our choices – and mental health

I feel like a Grinch writing this in the festive season, but the ‘Sale!!!’ signs are getting to me, because that’s all festivals seem to be reduced to. Buy, buy, buy.

I used to think advertising was about spreading information about a product, but now I know better. It’s about keeping us discontented and hankering for more. If we get tempted by advertisements and go broke there’s no one to blame – we did have a choice, right? So, if we aren’t alert, we actually have as much choice as a child with an open cookie jar within reach!

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While on the subject of choice, look at this: everyone knows that wearing a helmet while riding a bike can protect their heads in case of an accident. But nobody in Bangalore wore helmets even when the statistics were heavily publicised. In September 2015 a law was passed to force motorcyclists to wear helmets. Though it stands to reason, people didn’t take that to mean that the pillion-rider should also wear one! So in January 2016 another law was passed to that effect. Not that it always works (pic above).

IMG_6706Now something has to be done about the helmet-less little children who ride in front of the rider (as in picture above), or squeezed in between the rider and pillion-rider! And people who carry their helmets in their hands (as in pic). 

Ideally, everything should be left to choice and common sense, but it doesn’t work. So, when push comes to shove, the government takes over and decides for us. So there’s no choice, no absolute freedom really, to break our head in a bike accident. The same thing happens with freedom of speech, freedom to live legally in a country with the right visa, and other freedoms we misuse.

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World peace. Human rights. Poverty alleviation. A government that has been voted to power in a democracy. NGOs. Philanthropists. All these words suggest that there are nice people making fair choices for humanity as a whole. Altruistic folks who want to mitigate human suffering and make the world a peaceful and equitable place. But how much choice do they have when faced with ruthless lobbies that influence government policies? Especially when the lobbyists are more important to the economy. Peaceful, contented people are not good for the economy, people who keep money in circulation are.

Think what might happen if an activist fought for our garment industry workers’ human rights in India. Or someone owning prime land in Bangalore refused to sell it to a builder with connections. They would get warning calls from unknown people, and then some. And a journalist trying to expose a business-government nexus that hurts ordinary citizens is always a sitting duck. No, these well-meaning folks don’t have much of a choice. Lobbyists always get their way because the government knows which side of its bread is buttered.

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Moving beyond the local, the US had a choice to not sell US$110 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia. But then, I guess big companies like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Boeing would have lost out on profits, and their employees been out of jobs. To me, this seems like a good reason for selling, apart from having the Saudis fight their proxy war against Iran in Yemen. Also, perhaps the possibility of lucrative contracts to re-build the destroyed countries, something that usually follows use of weapons of mass destruction.

Choices involving thousands of innocent lives are made based on material gains of some sort, and don’t seem to have any moral underpinnings. That’s how it seems to me, an ordinary Earth citizen, a mere observer of events. Words like ‘big business’, ‘big government’ and ‘big pharma’ make me uneasy because the choices they make can have seismic effects.

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So, is there a place for teaching children to be good girls and boys in today’s world? Believe me, I faced this dilemma all through my children’s school years. By trying to raise children to be good – as ‘good’ is generally understood – are we setting them up to be misfits or wimps and fail in today’s world? Pure 24-karat gold is too soft to be fashioned into jewellery. Lesser metals like silver, zinc or nickel have to be added to make it 22-karat, for it to be crafted into durable jewellery. I think I just hoped my kids would pick up the silver, zinc and nickel on their own in adapting to the world.

Or have we pragmatically scrapped the whole business of goodness and switched to simply teaching them consumerism? Looking around Bangalore’s shopping malls, massive hoardings and the monstrous garbage heaps all over the city, I suspect this is what is happening.

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What bothers me is that Earth Overshoot Day was on 2nd August this year, and has been coming earlier every year. That means, on 2nd August our resource consumption for this year exceeded Earth’s capacity to regenerate them! Ideally, this date should be at the end of December. It was 20th October in 2005, 21st Nov in 1995 and the third week of December in the mid-eighties.

When I look at all those cotton clothes in store windows, I wonder how much water and labour it takes to grow and pick cotton in India. It takes about 35 cotton-bolls to make a tee shirt (a boll weighs 2-6 grams, a tee shirt about 150 grams), I’m told. Why is there such a glut of clothes in the world? What happens to unsold clothes, those left over after discount sales? Actually, I find everything is in excess – like electronics, packaged foods, shoes, LED lighting in malls, cosmetics… I know people are happy to have a wide choice, and these industries generate jobs for millions of people – so is it all right for our generation to overuse Earth’s resources? And is the guiding principle of shopping greed, and not need, because it is tacitly – no, quite overtly – encouraged by our way of life?

I’m not much of an activist. All I do is follow the reduce-reuse-recycle mantra, compost part of the kitchen waste, and stick to need-based shopping, an adaptation of the Hippocratic oath, ‘first, do no harm’. And I send a bag of vegetable and fruit peelings from my kitchen to my maid’s neighbour’s cow every day; at least one cow in Bangalore gets to eat a little bit of something nutritious, rather than discarded plastic bags.

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A common sight in Bangalore despite a ban on plastic

I am aware that there are people actually doing things that make a difference in small and big ways all over the world. Vigga Swensen (Denmark) and Justin Bonsey (Australia) are two people whose initiatives I came across recently. Vigga’s is a little tricky as some people may balk at the very notion of dressing their babies in used clothes. Justin’s initiative could be adopted in cities anywhere: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-06-16/ditching-disposable-coffee-cups-war-on-waste/8625018

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The WHO defines mental health as ‘a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.’

