of Dattatreya, the form in which the Aghoris worship God. Are we going to go “ha ha ha, he’s got three heads, hee hee hee, he’s got six arms?” What idea does this image represent? That’s what matters.

In an interview Aslan has said this about the show:

“It’s an opportunity to show religious traditions, practices, rites and rituals that may at first seem weird and foreign and exotic and unfamiliar — because you’re unfamiliar with the metaphors underlying those ideas. At the end of an hour episode, they will all of a sudden become much more familiar and recognizable.”

Is this the best way he can do it? A highly qualified individual like him can surely come up with a way to tell people – very clearly – that this is NOT mainstream Hinduism, but an obscure sect that even most Hindus haven’t heard of? Unless there are commercial reasons for propagating this sensational notion, as Hindus living in the US have reportedly said.

blogging on wordpress x 5 years

I thought I would write about parents and children, and people would read what I wrote, and I would thus contribute in a small measure to making India a better place for children. I would write about  common mental illnesses, so lay people could recognise the symptoms and seek treatment early.

Naïve? Sure, yes.

img_5005A young patient started this blog for me five years ago, in March 2012. It was meant primarily for writing about child-raising and mental health. But I was scared to write. I busied myself putting up photographs and other less threatening things on it. It was nearly one year later that I dared to take the plunge. A very simple topic: Being parents. Something I had experience with. After that it got easier.

I don’t know if anything I’ve written has touched anybody’s life in a meaningful way. I’m too much of a believer in destiny to think it’s my business to worry about that. If something I write is meant to reach someone, it will.

I had written a series of articles on mental health for a local newspaper a couple of years before. Someone suggested I list their links on this blog. So I did. Someone else suggested I write a short gist for each article as well. I did that too.

Usually, after making a diagnosis and starting treatment, I schedule a session to explain the biology underlying the problem in simple terms, how medicines work, and possible side effects. Directing patients to these articles helped some of them come in more prepared for these sessions.

Many people fear they may “turn into a different person if my mind is not under my control” and are afraid to take psychiatric medicines. So, I wrote a series of short blog posts about taking psychiatric medicines and sometimes referred patients to them.

Over time I started liking my blog. It became a place I could visit, a place where I could express myself. Here, I was obliged to clarify things in my mind before I wrote, unlike a diary where I might allow sloppy thinking, half-baked ideas and excessive emotion. As it is very easy to be misunderstood I try to be precise, which takes away from the spontaneity and raw quality of writing that bloggers appreciate. Sharing unexamined thoughts is just not me.

I didn’t write for nearly two years as I didn’t feel the need to. In November 2016 I wrote ‘Change’ to clear my head, because I didn’t want to endlessly bore my friends with my confusion over this phase of my life.

I’m a bit of a news junkie and have impressions about everyone, from Trump and Nieto in the west to Duterte, Putin and Kim in the east. I have impressions about stuff that happens all over the world too. But I don’t understand enough of it to permit myself to opine on them. Frankly, everyone – from ordinary people like me to important people like the president of the United States – shouldn’t be putting unprocessed thoughts on public display. Stupid people might swallow them whole and act on them, like Adam Purinton of Kansas.

Besides, I think news reports are often some sort of a red herring, the real news being closer to what you read between the lines. After all, news channels and newspapers are owned and controlled by vested interests. Things sometimes don’t add up, and you know you are being had. There are so many things you read and hear that float around like space junk in your head, but can’t be neutralised because of missing bits of information. Random example: Colombia – Juan Manuel Santos – Nobel peace prize – FARC – José  Luis Mendieta – forgiveness/punishment … After some time you just let them go.

Of late, I’ve been in a nostalgic mood. Things are too quiet around the house with the kids having flown the nest. That’s why I’ve been writing almost exclusively about the time I lived on different ships over a six-year period. Those days now seem like a wonderful lifetime lived centuries ago. I’ve been sharing the links to these posts with everyone: cousins, my high school whatsapp group, and friends made over the years in different places.

