Hit or Myth?

April 23, 2018 § Leave a comment

dduttJaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata (Pattanaik, Devdutt)

Devdutt Pattanaik hit the Indian bookshelves with a bang in the late 1990s, and became a celebrity over the next decade or so. He struck a rich vein of resurgent middle-class interest in mythology, culture and spiritualism, and he mined it to the hilt. His terse prose, peppered with “commentary” boxes with bullet points, and elegant artwork that merged modern and traditional themes, were lapped up by an admiring nation. Here was a man who clearly understood his market at least as much as he did his matter: he shrewdly moved into the lucrative territory of corporate India, mixing leadership advice, corporate culture and mythological lessons with aplomb.

But marketing nous involves a large dollop of discretion, especially given his field of mythology, a powder keg in today’s India. Here’s an excerpt from his Wikipedia entry:

Devdutt is known to avoid partisan views and points to the strengths and weaknesses of the Left and the Right, the secular as well as religious, the capitalists and the communists, the patriarchs and the feminists… He is wary of the influence of ‘white saviours’ on liberals as well as religious radicals. He has been rather contemptuous of the hyper-nationalism of a section of American Hindus who are clueless about Indian realities. He also frowns on secularists and atheists who deny their own missionary zeal and mythic structure, and see themselves as ‘rational’

That’s a lot of tight-rope walking! Still, I believe he has now managed to fly too close to the sun, and his wings may yet get singed, if not clipped.

I had read his retelling of the Ramayana (“Sita“), and even though I had significant disagreements with his mythographical choices, I came away with some respect. The point of writing about mythology is to pass it on to the next generation in the idiom they are familiar with. Good, clean prose and beautiful artwork are crucial towards this end, and he had them in good measure. “Jaya”, the book under review, was even better, in my opinion. In “Sita” he had stayed too close to the “official” Valmiki version of the Ramayana, and this had bothered me. In “Jaya”, he mentions many vignettes from local versions of the Mahabharata, which brings his mythography closer in philosophy to my own. I wasn’t surprised, therefore, when I found him disparaged and dismissed by conservatives, on social media. The scorn poured on him from the right concerns his command over Sanskrit, his interpretations, his insufficient knowledge of the “official” versions of the epics (see here for example, if you have an hour to waste – I couldn’t sit through much of it myself)


Budh in Hindu myth: the half-way god (courtesy: koyil.com)

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The Devil in the Data

April 2, 2018 § 4 Comments

fieldguideA Field Guide to Lies and Statistics (Levitin, Daniel)

Daniel Levitin has been many different things at many different times. He studied applied mathematics at MIT; enrolled at the Berklee College of Music; in his thirties he turned to cognitive psychology, studying at Stanford, University of Oregon and Berkeley and making pioneering contributions to that field. He worked as a stand up comic and contributor of jokes to other comedians. He played the piano at 4, the clarinet at 8, the saxophone at 12, and guitar at 16; by 17, he was writing songs. He was part of several bands and record labels. He executed consulting engagements for AT&T, venture capital firms, record labels, and the US Navy. As a writer, he has written articles for Billboard, Grammy, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Atlantic; and he has written three bestsellers before his biggest one: the book under review.

Yet if he had done nothing else in his whole life except write this book, it would have been a life well lived.

The Field Guide to Lies and Statistics is a vital book. I strongly recommend that it be made essential reading for anyone who wants to open a Facebook or Twitter account, or who wants to hear the news on the TV. It is a survival kit for our turbulent times, as a safeguard against fake news, false advertisements, and plain old misinformation.

Why do we need a survival kit?

It isn’t that people were smarter in the past, or that the fewer sources for information that existed were more trustworthy than the ones available today.  If you listened to only one person, and he consistently and systematically lied to you, well, you ended up believing a lot of things that weren’t true. Especially if that one person couched his pronouncements in an impregnable cocoon of infallibility, protected by religion, tradition, power, or what passed for cutting-edge science at the time. It usually helped that everyone you spoke to believed the same things as you did.