The WHO also acknowledges that ‘poor mental health is associated with rapid social change, stressful work conditions, gender discrimination, social exclusion, unhealthy lifestyle, risks of violence, physical ill-health and human rights violations.’ We, the ordinary citizens of India, are plagued by every one of these.

Can universal mental health ever become a reality considering the individual choices we make in our daily lives, and the choices that people in government make, whether it is Kim Jong Un, Xi, Maduro, Trump, Netanyahu, Nigel Farage, or the politicians who have led India for the past seventy years? Moreover, will the economy survive the impact of contented people who will not buy expensive branded clothes to feel more confident, join pricey gyms for the ‘perfect’ body, eat at fancy restaurants to upload photos on facebook, buy the latest cell phones for bragging rights, and so on?

18-August-2018

Kudos to these people!

https://timesofindia.com/city/bengaluru/no-to-plasic-these-banks-lend-steel-cutlery-to-reduce-waste/articleshow/65447000.cms

22-August-2018

Earth Overshoot Day was on 1st August this year 😦

30-July-2019

Yesterday was Earth Overshoot Day – three days before last year’s 😦

20-Nov-2020 : Earth Overshoot Day was on 22nd Aug this year due to COVID. Good!

13-Dec-2021 : This year’s Earth Overshoot Day was on 29th July 😦

 

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 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.

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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.

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Once upon a time in Goa

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This is a bronze bust of my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather. It is enshrined in our family temple in Goa. He was one of the five men who saved the sacred idols of the deities from Portuguese invaders in the 16th century.

This is our temple, the Ramnathi temple, in Ponda, Goa. It was originally in Loutolim, but was destroyed by the Portuguese. A new temple was consecrated to the deity in Ponda, 11 km away across the Zuari river.

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This is what my ancestors who lived in Goa at the time of the Goa Inquisition in the 16th century were up against.  The Goa Inquisition by A.K.Priolkar is a well-researched book that chronicles details of that time.

To begin with, the Portuguese had a 41-point code for Goans, some of which were:

  • No worshipping their own deities
  • Ban on wedding-related activities like distribution of betel leaves and flowers, serving a wedding meal
  • Restriction on wearing Indian garments
  • No observing religious fasts, performing obsequies
  • No growing tulsi in their backyards
  • No building or maintaining temples; violation was dealt with by demolition of the temple and confiscation of its wealth for pious (?) work by the Portuguese.

Those who flouted these and other random rules – something that was bound to happen, because all the things on the Portuguese’s list of bans were a normal part of life for Goans – fell afoul of the Goa Inquisition. They would be tortured in the presence of their families by being beaten up, having their eyelashes yanked out, or bones broken. . .

By 1570 they had a law that said people who did as they were told didn’t have to pay taxes for 15 years, as long as they used their brand new Portuguese names and erased all memories of who they used to be!

The moral of the story of the persecution of my forefathers in Goa by the Portuguese, as I gathered in bits and pieces over the years, was this: “Everybody has his own idea of God and that’s okay, because nobody’s seen God. What the Portuguese people did was wrong. They were ignorant. Our forefathers left our homeland because it was important for them to be independent, not live like slaves”. In other words, accept that every religion is okay and don’t impose your beliefs on others. But hold on to your convictions, because they make you who you are. An independent person.

If every child learns this there will be less distrust and hatred among people in the future. Since a large number of wars have been fought over religion, there may be fewer wars too. And perhaps people wouldn’t feel it their duty to torture those who worship god by a different name.

In theory, it would be best if people could be ‘good’ without theism. In organized religions, rules for good conduct are laid down on the premise that people will fall into sin without them. Does that mean a majority of people need a God to stay their course in that direction? The fact that thousands of places of worship exist in every country, maintained by thousands of religious heads, makes me think that’s likely; of course there are social, economic and political reasons for the existence of places of worship too, but I’ll ignore that for the moment.

Obviously then, theism will not go away. The only way forward would be to allow everyone their own brand of theism.

Just as I will not blindly accept someone else’s beliefs, I won’t foist mine on others by any means, blatant or subtle. Should I induce a person to adopt my religious beliefs, depriving him of the inner growth that comes with thinking things out, I would be stunting him. He would be the human equivalent of a Sequoia tree in its bonsai form. I can’t feel good about it, nor can I score brownie points with my god, if he’s a fair god.

I know that what my forefathers went through is exactly what indigenous populations everywhere went through when explorers decided that they owned not only the lands they ‘discovered’ or ‘conquered’, but the human beings who lived there as well. Any reader can look back at the history of his own land to know I’m right.

Shouldn’t we try to change the status quo? How? By teaching kids to be tolerant, and never telling them, “Our God is the only true god, other religions have it wrong.” By telling them instead, that religions are different paths that lead to the same god. Or, if we are mature and secure enough, telling them that religion isn’t about god at all, it’s just a way of life.

Others’ thoughts on the topic:

http://arunshanbhag.com/2005/03/29/ramnathi-devasthan/

http://slbhyrappa.com/downloads/SLB%20on%20Concersion%20%20English%20Part%201.pdf