echo chambers and shibboleths

My mother lost her brother in a religious street war when I was a school kid. I’ll never forget her reaction when she got the phone call from a cousin in her hometown. Nor my own shock and horror when I came to know that my uncle was stabbed over and over by a mob of people till he bled to death…

Such incidents still happen.

I wish we could simplify religion into a quiet private activity and not let it spill out into the streets as anger and outrage. And not onto the internet either.

Lies we believe about God’ by William Paul Young, and ‘Being Different’ by Rajiv Malhotra, are two books I happened to read back-to-back recently. Though they were both interesting, they were so different that I could practically feel and hear the clash of civilisations inside my head!

Some of the postulates in both books have been angrily denounced by readers as straw man arguments. How much critical thinking can one apply to something as subjective and faith-based as religion? My view is that most religions – the body of accepted truths, myths, miracles, tenets and stories about important personages in the history of every religion – exist because of collective validation.

The only way everyone in a large group can have exactly the same beliefs is by meeting regularly to validate each other. The meeting place thus becomes an echo chamber where certain beliefs are reinforced, while alternative or competing concepts are not allowed to be discussed. If not for these echo chamber meetings, people would end up with different beliefs over the years based on their own thinking and experiences. Instead, they are pruned to turn out like the identical bushes in a formal garden, rather than trees growing freely in a forest. Even though trees are of different types and heights, a forest is a coherent whole, more natural and authentic than a formal garden.

Maybe there would be a better chance of peace if everyone arrived at their own individual belief systems regarding god and religion, and kept them private. I think experiential learning is far superior to received wisdom that is swallowed whole, without being sifted and vetted and sent through the filters of one’s own mind. Hopefully, the young people of today will do better.

For centuries, religious leaders have been making rules and putting a stamp of divine authority on them. I do see that these rules help a lot of people walk the straight and narrow path. Religions help stabilise societies and bring out the empathic and altruistic side of people, and that’s a good thing for the human race. Without them the world might have been more of a dog-eat-dog place than it is. That much I concede.

But I think beliefs should be fluid enough to change with experience. For example, an innocent child who has been taught that her family’s god is the only real god will eventually notice that her friends’ gods are equally real to them. How will she deal with that? She has to change her idea of god. Will she be allowed? Why was she even taught something so divisive in the first place?  It seems to me that group gods are shibboleths that unite some people, who together exclude other people by declaring them either wrong or inferior.

Considering how much talk there is of human rights in today’s world, choosing how one wants to imagine god should be a basic human right! Yes, elders have to teach things to children, but I’m not sure this sort of indoctrination is teaching. Elders could perhaps use their wisdom better by introducing their family god to their children, then telling them that others may see god differently, and assuring them that this is perfectly okay.


As Rajiv Malhotra says in ‘Being Different’, the only way billions of people can live peacefully on earth is by mutual respect towards each others’ religions, not by mere tolerance. Tolerance is the ‘ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with’ (Oxford English dictionary). That is, you put up with them and conceal your annoyance behind a wall of tolerance.

In a pluralistic society nobody can say when that wall of tolerance will be breached. All it needs is one careless remark by someone, or sometimes, nothing at all. Perhaps the simmering negative energy of tolerance reaches critical mass and erupts. We then have those sickeningly familiar scenes of violence and bloodshed, cops and ambulances, placards and flowers and wakes, on primetime news. In 24 hours the whole incident will be replaced by some other breaking news, and only those who lost loved ones will remember the incident for ever.












Isabel and the aghoris

(This is a sequel to the post ‘Believer, CNN: Aslan and the aghoris’)

Outsiders may view them with the same horror as a vegetarian reacting to the terrified shriek of an animal being slaughtered for meat or a ritual sacrifice. Or a suckling pig roasted whole and served with an apple stuck in its rictus. Or meat shops festooned with skinned carcasses. Different things disgust or horrify different people.

But the aghoris in India freely follow the strange customs of their tribe that most people might find revolting. And people who live around the areas they inhabit – Indians who don’t share these customs – apparently let them be. They believe the aghoris are merely following their karmic paths.

Is this indifference? It could be, but it probably isn’t. It’s more likely acceptance. Or deep-rooted fatalism. It is the belief that aghoris are born into or adopt this life for a purpose that can’t be rationally explained, but can be spiritually understood in terms of karma and rebirth.

