The Meaning of Greatness: Baba Amte Wednesday, Mar 19 2008 

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Baba Amte’s brave and compassionate life bears the marks of greatness without any myths enveloping it. It’s when I tried to know about this great man that I understood the meaning of ‘naked truth’.

During the six decade long hard work he put into the making of Anandwan (Forest of Joy), providing “meaningful rehabilitation” to India’s leprosy patients and other outcasts, he never allowed any myth or label build around him or his work.

That’s no mean achievement in a country where gurus and yogis of all sorts abound; where common people are easily hoodwinked by peddlers on god preaching and publicizing the scope of their charity work.

Like Buddha, Baba Amte renounced all luxuries and privileges that were rightfully his by birth. But Amte’s goal was not enlightenment. He took his young wife and two little sons along with him and went in search of lepers and others rejected by ‘healthy society’ from its fold. He found them a place to live in, treated and nursed them, taught them productive skills and thereby restored their ‘self-respect’ and ‘self-worth’.

He showed the world how to build man out of his very ruin!

Baba Amte himself was handicapped by cervical spondylosis (degeneration of spine) for four decades. He couldn’t sit erect and stand or walk without support, so he was bed-ridden most of the time. Still, he directed all his activities from his bed and found joy in it. Of this he said, “…pain and sorrows became the witness to my happiness… I asked only to be used till I lie down in the company of mother earth.”

Yes, “to be used” – When Baba Amte died on 9 Feb 2008, at the ripe age of 93 years, he was buried as per his wish so that his body could become one with “mother earth” and be useful for plants.

Links: 1. For information on Anandwan and satellite projects click here. 2. For a biography of Baba Amte click here. 3. For another one click here. 4. For a short film on Baba and Anandwan click here. 5. Economist has an article on Baba Amte here.

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The Burden of Honor Monday, Mar 3 2008 

The burden of honor is more on the shoulders of women than men in India.

A man can err and it’s tolerated, but not so in the case of a woman. Her conduct is always scrutinized and no digression is tolerated or goes unpunished.

She’s required to conduct herself in accordance with all sorts of beliefs and practices regarding honor. If an unfortunate incident that could cast doubt on her honor occurs, the blame will never go. She’ll bear it all her life and suffer.

The great Indian epic Ramayana was created to tell the story of the most heroic, virtuous and perfect man, a man who protects Dharma (righteousness) under all circumstances, and therefore worthy of respect and adoration by all.

Rama, the hero of Ramayana, faces all sorts of trying situations and emerges victorious. His wife Sita willingly follows his footsteps and endures more. The demon king Ravana abducts Sita and carries her away. Rama kills him in a fierce battle and rescues her.

Rama returns to Ayodhya, the capital of his kingdom, to begin his reign with Sita as queen beside him.

But, for Sita it’s the beginning of another ordeal!

She undergoes an ordeal of fire to prove her chastity. Still the people of Ayodhya remain unconvinced and continue to doubt her. They wondered, “How can a woman who’d been in the custody of her abductor for months be chaste and pure? How can Rama, the protector of Dharma accept her?”

In the end Rama abandons her in the forest so that his subjects no longer doubt and question their king’s sense of righteousness!

Bastards No Longer! Wednesday, Feb 27 2008 

Live-in relationship is becoming common in India today. Economic boom, job opportunities for women and the lure of urban life have contributed to it.

Parents who have accepted ‘working woman’ status for their daughters and reluctantly let them go and live in a city alone and away from family are a worried lot today.

Indian society, which stigmatizes even love marriage, is grappling with the phenomenon of live-in relationship and searching for ways to deal with it.

But what surprises me most is the courage of these couples to prefer live-in relationship to marriage and face their parents and society firmly.

In a recent landmark judgment the Supreme Court of India has given legal protection to live-in relationship and legitimacy to children born of it. The court has said that such a relationship between a man and a woman is not a state of “concubinage”.

The ruling gives legitimacy to and upholds the property rights of children born of couples who have lived together for long. The court frowns upon inference of bastardy.

It’s a remarkable judgment and I hope it’ll encourage live-in couples to have children. They don’t have to fear the stigma of their children being bastards: They are legitimate in the eyes of law, at least.

But the Supreme Court cannot force societal acceptance of live-in couples and their children through its ruling. Ours is not an enlightened society. Custom and tradition have strong hold on it and most people feel safe following them.

Faith-based Investment Thursday, Feb 21 2008 

Have you heard of religious faith based investing? Those of you who are good at making money in the stock market or working in the management or the financial sector may have.

But I haven’t until I came across this story in Businessweek. I was really surprised to read it.

I knew that in Islamic countries they follow or try to follow economic practices based on Sharia.

But Dow Jones pioneered an Islamic market Index in compliance with Sharia in 1999.

In line with Islamic market Index, they’ve now launched Indic (especially Hindu and Buddhist) religion based Dow Jones Dharma Indexes in partnership with Dharma Investments, an Indian firm. (there are four country specific indexes: India, the U.S., the U.K. And Japan).

The move is aimed at helping people invest in stocks that are in sync with their religious beliefs!

