Monday, December 30, 2013

Some artwork from the last couple of years

Since 2013 was an empty slot in my blog , which has been inactive for more than one and a half years now, I thought I will post the Halloween pumpkin carving and the Deepavali Rangolis I made for the years 2012 and 2013 as part of the events at Intel, Hillsboro (JF campus to be more precise)


Pumpkin Carving  (This is the only thing I like about Halloween , which otherwise I believe is full of Tamogunam) . The idea was from the internet but I entirely drew it (without tracing sheet etc) and adapted it to the size of the pumpkin I had.

Rangoli  (Could not get a better picture of this)
I made this using the locally available flowers


Pumpkin Carving

This time I tried a theme with more intricate details. I think I could have done better with some proper tools.
The only implement I used to carve the following pumpkin is a sharp paper cutter.
The theme is Chinese Dragon and the phoenix. This motif has a lot of depth to it in Chinese thought.

 The thickness of the pumpkin was large enough to block any light coming from inside (even when I attempted to illuminate it).

Rangoli (a traditional design on a 2 feet by 2 feet chart paper)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

My journey to Sri Vaishnavism - Part 2 (End of the beginning)

(Pardon the poor formatting of the essay.)

The traditional idea of unalloyed devotion to one's Guru and the modern argument of non necessity of a Guru are two extreme positions and most of the spiritual seekers of Sanathana Dharma fall somewhere in between. This premise needs to be investigated as this sets the further course of actions. Some important philosophers/Acharyas of Bharata were intellectual rebels. The Most famous one is Acharya Ramanuja who had many differences of opinion with Yadava Prakasha regarding Vedanta interpretation. Similarly Madhvacharya could not agree with his Guru Achyutapreksha's teachings in many places. Another lesser known example was Bellamkonda Ramaraya who became an Advaitin though born and brought up in a Sri Vaishnava family and his Guru was a Visishtadvaitin. There are other such examples. The question is Should we really blindly follow what the Guru says?

The short answer to this is No.  We know from modern fake Guru history that the premise of blind acceptance is outright wrong. People like Nityananda, Kalki Bhagavan, David Bruce Hughes(Dasanudas Babaji) and so many Gurus of ISKCON in the past  and innumerable others have been exposed as fakes and they inflicted a lot more pain in their "disciples" due to blind allegience. However, the issue need not be as serious as sexual transgression to establish this point. Intellectually too, it is equally valid.

Here is where the three important factors, Shastra(scripture), Acharya/lineage(Spiritual Guide)  and Vichara (self investigation) come into picture. If the Guru teaches us something, then it must be present in the shastras as well as stand up to your own reasoning and convictions. If it does not appeal to your intellect, alternate paths need to be explored.

Another important point that is also over-emphasized over the above factors is following the practices of family elders and ancestors. Unequal emphasis on any one of all these factors results in serious confusion.   An elderly person confidently asserted that Morning Sandhyopasanam need not be preceded by snanam(bath). They also maintained that only for the madhyahnika sandhya a bath is required. I found this ridiculous as I knew that only during emergencies one is allowed  to do mantrasnanam  and at all other times bathing is a MUST. However, this person was arguing for his case based on the practice of another 'elder' whom he had observed. He was convinced that a snanam was indeed required for the paratah sandhya only after I showed him the instruction in a book on Sandhya. 

The foregoing issue was an important factor in my decisions because two very important advaitins figure in my family tree. One is the famous Appaya Dikshita who is the brother of Achan Dikshita, my direct 13th ancestor. Swami Sivananda, famous for his Divine life society, is the younger brother of my great grandfather. If I ask a Vaishnava acharya whether following the elders of my family is the prime duty, then they cannot give me an answer that convinces their ideology as well as their viewpoint on family tradition.

Thus we also need to study the scriptures on our own and clarify the doubts with different
teachers. Moreover, the repetition of 'follow elders' advice is not going to help us until we are
convinced about the basis of all the practices.