The aghoris haven’t been corralled with the goal of integrating them into the dominant culture, if there is one. They retain their identity. Joining the mainstream is an individual choice and happens organically. Maybe this is true freedom?

So far, the government hasn’t tried to homogenise India and has largely stuck with ‘unity in diversity,’ the phrase used by Jawaharlal Nehru to describe us. Social engineering may only deracinate them, so they are left worse off, unless specific measures to rehabilitate them are put in place beforehand. This is difficult because there are too many groups clamouring for government support. Unfortunately this gives opportunists room to prey on their ignorance and defencelessness.


I heard about the documentary on the aghoris on CNN from someone living in the US. A man of Indian origin working in the US, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, had been fatally shot in Kansas just a few days before the program was aired. The Hindu community in the US was afraid that all Hindus would be seen through the lens of this documentary and violence against them would increase. At the time I shared their fears. It occurred to me a little later that they were only concerned about how it made them look, about how this perception could endanger their lives. To be fair, I would’ve had the same concerns if I lived there.

Even so, I wish someone had spoken up for the aghoris: “Let them be. Why ridicule them? They have not harmed anyone. They have never forced their beliefs on anyone. They haven’t threatened anyone who has criticised or mocked their religion. Targeting people who won’t pick up arms and retaliate – what a cowardly thing to do.”


Isabel, a girl born and raised here in Bangalore, spent a few hours with aghoris while travelling in Varanasi with friends. She refers to them respectfully as aghori babas.

She and her friends sat with them peacefully smoking chillum. They talked about Life. One baba said, “What do you take from this life? Nothing. We learn to live with nothing.”

This is Isabel’s take on aghori babas:

They leave everything and go through life not wanting anything. They connect with God this way. I feel they do a job like what undertakers and gravediggers do for society. They respect the dead and don’t recoil from them.  

It’s a myth that they all eat human flesh. Very, very few of them do. They just apply the ash from burnt bodies on themselves like how tribes put on war paint.

Many of them are there by choice, they come leaving families behind to live this way. All are not born there. I met people who talked about homes and families elsewhere … I don’t remember seeing women … 

They are nomadic. They move around quite a lot. I met them in Manali and in Calcutta too. They are a community. The younger people are expected to take care of the old.

Every spring many of them go to Kailash on a pilgrimage for Shiva’s blessings.

To my questions she replied:

Local people give them their space, they don’t interfere.

They’re confident – other people’s opinions of their religion don’t make them insecure.

Her acceptance, her lack of censure of any sort, moved me. She shrugged it off as just being Indian. Her Christian values of compassion and love had blended with values she had imbibed from other religions. From Hindus, acceptance of all life situations as arising from past karma; from Muslims, the idea of brotherhood, which she extended to encompass all human beings; from Buddhists, inner quietude and the ability to live in harmony with others.

They never asked us for money. They accepted food and provisions. They made tea and shared it with everyone. 

The older ones don’t like being treated like tourist attractions. They refuse to be photographed. They say you’re capturing a part of their soul. But the younger ones don’t mind because they’re used to cell phones…

Of course, Isabel didn’t get herself photographed with the aghoris. She wouldn’t impose on them. She would consider it an affront to their dignity.

May her tribe increase.


the kohinoor diamond

The Supreme Court has disposed of a petition to bring the kohinoor diamond back to India. The Court isn’t going to interfere with the diplomatic process that this would involve.

The kohinoor was discovered in Andhra Pradesh in India in the 13th century. Or maybe it was Krishna’s legendary shyamantakamani. There’s plenty written about its sad history. In 1849, 13-year-old Maharaja Duleep Singh was coerced by Dalhousie into sailing to England to give it to Queen Victoria as a ‘gift.’ All of thirteen, did the poor kid have a choice? The stone is now in the Tower of London.

Personally, I’m not sure we must try to bring it back to India. These are my reasons:

  • There are elaborate arrangements in the Tower of London for guarding it. Can we keep it equally safe here? How many crores in taxpayers’ money will that cost?
  • Excited crowds will come to view it and there will be airport level security, or worse. It won’t be fun visiting it. After standing in queues in lots of tourist places, I know.
  • There could be tragic stampedes when hordes of people are funnelled into the necessarily small display area in front of a glass case.
  • It could be a target for terror attacks.
  • It is flawed. It has yellow flecks deep inside that prevent it from shining by refracting light. It is lacklustre. Only flawless diamonds have value as far as I know. It may be just a glorified lump of carbon.
  • It is cursed.
  • It is not beautiful despite attempts over centuries to chisel it into shape, remove its flaws and place it in flattering display cases.
  • It has been through the hands of the likes of Alauddin Khilji, Malik Kafur, Aurangazeb and Dalhousie and gathered a great deal of negative energy. That’s what a crystal healer told me. Queen Victoria apparently confessed to her daughter that she disliked wearing it.

