Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Tales from the Mahabharata 13 - Fated to Fail, the Sarpa Satra

Sarpa satra of Janamajeya
(credit: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
Yagyas do not always end happily in the Mahabharata. I wrote about two such sacrifices earlier, both performed by Yudhishthira. The most famous was the first one - the Rajsuya Yagya. It ended with the death of Shishupala at the hands of Krishna, and initiated a series of events that culminated finally with the eighteen-day war on the battlefield at Kurukshetra.

My favourite however is the Sarpa Satra. This was the sacrifice initiated by Janamejaya to avenge his father's death, who had been bitten to death by Takshaka. The sacrifice was to ensure the destruction of all snakes. The sacrifice started, but did not complete. It was halted, at the instructions of Janamejaya himself! What followed thereafter was the first public retelling of the tale of the sons of Krishna Dvapayana.

So who were batting - so to say - for the sacrifice to be successful?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Hygiene as the New Burden

The white man's burden, 1898 Detroit Journal cartoon
Remember the “White Man’s Burden” – the phrase that grew out of Rudyard Kipling’s nineteenth-century poem of the same name, and which exhorted the white man to take on the “burden” of colonizing and serving their “captives’ need”? This was but a natural duty befalling the white man because in the words of the Scottish philosopher David Hume, “negroes” and “all other species of men … to be naturally inferior to the whites.”

Well, times have changed. It is now no longer politically palatable to be using such phrases. What has however stayed invariant is the assumption of the west’s superiority over the unwashed, unlettered heathens. Hygiene is the latest burden the western man has to bear.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

History - 1 - The Accumulated Wealth of 348 Years

Nadir Shah at the sack of Delhi
(credit: Wikpedia, the free encyclopedia)
Of all the depredations that Delhi has suffered over the centuries at the hands of invaders, the one that stands out the most is the plunder by Nadir Shah in 1739. The Mughal empire would finally dissolve more than a century after this event, though it had started to become dissolute and decrepit after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707.

Nadir Shah had consolidated his position in Persia, and had conquered Kandahar to buttress the security of his eastern provinces. This conquest of Kandahar however left him cash-strapped for further conquests against the Turks. He wanted territory, money, and fame. The decaying Mughal empire looked like an ideal candidate to satisfy all three urges.

Nadir Shah's pretext, we are told, for invading India was the Mughal ruler's refusal to stop giving asylum to the Afghan rebels that had been troubling the eastern provinces of Nadir Shah's kingdom. This is only partially true. Such firmness in refusing Nadir Shah would have been quite out of character for Muhammad Shah.

Nadir Shah had first sent two envoys - Ali Mardan Khan Shamlu and Muhammad Ali Khan - to deliver this request to Muhammad Shah - the Mughal emperor - but "had received evasive replies." Nadir Shah then sent Muhammad Khan Turkman as his Persian envoy to deliver another protest to Muhammad Shah, with instructions to the envoy that he not "prolong his stay beyond forty days." Muhammad Shah again did not give any firm reply. Instead, "his advisers wasted their time in the controversy as to how to address the Persian upstart." The last straw for Nadir Shah was "the murder of two Persian courtiers who had been sent to Delhi under escort to bring news of Muhammad Khan Turkman."

Monday, September 7, 2015

Gita for Children, by Roopa Pai

The Gita for Children, by Roopa Pai

Yes, there is a need for one more book on the Gita. This one fits a particular niche quite well.

On the one hand you have over-simplified adaptations of the Bhagavad Gita that throw in a sentence or two from the text but fail to either capture the essence or its substance, leaving the young reader none the wiser at the end. On the other hand you have scholarly translations with detailed commentaries that bring a life's worth of study to bear on the subject, are a joy to read, but are ipso-facto mostly out of reach of most children, unless assisted by an adult. Then there are books that seek to bridge this gap, like Swami Chinmayananda's "Gita For Children" - but even that is more a parent's reading companion than a book meant to be read by children.