The upshot of all this is that I’ve connected again with some nice people I had lost touch with, because they’ve called up or messaged to tell me how much they enjoyed the posts. Then, there’s my 13-year-old niece who said, “Aunty, I didn’t know all this had happened to you!” It was a revelation to her that I had been living for a long time doing other things, before she met me thirteen years ago!

This month I complete five years of blogging, irregular though it has been. I really need to thank wordpress for giving me this space. Blogging has given me a lot of relief, and pleasure too. There are so many bloggers whose posts I’ve enjoyed reading, or learnt from.

My technophobia is starting to feel like ingratitude. I guess it’s time I re-examined my attitude towards technology. Ah, I can almost hear my children’s sighs of relief!

the bhavana case – or should it be called the sunil case?

On the night of February 17th a young actor from Kerala, Bhavana, was raped by six men. She was in her car, being driven from Kochi to Thrissur. It was a planned attack by her driver, Martin, and her former driver, Sunil, whose services she had terminated as she had come to know that he was a suspect in a murder case.

Why did Martin agree to Sunil’s plan instead of warning his employer? What is the equation between these two men apart from the fact that Sunil got Martin his job?

People trust their drivers. To the best of my knowledge, such horrendous incidents are not commonplace, though I have seen a significant number of women in clinical practice who have been abused by drivers and servants as children. Now, mothers often go along when drivers drop off and pick up their kids from school. This practice has been prevalent for many years now.

There was no way Bhavana could have suspected Martin, not even when he got out of the car to investigate the staged accident. How can we run background checks on our employees before hiring them, because nearly everyone can produce a fake good reference? And how reliable are our instincts, especially when dealing with experienced conmen?

Is this case about Bhavana or about Sunil? Bhavana was the unfortunate victim. She didn’t do anything wrong. Is Sunil a case of antisocial personality disorder – otherwise known as psychopathy?

  • police say he’s a rowdy sheeter
  • is a suspect in another murder case
  • has planned and executed this incident
  • no remorse, no empathy

Sunil’s sister has said to the media that “he doesn’t share good relations with the family since he turned 17.” Further information is not available, but it seems unlikely that they had only minor disagreements.

Psychopaths make up about 1% of the general population and as much as 25 % of male offenders in correctional settings. Dr. Robert Hare, the psychologist who came up with the 20-item test called the Hare Psychopathy checklist, says psychopaths may be a result of an evolutionary survival mechanism. This article appeared in ‘The Independent’ in 2012.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/psychopathy-may-be-a-result-of-adaptive-evolution-rather-than-a-disorder-says-inventor-of-the-a7025706.html

Is he right? Are people’s aspirations, ambitions and need to survive in an increasingly expensive and competitive world generating adaptive mechanisms that belong in the *psychopathy checklist? Maybe not the full-blown psychopath personality, but just traits getting exaggerated?

Dr. Liane Leedom, a psychiatrist, and Linda Hartoonian Almas, an educator with criminal justice experience, who has worked as a police officer, have explained psychopathy from a behavioural sciences perspective. They say it is not an adaptation but an aberration. This is how they explain it.

There are four social behaviour systems involved in adaptation:

  • attachment system
  • caregiving system
  • dominance system
  • sexual systems.

Psychopathy is associated with excessive sexual responses, lack of caregiving, and aberrant dominance responses. ‘Caregiving’ behaviour, however, may be used to gain power and dominance, so the recipient of the ‘care’ may be fooled until the psychopath’s objective is achieved.

Here’s the link to their article:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3573869/

In 2006, during a genetic imaging study in which he was a control subject, Dr. James Fallon, professor of psychiatry at UC Irvine, discovered that his brain was similar to the brains of psychopaths!

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/03/how-i-discovered-i-have-the-brain-of-a-psychopath

In 2013 he gave a TED talk on exploring the mind of a killer. He mentioned the interaction of risk genes, brain damage and the environment, that result in psychopathic behaviour.

https://www.ted.com/talks/jim_fallon_exploring_the_mind_of_a_killer

This is his conclusion regarding why he became a successful neuroscientist and family man instead of a psychopath.