When he visited India in July 2010, David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, said about returning the diamond, “If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty.” Very true! They can’t afford to return things to their rightful owners, so they won’t. ‘Finders, keepers’ is a favourite English saying, though it has its origins in ancient Roman law. The ethical – and perhaps legal – problem is in defining when something is considered ‘found.’ Just like what exactly constitutes a ‘gift!’

A diamond has to be perfect, flawless, brilliant and hypnotising to be called a jewel. Lacking all these attributes and merely being one of the world’s largest lacklustre diamonds is not enough to be a gem. Five countries want it, so there’s a demand of sorts, so nobody is going to say “the emperor has no clothes!”

Maybe we should have one of those exciting referendums that are held countrywide for every confounded issue nowadays: Indians! Do you want the kohinoor back? Yes or No?

mean sojourn time* of threescore years and ten

When I was four I used to pester my great-grandmother to tell me how her mother looked.

“Did she look like you?”

“No, no.”

“Like Bapama?” That is, her daughter, my father’s mother.


“Did she look like me?”

“No, you look like your ma.”

My great-grandmother was probably fed up with this obsessive questioning. She would cannily switch to a subject that always got my attention: the flooding of the Netravati river when she was a young girl and lived on its banks. When red water forced its way noisily into her house and carried away everything in it, even the big tin of chakli she had spent the whole of the previous afternoon frying. The lid had come off and the crisp, crunchy chakli had floated out and become soggy. The slo-mo image of red water dragging the tin out of reach of her outstretched hands made me sigh with sadness. Much later, I wondered why we never talked about how she escaped, or what happened to her family.

Through my early school years I realised that if I tried to imagine my ancestors, the same face would appear in my imagination no matter how many great-great-greats I added. It would always be my great-grandmother’s face.

I once asked my younger sister if she could do it. Her eyes widened as she tried to, then she shook her head. We both looked at our youngest sister expectantly. She screamed, “Don’t, you’re scaring me!” We were taken aback. “You’re making me think of lots and lots and lots of old, bent people everywhere, with bald heads and no teeth and sad faces, walking with sticks!” Phew! She definitely had loads of imagination.

Even now I can’t go very far back in time. In my mind’s eye I always see what other people have already created in movies and documentaries. Known Earth history dates back to 590 million years, the period called the Cambrian age that lasted more than 50 million years. And that is only the known history of the Earth. Prior to that there was an age called the Pre-cambrian age that makes up seven-eighths of Earth’s history, about which very little is known! I can’t imagine any of this. To me, visualising anything beyond 5,000 years is a stretch.

It is the same with space. The Milky way can be seen as a clear strip across the sky. I don’t have to struggle to imagine it. I have seen Andromeda, our nearest galactic neighbour, both with the naked eye and through a telescope. Apparently, there are many more galaxies in the universe. If I try to imagine them I see a scattering of stardust fading away into the distance. In my mind’s eye it is astonishingly close to the edge of the Milky way, because I simply can’t go that far, distance-wise, in my imagination.

When I think of an atom I can understand quarks combining to form hadrons, i.e. the protons and neutrons, of the nucleus. Then a vague picture of the Hadron collider flits across my mind for a split second and then it hits me that I can’t imagine beyond quarks. Of course, it’s a highly specialised subject and I don’t expect to understand it, but the main feeling I’m left with is that human beings are actually in a straightjacket with very little wiggle room, in a way. This life, this reality, is a narrow band on the spectrum of all there is.

The importance that we human beings give ourselves individually and our countries collectively is so disproportionate to everything in the universe: galaxies to quarks to historic time. Add to that, all the species of animals, plants and other living/extinct organisms, the broad category to which we belong. We’re upstarts and we have an infant’s belief that the world revolves around us. In the face of all that is known isn’t that ludicrous? We are not masters of our fate in terms of birth and death, the two most significant events of our lives. We are mere accidents, like everything else on earth. Just a coming together of molecules in a certain form in the primordial soup, a form that has stumbled upon a code to perpetuate itself.