The elective

During my seventh semester at BITS, Pilani I had to opt for three elective courses to complete the coursework. This gave me an opportunity to select 'Shankara's thoughts' as one of them. The course was based on Vivekachudamani (Crest jewel of wisdom) , a work by Adi Shankara outlining Advaita philosophy. I remember being more enthusiastic about this course rather than electronics electives. 

The professor explained creation as follows: 
Consider the following image:

The whole circle is Brahman, which is attributeless and the only entity. It is jnanamaya (or exists as knowledge itself). However, we have to explain the diversity we see in the world. Also, the Vedas say that Brahmam at the beginning of creation said to itself "Let me become many" . One fourth of brahman becomes Maya and obscures the rest of it and hence appears as the diverse name and form that we see in the world. 

Then he went on further to explain the related concepts like anirvachaniya (inexplicability) of maya and pancha kosham, nature of mind etc. The introduction of Maya rekindled a lot of doubts that I had already. Brahman is first of all indivisible. How can it be divided like stated above. If it is said that Maya is a separate entity, then the fact of only one reality is contradicted. Also, how can we explain the fact that Brahman which is the eternal knower, full of knowledge be obscured by Maya? However I did not discuss this deeply at that time with the teacher as I thought that some more learning will clear this up. I also assumed that these doubts are somewhat like the doubts we have regarding our epics and Puranas where many events seemingly unethical have some hidden reasons behind them. Later on I would find out that these questions cannot be answered satisfactorily with straight forward interpretation of Vedanta.

I went on to do a project on Dakshinamurthy stotram, which is allegedly composed by Adi Shankara. However, there is no doubt that it is a very well structured stotram giving the salient features of Advaita philosophy. While referring works on Advaita for this project, I got hold of 'Advaita VedantaEdited by R. BALASUBRAMANIAN. History of Science, Philosophy, and Culture in. Indian Civilization, vol. II, part 2' .

It is really a commendable project. The volume on Advaita Vedanta was very extensive in its coverage. It even briefly surveyed vernacular literature of advaita, which we often never hear about. While discussing  the concept of abheda or non-difference and mithyatva or illusoriness of the world, which are central to advaita,  Vyasatirtha's objections(in Nyayamruta) on these issues were discussed. These objections were answered by Madusudhana Saraswati in his advaita Siddhi. These in turn faced a rebuttal in Tarangini by Ramacharya. (Vyasatirtha and Ramacharya belong to the Dvaita lineage of Madhvacharya). I highlighted all these issues briefly during my project presentation. However, my professor was not really into comparitive Vedanta. He assumed the truth of advaita and hence I could not get meaningful solutions to these problems. 

I used to have long hours of discussion on this topic with my friend Dushyanth Sridhar who consistently supported Visishtadvaita. While I had doubts regarding advaita, I was still undecided.

As regards to Vishnu paratvam, the way was easier.

Vedic Scriptures - the way

शास्त्र योनित्वात्
                - ब्रह्मसूत्रम् (१.१.३ )
   (That the Brahman is the cause of creation etc follows altogether from the vedic scriptures)

  The Brahmasutram is a work comprising of 545 short aphorisms by Rishi Badarayana. It talks about the goal(Brahman), the means to attain the goal and also defends vedanta from other schools of thought. It begins all this by harmonizing various seemingly contradicting vedic passages to give a coherent view.

This particular sutra (aphorism) stated above is one of the most important sutras of the text. This is because it reveals the epistemology of spiritual journey in a nutshell. Epistemology or the science of knowing is extremely crucial to any endeavor. We cannot know Brahman by either sense perception (pratyaksha) or inference (anumana) simply because Brahman is a non-material tattva (or entity) that is beyond the gross or the subtle senses. The only way to understand this Supersoul (Paramatma) is by experiencing it with atman or the individual soul, which is also non-material. Since, this is not easy for all the atmans, it is revealed as shastra through the atmans that are capable of this cognition. They are the Rishis and they give us the Vedas, which is apaurusheya (not created by anyone including God) and ananta (unlimited by space or time). Using any other method such as logic, guesswork, experiments etc is futile since all of these ultimately fall under the first two categories of knowing mentioned above.