Roopa Pai's book, "The Gita For Children", therefore fills a much-needed gap. It's a book written for children, makes even the difficult sections of the Gita accessible to children, and which patiently explores some of the knottier questions that arise when reading the profound work. Actual shlokas from Gita are also present - the most obvious ones are all there - but used sparingly.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Tales from the Mahabharata - 16 - Black, White, and Coloured Too

Kurukshetra (credit: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
The Mahabharata has lived for thousands of years for the reason that it serves as that vast ocean human emotions in which everyone can pour their own understanding and find acceptance without judgment.

There is an innate human desire to see and interpret things in a monochromatic palette of black-and-white. One could argue that stereotyping is an "energy-saving" device that allows us to make "efficient decisions on the basis of past experiences." ("Stereotypes as energy-saving devices: A peek inside the cognitive toolbox") . Therefore, is it any surprise that many of us look at the characters in the Mahabharata also through similar, stereotypical lenses? It simplifies things if we view Duryodhana as the jealous usurper, Shakuni as the manipulative uncle, Bhishma as the noble but helpless elder, Arjuna as the hero, Karna as the tragic and righteous hero fighting on the wrong side, and so on. No, it is not quite proper or kosher to include in this group of admirers (and critics) of the Mahabharata those that bring their own neuroses and neo-colonial prejudices!

Ganga presents Devavrata
to Shantanu
(credit: B.P. Banerjee, via
the free encyclopedia)
Bhishma, who took a vow of celibacy to ensure that his stepmother Satyavati's sons would reign, and yet who ended up acting as father to three generations of Kurus - Satyavati's sons Vichitravirya and Chitrangada; then Dhritarashtra, Pandu, and Vidura; and finally the Pandavas and Kauravas. Bhishma, who renounced the throne and yet ruled Hastinapura as the regent for most of his life, on behalf of his step-brothers and step-sons. Bhishma, who took a vow of lifelong bachelorhood and yet was cursed by a woman - not for harassing or molesting her, but for not marrying her! Not quite the life a celibate bachelor would have imagined. His own father's boon to him - that of choosing the time of his own death - would see him lie on the battlefield of Kurukshetra for fifty-eight nights, pierced with arrows shot at him by his beloved grandson Arjuna.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

History - 3 - Battle of Palkhed

Peshwa Baji Rao I riding a horse
(source: Wikipedia)
Among the notable battles fought in India, the Battle of Palkhed, between Peswha Baji Rao I and the Nizam-ul-Mulk, would not readily spring to mind for many. Which is a pity, for several reasons. While the three battles of Panipat – in 1526, 1556, and 1761, the battles of Talikota in 1565, Plassey in 1757, and Buxar in 1764, are rightly remembered for their pivotal impact on India’s history, the battle of Palkhed does not readily spring to mind. It should, for it is not only one of the notable battles in history, it also holds lessons that perhaps deserve a closer look.

The battle of Palkhed was fought in 1728, between the armies of Baji Rao, the second Peshwa of Maharaj Shahu, and the Nizam. A brief look at the three principal players who were involved directly or indirectly reveals a fascinating if not turgid brew of politics and intrigue that had by then become the staple of the putrefying Mughal empire in Delhi.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Mahabharata Vol 10 - Swarajya Review

My review of Dr. Bibek Debroy's Mahabharata, Volume 10, was published in Swarajya on March 27, 2015, titled, "3 Years with Vyasa" (the title was not my idea; credit to the Swarajya team for that!)

The Mahabharata, Volume 10

Translated by Bibek Debroy

Or Three Years with Vyasa
In the Ramayana, most of us think of the epic as ending after the reunion of Rama with his sons and Sita's descent into Mother Earth. We don't often ask or care to know how did Rama and Laxman die - both were after all human. Similarly, for most of us, the Mahabharata had for all practical purposes ended with the defeat of the Kauravas on the plains of Kurukshetra, and with Yudhishthira crowned the rightful king. What after that? Sure, Parikshit was crowned king when Yudhishthira ascended heaven in his human form. We also know of the faithful dog who accompanied him along the way. But there are several details that are often glossed over in most retellings. A reading of the unabdridged Mahabharata is therefore revealing on many fronts.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Tales from the Mahabharata - 12 - Yudhishthira's Chilling Words

A chilling side to Yudhishthira's personality came to the fore as the Kurukshetra war was dying down. My piece appeared in Swarajya on 12th April, 2015.

