Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Yours Faithfully

As humans, we have great fun applying labels on each other, including ourselves. Indian! American! Left-centric. Socialist. Gooner. Red Devil. On-Facebook. Not-on-Facebook! Hindu. Muslim. Christian. Monotheist. Atheist. Agnostic. Believer. The list is endless, and we discover new ones to label ourselves with each day. But, perhaps the one labeling that has stood the test of time is the one related to one's belief in God. The Wikipedia page on Theism presents one with the remarkable array of labels one can apply on a "believer".

Let me define the terms of engagement briefly, as I see them.

Theist: Believes in at least one God, most often a personal God, that has been accepted as the creator of the Universe and as the one responsible for its governance or maintenance.

Atheist: Believes that there is no need for a God entity to explain the Universe, and that rigorous logical analysis (Science) satisfactorily answers all questions the human mind can raise about the world around us.

Agnostic: Believes that they do not have sufficient knowledge to choose sides and perhaps even admit that they may never have an answer to questions regarding the Universe.

Once you try to dissect these terms however, it is remarkable how all the arguments seem to sound similar, except in the final mental image they seek to achieve.

Fundamental Basis of Belief
It would be difficult to deny the fact that what category we fall under when we try to label ourselves with one of the 3 labels listed above has much to do with how we were brought up and what kind of influences affected us through life. There is absolutely no link between education levels and a lack of belief in God. It is wrong to say atheists are usually highly educated. and vice-versa. I have met physics majors, deeply involved in Quantum Theory, who are devout Christians at the same time.

If one has parents that actively practice some religion, it is but natural that they will be introduced early into a life surrounded by theories about God and related religious beliefs. In families where reasoning and questioning is encouraged, children seem to grow up free of any imposed religious beliefs, but this does not imply they couldn't be affected by an influence later in life - a book, someone wise whom you respect, a tragic event. Ultimately, it all comes down to what you believe in. Some idea forces itself into your head, and you mull over it long enough to actually start believing it.

I Believe in Science
To the atheists who claim - "I believe in Science, and Science has proven there is no need for an entity named God to explain the Universe and human creation. You give me a question, Science will find an answer - Evolution, Big Bang, Gravity." - I ask, do you really understand as much of Science as you believe in? Do you really understand how Gravity works? Do you really still think matter is made up of spheres with revolving electrons and a sun-like nucleus in the middle, and by dissecting these "particles" someday we will know what the "God particle" is? Have you heard of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and how it throws a spanner in the works of any "scientific" observation or experiment? Or is it that you believe that the scientists are smart and intelligent, and you would rather hedge your bets on such intellects compared to the medieval saints who "meditate and levitate".

Ask any established Physicist, and they will tell you that Physics has hardly made any significant breakthrough in the last 80 years. The problems have become a lot harder than the ones we started out with - observations have not answered all our questions, but have instead thrown forth new and much more difficult ones. The very essence of Quantum Theory screams "I am not sure, but I can give you deterministic probabilities". It doesn't surprise me that so many Physicists eventually realise they may not get an answer in their lifetime, and try to seek solace outside Science at the same time as they pursue their research.

I Believe in a Supreme Force
It's hard to put forth examples about the hollow and shallow nature of religion as a whole without hurting particular sentiments, so I must desist from doing that. One thing is clear though - if there was a God, my God would not have to be superior to yours. Most of what we call religion can be summed up as a really "dumbed down", generally applicable abstract of what their founders meant for it to be, and too focused on "rules and practices" for a reasoning human to accept freely. When children ask their parents about some peculiar practice they notice during a festival or worship, we scold them for asking, instead of realising we are following something we do not understand nor dared to question ourselves. Reasoning and questioning are the most precious gifts we have inherited as humans, and what can be more insulting to the God one prays to, to forgo the gifts He has bestowed upon us?

One respects their parents and having been born in a family where both parents practice one religion with faith, one was bound to end up following in their footsteps. Another heard a preacher at a time when they were going through immense personal upheaval, and heard a bell ring and answered the calling. Yet another was preached by someone who they deemed to be morally and spiritually superior, and out of fear of retribution by said God decided to accept the prescribed religious ways.

To all Theists I say - "Have you understood what your religious founders really set out to preach? Or do you think they were preaching trivialities (like Heaven/Hell) that everyone thought they understood, and there was no need for any further inquiry? Which of the human problems - fear, wars, hatred, greed - has any preacher of God been able to overcome yet? Or did you think the problems are all because we don't all believe in the same God? Is that even possible? If I asked you to describe the qualities of God, which is ultimately an image developed and embedded in your head over time, do you think everyone else would use the same qualities to describe God as well?"