Other important works called smriti, itihasa and puranas also appeared with the view of explaining the purport of Vedas. Those works in these categories which are in tune with the message of the Vedas are also considered as a pramana (or a valid means of knowledge)

Lord Krishna to the rescue

I decided that I must take the matter into my hands (but ultimately the Paramatma was of course responsible for shedding light on himself in my mind) and do a small analysis of Bhagavad Gita (accepted by Advaitins too) to see if there is any clue to the issue of Paratvam.(Upanishads and Brahmasutra were not that easily accessible in terms of interpretation). As the azhwars have stated, the floating opinions regarding this issue are that All the three deities Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are equal (or) Vishnu is supreme (or) Shiva is Supreme (or) There is a higher nirguna sadashiva who is the creator of all the three (or) Shakthi is the origin of all the three etc. 

The first verse that caught my attention is the Charama slokam.
ahaḿ tvā sarva-pāpebhyo mokṣayiṣyāmi  śucaḥ (18.66)

Here, Krishna specifically says that one has to surrender to him only and not anyone else. This indicates that he recognizes difference/ gradation.

This is actually confirmed by him in verse 2.12
na tvevāhaḿ jātu nāsaḿ na tvaḿ neme janādhipāḥ

(Certainly never at any time did I not exist, nor you nor all these kings and certainly never shall we cease to exist in the future)

He posits an eternal difference between himself and other Jivas here. It definitely means that difference is real. This verse has generated a lot of controversy among the advaitins and other schools and Swami Vedanta desikan dedicates four pages to explain the absurdity of the advaitic position with respect to this verse in his tatparya chandrika, which is a commentary on Ramanuja's Gita Bhashyam. 

It is further illuminating to study the verses where he talks about worshipping the Gods.
ye 'py anya-devatā-bhaktā yajante śraddhayānvitāḥ
te 'pi mām eva kaunteya yajanty avidhi-pūrvakam   (9.23)

(Those who are devotees of other gods and who worship them with faith actually worship only Me, O son of Kunti, but they do so in a wrong way.)

na tu mām abhijānanti tattvenātaś cyavanti te (9.24)

(I am the only enjoyer and master of all sacrifices. Therefore, those who do not recognize My true transcendental nature fall down.)

kāmais tais tair hṛta-jñānāḥ prapadyante 'nya-devatāḥ

(Those deprived of discrimination by various desires impelled by their particular nature surrender unto demigods and follow the particular rules and regulations of worship according to their own natures.)

antavat tu phalaḿ teṣāḿ tad bhavaty alpa-medhasām
devān deva-yajo yānti mad-bhaktā yānti mām api (7.23)

(The result of those of insufficient understanding is temporary. The votaries of the demigods obtain the demigod but my devotees attain me)

Now, the above slokams show us that there can be no clearer scripture than the Bhagavad Gita. I came to realise that Krishna who is non different from Sriman Narayana (he shows his four armed form after the vishwa roopa darshanam in Chapter 11) is the Supreme Lord and there is none greater OR EQUAL to him.
Any other interpretation is simply wrong and has to be forced upon it. This is because there is nothing in the rest of the Gita to overrule the above verses. It is so consistent. 

This certainly gels well with the first of 6 short sentences conveyed by Lord Varadaraja of Kanchi to Kanchi purna.
 "Ahameva paramtattvam" (Only I am the Supreme entity/Paramatma).

Note: Here it does not mean that Lord Krishna condemns worship of other deities. What he simply says is that it is lower rung in the ladder and is temporary. It cannot give us liberation. This sense is conveyed because he mentions in other verses that he himself makes every one of these devotions stronger and finally gives the desired fruit of this worship too. Hence, taking the extreme positions of either condemning everyone else to hell or equating Krishna with other Gods will not help in the true understanding of Gita.