Not a quarter given
Yudhishthira is revered as dharma-raj, the man who never uttered a lie (except for one very prominent occasion during the War and at least one other occasion when he knowingly chose to remain silent lest he be proven a liar). Yudhishthira saved his brother Bhima when he had been trapped in a python's coils - Nahusha in a cursed form. Yudhishthira's wisdom was what revived his brothers during the famous Yaksha prashna samvad in the Aranyaka Parva. His insistence on the truth was noble, indubitably, but at times it grated. His brothers - Bhima mostly, but Arjuna also - chafed under the yoke of what they saw an unreasonable burden of dharma.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tales from the Mahabharata 11 - Something About Yudhishthira and Sacrifices

My piece on the curious tendency of yagya's to not go off as planned in the Mahabharta was published in Swarajya on April 5, 2015.

Among the many sacrifices described in the Mahabharata, three stand out. There is the Rajsuya Yagya, performed by Yudhishthira, and described in Sabha Parva. Then there is the Sarpa Satra, the snake sacrifice that became the raison d'ĂȘtre for the first public telling of the story of the Bharata family. The third is the horse sacrifice, performed by Yudhishthira after the Kurukshetra war. There are also other sacrifices - like the sacrifice that resulted in the birth of Droupadi and Dhrishtadyumna - but those are not described in as much details as these three are.

Among the three listed above, the Rajsuya and Ashvamedha sacrifices are very interesting, but not quite for the reasons that would immediately come to mind.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Flipkart - 5 - Focus and Free Advice

I wrote about the obsession of Flipkart (and Myntra) with "mobile-only" without even having an iPad-optimized app! I also talked about the stunning advances being made in voice-search by using machine learning, cognitive learning, natural language processing, even as voice-based search capabilities of e-commerce companies - including Amazon - remain abysmal. Finally, I also included several use-cases that these companies need to work on incorporating into their capabilities.

That piece, Flipkart, Focus and Free Advice, appeared in DNA on June 27th, 2015.

My earlier pieces on the same topic:

  1. Flipkart vs Amazon: Beware the Whispering Death - 20th April '15 (blog, dna)
  2. Mobile Apps: There’s Something (Profitable) About Your Privacy - 18th April '15  (blog, dna)
  3. Mobile advertising and how the numbers game can be misleading - 14th April '15  (blog, dna)
  4. Is Flipkart losing focus - 12th April '15  (blog, dna)

Flipkart, Focus, and Free Advice – Shipping Charges Also Waived!

What is one to make of a statement like this - “India is not mobile-first, but mobile-only country[1]”? Especially so if it is from the co-founder of the largest ecommerce company in India, and it turns out the company does not even have an app for the Apple iPad?

I have written at length on the distractions that seem to have been plaguing Flipkart and why it cannot afford to drop its guard in this fiercely contested space[2] - especially in light of all the noise surrounding its mobile ambitions. Somewhat paradoxically, this post is about offering advice to Flipkart that calls for some diversification!

As a logical next step, I wanted to take a look at Flipkart’s mobile apps – both on the iOS and Android platforms – to see how well they were executing on their very bold ambitions. As an aside, I also wanted to see if these (and competitive) mobile apps were leveraging all the computing power now available on tap inside these tiny devices. After all, apart from the recent – and amazing – advances Google has made in its voice-based search capabilities[3], there was this stunning demo from Hound[4] that gave a glimpse into the huge advances that voice-recognition, search, and machine-learning technologies have made in the last decade.

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