“But why, in the light of the fact I have all of the biological markers for psychopathy, including a turned off limbic system, the high risk genetic alleles, and the attendant behaviours, including well over half of those listed in the psychopathy tests and low emotional empathy, did I turn out to be a successful professor and family man? One most likely reason is that although I have the genetic makeup of a “born” psychopath, some of those very same “risk” genes in someone showered with love (versus abuse or abandonment), from childbirth through the critical first few years of life, appear to offset the psychopathy-inducing effects of the other “risk” genes.”

As I’ve said in an earlier blog post, being born with the risk genes for psychopathy doesn’t mean the condition has to manifest.

https://drshyamalavatsa.wordpress.com/2013/03/17/teenagers-and-crime/

To think that one man’s warped mind came up with a callous, inhuman and remorseless plan that needlessly devastated an innocent young woman. There are strong rumours that Sunil was paid to do this, but the fact remains that he had no qualms about going ahead with it.

*Psychopathy Checklist:

Arrogant and Deceitful Interpersonal Style

Glibness/Superficial charm

Grandiose sense of self-worth

Pathological lying

Conning/Manipulative

Deficient Affective Experience

Lack of remorse or guilt

Shallow affect

Callous/Lack of empathy

Failure to accept responsibility

Lack of realistic long-term goals

Impulsive and Irresponsible Behavioural Style

Need for stimulation/Proneness to boredom

Parasitic lifestyle

Impulsivity

Irresponsibility

ocean to ocean in small steps

A small boat came alongside our ship when we were waiting to enter the Miraflores locks of the Panama canal. A couple of men climbed up the pilot ladder to the deck with mangoes to sell. They didn’t want to be paid in US dollars, they wanted Camay bath soap! So we bartered – three small mangoes for a bar of soap!

Sailing through the Panama canal is one of those experiences you enjoy at different levels, from the practical and cognitive, to the sublime. So many thoughts and reactions crowd into your head and heart all at once.img_5562

The ship’s engines were switched off while mules pulled her into the first chamber of the Miraflores locks. In earlier times real, live mules used to haul barges through canals. The locomotives that have replaced them are called mules too.

Two huge gates – the valves – closed behind us and the gates in front of us opened. The water level gradually rose by gravity to reach the level in the chamber ahead. Then the ship was pulled forward into that chamber. The gates behind us closed. Our ship was raised 85 feet from the Pacific ocean through this system of locks. What a clever idea!

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The ship sailed through the narrow confines of the beautiful Gaillard cut, then through the vast expanse of Gatun lake. It took all day – the Panama canal is 77 km long. Watching from the fo’c’sle it all seemed to happen in slow motion, every operation being done with utmost caution and precision.

From the Gatun lake she was gently lowered 85 feet into the Atlantic, stepping down bit by bit through the Gatun locks. On land, we drive over steel and concrete bridges to cross rivers; here we crossed land by using water as a bridge!

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The first time our ship transited the Panama canal, I was awestruck by the fact that people even came up with such an audacious idea. They used 60 million tonnes of dynamite to blast the Gaillard cut in the land mass of the isthmus! Then, they diverted a river to create a lake to fill it up. I marvelled at the design and engineering skill involved in its execution.

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The beauty of the passage itself was overwhelming. The Gaillard cut passes through virgin forest. The land is green and you can hear the twitter of birds. It is very quiet, very peaceful. There’s even a little waterfall somewhere along the Gaillard cut! Its tranquility filled my heart with gratitude for the Earth and the power that created it. Perfect. It was a deeply spiritual experience, sitting alone on a bitt in the fo’c’sle, absorbing it all.

I read up what was available on board of its fascinating history. It was built by the Americans and the French in the early 1900s with mainly trade in mind. Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man who supervised the digging out of tonnes of sand to create the Suez Canal, was commissioned to create it. They apparently thought his experience at the Suez was adequate to design and build any canal. Dynamiting rock, changing the course of the Chagres river, building dams – so much more was involved in building the Panama canal – that it now seems ridiculous that they gave the responsibility to Lesseps who wasn’t even an engineer! Still, they muddled through it and finally succeeded. Wow!