The stocks of the companies that uphold opposition to animal slaughter, protection of environment and good corporate governance are Dharmic.

To measure dharma-compliant stocks The Dow Jones Dharma Indexes “track more than 3,400 companies globally, including about 1,000 in the U.S.”

IBM, Apple and Intel are examples of Dharma compliant companies in the U.S.

Infosys, HDFC, ICICI, L & T, etc., are some of the 254 Dharma compliant companies in India.

Three boards of experts, gurus and academicians supervise the screening of companies.

  • The Advisory Committee provides guidance and establishes the principles for the methodology.
  • The Supervisory Board interprets the principles and creates and implements the screening criteria in accordance with the methodology.
  • The Dow Jones Dharma Religious Council ratifies and endorses the established guidelines and methodology.

All companies are reviewed quarterly.

Many companies are excluded from the indexes because they “are deemed unacceptable due to the nature of their business activities and operations…” and they “have exposure to unacceptable business practices.”

Aerospace and defense, casinos and gaming, tobacco, alcohol, adult entertainment, etc., are businesses/companies excluded!

Predictably several spiritual leaders and scholars in India have welcomed the initiative and sent their blessings and support.

One typical message said:

“Trust is the breath of business, ethics its limbs, to uplift the spirit its goal.”

(Other links: Hoovers, Washingtonpost.com, The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.)

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Monday, Feb 18 2008 

The death of the Transcendental Meditation Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi recently had global coverage. The media coverage underscored his celebrity status.

The Yogi was ushered into stardom when celebrity disciples like Beatles flocked to him in 1960’s. Since then he had become a star in his own right and continued to attract the limelight through his various yoga programs and pronouncements.

I’ve read obituaries by two of his illustrious disciples who went on to become very famous like their Guru.

1) Deepak Chopra: The new age fusion guru of alternative medicine and spirituality. He attributes his success to the blessing of his Guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He said:

Maharishi began the spiritual renaissance. He was one of the most significant figures of the century. Personally, I owe everything to him. Everything I have learnt, I have learnt from him. He has influenced some of the most important people of this century. The Maharishi had grandiose ideas — sometimes even impractical — but he was a great man. …It’s enough to say I am who I am because of my Guru. I’m grateful that I was part of his dream. If there is such a thing as ‘devaloka’, they must surely be celebrating and welcoming a great sage. (Link)

2) Shri Shri Ravi Shankar: The Art of Living Foundation guru who has a huge following world wide. He credits ‘Maharishiji’ with his own spiritual advancement.

Definitely he has taken a trick or two from his Guru Mahesh Yogi himself to found his own outfit. His trademark product, like the Maharishi’s Transcendental Meditation, is Sudarshan Kriya. Practise the Kriya and you’ve found the key to personal fulfillment and the secret of universe! Shri Shri said:

Maharishiji was a unique combination of emperor and ascetic, perfect disciple and Jagadguru, modern scientist and deep traditionalist. He respected all sadhus alike. In the body he was Brahmastha, now he is Brahmaleen. (Link)

He laid the foundation for a new world based on the knowledge of Vedas and spirituality. There was none like him and none shall ever be. (Link)

Monks and Wolves Thursday, Feb 14 2008 

Since the last terrorist attack in Hyderabad all major shopping malls have set up security checks. The security people open and check the bags before putting them away at the counter, frisk you and run the detector all over you.

One day when I was coming out of a mall I saw two young Hindu monks clad in their trademark saffron robes accompanied by a 60+ woman in saree coming up.

The woman turned her head left and right and scanned everyone’s face.  She seemed to be asking proudly: Don’t you see me moving around flanked by two holy men?

The monks had cloth bags hanging on their shoulders, but they didn’t care to deposit them at the counter. Instead, they went straight to the entrance. The men at the bags counter looked at each other, but didn’t direct the monks to hand over the bags. They were at a loss to know what to do with the monks.

The monks and the woman reached the entrance and stood there. The security man at the door hesitated for a moment. Suddenly he bowed respectfully and opened the doors for them. The monks and the woman went in.

No checking the holy ones!

The meek and submissive behavior of the security men and their utter disregard to their normal duty shocked me.

The saffron clad men and the woman accompanying them could be wolves in a sheep’s clothing!

With such security men around you can expect more terrorist strikes.

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School-hunting Tuesday, Feb 12 2008 

My son Pranav’s third birthday is on 2 May 2008. We wish to send him to school form this June when the new academic year starts. So we’ve already visited a school.

Although compulsory education begins only at the age of six in India, it’s impossible to get admission at age six into class one in a good school, if a child hasn’t done kindergarten: Lower and upper KG, one year each. And, if the child hasn’t gone to nursery, it’s going to be very hard to find a seat in kindergarten!

So, almost everyone ends up sending their children to school very early: one year nursery and two years kindergarten before joining class one at the age of six. Children start grappling with grade one lessons in kindergarten itself. If they’re not already smart at them, ‘NO’ seat for them in class one. (There’s separate interview for parents and they are expected to be smarter than their kids!)