There are people like Hans Rosling who have said this is the best time to be alive. Going by statistics, it is true. We know terrible things are happening in different parts of the world. But people are happy with their lot in other parts of the world, that we don’t hear about. Regardless of events that are heavily publicised on television and awful stories that fill newspapers, I think there’s something to be said for taking a Pollyanna view of things considering how brief our sojourn on earth is.

Psalm 90, verse 10:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten;
and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years,
yet is their strength labor and sorrow;
for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

*The mean sojourn time for an object in a system is a mathematical term for the amount of time an object is expected to spend in a system before leaving the system for good.

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.

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.

They 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.

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. That’s fine. It’s shorter.

Shiva is a Hindu god. He is the same as the Greek god Dionysus. Dionysus = Dios of Nysa, Nysa being a place near Jalalabad in Afghanistan. He is also the same as the Roman 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.


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.

Reza Aslan was born Muslim, converted to Christianity for a bit, then re-converted to Islam. He has said in an interview that he would be happy if one of his children wanted to have a bar mitzvah. This sounds like the teachings of the Bahá’í faith: unity of God, unity of religion and unity of humanity; that the entire human race is one soul and one body; that the fundamental purpose of religion is to promote the unity of the human race. I hope this is what he intends to do on CNN as a responsible theologian, not just another person making a documentary.

I think we should let people – including those belonging to obscure faiths – follow their own brands of spirituality and religion without judging them. Shouldn’t that courtesy be extended to people of all faiths? If people down the ages had accepted and respected others’ beliefs instead of disparaging them and attacking their followers, human history might have taken a more peaceful course.


I stopped working as a doctor a few months ago. 

For years I was completely immersed in my work. I loved what I did. One day I suddenly felt a sort of disconnect, a listlessness, like I was “done with all this”. I felt with a strong sense of finality that I had finished what I had to do as a doctor in this lifetime. 

Over the ensuing months the feeling grew stronger. I just had to close this chapter of my life. It seemed like a page had turned. Though, right then, I was staring at a blank page. 

When I thought about it, I could see that at least ten sound reasons had converged to nudge a single epiphanic thought into awareness. 

For several months now I’ve stayed on that page. It’s like the blank page you see in novels before another chapter starts. I can’t will it to turn, and I don’t feel the need to. I’ll wait. As someone said, “Sometimes limbo is a tolerable place to be stuck”! 

Friends said, “it’s ennui. It will pass. Take a break.” 

Other people asked why, and I said it was probably burnout. Though I had only one of the symptoms of burnout: emotional exhaustion. No cynicism, no loss of efficiency. Or maybe there was a general sort of cynicism generated by news – print, internet and television. Like most of my colleagues, I’ve never suffered loss of efficiency even on the heaviest OPD days. And strong South Indian filter coffee from the hospital cafeteria was always just a phone call away.

Time management had become my specialty over the past two decades or so, and I took great pride in it. Here’s an example: It takes 9 minutes for half a litre of milk to boil on the hob on a low flame, and I used that time to water the plants because that takes the same amount of time! How had I come to put myself on this treadmill? And I’m not even Type A by nature. 

I warily waited for the emptinesss that pervades my being when I’m not compulsively busy. It never came. I felt quite zen. Had I segued into vanaprastha, the third stage of Life that follows grahastya, the householder’s life? I certainly felt calm and all’s-well-with-the-world. And more than six months had passed since I had seen my last patient.


I feel the same way about not working as I feel when I complete a painting. There is no pre-decided endpoint. I just know there’s nothing more I want to do to it. Done. Wash out the brushes in turpentine and stand them upright in the old clay pot. Wipe the palette clean.

Life’s a blank canvas and I chose the subjects and colours from among the choices I was given. I was sometimes restricted by a limited palette, sometimes by limited time.

 img_3416I was at the Getty museum in Los Angeles recently. There’s a room called the sketching room where you can copy a part of a famous painting. img_1698

You are given a few pencils, paper and a clip board. I got black, brown and grey and, well, I had to manage. And the museum was closing in half an hour. 

The lady at the table where ‘Made at the Getty’ is stamped on the picture when your’re done said “you’re gooo-ud”. I certainly felt gooo-ud sketching something after so many years.

