Monday, May 13, 2019

Stri Parva and Gandhari's Curse

H
ow do you curse God, and do it justifiably so? What is the arc of the geometry of rage? Does it rise up into a crescendo and then subside after it has found an outlet? Or does it ebb and flow, crest and trough? How does one react to being cursed? How would God react to such a curse? As curses go, there are many instances in the Puranas of gods being cursed. Indra is perhaps in the unfortunate position of being the recipient of the most curses. Even Vishnu was cursed by Narada to be born as a human. But Gandhari cursing Krishna is possibly one without parallel. Dharma was cursed, and was born as Vidura. The Vasus were cursed and had to be born as the sons of Ganga. But a god being cursed? Not only did Gandhari curse Krishna, she cursed his entire tribe, the race of the Yadavas. In it, there are several lessons to be learned.
Mahabharata, Volume 5, Gorakhpur Gita Press

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Like A Girl

Of Omissions and Commissions and Parallel Universes

It is not as if role models for girls are in short supply in India. The problem is more of awareness of such role models. Therefore, when a book like 'Like a Girl', written by Aparna Jain, came along, and when I was approached if I would be interested in reviewing it, I was inquisitive, to say the least. The book is broken up into fifty-one short chapters and read (I listened to the audio book, via Audble) by several persons - Suchitra Pillai, Varsha Varghese, Tisca Chopra, Aparna Jain, Ritu Dalmia, Malishka Mendonsa, Kirti Jayakumar, and Rasika Duggal. This goes nicely with the different chapters that cover different characters, and therefore there is no perceived discontinuity. Each narrator brings her own personality to the rendition. Less can be said about the content, however, which is fairly anodyne and rarely rises above the literary level of a hastily-written Wikipedia article.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

A mother who abandoned her son. A mother who could not.

K
unti abandoned her first-born son, Karna, almost immediately after birth. Gandhari aborted her first foetus out of frustration. There in lies a tale of two mothers.

Kunti did not abort Karna. Perhaps the swiftness with which Karna was born after her union with Lord Surya did not afford her the opportunity, or perhaps she did not want to, since foeticide was an abominable crime. In any case, what the Mahabharata tells us that she did not keep this child. She abandoned him, and the infant was found by the charioteer and raised by his wife, Radha, as their own son. Kunti went on to marry the Kuru king, Pandu, becoming the mother of the five Pandavas. Three of the sons were hers, and two were Madri's. Had she allowed herself to be stained with the stigma of unwed motherhood, perhaps there would not have been a Kunti as we know her. She would not have been even a footnote in the Mahabharata.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Flight of Deities, by Meenakshi Jain

Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples: Episodes from Indian History, by Meenakshi Jain


One-line review: a wrenching tale of the destruction of Hindu temples across the land, the crushing of a culture, the desperate and often doomed attempts to save deities from desecration and destruction, and the tentative, sporadic, diffident shoots of revival - more heard of than seen - point to a once-great civilization in the last throes of its inevitable end.

Short review: Meenakshi Jain's latest book chronicles the destruction of temples, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain, over the centuries at the hands of mostly Islamic invaders, and the attempts made, where possible, by the faithful to preserve the deities by ferreting them out of the temples before the marauders came to destroy temples and idols. These attempts succeeded sometimes, and it would take years, decades, or sometimes, even centuries, for those idols to be retrieved and returned to their rightful place. In many cases, however, the idols were lost forever. Wherever temples were destroyed, there were consistent attempts to resurrect them and to revive the practice of worship there, but the scale was always diminished, the spirit subdued, a pall of fear hovering the faithful like a shroud, the prospect of a second, third, fourth round of destruction never far away. In some cases, like Kashmir, even the memory of temples destroyed has faded. While the rise of British colonialism would wreak further untold havoc on the economy and the spirit of the nation, the one good that seems to have come out from colonialism was the work done by British archaeologists in uncovering and documenting scores of accounts of temple destruction. After independence, any hopes of a revival of a faith suppressed for a millennia would soon be cruelly crushed. Between the criminal apathy shown by the Archaeological Survey of India, a rapacious state that took over the control and management of Hindu temples, starving them of funds and looting their lands, and an educational system that instills a deep sense of hatred of Hinduism among Hindus, it may not be an exaggeration to state that the final nail in Hinduism's coffin, in a manner of speaking, has been planted.

Long review:
Out of sight, out of mind - goes the adage. The same could be said about Hindu temples also. As the temples of the Hindus were destroyed across the land, so did the memory about places that had once been sacred for centuries or more fade. Adherents did what they could to sustain their faith, but even that diminished over the years as their numbers themselves diminished. Eventually, memories of sacred places and temples would live on only in oral traditions and sometimes written accounts. Meenakshi Jain's book is an account of the destruction of Hindu temples, their deities, the flight of some of those deities, and the sporadic and desperate attempts to revive those places of worship and return the deities to their original abode.