I Believe I Must Believe
The last category of agnostics, at least put up a humble front when faced with the problem by throwing their hands up and saying "I am open to more information, but I doubt I can ever reasonably come to a conclusion". The other categories label them as weak, indecisive. The one appreciative quality agnostics portray is an inquisitiveness regarding everything. They realise they will likely never get all the answers, but they regard the reasoning ability of humans to be the essence of what they want to base their lives on. Yet, in believing they can never get an answer, they find comfort in the belief that life cannot give you all the answers. It may sound to be a weaker belief, but once again, man hasn't escaped the comfort and security of believing in something.

The great philosopher Adi Shankaracharya, is known to have furious debates about Advaita - non-dualism - with other theists and atheists of his time. It is hard to get away from the fact that this was also based on a personal belief - albeit perhaps one that was reasoned by a questioning and ruminating mind after dwelling for years on ancient manuscripts.

We would all love to have answers for all the questions our minds throw up each day. It is possible there is an answer - one answer for all questions. Or there may be none that we can stumble upon in our lifetime. No matter which bracket you fall into, it may be worth considering not to ever stop questioning or reasoning. To betray a reasoning mind, is to betray yourself, the very essence of who you are. For if Shankaracharya, Budhha and other similar philosophers are right, with sufficient introspection we can arrive at a mental state where there is no past, no future, no time, no space, and all problems melt into the one consciousness. I wish you all the best in finding your personal God!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Human Face of Climate Change

Another year goes by and another UNFCC summit on Climate Change comes to an end with semi-promises agreed to and hesitant agreements made in the name of progress. Cruel, hard facts still stare at us - none of this is going to prevent temperature rise by 2C in the next 40 years - yet global leaders, expected to be strong-willed and seeking the benefit at large of their national society, cannot look beyond petty short-term gains and bargains. After the delegates have all flown home in jumbo-jets, thus adding a few more tons of CO2 each to the atmosphere, the bitter truth stares us in the face - humans cannot solve this problem until they stop being humans.

Let me point out a couple of the human aspects of this problem, as I see it.

The hunger to have more, when one already has more than enough, is something most humans can see, but cannot always act against. All around us, especially in a socially lopsided country like India, we see greed build a billion dollar mansion standing up against the slums. The rich know how to get richer, working through the system until they become the system itself, blind to any adverse effect it may have on the poor.

I wholly agree with the Bolivian president Evo Morales when he says capitalism, with its guiding principles always feeding individual greed, can never solve the world's problems - including tackling climate change. Yes, it makes the rich richer, and the poor a little less poor over time, albeit a lot slower than you can get richer. But, at what cost? Those same rich are desperate to hold on to their riches, built by burning gigatons of coal, millions of barrels of oil, chopping down forests with abandon and dumping waste where no one questions them. And so they deny climate change. Spread hoaxes to brain-wash those who are now so used to the comforts of always available cooling and heating, as well as personal transport. Lobby governments that depend on their investments not just to keep the economy moving, but also to fund political campaigns. The result, corporate greed screws the poor farmers and jungle foragers that make up more in numbers than the corporate class, but have a smaller voice of opinion.

At the global round table, selfishness really becomes nationalism - a more aggregate form of selfishness. Yet, the results are the same. The developed nations fail to look beyond the loss of economic advantage and a potential drop in the so-called "standard of living" to acknowledge other nations have more severe problems to deal with. The developing nations are caught in the trap of seeking justice, for the "right to pollute" as much as the others have for decades. The poor countries, who cannot even pollute if they wanted to, are left to negotiate over the remaining scraps.

It will be no surprise to watch a few islands disappear while other nations fail to look beyond this self-focused view of the world. Poor countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, nations in Sub-Saharan Africa will soon face devastating bouts of drought where they will struggle to save lives. Yet, the Americans will count how many Americans are affected, while the Indians will do the same. It is here where Jairam Ramesh's departure from the staid stance of waiting for the developed countries to act in the name of justice, seems so mature. The "status quo" is not good enough, and it is not too hard to realise this.