Fancy interpreters of the Gita want us to somehow believe that by all these verses too, he talks about total equality of all deities. This is a view not supported by most of the traditional interpreters including Adi Shankara. 'Radical Universalism' or the idea that every religion is  the same is the bane of today's "followers" of Vedic religion. Even S.N.DasGupta in his History of Indian philosophy does a lengthy analysis of the word 'yoga' used in the Gita and comes to the conclusion that it conveys the same sense of the word as used in the Pancharatra agama rather than in others like Sankhyasutra, yogasutra etc.  Thus, while  giving non- straight forward meaning in some places will certainly help a coherent interpretation, this should not become an excuse to read into the text one's own views, especially when if it is clear and can stand on its own.  Moreover, we will see how all this analysis is in fact confirmed by the shruti as well as puranas.

In fact, Adi Shankara, despite being an advaitin, has strictly used only Narayana/Vishnu at all the zillion places where the general words Brahmam/atma/sat etc have been used in the prasthana trayam. The Acharyas of the shankara mutts sign their letters as "Narayana Smriti" . Mind you this Narayana has not been used by Shankara in the sense of Nirguna Brahman but as the Saguna, with all the kalyana gunas.

This information does in a natural way lead to Vaishnavism ,  but why Sri Vaishnavism? There have been a lot of advaita vaishnavas in History, famous examples being Sridhara who wrote a commentary on Bhagavatham and Madhusudhana Saraswati who wrote Bhakthi Rasayana.
Also, We know that the Madhva, Nimbarka, Vallabha, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu were also Vaishnavas. Why not these paramparas?
The puranas, which are often extolled as the commentaries on Vedas confuse us regarding paratvam. Six puranas including Shiva and Linga puranam talk about Shiva paratvam, Six puranas including Vishnu and Bhagavatha talk about Vishnu Paratvam and the remaining six about Brahma and other deities. How is this to be reconciled with the Gita?
                                                                        ( be continued)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

My journey to Sri Vaishnavism - Part 1(The beginning)

(Note: The 'I' s in the post mean adiyen and not the ego-centric I. Due to limitations of the English language it is best to write it as 'I')

The Soul(Jivatma) and the mind are two entities which travel in their own ways. While the jivatma transmigrates in these created worlds from beginningless time depending on where it is thrusted by its karma, the mind is a super-expert in travelling to places far removed, at any instant of time. A combination of these journeys give us our present state. My Journey into Sri Vaishnava philosophy and theology is also a combination  of these factors and probably a lot more. This essay is intended to give an idea of what thought processes I underwent to become a prapanna (A surrendered soul) being born into a family that follows Adi Shankara's philosophy of Advaitam**. 

My father is a fan of Ramakrishna mutt publications. He has significant shelf-space dedicated to works of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and their disciples. Vedanta kesari, the annual magazine of the mission also finds a place. There are upanishads with commentary by Swami Sivananda, Swami Ranganathananda and Swami Krishnananda. He is also a voracious reader of theosophical society publications, works of Aurobindo, Swami Chinmayananda, Ramana maharishi, Swami Dayananda (not the founder of Arya Samaj) and other Neo-advaitic writers. (J.Krishnamurthy, though was a rebel in terms of tradition can also be included in this list). He does not read many original works in Sanskrit but has stacked up books that are more inclined towards psychology and spirituality. He is less interested in puranas and itihasas. Arguably, this is exactly what we expect from a person with an advaitic worldview. He also dislikes the "narrow-mindedness" of Iyengars. I come from this background. 

He had a small book of Bhagavad Gita and encouraged me to memorise verses starting from 2.11 since it was Lord Krishna's Upadesham from that verse. I was about eleven or twelve years old then. I knew it was an important scripture but did not know anything else at that time. I memorized about 5 or 6 verses and then followed the very natural human tendency to give up.

