Saturday, January 31, 2009

On an Aristotelian Question - How should I live?

How to speak for Indian Traditions - An Agenda For the Future - S.N. Balagangadhara

Let me begin with the following question: ‘how should I live?’ Depending upon who is raising this question, whether a teenager or a middle-aged man, it is susceptible to at least two interpretations and, as a consequence, allows of at least two possible answers. To the teenager, it would be an answer to say, ‘live as an ethical being’. At this stage, it is irrelevant what force the word ‘ethics’ carries – whether ‘normative’ or ‘non-normative’. The same answer would probably infuriate the middle-aged person: his question lies ‘beyond’ the ethical. Probably, he is saying something like this: “To the extent possible, I have tried to lead an ethical life. I have undergone many experiences in life. I am now struggling to ‘make sense’ of these experiences. I am increasingly at a loss to cope with all my projects, ambitions, dreams, desires, success and frustrations. How should I live from now so that I may reconcile these forces, passions, attitudes etc. with each other?”

As a matter of fact, the real Aristotelian question is the one the middle-aged man asks. For Aristotle, the answer to this question constitutes the ‘ethical domain’. A search of eudaimonia (loosely translated as ‘happiness’) is undertaken only after undergoing some experiences in life. That is why, to Aristotle, a moral agent is an ‘experienced’ person:

… (A) young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not depend upon time, but on his living and pursuing each successive object as passion directs. For such persons, as to the incontinent, knowledge brings no profit; but to those who desire and act in accordance with a rational principle knowledge about such matters will be of great benefit.

There are three of points worth noting in the above citation. The opposition is not between ‘reason’ and ‘passion’: one can pursue any passion (fame, wealth, power, etc.) in a ‘rational’ way. After all, modern-day industries use market research, advertising campaigns, and theories of management to pursue their goal of making profit in a ‘rational’ way. So can an individual. Rather, it is a contrast between directing all one’s abilities in order to acquire an object and ‘thoughtfully acting’ or ‘thinkingly-doing-something’, where action is brought under the scope of thoughtful considerations. The second point is that even those ‘who are old in years, but young in spirit’ (a compliment these days, which has the status of a norm about how one ought to grow old!) are not considered ‘fit’ to receive instructions in ethics. Their ‘defect’ is that they too pursue objects as ‘passion’ dictates. That is to say, they too cannot pose (or understand) the question of Aristotle, viz., how one should live. The third point is that ethical discussions begin with ‘actions in life’; they are reflections about these actions; the goal lies in the acquisition of an ability to act (thoughtfully). Modern philosophers have attributed the notion of ‘contemplative life’ to such a conception that has action as the end product! ‘Living a life thoughtfully’ glosses such a notion more accurately than ‘vita contemplativa’.

Our middle-aged man is, thus, raising the question of Aristotle. “I have pursued many things in life. I have acquired wealth and status, and aimed with varying degrees of success to become powerful and famous. I have been successful in some of my endeavours, while failing in yet others. I thought these things would make me happy, but I discover that, apart from moments when I felt ‘good’, these projects have only made me unhappy. What should I do? How should I live?” Today, these questions are not a part of ethical enquiry, any more than a quest for eudaimonia is: at best, these are the ‘esoteric’ questions and quests of ‘exotic’ religions; at worst, one raises them with one’s psychoanalyst during a ‘mid-life crisis’. This situation should already indicate the distance between what is called an ‘ethical enquiry’ today, and what Aristotle thought was the subject of all such enquiries. But that is not the focus of this piece now. However, there is no need to confuse matters by continually drawing the distinction between ‘modern’ ethics and ‘Aristotelian’ ethics. So, let us follow the contemporary consensus and call the quest of our middle-aged man ‘spiritual’ (from now on without scare quotes). Seeking spirituality, and not having found it in those objects that he once so passionately pursued, he is now raising a spiritual question: in fact, he is undergoing a spiritual crisis.

Individual Stereotypes

Stereotypes: A Theoretical Hypothesis - S. N. Balagangadhara

Individual Stereotypes

Most people in the western culture not only pride themselves in their self-knowledge but also believe such knowledge to be an index of the maturity, independence and stability of a person. What they mean by self-knowledge is actually a picture they have built of themselves which is more often than not at odds with the kind of creatures they are. It is an amalgam of odds and ends: ideas, values, fantasies, ideals, etc which they slug all through their lives. The less this picture is subjected to shocks by the events that occur in their lives, the more comfortable they feel. A person is said to have a stable and mature identity, if this picture is not shaken by what happens in that individual’s existence. Creation of an identity or the emergence of a self-identity refers to that process or event where the person in question begins to relate to this picture consciously and explicitly.

