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.

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.


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.


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?

An afterthought

I wrote my last blogpost late Sunday night. When I woke up the next morning there was a niggling feeling of having missed something. When I had appreciated the action of Udi Segal, the Israeli boy who had refused to join the Army on principle, had I inadvertently belittled the youngsters that do join the Armed Forces? In India, boys are not conscripted. They join of their own accord. There are many reasons why they choose to commit their lives to defending their country. I won’t dwell on those but cut straight to what I want to say right now. 


On August 15th, Independence Day, I was watching the news on TV. A channel was covering the celebrations at the Wagah border between India and Pakistan. Several young soldiers – one was asked his age, he was only 23 – were asked what message they would like to give their countrymen on this Independence Day. Each one of them said, “Tell them we are here to protect India’s borders. Tell them they can all sleep peacefully as we are looking out for them.” I don’t think I imagined it, but their faces showed a firm belief that they were doing something that mattered, something meaningful, by serving in the Army. Their voices rang with patriotism. Though the cynic in me wondered for a split second if these lines were rehearsed, the naïve idealist that is also me refused to accept that. 

In any case, it is true that we civilians sleep peacefully only because our soldiers are out there defending our borders. I guess I just feel a need to acknowledge this, and since this blog often serves as a repository of random thoughts I don’t know whom to share with, here it is.



‘In search of Home – the forgotten tragedy of Kashmiri Pandits’. This was the topic being debated on NDTV today on ‘We the People’ anchored by Barkha Dutt. There were seven or eight panelists whose opinions were so divided that there were temper losses and utter chaos among them.

But when it was the turn of the audience to ask questions or give opinions – wow! Every youngster spoke eloquently, rationally and passionately about moving forward in peace. They acknowledged that Kashmiri Pandits, among other groups, had been wronged. The eagerness young Muslims showed to have Kashmiri Pandits back in Kashmir was heartwarming. I don’t know how much of the government’s plan to facilitate their return to their home state can be implemented. As a young Delhi-based Kashmiri Pandit from the audience – he would have been a toddler when his parents left Kashmir – asked, “What will I do there?”

But, the point is, the youngsters don’t want strife. They have a smarter take on what is important, and it certainly isn’t Religion the way our politicians understand Religion. A Sikh Kashmiri friend had once told me that Kashmiriyat was more her religion than Sikhism in many ways. I got the sense that many Kashmiris present in that studio today would agree.

I switched to CNN right after ‘We the People’. There was an interview with a 19-year-old Israeli boy, Udi Segal, who was in jail for refusing to join the army. He says: “I cannot take part in an army that occupies another people and makes Israeli society more violent and apathetic to what is happening”.

IMG_1226When most of our generation depart this world the baton will hopefully pass on to better people like Udi Segal and the young people in the audience at the debate on Kashmiri Pandits. And not to the narrower-minded people who have been responsible for all the cruelty and destruction in recent times.

I took this picture last month at the World Trade Centre museum in New York.

“Never a thought of race, creed…” I wish…

Bt Brinjal – will it cannibalize the rest?

Baingan da bhartha. Roasted aubergine, skin removed, flesh chopped fine and cooked with lots of onion and a little tomato, flavoured with coriander, cumin and chilli powder.

Brinjal ‘sagle’ made with purple brinjals in a masala of shredded coconut, ground with roasted fenugreek, coriander, chillies, turmeric, garlic, tamarind, jaggery – and more! – to make a plain rice-and-dhal lunch seem like a feast.

Aloo-baingan, small violet brinjals cooked with potatoes and the simplest of masalas, because the combination of these two vegetables is so perfect, it tastes great without much help.

Why does this blogpost sound like a list of recipes? Because I fear all these dishes may soon be a thing of the past, that’s why. One day I might have to reblog this under ‘History’.

Where was I? Ah, yes, then there are those large round green brinjals the size of aubergines, sliced and batter-fried into bajjis.

And the long violet brinjals cooked in a coconut gravy and seasoned with mustard, curry leaves and lots of green chillies, accompanying rice rotis for a weekend breakfast.

Baba ganoush, a tasty dip made with roasted aubergine (I’ve just made some today).

Bagaare baingan, served with biryani – goes well with rotis too – made with purple-streaked medium-sized brinjals in a spicy tomato-onion gravy.



Brinjal and potato slices layered with tomato sauce, bechamel sauce, and cheese, and baked till all the flavors blend blissfully, and there’s that irresistable aroma from the oven.

Brinjal upma, made with long pale green brinjals and semolina.

Satsivi, a sauce made from walnuts and spices, to have with fried slices of long violet brinjal, a Georgian recipe I learnt from a Russian long ago.

These are some of the dishes I cook with different varieties of brinjal. And every kind of brinjal has its own flavour.

When there’s talk of Bt Brinjal, the wonderful futuristic pest-resistant vegetable, I’ve always wondered if they meant only one particular variety of brinjal. If so, will all farmers then choose to grow only these because they bring in profits? My question to Jairam Ramesh, Prakash Javadekar, the GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee), The Supreme Court, and everybody else involved in the promotion of Bt Brinjal:

Will I be able to cook all these dishes with their distinct flavours once you all are done with your research and permissions? Or will there be only one type of monster brinjal that will replace all other varieties? Because farmers may choose to cultivate only the variety that is commercially viable. Will I have to settle for something that looks like a perfect brinjal, but will have neither taste nor flavour? How will biodiversity be affected?

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New routes

Tbilisi, Georgia.

Baku, Azerbaijan. Then, right across the Caspian Sea.

Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan. A carpet of city lights spread out below us in the intense darkness of night.

These are the cities we flew over as our British Airways flight carefully negotiated the skies, avoiding all areas of known conflict. Following the route map on the computer screen on the back of the seat in front of me was both fascinating and saddening. Fascinating because of the frisson of excitement I feel while flying over lands that are mysterious to me, and whose names taste like new flavours on my tongue when I say them to myself. Saddening because of the Malaysian Airlines plane that got shot down just four days before, taking 298 innocent people with it. Editorials and articles by experts have stopped making sense. Politics and Religion – of the sort that hurt or kill people – make even less sense.

I looked out the porthole at the night sky. There was a sliver of a moon, and the stars were much brighter from 12,250 meters higher than where I usually see them from.

The Big Dipper was in the distance, sort of behind the plane. Auriga, the Charioteer, was just above the horizon with its big star Capella shining like a diamond. The bow of Perseus was just outside the porthole, and the Andromeda galaxy ‘near’ it was so clearly visible that the light years between us seemed diminished.

We met the rising sun as we flew east over Afghanistan, towards Islamabad. It was a fiery sunrise, all crimson and gold.


As we hovered over the outskirts of Bangalore it felt good to see the red soil and green fields again. Home!

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