What would Gandhi do?
It is hard to guess what the Mahatma would have done today, but it would have involved sacrifice, of individual good for global welfare. He would have passionately asked Indians first to consider the choices they have - a life where they might live with all the comforts they can afford today, where they may never have to face an unnatural natural disaster, but their children will have no such choice. He would have asked those who believe that their short life isn't as important as the health of the Earth, the mother who rears us all in her womb without a sigh, to follow him. He would have then led them to sacrifice these comforts, sacrifice the security of a capitalistic economy, and work together to show the world how to live within one's means, in harmony with nature, and yet live a full and satisfied life.

He would have hoped the other nations notice this act of mass sacrifice, and Gandhis sprout up all around the world, against the oppression of the corporates who are now losing their massive markets as more people give up unnecessary comforts. Eventually, just like the whole Indian nation rose up against the British Raj, perhaps most of the world will rise up to the corporate bullies, and let the real human nature - one where we care about everyone, do not distrust other nations, and work for a collective good - shine through to solve this unique problem.

Is this just Utopia? Can humans, who have never been able to see past their petty differences for a million years, suddenly rise and solve this problem we have created for ourselves? Or are we condemned to be extinct soon, like dinosaurs, except that the dinosaurs weren't stupid enough to kill themselves.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Remember, Remember, Teachers in September

It's the 5th of September today - a day we were never allowed to forget back in school because it was the day we had to shower love and respect on our teachers, even if, in some cases, we didn't particularly like them. Celebrated on the birthday of one of India's most scholarly Presidents ever - Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan - Teacher's Day was the day the "class monitor" was supposed to pool money and buy roses for all the teachers. Indian culture has always required us to revere our Gurus as ones who enlighten our paths and guide us to knowledge. Perhaps, when school days are a distant memory, the ones who still live on within us and bring a smile to our faces when we think of them, did really impress our hearts and minds. Here's an ode to the ones I can still remember.

Pre-primary School

Heck, I barely remember my primary school. What chance then of me remembering any of my pre-primary teachers? If Hindi movies were a guide to my memory, I am certain they were pretty and adored children!

Primary School

"A good teacher is like a candle - it consumes itself to light the way for others." - Anonymous.

Mukhtar madam, my Math teacher from Vidyodaya High School, springs to mind instantly. She would literally sweat profusely within the melting walls of the hot Hyderabad school, trying to shove concepts about Algebra into little heads. We loved her because she was brutally honest and dedicated, and the boys loved her because there was no favoritism to girls! You could see pride light her eyes up when one of us solved a problem she would pose for us on the board. I recollect the many times she clearly wouldn't be in the best of health or would be fatigued by the fasting month of Ramzan, but would keep going with sheer determination. We always respect someone who is clearly trying harder than ourselves. And as Indians, we adore those who let us ask personal questions like - "Happy Birthday Ma'am, how old are you today?", "Are you really not married? Why?". While others got roses, we would get her a tea-set.

My favorite part was when we were preparing for our 7th standard Board Exams (yes, kids have it easy these days!) - she would call out some 10 names and make them stand up in class, and lecture them on how she expects them to get a 100 in Math. When the results were out, and I was shy of a 100 by some 25 marks, I was lucky my dad got transferred to Bombay and I did not have to face her blazing eyes of disappointment.

Secondary School

“The test of a good teacher is not how many questions he can ask his pupils that they will answer readily, but how many questions he inspires them to ask him which he finds it hard to answer” - Alice Wellington

The first name that would spring to mind for any of my friends who studied at Poorna Prajna High School in Mumbai when asked to remember their teachers would undoubtedly be of Diana madam. I can't even remember if she was good at what she taught, probably because history and social studies always felt like subjects where there really wasn't much to learn. But, her openness to stupid questions and general student banter made her an instant hit with everyone. Her example made it clear to me how a good teacher must be - friendly and approachable, and always having the ability to encourage and deal with all kinds of questions. Respect developed this way, as opposed to fear-induction, has a lasting effect.

High School/Junior College

Classrooms of size 120, pretty girls everywhere, sweating with low self-esteem, worrying about catching the rush-hour train home that is less crowded than the others, the stench of chemicals from the chemistry lab below and the air-conditioned refuge of the 2 hours of Computer Lab time. No teachers ever registered I guess.


"A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron." - Horace Mann

The less said about the quality of teachers in the average Engineering college in India, the better. If this were meant to be a reverse list, I could fill it up with 4 years of teachers barely covering 25% of the syllabus, giving more assignments than lectures, and clearly peddling their coaching class stints over regular classes. The Math teachers were again impressive, but maybe that's because I felt an affinity for Math back then. The only other teacher that stood out was Mrs. Rekha Ramesh, once again for the qualities I always admire - open to questions, and something lacking in my college back then: a determination to cover as much of the syllabus as possible in her lectures. The one thing that stood out was the fact that she always appreciated if someone corrected her, and when she would say "I will answer that in the next class", she always did.


“Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.” - Chinese Proverb.

If there was a complete opposite of my Engineering experience, it would have to be doing Masters at IIT Bombay. It is perhaps because of the shambles we face during engineering that this experience looks so much brighter. It's hard to pick one professor out of the many who taught us. However, Prof. Abhiram Ranade is probably the most inspiring of them all to me personally, most likely because of his calm and assured demeanor. He taught us Algorithms and Complexity, and his course structure and presentation style are unmatched with any other professor I ever encountered. Even the assignments were actually fun to solve, and led to much discussion and debate on our hostel floors. What I loved most was his personality though. He always smiled at each student he passed in the corridor, spoke softly and succinctly, wore a simple shirt that was never tucked in but always neatly ironed, and carried a humble cotton bag. He loved it when students asked questions and was most approachable with any other problems as well.

Now that his lectures are on YouTube, everyone can enjoy them.

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” - William Arthur Ward.

Here's hoping that the students of today find more such inspiring teachers in their path to knowledge.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Why Create Man?

I've often wondered about the meaning of life, God's (whoever or whatever you call God) greatest creation, and how I fit into all of it. Of late though, I seem to wonder more about how mankind as a whole fits into the picture. All around us, atleast to my pessimistic presence, one can witness how this greatest of all creations selfishly threatens not just the existence of its own species, but Life on Earth itself as we know it.

Hence the question - Why create man when the best we have done is to threaten a climatic disaster worse than any asteroid collision could ever cause? Why create man as the example of a greedy species that cannot think beyond itself, and considers all else in nature as a never-ending pile of birthday presents? Why create man as the single most intelligent creature, that has conquered all else in nature to ensure its own subsistence beyond everything else?

An Alien View
One of my favorite twitter users is Soichi Noguchi for he posts the most amazing pictures from on-board the International Space Station, reminding us of the beautiful and bountiful heaven we have inherited. We didn't create this, but it is ours to enjoy.

Courtesy - Visible Earth, NASA

At the same time, he also wonderfully captures the ugly footprints we leave behind. The orderly concrete jungles of Manhattan are hardly eye-catching to a visiting alien, while the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico tells them all they need to know about how much we care about our own home. Man has clearly not contributed to the beauty of nature with their technological advancements, nor are we the most pleasing creatures to look at. Beside every majestic Taj Mahal runs a black, greasy Yamuna river.

Harking Back to the Vedas
Perhaps the answer is in the ancient scriptures, I mused to myself. A brief dive into their content revealed one important answer. The Vedas teach us that the sensory world and its many sparkling attractions are merely Maya - a web of illusions distracting us from the real purpose of our existence. What this purpose is, is never defined, because it cannot be defined for each individual. Rather, one is urged to be ready and prepared to always serve Nature, because behind all the genealogy and evolution, is a broader brush-stroke which is bound to eventually serve creation itself.

Another answer provided by the brilliant scriptures is the fact that Man, and all Life and existence included, is really one with the Universe itself. There is nothing but this Universe (Brahma), and Life is but only one way for the Universe to express its creative (and destructive) urges. The human mind is said to be the medium through which The Universe can therefore finally, see and understand itself. This doesn't mean that Life has reached its evolutionary peak, but it does lead somewhere.

One Possible Answer
If all this sounds too deep and vague, you are not alone. But this is perhaps the only answer to the questions I raise - despite all the follies of Man, Nature must have a grander plan in its natural scheme to extend Life somehow. Else, Mankind should have been struck out by evolutionary forces, not left to continue its plundering.

It is well established that while the Earth is likely the womb as well as the cradle of Life, it is not expected to last forever, and with it Life as we know it, will perish too. Perhaps Nature created an intelligent, logically-oriented, creative, techno-savvy Man so that one day we could eventually transport Life onto another new home. While what will likely drive us to do that would be our selfish survival instincts, Nature as a whole might just benefit by continuing its existence elsewhere. Perhaps Nature knows the risks it takes in seeking this goal. Perhaps we may not be needed once we find a new home for Nature.

I am not sure we are any closer to finding a new home than we were when the first human was created, but the situation we continue to place ourselves in is going to force our hand sooner or later. Maybe the Vedas are right - we need to stop focusing on our material needs and start listening to what Nature created us for. There is no Planet B today, but we might have to find it - fast.