Is this also self-knowledge? This amalgam does contain elements of insights by the person about him/herself. But these are not thought through; they are not the results of deliberate exploration and reflection into oneself. Instead, they are the insights the organism has acquired about itself during the course of its journey through life. Grafted onto this are other odds and ends: the strategies one used as a child, the remembered feelings one has had at different phases in life, a way of holding oneself while alone, different ways (both successful and failed) of going about with people, the vague images of heroes one admired but has since forgotten… In the full sense of the word, it is an assortment of junk that one somehow holds together. This junk is accumulated in the course of one’s life.

What holds this junk together even as an amalgam? Emotions. They cement these odds and ends together and ignorance does the rest: one presupposes that this junk is a coherent picture of some sort or another. One does not know whether this amalgamated junk that we call selfknowledge is coherent; most of us might even suspect that it is not, which is perhaps why we are so afraid of attacks against it. That is why we also get so attached to it. However, the emotion invested in this amalgamated junk makes us think that this is what we are. Hence one of the reasons why we are so sensitive to remarks by others about us: the others remind us nastily that the emperor is naked. Albeit in perverse ways, these others exhibit the truth about this junk: namely, that it is junk. The fact that we get emotional (whether positively or negatively) about this amalgamated junk is the surest indication that emotions hold this junk together. If the emotions did not hold these odds and ends together, two things would have happened: (a) there would be no picture to talk about and (b) the remarks of the others would induce no emotions in us. But the emotions that hold this junk together also blunt the remarks that others make about it through redirection: the other is prejudiced, ignorant, jealous, stupid… Thus, the ideal and mature person that the western psychology talks about has two properties: (i) such a person must know which remarks from others should be recognized (even though painful) as true and (ii) which to redirect. You do not learn these two abilities in order to become a mature person; these abilities are the consequences of your maturity.

What stands in the way of achieving self-knowledge? This amalgamated junk that we call ‘psychological identity’. Having such an identity is not indispensable to be a human being; instead, it stands in the way of becoming one. What prevents self-knowledge is the picture we have of ourselves as individuals.

This picture, this amalgamated junk, is the composite image I talk about. Though it is unclear to the individual whether the image he has of himself is whole or consistent, there is a sense of awareness that it is somehow woven well together. This awareness is brought through the fact that he has stereotypes about himself and their presence generates the impression that the composite image is whole and dynamic. That is to say, the odds and ends present in the composite image are not recognized as ‘odds and ends’; instead, they are seen as contributing towards a coherent image because they latch on to the stereotypes. What kind of stereotypes am I talking about? I have in mind descriptions like the following: ‘I am a successful entrepreneur’; ‘I am a sharp intellectual’; ‘I am a caring mother’; ‘I have an irresistible charisma’; ‘I am a good administrator’ and so on. In some forms of mental depressions and nervous breakdowns, these stereotypes fail to make sense. That is to say, one gets the insight that these descriptions did not (and do not) describe the world (‘oneself’, in this case) and, consequently, fail to make sense any further. However, instead of realizing that such stereotypes could never describe the world, the person thinks that he had the ‘wrong’ insights about himself. Then, the swing goes to the other extreme: if these are the ‘wrong’ insights, then the only ‘right’ ones will have to be their negation. The loss of ‘self-worth’ that often accompanies such depressions is the result of assuming that negative stereotypes are true because the ‘positive’ stereotypes fail to make sense.

Furthermore, because stereotypes appear as self-descriptions, the breaking down of these heuristics appears to damage one’s very ability to go-about with oneself. The more explicitly one depends on the stereotypes, the more severe is the impact of the breakdown: one appears (to oneself as) incapable of going-about with oneself; there is a great anxiety and ‘angst’ because one cannot rely on these stereotypes any longer; one feels paralyzed; and so on. The person suffering from the nervous breakdown does not realize that he has not ceased to go-about with himself but merely that he is doing it in another way. In any case, the more one’s actions in the world ‘fed’ the stereotypes in an earlier period, the more severe is the result of a nervous breakdown. When I speak of ‘feeding’ the stereotypes, I do not mean anything more than the process of strengthening of these stereotypes through one’s action in the world. Such strengthening occurs when one continually relates one’s actions in the world to one’s individual stereotypes.

In the process of constructing a self-identity, an individual chances upon the individual stereotypes present in his culture. Through the socialization process, such a person chooses some stereotypes (while discarding others) and weaves them into a composite image. The transformational property of stereotypes convinces him that these are his essential properties and he goesabout in the world on the basis of this assumption. What prevents him from acquiring selfknowledge is the composite image that hints that it is knitted together because of the presence of stereotypes. In some kinds of depressions, this woven image comes apart.