Modern scientific procedure was invented precisely to guard against such tyranny. Using scientific principles, consistent and impersonal methods were devised to test the truth of statements, using data measurements and logical deduction. These methods were applied initially to questions relating to the physical world, and later, as our confidence grew, to questions relating to human life – historical, forensic, economic,  medical, psychometric, meteorological, political…you name it. We used it to test our experts. “Because I say so” didn’t cut it any more. Just bring the data, we said. Prove it to us. We fought superstition with data, and we thought we had won.

Flash forward to today. We are now super-saturated with data. Facts, figures, conclusions, opinions and predictions drip off every screen we glance at. Data rubs off on us, goes into tiny nooks and crevices in our brain that we hardly knew existed, and sits there as bias, infecting our thoughts and words, and using them to infect others and propagate. We are a colonized species today: biases have subjugated and domesticated us. They use our brains for homes, they use our technology to ride from one place to another at the speed of light, and they use us to fight their battles against each other. Their weapon of choice in these battles? Data. Those sneaky little double agents.

It turns out that you can misrepresent data very easily. As I’ve said before in these pages, most people have a very poor instinct for real world data – what it looks like, at what rate it changes, what it will look like in the future. We’re also not very good at using techniques like inference and deduction to draw conclusions about data: we make mistakes while applying them, or we reserve our scientific skepticism only for statements we are already biased against.

And when we move out of the realm of arithmetic and into that of statistical distributions and probabilities, we’re way out of our depth. We expect certainty and simple linear relationships. Most importantly, many of us feel intimidated by numbers and readily accept anything said in complicated words by people in white lab-coats.


Fake News: Not always this easy to identify (courtesy: Vox.com)


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One of the Many Roads to Tradition

March 29, 2018 § 1 Comment

traditionSources of Indian Tradition (Volume 1)

Professor Ainslie T Embree was an eminent historian and Indologist at Columbia University. He was more than an acknowledged expert on modern Indian history. Uniquely for a historian, he attempted to shape history as well, by making contributions to peace efforts between India and Pakistan, and by tirelessly promoting a greater understanding between India and the USA during the Cold War. Sources of Indian Tradition, edited by him in 1958, is “widely considered the core text of the intellectual history of South Asian civilizations” (from his Wikipedia entry). The first volume of this text, covering Indian history up until 1800, is the book under review.

Embree marshals a bevy of respected academics – RN Dandekar and AL Basham among others – to write about the Brahmannical tradition (Vedas, the Upanishads, the Epics, the six schools of Indian philosophy), Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and the philosophical underpinnings of Islamic thought in India; `in addition, the book has an extended section on “The Hindu Way of Life”, which features the reputed (among Western academics) Hindu preoccupations with sex (the Kamasutra), money (the Arthashastra), Dharma (the Manusastras) and salvation (mainly the Bhagwad Gita, Dvaita and Advaita philosophy, and the Bhakti or theistic writings of medieval saints).

The section on the evolution of Islamic intellectual thoughts and attitudes towards Hinduism was very useful indeed, even eye-opening, and very relevant for an understanding of the kind of secularism that is possible in today’s India. I was already familiar with the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religious works considered, having read Radhakrishnan and Wendy Doniger, and it was quite adequate.

But the shortcomings of the book are also the same as those of Doniger’s and to an extent, Radhakrishnan’s books on Hinduism. It is the inability of a scholar to get to the soul of a religious tradition that isn’t textual. I have myself grown up as a Hindu, surrounded by millions (literally) of fairly conservative Hindus. Every one of them had strong instinctive ideas about their religion, and most of those ideas were held in common. But not a single person I knew has actually read the Kamasutra, the Manu Sastras, or the Arthasastra. A few are familiar with the Gita, probably from second-hand sources.

