Analyzing the Lives of Saints

October 15, 2018 § 4 Comments

ppPeriya Puranam
(Sekkizhar, translated into English by G. Vanmikanathan)

Periya Puranam is an epic poem that describes the lives, deeds, miracles, songs and sacrifices of 63 saints (collectively known as the “Nayanmar”) of the Tamil Saivite denomination of Hinduism. Its author, Sekkizhar, was a 12th century Tamil poet and the prime minister of king Kulothunga Chola II.

There was a period, several centuries before Sekkizhar’s time, when the kings of the Tamil nation had favoured Jainism, and the heretical faith had a powerful hold on the society and culture of the Tamils. The revival of Saivism took several centuries. It found powerful patrons in the Chola kings, who ruled between the 9th and 13th centuries, but it was the songs and legends of the Nayanmar that captured popular imagination and swayed their belief. Legend has it that Sekkizhar saw his lord and master get drawn towards a Jain book, the Civaka Chintamani. Worried that the Chola might start patronizing Jainism again, Sekkizhar wrote the Periya Puranam to convince the king to stay firmly on the Saiva side.

If the legend is true, Sekkizhar was successful way beyond his limited objectives – not only was Kulothunga’s faltering faith restored, Sekkizhar was hailed a saint, and his book celebrated not just as a literary success but as one of the canonical texts of the Saivite religion; centuries later, the Cholas are relegated to historical textbooks, the Jains constitute less than 1% of Tamil population today, but the Nayanmar legends are well-known across the Tamil-speaking world, at least until one generation ago.


The story of Apputhi Atikal (courtesy

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Solving the Mystery of Thought

September 30, 2018 § Leave a comment

thinkingfastThinking, Fast and Slow (Kahneman, Daniel)

Daniel Kahneman’s core proposition is that human thought can be modeled as occurring in two distinct modes. He calls them System 1 and System 2, and describes them in detail. System 1 is “fast”, intuitive, all about establishing causal connections; it “jumps to conclusions”, weaves narratives, glosses over details, “sees the big picture”. System 2 kicks in when “slow”, concentrated analytical effort is involved, it tends to look closely at each detail, relies on logic, looks for evidence at every step. Without System 1, we would plod through life staring in wonder at every tree we encounter, knowing every fold in its ancient bark, and unable to visualize the forest it stands in. Without System 2, we would see causal connections and patterns everywhere, and a scowl on the face of the stranger you bump into in the street would be sufficient to convince us that he evades his taxes, like your great-uncle from long ago who had the same expression.

Think of them as two police detectives in a TV show. System 1 is always awake and alert, looking around nervously, judging people compulsively, building back stories and making predictions based on superficial knowledge and little evidence, keeping up a steady monologue with his many preconceived notions. System 2 is usually not paying any attention to any of this. She lets System 1 take the lead in every conversation. Usually System 1’s is the only voice we get to hear, but as soon as something really important or unexpected comes up, System 2 takes over. She shuts System 1 up so that she can think for a second. She uses only facts and rational thought. (System 1 thinks he does, too – and he’s wrong) But while she has all the evidence and inference, and he’s the one just shooting his mouth with little to go on, he’s the super self-confident one, and she is the one wracked with self-doubt. She keeps checking the validity of her logic. Plus, she can’t focus on more than one thing at a time, while System 1 can multi-task without effort. He doesn’t stay silent for too long. His supreme confidence overawes her, and she sometimes ends up meekly looking for ways to corroborate what he’s saying, rather than for data that can independently test the truth in his words. At other times, she does stand up to him: she is, after all, the only one who can influence him. After working at comical cross-purposes through the episode, the partners get their wires straightened out in the last ten minutes: System 1 finally takes a look at System 2’s painstaking analysis, and cries, “Eureka!” and the case is cracked. System 1 takes all the credit, of course. The episode ends with him smugly taking away an erroneous generalization of what happened, as the key lesson from the matter, a generalization that he will use in a future episode. Meanwhile System 2, who did all the hard work, has gone back to ignoring him…

This is clearly the billion-dollar abstract for a blockbuster Netflix original – it is also, according to Kahneman’s  Thinking, Fast and Slow, what goes on in your head every day. Not just at home, with friends or in a shop, but at your job, your field of expertise.