The school we visited follows alternative education (Waldorf education of Rudolf Steiner) up to class seven and prepares children for CBSE (central syllabus) exam from class eight.

We didn’t like the teacher who dealt with us there because her way with my son was not in accordance with the system of education they claim to follow. She tried to be polite and decent with us but was obviously rude with our child. Philosophy on paper but not in practice.

But you can’t like everyone and everything in a school and then seek admission for your kid.

We’ll be visiting some other schools before choosing one.

Schooling has turned parenting into a nightmare. This BBC story and the comments tell it all.

The Learning Lab Initiative by AMD Thursday, Feb 7 2008 

Chip manufacturing company, AMD, and American India Foundation (AIF) launched a learning lab on the premises of a Government Girls High School in Hyderabad on Wednesday to impart computer education to students.

The lab was launched under AMD’s 50×15 initiative that aims at connecting 50 per cent of the world’s population to the Internet by 2015.

Over 450 students will be taught the basics of using a computer in the lab that consists of 14 computers equipped with AMD Athlon Dual Core processor and a Windows Vista operating system.

Since most of the students of the school come from families that cannot dream of giving their children computer education, the initiative has generated great enthusiasm among the students. (Link)

Backhoe Fade Wednesday, Feb 6 2008 

Backhoe Fade is a new word that I’ve learned in connection with the disruption of Internet services in this part of the world since the end of January, caused by underwater cable cuts near Alexandria and elsewhere.

On 30th and 31st Jan, I experienced the outage: It was very difficult to access Gmail and I couldn’t access Multiply for a day. Of course, some other web pages were not loading or unbearably slow.

When the service was almost back to normal, unfortunately for me my connection was snapped because of a local “backhoe fade’ for one night and most of the next day.

It looked like a conspiracy!

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Mahatma Gandhi and Books Thursday, Jan 31 2008 

Mahatma Gandhi fell to an assassin’s bullet 60 years ago. It was gandhiji’s death anniversary yesterday (30 Jan 2008).

I’ve been thinking of the influence of books on his life since I posted ‘bibliotherapy‘ about self-help books and reading.

Gandhiji was not a voracious reader, yet books played a crucial role in the making of the Mahatma. The role of two of them was more radical than that of others. 

The two books were the Bhagavadgita, probably the most famous and influential of Hindu scriptures, and Unto This Last, four essays by John Ruskin.

The Bhagavadgita (the Gita)

Gandhiji read the Gita in England during his years there as a law student. He was reading the Gita for the first time and in English.

He felt the Gita was a book of “priceless worth” and years later he called it “the book par excellence for the knowledge of Truth.” A few years later the Bhagavadgita became a book of daily reading and “an infallible guide of conduct” for Gandhiji. He said:

“Just as I turned to the English dictionary for the meanings of English words that I did not understand, I turned to this dictionary of conduct for a ready solution of all my troubles and trials.” (Link)

He went on to write his own translation of the Gita in response to the earnest requests of his followers. He called it ‘Anasaktiyoga (the Yoga of Detachment/Desireless Action)’.

The Bhagavadgita was like a mother to Gandhiji, because he would turn to it whenever despair and confusion assailed him and like a mother the scripture never failed to give him solace and guidance.

Until his last day Gandhiji strived to attain the perfection of the man of god realization that the Gita speaks of. He would often tell that he was far from his goal!

But it is interesting to know how he learned the Bhagavadgita. He had found his calling and become a hugely popular leader in South Africa. Public work occupied all his time. Gandhiji would never allow even the study of the Gita interrupt the work to which he was devoted, so he devised a curious method for the study of the scripture:

“I employed the time of my morning ablutions. The operation took me thirty-five minutes, fifteen minutes for the tooth brush and twenty for the bath. The first I used to do standing in western fashion. So on the wall opposite I stuck slip of paper on which were written the Gita verses and referred to them now and then to help my memory. This time was found sufficient for memorizing the daily portion and recalling the verses already learnt.” (Link)

Unto This Last

Gandhiji read Ruskin’s essays in South Africa in 1904. It brought “instantaneous and practical transformation” in him. Gandhiji describes his encounter with the book in his autobiography. The chapter is titled ‘The Magic Spell of a Book‘ and it is very famous.

Gandhiji read the work in 1904 during the course of a 24 hour train journey from Johannesburg to Durban. He was deeply stirred by the three principles he discovered in it and decided to change his life in accordance with them. By the time he got off the train he was a changed man!

The three principles as he understood them were:

  1. That the good of the individual is contained the good of all.
  2. That a lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s inasmuch as all have the same right of earning their livelihood from their work.
  3. That a life of labour, i.e., the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman is the life worth living.

He founded The Phoenix Settlement on the ideals of Unto This Last. It was the first Gandhian Ashram.

Later Gandhiji paraphrased Unto This Last into Gujarati and published it as ‘Sarvodaya (Welfare for All)’.

‘Many years after, stressing what he owed to Great Britain, Gandhi wrote: “Great Britain gave me Ruskin, whose Unto This Last transformed me overnight from a lawyer and city-dweller into a rustic living away from Durban on a farm, three miles from the nearest railway station.”‘ (Link)

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