This, perhaps is why a Muslim, Jewish or Christian scholar would struggle to write a book on the sources of Indian tradition. If a similar book were to be written about their own faith, they’d obviously refer to the Koran, the Talmud or the Testaments, familiar texts for the common man and woman. As for Radhakrishnan, his books were on Indian Philosophy, and he makes no claim of being familiar with common tradition. He could not have –  he too was an elite scholar, probably not in touch with how 90% of his co-religionists thought, viewed the world or worshipped.

In my opinion, the best way to write about Indian tradition – and within that, specifically Hindu tradition – is to focus on folk traditions. I’d look at urban life: temples, markets, guilds, courtyards; i’d look at festivals and rituals; I’d look at traditional sports,  pastimes, vocations; if textual it must be, I’d look for the books of accounts of merchants and administrators, treatises on medicine, on cuisine, on mathematics or art, on astrology, on musical theory or dance; but mainly, I’d lead with oral traditions: the stories, the legends, the songs that women sang; yes, the epics and the Puranas (which Embree does cover), but not just the official Sanskrit versions, the hundreds of regional variations, in dozens of regional dialects. You might argue that the project would be too vast to contemplate, and to this I say: no, it is entirely possible to put together, just take a look at https://ruralindiaonline.org/


Traditional Kalamkari art (credits: himanshu art institute)

Robert Redfield, the anthropologist I read recently, said this:

I make a study of Maya Indians of Yucatan. One man of the village in particular is a thoughtful fellow; he really ruminates. When I ask him questions, his mind seems to naturally arrange things into systematic wholes. I find it easy to put down what he says, just because it is so well considered and makes such inherent sense. But does he really represent the other Indians who can say so much less to me about the world they inhabit?…Shall we let the extraordinary cyclical and layered universe revealed to us as the thoughtful construct of the ancient Maya astronomer-mathematician stand for the world view of the Maya Indian villager and simple grower of maize? Shall we allow the Summa of St. Thomas and the Divine Comedy to represent the world view of the medieval European peasant?

According to Embree, the book “is meant to provide the general reader with an understanding of the intellectual and spiritual traditions which remain alive in India and Pakistan today”. This is easier to do with Islam; a straight line may be drawn there from the texts to the tradition. There is no dichotomy between the intellectual and the spiritual. It isn’t the case with Hinduism.

The Manu Sastras, the Kama Sutra, the Artha Sastra, the many Upanishads, the philosophical schools of Vaisesika, Sankhya and Nyaya: these texts represent the traditions of the common Indian man and woman no more than the writings of Immanuel Kant or Isaac Newton represent the thoughts of European farm workers. To the common Hindu, that which is spiritual is instinctive but not necessarily textual; that which is intellectual is not necessarily accessible. To insist that these texts are the source for the thoughts of a billion people who haven’t read them, and whose direct ancestors have never read them, is a tenuous claim. And yet a lot of Hindus agree on a lot of things. Surely there are other sources, other ways by which these beliefs propagated, than these hallowed but hardly-read texts.

Ask any illiterate Hindu and he’ll tell you there are many paths to enlightenment: spiritual faith, the pursuit of knowledge, a lifetime’s worth of good deeds. Indian tradition, too, has many other popular paths than the ones described in this book.

The Unbearable Truth

March 22, 2018 § 2 Comments

beartownBear Town (Backman, Fredrik)

Bear Town is a novel set in a cold, dull, grey town whose residents have just one bright spot in their lives, one passion, one reason for the rich and the poor, the sophisticated and the rustic, to come together as a community. It is the town’s high school ice hockey team. The novel might be set somewhere in Sweden (Backman wrote it originally in Swedish), but the location isn’t clearly specified, and the tale could easily have been set in the United States, or Canada.