Experts have better situational judgment than others at the thing they do, but their professional instincts are nothing more than pattern recognition, honed over years of experience. Unfortunately, when a complex question is put to us that doesn’t have an exact match with the patterns we have stored away, our System 1 steps in confidently and substitutes a different, simpler pattern that DOES exist in our head, and answers THAT question instead. This happens particularly when we’re not paying full attention: when we’ve put our System 2 to sleep, or to work on some other problem.

This, to me, is where Kahneman’s (and Amos Tversky’s) Two Mode theory gets really exciting: its applicability in cognitive processes, in matters of public policy or private enterprise.  All leadership decision-making is by instinct, a wise man once told me, and all education and experience just ways to hone and fine-tune those instincts. In Kahnemannian terms, they are ways to get System 2 involved in defining the precise rules for pattern matching, so that System 1 can, in the future, make fewer mistakes in picking the right one for the occasion.

It isn’t uncommon for an Economics Nobel Laureate to write a book based on his life’s work. Yet it isn’t common for such a book to be an off-the-charts bestseller. Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow has done exactly this. It is a tribute to his simple and jargon-free writing skills, but also to the easy accessibility and universal applicability of his subjects: behavioral economics and cognitive biases of normal people doing everyday things. It’s a slow read, but a fascinating one, and I rapidly became a fan, even while taking a month or more to finish it.

Putting Art in Perspective

July 8, 2018 § 3 Comments

WayzWays of Seeing (Berger, John)

John Berger was an art critic, novelist, painter and poet, who wrote and compered a BBC series called Ways of Seeing in 1972.  This slim volume of essays was published as a companion piece to the series.

Berger’s objective, as stated in the first few seconds of the first episode of the TV series, was to “question some of the assumptions made about the traditions of European painting.” Unlike any other author on European art that I have read, Berger says little about the paintings and even less about the painters. He focuses instead on the effect the art has, or is intended to have, on its viewer.

Perspective, after all, was the biggest innovation that European oil painting introduced. For the first time in the history of art, the viewer was brought into consideration. He was a stakeholder – in fact, he was the central stakeholder, because it is from his viewpoint that we see the painting. And the viewer – the ideal spectator assumed by the European painter – was definitely a HE. This is clear, Berger points out, from the way women are depicted in oil paintings, as ornaments draped on it, and typically nude (not naked, mind you, because, “to be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself”) The female body is typically “arranged in the way it is, to display it to the man looking at the picture. This picture is made to appeal to his sexuality. It has nothing to do with her sexuality.” This blatantly sexualized objectification is unique to the European art tradition, says Berger: in other cultures, even if “the theme of the work is sexual attraction, it is likely to show active sexual love as between two people, the woman as active as the man.”

Yet women are not the only ‘objects’ celebrated by the oil paintings: “If you buy a painting you buy also the look of the thing it represents”. Thus the paintings were richly furnished with material possessions: gleaming jewelry, expensive trinkets, satin surfaces, acres and acres of scenic farmland, and “vacuous” mythological or historical subjects painted with a view to conferring some intellectual or moral heft upon the owner of the art.


Gratuitous nudity: Herse awaiting the arrival of Mercury, by Gerhard de Lairesse

Berger’s historical canvas is broader than misogyny alone. Oil painting was not the only world-changing innovation that developed in 15th century Europe. Berger points a finger directly at another – capitalism – as the single biggest influence on the way European oil painting evolved. To Berger, it was “a way of seeing the world ultimately determined by new attitudes to property and exchange”, and it soon found its visual expression in the new exciting field of oil painting.