A ship bound for Rotterdam from Peru – like ours was – would have had to sail south along the coast of Chile, navigate the Magellan straits, then sail north, cross the equator and head for the English Channel, had there been no Panama canal. What a waste of time, effort and fuel! The Panama Canal cuts time, effort and cost to a third of what the long route would need. Very practical.

That human beings have these absolutely wonderful brains, initiative and tenacity to create this! This is progress, with tangible benefits to many and harm to none that I can think of … Hold it! So far, I had been viewing the Panama canal only through the eyes of a sailor. A sailor on a commercial vessel. Seeing a lot of natural beauty is simply an unintended perk of the profession.

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Gatun lake

The builders of the canal had blasted a passage through a rainforest! What about the people, animals and birds that lived there? A dam had been built across the Chagres river to create Gatun lake, as the canal needs lots of water. They must have displaced whole communities when they flooded the river valley? I had noticed the dredging apparatus on Gatun lake and been told the lake was silting up all the time. Why? Deforestation, loose soil flowing into the lake? What about the thousands of people who died of disease or due to accidents during its construction?

The sheen of the Panama canal transit was dulled a little as these thoughts crossed my mind. Sigh… I wish I could be an ostrich about it. On the other hand, I was enjoying the Panama canal nearly eighty years after it was constructed and the terrible circumstances of its construction had passed into history. What I saw was a beautiful canal and a well-run system for the passage of ships. I should probably leave it at that.

ports of call

Our ship was anchored at the tiny port of Ilo in Peru. We were to load 6,000 tonnes of fish oil bound for Rotterdam.

Loading cargo in South American ports is an unhurried process. People are laidback and will casually tell the captain “la bomba no funciona” or whatever, so loading may be put off by a few hours while the thing is being repaired.

So, we usually get time to go out and explore. Frankly, it’s much more fun than loading or discharging cargo at efficiently-run ports. At least for me, a person who is designated a supernumerary, i.e. an unnecessary additional person, on every list on notice boards all over the ship! Including which life boat I should go on, should something untoward happen. I almost feel guilty about being allotted a space on a life boat despite being a mere supernumerary, not part of the ship’s complement.

Our first morning in Ilo, I went to the market with the chief cook and Capt. Lobo to buy provisions. Ilo is not for tourists, so you get to see real people going about real lives. Nobody tries to sell you souvenirs, nobody tries to entice you to buy bus tickets for conducted tours, the sort of things that make tourist destinations feel like the whole place is a staged show. The vendors at the market were Quechua, with no obvious trace of Spanish genes. Women with babies strapped to their backs with colourful shawls. This is a painting I made of one of them.

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The local agent who dealt with our ship was a man called José. In an excited mix of Spanish and English he told us the history of Peru: Incas, Athahualpa, the conquistadores, Francisco Pizzaro, and all that had happened after the Spanish invasion. So much indignation, so much gesticulation to emphasize important points in the narrative – ¡muy interesante! That is the day I fell in love with Español.

José invited Capt. Lobo, me and my husband for lunch. He ordered dishes of frutas del mar for all of us, and a pisco sour, Peru’s national drink, for himself. There was no stopping him once the pisco sour hit home. He kept us in splits, reeling off jokes like a stand-up comedian. This is what I like about shipping: enjoying the newness of places, meeting people like José, hearing new stories and often laughing a lot. And the best part is that we take our home with us, so there’s no need to pack a suitcase!

From Ilo we sailed up the coast to Callao, a larger port, to load another 16,000 tonnes of fish oil for Rotterdam. Here, too, there was plenty of time to go ashore. We spent half a day at Pachacamac, an Inca ruin 45 mins from Callao.

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I picked up a tiny piece of pottery outside the fenced-off site. It now sits on a shelf along with a figurine of Inti, the Inca sun-god, a lump of pyrita (fools’ gold) I bought there, and a shell I saved from the frutas del mar I had eaten for lunch in Ilo.