I do not follow ice-hockey. The only team I have supported with a passion is the Indian cricket team, but cricket is a very different sport. As I write, the biggest controversy in world cricket revolves around a South African player who may have bumped slightly into an Australian player as he ran past him (the authorities couldn’t find any evidence of intentional violence but fined him for disrespecting another player). Ice hockey, on the other hand, has traditionally been closely associated with brutal violence. Not only is physical violence condoned and even encouraged by its fans, strategic use of violence by a team is highly appreciated by the connoisseurs of the game. It seems to me to be a raw celebration of masculinity, testosterone, and the ability to cause and endure pain in greater measure than the opposing team. If all team sports owe their origin to a time when the highest ethics for a man were physical courage and a near-insane loyalty to a group of like-minded men, ice hockey hails from the Viking raiding parties of yore, the ones that came screaming out of the icy darkness with fire in their hands, murder in their eyes and rape on their minds.

Which, of course, is a neat segue to what the book is actually about. It isn’t really about the town per se, and it isn’t really about ice-hockey, either. It is about rape. A teenage girl in the town is raped by the star of the hockey team during a drunken party. He is arrested just before a crucial game, which the team then loses. The victim and her family suddenly find themselves the target of a tsunami of resentment from the community, from both men and women: hard people who live hard, deprived lives in squalid neighborhoods, and derive whatever fragment of self-esteem they have from the success of their team at the only thing that mattered. When this is jeopardized, they lash out instinctively at the people who upset the apple-cart. The girl gets very little justice: her story is disbelieved, she is called names, and her family is hounded out of town. Ice hockey continues to rock on.

No, this isn’t right. It is still a convenient cop-out for me to blame the story on the toxic masculine culture of ice-hockey, the egged-on violence and deification of muscular power. The truth is, male toxicity exists in our society – in all societies really – even where there isn’t an ice hockey team to blame it on. From the beginning of history, richer, more influential men have taken advantage of an imbalance of either physical, social or financial power, and abused women (or weaker men). There is no society on earth today that can claim to be immune to this crime, to have evolved  beyond its absurd cruelty. Modern Western man has learnt to cloak it with layers of smooth sophistication, but scratch the surface, and you will find that many men are just old Viking rapists at bottom.

The #Metoo movement and books like Bear Town have opened the eyes of men like me. It is clear that what we had always dismissed as isolated acts of a few perverts is actually an epidemic, a disease of the species, at least of 50% of the species. If courage is supposed to be such a male quality, we should have the courage to start a #MeToo movement of our own, where we admit to indulging in, egging on, appreciating or glorifying toxic male brutality in word, thought or deed, at points in our own lives, thereby allowing the disease to live on and spread. I’ll say it first: Me Too.

The least we can do is recognize that there is nothing to celebrate or admire in all this, nothing in misused masculine power to glorify as a virtue. This is the unbearable truth of Bear Town.


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The Right and the Wrong

March 12, 2018 § Leave a comment

ammindThe Closing of the American Mind (Bloom, Allan)

Allan Bloom’s Wikipedia entry describes him as a philosopher, classicist and academician, and informs me that this book met with critical acclaim from the New York Times and the Washington Post when it was published in 1987. It was with hope that I started reading it – the hope that this was the work of a scholar from whom I could learn the intellectual underpinnings of the conservative worldview and resurrect my respect for it.  This hope was swiftly replaced with disbelief and then rising anger. Allow me to quote some snippets from the book. They speak for themselves, but I couldn’t resist brief commentaries.

The recent education of openness…pays no attention to natural rights or the historical origins of our regime… It is open to all kinds of men, all kinds of lifestyles, all ideologies. There is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything. But when there are no shared goals or vision of the public good, is the social contract any longer possible?

ME: Openness to all, regardless of origin, lifestyle or ideology, is the shared goal. A social contract based on such openness is not merely possible, it is precisely what makes America great.

At the root of this change in morals was the presence in the United States of men and women of a great variety of nations, religions and races…Openness was designed to provide a respectable place for these “groups” or “minorities” – to wrest respect from those who were not disposed to give it – and to weaken the sense of superiority of the dominant majority…

ME: You say that like it is a bad thing.