Berger gives the example of an obscure Da Vinci work (The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and John the Baptist) that achieved sudden fame when it was sold for 2.5 million pounds. The quality of art, for the unschooled viewer, is defined purely in terms of its market value. It is this lure of the open market, according to Berger, that prompted artists (other than a few ‘masters’) to use their skills “cynically” – that is, to depict images not because a subject moved them emotionally and evoked artistic creativity, but purely for the purposes of titillating the senses of prospective buyers. Their intention was not to transport the audience to a new experience (the only honest objective of pure art), but to lazily use well-understood visual cliches to convey the owners’ success and wealth to the world. In that sense, Berger links European oil painting to modern “publicity images” or advertisements, that sell a certain future fantasy to its buyers (whereas the ownership of art serves as evidence of their present social and financial success)

So finally we meet Berger’s evil arch-villain: an exploitative, soul-sucking capitalism, that

survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible. This was once achieved by extensive deprivation. Today in the developed countries it is being achieved by imposing a false standard of what is and what is not desirable

John Berger was a self-professed Marxist. The term is understood today to mean an advocate for the violent overthrow of democratic governments, and an apologist for totalitarian communist regimes. But this is misleading, at least as far as Berger is concerned. He was no card-carrying Bolshie. He was merely someone who found Karl Marx’s framework of dialectical materialism useful for analyzing social history. He looked at history as an evolution, a set of socio-economic processes by which the past morphed into the present, and he analysed these processes in terms of the power structures and material motivations of the parties involved.

Now I do not pretend to be an expert on Marxian theory, but it seems to be as good a theoretical framework as any. It comes with pitfalls and blind spots, but which framework doesn’t? Frameworks, by definition, restrict one’s focus to a limited set of categories, and in doing so, they omit the impact of other categories. One obvious conclusion it is possible to draw from a Marxian analysis of history is an extremely dim view of human progress and achievement. Does that conclusion have any validity? It does. Is it the only valid conclusion possible? Perhaps not.

Perspective is what we learnt from European art. What we see is not THE truth, but A truth, out of many. And where we choose to stand and see things from is a deliberate, even political act. As Berger says, “we only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice. As a result of this act, what we see is brought within our reach”.  Berger’s Ways of Seeing gave me a completely new way to look at European oil paintings.

Wall to Wall Graphics

July 2, 2018 § Leave a comment

wongThe Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics: The Dos and Don’ts of Presenting Data, Facts, and Figures (Wong, Dona M.)

Dona Wong has an impressive resume when it comes to data visualization. Edward Tufte, whose visually sumptuous book I reviewed not long ago, was her thesis advisor at Yale; she has been a graphics editor with the New York Times, strategic director for information design at Siegel+Gale (a brilliantly cool-sounding designation, I must say), and then was graphics director for the Wall Street Journal for several years, and at some point during this stint, she cranked out this book on the Dos and Don’ts of Presenting Data, Facts and Figures. It is a slim volume, slick, glossy, easy to read, well-presented (which is the bare minimum of what one expects from a book on visualization). To do proper tribute to the subject, I’ve decided that my review should be more visual and less wordy. So here goes:


Regular visitors to this site might have noticed that I have been reading a couple of books about statistics and data visualization techniques of late. You may have even guessed the reasons for this: yes, my work has managed to get in the way of my reading. But I don’t expect this trend to continue.

graphixdonut Yes, I usually read very different kinds of books: ones with lots of text, usually, and very little pictorial content.

book exp

For me, when it comes to books, visual appeal is all very well, but it doesn’t govern my reading experience – it’s the content that I look at closely.

Even Wong acknowledges this, in her very first page: “Ultimately, it is the content that makes the graphics interesting.” It is the content that needs to be thought-provoking, insightful and true.

compositionWong’s book mentions many rules for good graphic design, but I didn’t get wowed by anything I read in here – either because I already knew the rule, or because I wasn’t exactly convinced it was necessary.


In closing, I can’t help taking a crack at the venerable WSJ. It is not a publication I am particularly fond of. Wong is right, of course: content makes the graphics interesting, not the other way around, and graphics on objectionable content is lipstick for the proverbial pig. They may guide me all they want on graphics, but I wouldn’t want to be guided by them on much else.


A Book and its Cover

June 24, 2018 § 1 Comment

EssayssonEssays on the Mahabharata (Sharma, Arvind  ed.)

There are a dozen valid ways of writing about mythology.

I’ve read authors who approach mythology from the perspective of literature – of poetry, say, or fiction, or fantasy. They write stories that parallel the mythological ones. Sometimes the mythological characters appear in contemporary garb and mix it up with local folks, sometimes modern characters are put in similar quandaries as in the myth, and sometimes they come up with slightly subversive, irreverent versions that provoke thought about the motivations of the characters; I’ve seen authors branch off into dissecting myths to analyse the intricate art and science that is oral story-telling, or move from there into kid-lit, and thereon to myth either as pure entertainment or as a vehicle for imparting simple moral lessons.