Uttishtha Bharata

"Man is supreme. The world is his field of play. World problems cannot defeat a man truly intelligent and well-disciplined in himself. Our youth must realize this and start living the life of preparedness to strive diligently and accomplish great and useful achievements for the generations to come. Actions, which have not the spirit of service about them, the sevabhava- if the Yagna spirit is not in the community - then all activities, however noble-looking they may be, can in the end bring about only sorrows and calamities.

Thus through action with the right mental attitude, "Awake Arise O Bharata!"(Uttishtha Bharata). This is the tireless call of the Geeta not only to the Pandava Prince of the Mahabharata, but to man at all times, in all climes, belonging to all races, religions and cultures.

The term Bharata denotes Arjuna, the descendant of the ancient King Bharat. Our country is called Bharat not merely because of this ancient King. The Rishis chose this name for its very word meaning. "Bha" in Sanskrit stands for Light, illumination, resplendence. Hence, Bhaskara - Sun; Prabha - Light, Prabhat - Dawn, Bhanu - Sun, etc. Ratah means "one who revels in". Thus Bha+Ratah means "One who revels in the Light of wisdom" This country stands for a life of dynamic activity in the clear light of true wisdom. Spiritual India, Bharat, has no boundaries - she sways her divine sceptical over world. Wherever there be one who lives courageously in the Light of Wisdom, stretching himself to reach the Supreme, he is a Bharateeya, a true Indian. Are you a true Bharateeya? Have you the courage to live your convictions? Do you live a life of no compromises? Are you straightforward, honest and heroic enough to reject corrupt and immoral ways? Are you constantly and silently fighting down your lower urges and vulgar passions? Do you consider the destiny of your nation and its people more sacred than your own personal safety and security? Then you are a Bharateeya. Are you awake? "

Thursday, January 29, 2009

47 days

On August 5, 2008, uber ultra-runner Karl Meltzer set off on the biggest race of his life. His challenge: to run the entire length of the 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail in less than 47 days. Definitely daunting. Absolutely grueling. Probably insane. But when he does it, he’ll rule the AT as the guy who conquered it, all of it, the fastest on two feet. This is going to be Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Self, Man vs. Clock – and it’s going to be good.

corruption, contracts, marriage, society

Random ramblings on corruption, trust, marriage. The goal of this post is to not make any sense. Mindful mindlessness! Or is it mindless mindfulness? :)


If we take our contemporary usage, corruption indicates a 'loss of integrity' – whether of individuals or of your database.

How do we evaluate corruption in different cultures?

So I will try to place before you the ideal. In each nation, man or woman represents an ideal consciously or unconsciously being worked out. The individual is the external expression of an ideal to be embodied. The collection of such individuals is the nation, which also represents a great ideal; towards that it is moving. And, therefore, it is rightly assumed that to understand a nation you must first understand its ideal, for each nation refuses to be judged by any other standard than its own.

Evaluate within the same cultural standard.

A person taking a bribe in India is not corrupt. He delivers on his word. That is integrity. 

...... those who take the bribes do keep their word and deliver the goods. In the absence of legally enforceable contracts, the relation of corruption can flourish only on condition that there is impeccable integrity among the corrupted. This integrity is of an ‘impeccable’ sort because (a) there are no other ‘witnesses’ to the act of corruption outside the participants and (b) there is no need or possibility for any kind of legal mechanism to enforce the ‘agreement’. Corruption as a social phenomenon is possible if and only if both parties impeccably observe the ethical rule of keeping the promises. 

In Indic Traditions, a person who breaks his word is corrupt. 

A certain degree of trust is required for any system to work. The corruption that we see in India persists percisely because of the tremendous trust built into the system based on Indic Traditions - that a person delivers on his word.

Every functional system needs trust. Any form of relationship needs trust. Systems are built on relationships.  Trust takes a long time to build and is broken by one inconsistent act. The so-called corrupt structures in India - have gone through the trust building phase. They can't be broken.

Words are contracts in India. No legalese is required. The social structures ensure that promises are kept.

Question: how does one build broken trust?

Trust in the West is built/enforced by legal contracts or regulation. Words are NOT to be trusted. Marriages have pre-nups, marriage contracts and the all powerful Govt enforces alimony and child-support. Negative enforcement - a system built on NOT trusting each other. This tries to keep marriages alive, with not much success.

You Western people are individualistic. I want to do this thing because I like it; I will elbow every one. Why? Because I like to. I want my own satisfaction, so I marry this woman. Why? Because I like her. This woman marries me. Why? Because she likes me. There it ends. She and I are the only two persons in the whole, infinite world; and I marry her and she marries me -- nobody else is injured, nobody else responsible.