Sexual adventurers like Margaret Mead and others who found America too narrow told us that not only must we know other cultures and learn to respect them, but we could also profit from them. We could follow their lead and loosen up, liberating ourselves from the opinion that our taboos are anything other than social constraints. We could go to the bazaar of cultures and find reinforcement for inclinations that are repressed by puritanical guilt feelings. All such teachers of openness had either no interest in or were actively hostile to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution

ME: I can only assume that you have either never read the Constitution or were unable to understand it. Respecting other cultures is not an act of “active hostility to the constitution”.

In the past there were many students who actually knew something about and loved England, France, Germany or Italy, for they dreamed of living there or thought their lives would be made more interesting by assimilating their languages and literatures….[They have been replaced] …by students who are interested in the political problems of the Third World countries and in helping them to modernize, with due respect to their old cultures, of course

ME: What exactly do you have against Third World countries?

One of the techniques of opening young people up is to require a college course in a non-Western culture. … the point is to force students to recognize that there are other ways of thinking and that Western ways are not better….But if the students were really to learn something of the minds of any of these non-Western cultures – which they do not – they would find that each and every one of these cultures is ethnocentric. All of them think their way is the best way and all others are inferior.

ME: You hold forth on Western culture’s superiority over the rest, but you don’t seem to know much about other cultures. Indian culture, for instance, has a rich tradition of openness to thoughts and philosophies from elsewhere. I am sure it isn’t the only one. Western culture has produced wonders: it simply isn’t the only worthwhile show in town

Only in the Western nations … is there some willingness to doubt the identification of the good….What we are really doing is …deforming the evidence of those other cultures to attest to its validity. The scientific study of other cultures is almost exclusively a Western phenomenon, and in its origin was obviously connected with the search for new and better ways, or at least for validation of the hope that our own culture really is the better way.… Consistency would seem to require professors of openness to respect the ethnocentrism, what they actually do is to assert unawares the superiority of their scientific understanding and the inferiority of the other cultures which do not recognize it at the same time that they reject all such claims to superiority.

ME: You speak of the inferiority of other peoples with a certainty that is disturbing. The Western philosophers YOU yourself hold in high esteem taught the world to doubt the identification of good. You have learnt nothing from them. To think that reading them was the ONLY thing you did your entire life!

The reason for the non-Western closedness, or ethnocentrism, is clear. Men must love and be loyal to their families and their peoples in order to preserve them. Only if they think their own things are good can they rest content with them. A father must prefer his child to other children, a citizen his country to others… And a man needs a place and opinions by which to orient himself… A very great narrowness is not incompatible with the health of an individual or a people, whereas with great openness it is hard to avoid decomposition.

ME: There is a reason people call their country the motherland. We love our mother not because she is the best mother in the world, but because she is ours. Respecting others’ mothers doesn’t diminish our love for her. Only a petty, little, man feels the need for his nation to be superior to all “others” as part of his patriotism. Yours, sir, is a weak, childish patriotism.

Science’s latest attempts to grasp the human situation – cultural relativism, historicism, the fact-value distinction – are the suicide of science….cultural relativism succeeds in destroying the West’s universal or intellectually imperialistic claims, leaving it to be just another culture.

ME: Wrong again. The openness of Western science has drawn millions of Asians, Africans and Latin Americans of both genders to science. Scientists around the world collaborate on a daily basis. Science is bustling with energy and activity today. It is Western civilization’s greatest triumph. It is your Nazi wet-dream of “Western intellectual imperialism” that committed suicide.

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Mankind on the Move

March 10, 2018 § 2 Comments

primitiveThe Primitive World and its Transformations (Redfield, Robert)

While studying the Zuni people of New Mexico, the anthropologist Ruth Bunzel found a woman potter, who made her own designs by making minute variations on the ancient traditional designs of the tribe. This woman denied that she copied others’ designs, condemned copying as unethical, and had a strong conviction that she was in fact inventive and creative. A few years later, while studying oral story-telling traditions in Bosnia, Albert Lord met story-tellers who could listen to a long epic story narrated by someone else, and who were able to then retell the tale in their own words, with their own embellishments, plot elements, metaphors and imagery. They would swear on everything holy that they had reproduced the story exactly as they heard it, without a single modification. They vehemently denied any imaginative creativity on their own part.