Multan was first referred to its modern name by the Chinese traveller, Hiuen Tsang, who came to Multan in 641 CE, and called the town Mulasthanpura (city of the frontier land). Tradition held that Multan was founded by the sage Kashyapa, father of the twelve Adityas. Kashyapa's son, Hiranyakashyipu, was killed by Vishnu's incarnation, Narasimha, at Multan. The Sun temple at Multan was supposed to have been constructed by Samba, Krishna's son, who initiated Sun worship in the town. Another temple at Multan, the Prahladpuri temple, was where the festival of Holika dahan commenced. To say that Multan was an important and sacred city in the geography of Hinduism would be an understatement.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Chalta Hai India, by Alpesh Patel

Chalta Hai India: When ‘It’s Ok!’ is Not Ok, by Alpesh Patel

Amazon IN, Kindle IN

Publisher: Bloomsbury India (October 2018)
ISBN-10: 9388038665, ISBN-13: 978-9388038669

Necessity may be the mother of invention, and in some cases, the midwife of innovation. In India, poverty, under-industrialization, a closed economy, and a socialist model of economic planning kept her in abject poverty for decades. Every little step taken necessitated innumerable hacks and compromises. Over time, this band-aid approach became popularized as "jugaad". Its romanticizing apart, jugaad was in reality a byword for compromises, corner cutting, and a rationalization of mediocrity. It became a stick to beat anyone up with who questioned sloppiness and demanded world-class perfection. Chalta-hai - it's OK, became the catch-all phrase to justify shoddy quality.

The premise of the book is simple and straightforward enough - is India a "chalta-hai" nation? Are we consistently and uniformly accepting of mediocrity? Is this a relatively recent phenomenon, or has it been an immutable part of our nation? What are the symptoms of a “chalta hai” attitude? Can we break it down further? Is it pervasive across every sphere of life, or are there bright spots of excellence that one can look to for inspiration?

Let’s take two examples, both stark. In 1950, the author writes, both India and China had roughly the same share of global GDP. By 2015, China’s share of global GDP had shot to 16 percent, while India was at 7 percent.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Idol Thief, by S Vijay Kumar

The Idol Thief: The True Story of the Looting of India's Temples, by S. Vijay Kumar


W

oven around the dramatic chase across the world to bring down the most prolific and high-profile trafficker of temple idols is a tale of avaricious museums, apathetic governments, honest policemen, and avid bloggers.

This book, based on the author’s painstaking research into the events and characters as well as his own efforts at tracking down stolen idols and collaborating with authorities across the world, reads like a Dan Brown thriller. That is a strong testament to Vijay Kumar’s skills in the way he is able to marshal an astonishing array of faces and facts and locations into a gripping, coherent narrative.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Navigating Brahma's Paradox - Tales From the Ramayana

W
hat is a paradox? According to Wikipedia, a paradox is "is a statement that, despite apparently sound reasoning from true premises, leads to an apparently-self-contradictory or logically unacceptable conclusion."

Navigating Brahma's Paradox


As an example, consider the Liar paradox where a liar makes a statement, "This statement is false." If the liar is lying, as is his nature, then the statement is true, in which case the liar is lying, and the statement is true, which it is not, and so on… Or take its related version - "You must reject this statement I am now making to you, because all the statements I make are incorrect. It's a favourite of mine (it appeared in a short story, "The Monkey Wrench", by Gordon R Dickson, in the August 1951 issue of 'Astounding Science Fiction'). What is the consequence of a paradox? In the case of the "Monkey Wrench", not very good, at all.

The Ramayana contains at least one instance where we witness a paradox in the making. An impossible situation arises that is averted, and which leaves one wondering, "what if".

The story is described in Sarga 20-22 of Uttara Kanda, the last kanda in the Ramayana. Interspersed in this story are several other fascinating nuggets that are worth sharing.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Sardar Patel - The Man Who Saved India, by Hindol Sengupta

The Man Who Saved India: Sardar Patel and His Idea of India, by Hindol Sengupta

I
f you want to understand the insidiousness of narratives, pay close attention not only to those who are written about. Pay more attention to that which is left unsaid, and at those who legacy and history are ignored, those political leaders who are rarely written about. In the narrative that was planted in India in the decades following Independence, Sardar Patel's name was conspicuous by its absence. Growing up in socialist India in the 1970s and 1980s, I recall Sardar Patel's name as taken only in the safety and privacy of homes, behind closed curtains, where the elders would cautiously whisper about the man who united India and who should have been prime minister instead of Nehru. We, the children, would wonder who this man was. Who was Sardar Patel, about whom not even a line could be found in our government-sanctioned history textbooks, and about whom one rarely heard a word on the government-run AIR and Doordarshan?

But the legend of Sardar Patel sustained, nurtured by those who had lived through Partition to see one man unite India in the years following Independence and by those who saw a dizzying array of blunders by its first prime minister sink India deeper and deeper into a morass of corruption, socialism, and poverty.