Elsewhere, I’ve read meditative pieces on how all literature has its roots in mythological stories told by witches and shamans around ancient camp fires, and how a gripping story, told perfectly, is indistinguishable from magic. I’ve read scholars come at myth from the point of view of universal themes and plot lines, and why these themes resonate with so many of us, so intuitively. Some of these scholars take recourse to psychology, and how our brain is wired; and others to social anthropology and the evolution of human civilizations.

There are others still who have thought of, and shrewdly used, mythology in terms of national, or tribal identity: it then becomes inextricably linked with politics and national history. There are others who look in mythological stories as allegorical parables, providing us examples and warnings to guide our life and behavior today, as studies of the human condition.

And finally, there are those of deep religious faith, who take mythological stories either as true history, or as divine revelation.

Any one of these various ways of approaching mythology is incompatible with the rest. To try and view mythology from more than one of these perspectives at the same time is impossible. Specially, those who read mythology as divine truth or national treasure tend to object strongly to outsiders treating their sacred texts as targets for scientific analysis. Nevertheless, I believe it is possible to write stirringly, insightfully or grippingly about mythology in any one of these genres.

Essays on the Mahabharata comes in a bright saffron jacket and has on the cover a classical picture of the Bhagavad Gita, the quintessential Hindu text of religious philosophy that occurs in the middle of the Mahabharata. The picture features the Lord Krishna, blue-skinned, garlanded and crowned, looking serene, a blinding halo behind his head, and a kneeling Arjuna by his side, hands out, palms upward in supplication. Other than that, the cover has fragments of Sanskrit text, and the name of the editor, which is Arvind Sharma.

Based on just this information, to which of the above genres do you think this book belongs?

Yet, one must never judge a book by its cover.


The quintessential Mahabharata image (credit:

Arvind Sharma is no guru-exegete expounding on religious truths for his devotees. He is a professor of comparative religion at a Canadian university. The book consists of 23 scholarly essays on a diversity of themes, exactly zero of them connected with religious philosophy or national identity. In other words, this is a set of essays that looks at the Mahabharata –the texts and the traditions – dispassionately, as texts and traditions in the context of the rest of world culture. The Mahabharata is unique, but not unique in its uniqueness.

Thus, the book features essays that analyze the 734 manuscripts examined in the Bhandarkar Institute’s attempt to recreate a Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, and the results of a computer program that searches this text for word and phrase patterns and debates the possibility of multiple authors for the epic; a brilliant essay on the Bhagavad Gita and its place within the Mahabharata tradition; another memorable one on the controversially complex character of Krishna; an expectedly outstanding essay by AK Ramanujan, that speaks of the various thematic repetitions that occur through the text; a thought-provoking one conjecturing that the war was really between the Kurus and the Panchalas. There are essays that speak of local oral traditions in Garhwal and elsewhere, and how these differ from the critical Sanskrit tradition (there should have been many more such essays, in my opinion), translations of medieval plays based on Mahabharata episodes, and essays on how the epic could be viewed in the context of Jainism, Buddhism and the Arthasastra. In my personal estimate, 16 of the 23 essays were eye-opening, even mind-blowing, and taught me things I didn’t already know in decades of knowing the epic, and all 23 represented years of careful, sincere study.

Only eight of the contributors have Indian names, but all of them have studied Indian religions for several years. I realize this makes it harder for religious-minded Hindus to appreciate the book.

Of course a painstakingly acquired scholarly knowledge of a religion is inferior to the intuitive and intimate grasp of it that comes from being born into the religion and surrounded by people who practice it. But when the topic isn’t religion itself, but merely the traditions and trappings of religion, the advantages of the native-born practitioner disappear, and the ability to examine matters in a scientific vein without the baggage of various deeply-held beliefs, taboos and biases becomes a real bonus.

Many Indians tend to dismiss a foreigner’s opinions on the Mahabharata as irrelevant or shallow. Doing so is as big a mistake as judging a book by its cover.