These are not two contradictory or unconnected anecdotes. They are the same fact. They tell us that the meaning of concepts like creativity and originality emerge from a body of social beliefs and values, and that these meanings are influenced by socio-economic transformations.

People – even literate people, with scientific schooling – have a surprisingly poor intuition on how data changes over a long period of time in the real world. We expect things to remain the same, or to change in predictably linear ways, right in front of our eyes. We assume that the things that we have never seen change, could never have been any different. People struggle to understand global warming, for instance, or our evolution from apes: because they feel cold in winter, or because they don’t see monkeys walking out of the forest. This is true of our understanding of how cultures, societies, languages, religions, and other traditions evolve: how words, stories and rituals acquire meaning and how that meaning transforms; how morality morphs, sometimes, from one set of rigid beliefs and practices to a different set of diametrically opposite but equally rigid beliefs and practices. Much of what we believe was “always true” about “our people” is possibly no more than a few generations old. But because we do not see things change in front of our eyes, we deny change altogether.  

Even when we accept that change must have occurred, our intuition still tells us that change must have come all of a sudden – during the course of a single year, or decade, or even generation. However, he process of socio-cultural change might have taken centuries to unfold. Often, we believe things must have changed because of one sudden, violent event – our day-to-day experience of change leads us to believe so. The tree was standing in the morning, it is flat on the ground now, ergo a violent gust of wind must have uprooted it. Similarly, when cultural values change, people often look for an invasion, a bloody revolution, murder and mayhem, as the cause. But, says Robert Redfield, it isn’t always so.



A Hindu “Little Culture”: female deity (Rudrakali) with an animal head. (Source: Sreedevi Balaji, Pinterest)


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A Fey Sense of Humor

January 2, 2018 § Leave a comment

bosspBossypants (Fey, Tina)

I hold Tina Fey in extremely high esteem. I think she is intelligent, incredibly funny, very creative, competent, sarcastic and self-deprecating in equal measure, and beautiful in a non-classical yet entirely pleasant way; and she never fails to remind me of a favorite cousin. She is everything one could ask for from a face on TV.

Bossypants is an autobiographical funny book, largely detailing her life growing up as an awkward girl, her initial break in Saturday Night Live, her successful stint at 30 Rock, and her celebrated return to SNL sketches in the guise of Governor Sarah Palin, all interwoven with large patches of angst and advice about parenting, work-life balance, relationships and feminism.

I have to admit, though, that I enjoyed the book as a studio audience would during the recording of an SNL episode. I landed up because I knew Tina was performing, I snickered spontaneously whenever it was expected of me, and I was sorry when it was over. But all along, I knew that the performance was not really meant for me. It was meant for a completely different audience. She was performing for people who understood the entertainment industry and its cast of characters, for awkward girls from Greek origin or other immigrant communities in small town America, for people who went to acting school, for comedians and improv artists, for dedicated fans of Saturday Night Live and/or 30 Rock, for career women racked with the guilt of in-absentia parenting, for mothers of only children, and for women holding their own in largely male-dominated professions. That is not a net cast narrowly, yet while I am positively disposed toward each of these constituencies, I fail to personally check any of the boxes. That said, I came away with more respect for her brand of intelligent humor than I had before, and that was substantial.

When I titled this post ‘A Fey Sense of Humor’, I meant the humor was uniquely and distinctly Tina Fey’s. With the capital F. The word “fey” (I had to look it up) means morbid, vague, unworldly and eccentric. Be assured: there is nothing fey about Tina’s sense of humor. She is as full of life and worldly-wise as anyone I’ve seen in New York, she is crisp as biscotti and clear as vodka; and as for eccentricity, fuggeddaboudit! Whaddaya want? She’s a New Yorker, for crying out aloud: even our tax accountants are eccentric.

  • Notes

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