 Several years ago, after a long road trip through England and Scotland, I painted a landscape using elements from three of the photos I had taken. It was done in bits and pieces whenever I got a couple of hours free. It looks like something done piecemeal, like so many things in my life. Looking back, piecemeal or not, most things got done and some got left, but it doesn’t seem important any more. And the picture hangs in my living room, warts and all.

 I once painted a picture of a peach sky and a double rainbow from a photograph taken on a road trip. I didn’t like how it turned out but my little girl loved the pink sky and rainbow. So I got it framed and hung it up in her room. After a couple of years she didn’t find it pretty any more. Something similar seems to have happened to me. My enthusiasm for listening to people and analysing and treating their problems seems to have simply disappeared. It’s like moving to a new place in my inner life and seeing new paths.

Oimg_3550ne day, a few years ago, I took the painting of the peach sky out of its frame and spent the whole morning painting my mood over it, into it. The cadmium yellow and carmine are lost under the heavy grey, but they are there. That’s the inexpressible feeling I had that day, of wanting to break free from routine, wanting the colours to shine out from behind the grey. I couldn’t bring myself to paint the cottage out of the picture as it was somewhere to shelter when the storm broke. I also wanted to keep the bright yellow streak of sunlight on the wild mustard in the distance in the original painting, though it looks incongruous under the leaden sky. It doesn’t seem to matter. The painting served its purpose that day. 

I don’t know if I’ll ever finish this painting, but right now I’d be fine with the cottage being hoovered up by a dust devil. I’d be fine standing there engulfed by bracing winds and lashing rain. I am standing on a palimpsest where there used to be a peach sky and a beautiful rainbow before, and there might be a different picture on this canvas tomorrow if that’s what I feel I should do.




Iraq – musings

Iraqi cities appear like pixellated pictures in shades of ochre and taupe when seen from the air. Closer up, I imagine them to be clusters of dusty beige buildings like the cities I saw when I sailed through the Suez Canal many years ago.


I often think of the horrifying way Iraq has descended into chaos from normalcy in my life time. It was a nice country in the 1970s. All it takes is one person who thinks he’s King, and bungling by the international community, to bring a country to its knees. Images of Saddam’s rule, Saddam’s capture and Saddam’s end represented Iraq in my mind for a long time. Those images are now replaced by visuals of swarms of people rushing across the country, ploughing through cities like bulldozers.

Iraq, Syria and Jordan apparently had their own ‘Partition’ in 1916, and that laid the foundation for the current mess. Being Indian, I tend to see it in the light of what Partition has done to India, Pakistan and Bangla Desh. When boundary lines are drawn, influenced by people who don’t really understand what people living in a region are about, it is possible that it won’t work. I read this somewhere, that disbanding the Iraqi army in 2003 made things worse, because the dismissed soldiers joined other marginalised people who put their skills to use.

The way the Iraqi group has evolved seems astonishingly similar to the way gangs of delinquent youngsters evolve on the basis of kinship created by adverse circumstances in their individual lives. They are united mainly by the chips they carry on their shoulders, and a credo they proudly proclaim to the rest of the world. Many of them have been wronged, maybe some of it only perceived and not real. But who defines what is real hurt? Teenagers sometimes say things like “You totally ruined my life by forcing me to drink milk when I was in first grade!” to parents who would never have suspected it.

I am as distressed by what is happening in Iraq as anyone else, but I do wonder: if Iraq, Syria and Jordan hadn’t been arbitrarily ‘partitioned’ in 1916 or, at least, if the UN had handled things differently in Iraq over the last decade or so, wouldn’t the Middle-East have been a more peaceful place today? The UN couldn’t stop a group of countries from taking matters into their own hands and going to war with Iraq in 2003. Are we just seeing the young people who lived through this war grown up and seeking retribution? Hurt people hurting back? It’s almost like this group is one big hydra-headed sociopath. Was the stage for the present crisis set way back in 2003? I think the UNO is a brilliant idea only if no individual country (or an alliance of a few countries) has the power to undermine it, and if more countries have a say in what it decides should or shouldn’t be done.

In Greek mythology, Pandora couldn’t shut the Box given to her by Zeus because the Troubles immediately escaped, and began stinging her. Was a Pandora’s Box opened in Iraq eleven years ago? In the original story, after all the Troubles escaped, only the Spirit of Hope remained at the bottom of the Box. Do we have even that?