The Story of Art

May 26, 2018 § 1 Comment

uffizi-bookUffizi: Art, History, Collections (Fossi, Gloria)

I have visited art museums for over 20 years, and when I do, I take a long time. I’m the one driving the rest of the group crazy by trailing two rooms behind, reading every citation, listening to every number that the audio guide allows me to punch in.

I am by no stretch of imagination a connoisseur of art. I do not have a highly sensitive and refined aesthetic sense. I merely like a good story, and every piece of art tells a story. Mostly, with European art between 1400-1900, it tells a mythological or historical story, and those are the ones I love most, but even when it is a portrait of some noblemen, or the picture of a woman pouring milk, there is a story being told by the painter, and another story behind it about how and why that painting was created in that particular way. Modern, abstract art has fascinating meta-stories too, but the narrative arc of the art itself is harder to decipher.

I rarely leave a museum without paying a visit to the store. I do not even know why I do it: every book is twice as expensive as outside the museum, every image is available for free on the internet. The trinkets are mass-manufactured in a Chinese factory. Yet I own more souvenirs than memories, and if I drank a cup of coffee for every coffee table book I bought at a museum store, I would be buzzed for days on end.

Here is one of them.

Florence is a beautiful city, and home to some of the best Renaissance art in the world. In this city they congregated under the lavish patronage of the Medicis – religious men like Beato Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi, masters like Sandro Botticelli, Donatello, Ghirlandaio, Piero della Francesca, and a hundred others, and they erupted joyously into magnificent creativity. But the passion and wealth of the Medici family meant that local painters were only one of the sources for the art. From Rome they procured Raphaels,  from Arundel Hans Holbeins, from Venice, Bellinis and Titians.

The Medicis were no ordinary family. Originally in the textile trade, they went on to own the largest bank in Europe in the 15th century, and political power and prestige were not far away. Three popes hailed from the family, and they maintained an iron grip on the government of the city of Florence for centuries.

In 1560, at the peak of their success, Cosimo I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, commissioned a vast building to serve as the administrative and judicial offices of his government. He hired his friend Giorgio Vasari to design and supervise the construction, and to help with the interior decor. Vasari, besides being an architect, was a dab hand at painting himself, but most importantly, had an encyclopedic knowledge of art. He is best known today as the man who extensively chronicled the Renaissance, writing about the lives of all the great artists of his generation and of the ones immediately before. Cosimo and Vasari both died in 1574, but the building was completed, and became operational soon thereafter as a government office. The Medici family continued to use large parts of it as their personal property (I suspect they used the government similarly). There is a record of a letter received by the office in 1590 with a request that might have seemed odd at the time. A private citizen requested permission to visit the office and walk around, not to transact government business, but to look at the magnificent paintings on the walls, the personal collection of the Medici family, curated for them by Giorgio Vasari. The request was granted, and so were subsequent ones, and this soon became a thing to do for the well-heeled in Florence.


The house that Cosimo built: The Uffizi Gallery in Florence

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The Roots of the World Tree

May 19, 2018 § 2 Comments

proseeddaThe Prose Edda (Sturluson, Snorri)

Norse myth has suffered an interesting fate in modern times. It has inspired the most popular fantasies of our times. The ‘Lord of the Rings’ books and movies, The Game of Thrones, and the blond and blue-eyed Thor of the Avengers, all owe their origin to Norse tales. And yet, I don’t believe Norse mythology itself is popular – people outside Northern Europe wouldn’t know their Frigg from their Freyja.

So allow me to introduce the Icelandic Prose Edda to you.

The Eddas were written down in the 13th century but pertained to an oral story-telling tradition from earlier times. Most of it stemmed from the Viking Age between 800-1100 AD, when Scandinavians explored and pillaged their way across coastal Europe, but some stories are from even older times.

By the 13th century, things had calmed down significantly and the Icelanders had peacefully turned Christian. The Eddas were a way of keeping alive cultural memories and a sense of sharing a common origin with other Scandinavians. The old forms of worship had been discarded, but the stories remained as cultural heritage (like the 11th century Shahnameh in Persia) The gradual religious transition and the large number of alien cultural traditions that the Norsemen had encountered over time, were all put in the melting pot, and out of it came the smorgasbord that we know as the Eddas.


The World Tree: an apt metaphor for world mythology (Pic. courtesy, Alayna Danner)

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