Your Johns and your Janes may go into the forest and there they may live their lives; but when they have to live in society, their marriage means a tremendous amount of good or evil to us. Their children may be veritable demons -- burning, murdering, robbing, stealing, drinking, hideous, vile.

The West is individualistic. They hold the pursuit of temporary individual happiness in high esteem. The feeling of being in love.

We are married sometimes when children. Why? Because the caste says: if they have to be married anyway without their consent, it is better that they are married very early, before they have developed this love: if they are allowed to grow up apart, the boy may like some other girl, and the girl some other boy, and then something evil will happen; and so, says the caste, stop it there. I do not care whether my sister is deformed, or good - looking, or bad - looking: she is my sister, and that is enough; he is my brother, and that is all I need to know. So they will love each other. You may say, "Oh! they lose a great deal of enjoyment -- those exquisite emotions of a man falling in love with a woman and a woman falling in love with a man. This is a sort of tame thing, loving each other like brothers and sisters, as though they have to." So be it; but the Hindu says, "We are socialistic. For the sake of one man's or woman's exquisite pleasure we do not want to load misery on hundreds of others."

There they are -- married. The wife comes home with her husband; that is called the second marriage. Marriage at an early age is considered the first marriage, and they grow up separately with women and with their parents. When they are grown, there is a second ceremony performed, called a second marriage. And then they live together, but under the same roof with his mother and father. 

What happens to the feeling of being in-love? (let us, for the moment, ignore whether it is love, or what is love)

... Alas, it was but an illusion by which we were tricked into by signing our names on the dotted line, for better or for worse. No wonder so many have come to curse marriage and the partner whom they once loved. After all, if we were deceived, we have a right to be angry. Did we really have the "real" thing? 

The western society has no vested interest in marriages, add to it the pursuit of in-love experience, resulting in: Forty percent of first marriages, sixty percent of second marriages and 75% of third marriages end in divorce. 

The in-love experience does not focus on our own growth nor on the growth and development of the other person. Rather, it gives us the sense that we have arrived.

Those who are in pursuit of the in-love experience are setting themselves up for major trouble. Its only gonna get worse each time!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Some channel deepening seems called for

"What’s new?" is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question "What is best?", a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream. There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been cut too deeply and no change was possible, and nothing ever happened, and "best" was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for.

Zen and  The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Thursday, January 22, 2009

new year, new beginning

We must learn the elements of our being, the blood that courses in our veins; we must have faith in that blood and what it did in the past; and out of that faith and consciousness of past greatness, we must build an India yet greater than what she has been. There have been periods of decay and degradation. I do not attach much importance to them; we all know that. Such periods have been necessary. A mighty tree produces a beautiful ripe fruit. That fruit falls on the ground, it decays and rots, and out of that decay springs the root and the future tree, perhaps mightier than the first one. This period of decay through which we have passed was all the more necessary. Out of this decay is coming the India of the future; it is sprouting, its first leaves are already out; and a mighty, gigantic tree, the Urdhvamula, is here, already beginning to appear; and it is about that that I am going to speak to you.(Swami Vivekanda - Vol III, 285 - 286)

You also know how most have been taught to interpret these verses: Krishna's *avataara* occurs in each 'Yuga' and that it has either already taken place in our Yuga, or that it will still happen again, etc.

However, if you read it again with the eyes of a twenty first-century human being, here is what is striking and, if true, breath-taking. These verses are telling us the following (I am going to *reformulate* the substance of these verses in my terminology and not just provide an 'interpretation'): There is an assumption that there is a process of *learning* to be moral and that this is a learning process in society. It is inevitable, this is the second assumption, any social learning process can and does undergo *degeneration*. From this it follows, this is what the verses now describe, that: when such a degeneration of the learning process occurs, at some critical phase in the degeneration at the level of society, other mechanisms in society are going to *kick in* and regenerate this learning process (i.e. the process of learning to be moral).

This is a breath-taking claim about the nature of moral learning in India (let us keep it confined to India at the moment). Of course, they (the writer/writers of Gita) formulate this 'insight' using the images *familiar* to them about Krishna and his 'avataaras'. But that need not detain us. But what should, is their insight into the nature of society. Where and how did they discover these things? How did they discuss these things? What kind of a research did they do so that they came to have this extraordinary insight? This insight, even if it proves to be wrong, is *light years ahead* of any extant psychological or sociological theory about moral learning and moral development that you care to mention.

So, just these two verses are formulating a scientific hypothesis *in the best sense of the term* about the nature of moral learning. Believe me Rudra, I am dumb struck. The western culture has not even *suspected* the existence of what these verses *take for granted* (for example, the two assumptions I have just identified). How and why did the Indians think of these things those many thousands of years ago?

Chaos reigns within - Reflect, repent and reboot - Order shall return.