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bit of pottery from Pachacamac
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shell from frutas del mar
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pyrita

Another day, my husband and I went to Miraflores, a city not far from Callao. A man passing us on the pavement stopped to ask if we were Indian. “Yeah,” we nodded. He told us there were fifty Indian families in Callao-Lima, all Sindhi. Then he invited us for a wedding that was to take place three days later! We regretfully had to decline as we were sailing out of Callao in two days. Such a pity. It might’ve been fun.

img_5516We had a few hours free again the next day. Capt. Lobo, his wife who had just arrived from India, my husband and I went sightseeing to Lima. A group of six curious seventeen-year-old girls and one boy, Jorge, tagged along with us for the part of the city tour that was en route to their school. Being a native Portuguese speaker, Mrs. Lobo could understand Spanish and translated for us. I especially remember Giovanna, the most outgoing kid of the lot. When we jokingly asked whose boyfriend was Jorge, they giggled, and Giovanna carefully constructed the sentence, “he is a friend of all of us,” and looked mighty pleased with herself for having got it right.

Loading completed, it was time to leave Peru. The saddest moments are when the ship is sailing farther and farther away from port, and you stand on the bridge wing and identify the now-familiar landmarks. It occurs to you that you won’t ever see them again. You pick up the binoculars and look until you can’t see them anymore.

The next morning, with only the ocean for miles around, Peru seemed like an elusive dream that I couldn’t fully recall. A few snapshots flitted through my mind, not the uninterrupted video I wished it was.

pausing for a new story

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We got off the bus near Malibu beach in Los Angeles and walked along a rough footpath that ran a few feet above the beach. My husband and I were going up the road to the Getty Villa on the hill to see Paul Getty’s interesting art collection.

When we passed the parking lot for the beach a car drew up and parked. Five or six excited little kids tumbled out. A woman got out of the driver’s side and met our smiles with a ‘Hi’ and a smile. We stopped to chat. Another woman joined us. These two friends, Mairead and Paisley, were spending the day on the beach with all those kids. Soon we were engrossed in an animated conversation about Dublin, Mairead’s hometown. The kids started getting restless, so we decided to meet on the beach while returning from the Getty villa, if they were still there.

They were. We spent only about half an hour with them but it added another little highlight to our LA experience. We talked about so many things, chief among them being Donald Trump, of course! By the way, Mairead is a singer and this is a link to her YouTube channel.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCK_IrWqvx0

Paisley said, “We Americans go on vacations but don’t talk to the locals at all. Maybe we should.”

Yes, why not? I can think of lots of people we have passed interesting hours or minutes with on different trips.

Once my husband, toddler son and I spent an entire evening with a family on their boat in San Juan, Puerto Rico. They had sailed in from Miami for a short vacation. It was the 6th of January, The Three Kings Day holiday in San Juan. We had been in San Juan for a few days as our ship was docked there. Our son joined their two little girls at the fountain and soon the kids were happily playing together. We drifted into conversation with the parents. They invited us to see their boat as they thought my husband, being a sailor, might find it interesting. For our little boy it was a good change from his virtual friends, Barney and the backyard gang, that he watched on video every afternoon.

In San Fernando, Trinidad, a concerned family of four called Bissessar gave us a ride in their car as it was dark and they felt we were not safe where we were waiting to find a taxi. They were of Indian origin. Their forefathers had been brought to Trinidad as indentured labour about a hundred and fifty years ago. They told us a bit about their history and their life in the half hour it took to get to the port. Their name, Bissessar, is a corruption of the common Indian name Vishwanath! Though they spoke regular English with us, they spoke another language among themselves which, they said, is the English they speak at home. It didn’t sound like any English we knew!

On a family vacation in Leh in the Himalayas we met the Hollywood actor Jamie Bartlett with his kid. We had pulled over for a closer look at yaks grazing in a field. They had apparently stopped for the same reason. Then we got news of a landslide up the road. The locals said it would take an hour to clear. So we all sat in a shack eating momos and noodles, shooting the breeze while we waited.

The point is, a place comes alive when you talk to residents and see it through their eyes. You get a glimpse of how it might feel to live there. Or, if it’s a fellow-traveller you’ve got into a conversation with, you get to hear a new story.