Then with time, I started reading philosophical tracts that dealt with the problem of the world, nature of reality etc. to the extent I could understand. I certainly had the (usual) question "what is the purpose of existence?" all along in my mind and was looking for answers. I also had reverence for the scriptures. These two, I suppose are due to my karma vaasanas. I more or less came to accept Advaitam as my philosophy. On the theological front, I naturally went along with the popular neo-Hindu view of equality of all Hindu Gods. The turn around was yet to come.

I can say with confidence that my years from 2004 to 2007 in BITS, Pilani was a very active period in this journey. In 2005, I got introduced to Dushyanth Sridhar, who was an avid listener of Swamy Velukkudi Krishnan's discourses. He had a tape-recorder and listened to his discourses in casettes (Many in the new audience group might have never seen a casette recording of Swami's discourse). The first discourses I listened to were about Divyadesams, their sthala puranams and azhwars' experiences regarding them. I instantly liked them for their clarity and interesting way of presentation. 

Dushyanth also had a book of Desika stotramala with meaning and used to refer to it often. He once recited a part of Raghuveera gadyam(an Eulogy on Lord Rama) from it. It runs as follows:

jaDa-kiraNa shakala-dhara jaTila naTa pati-makuTa taTa naTana-paTu 
vibudha-sarid.h-ati-bahula madhu-galana lalita-pada 
nalina-raja-upa-mRidita nija-vRijina jahadupala-tanu-ruchira 
parama-muni vara-yuvati nuta !   


I was enamored by the play of words here and wanted to memorize the whole Gadyam. (I am yet to do it). I however, read the whole work, with the meaning. I had a great reverence for Swamy Desikan from that point onwards. I wanted to know more about this personality and his works and that is when my eyes landed on a work called Satadushani. This is a polemical work which has 66 (34 of the original 100 have been lost) detailed arguments against advaitam of Adi Shankara. This, he had built upon the basic seven untenables of Swami Ramanuja in his Sri Bhashyam(commentary on Badarayana's Brahmasutram). Since, this work is in highly technical sanskrit, I got an idea of its content from an online forum that discussed the first fifteen or so points from this work in English. I still had faith in Advaitam and thought that these arguments would have been answered by scholars of the Advaita tradition. However, an important change in my view here was that there existed many other interpretations of Vedanta. I had never given a thought about this before. Determining the right philosophy was an important exercise for me because the goal of life and sadhana (tattvam, hitam and  purushartham to use technical language) depended on it. These philosophies were radically different in their views and methods. I became preoccupied with this. 

From this point on, things got a little complicated because I was caught in a cobweb of ideas and opinions. Visishtadvaitam (VA) piled a lot of criticisms on Advaita and Advaitins seemed to be responding to them but then again pat came a reply from the VAs. In the history of this dispute itself we find a thread of works. First Swamy Ramanuja attacked the Advaitins(AV) in his works. This was criticised by AVs after his period. Swamy Desikan wrote the Satadushani  and paramatha bhangam against these replies. A Scholar named Ananthakrishna Sastry wrote a work called Satabhushanam in reply to Swamy Desikan's criticisms. However, Swami Uttamur Veeraraghavacharya wrote Paramartha bhushanam from VA point of view refuting Satabhushanam.  I was stranded in the middle.

Similarly, Sri Vaishnavas as well as other Vaishnavas emphasised that only Lord Vishnu/Narayana was the highest deity, paramathma and others including Shiva, Brahma, Parvathi were jivatmas/created beings. I found it very difficult to accommodate this idea initially. However, since no one spoke without reference to shruti and smriti , I was entangled in this front also. The numerous stories from the itihasa puranas as well as sthala puranams  of the Hindu pantheon in Tamizh magazines like Shakti Vikatan and Kumudam Bhakti did not help in the least, to resolve this confusion. It in fact added fuel to the fire.
                                                                                                                       ( be continued)
** For readers who are not familiar with Advaitam and Visishtadvaitam, here is a quick summary -

Advaitam - It is an interpretation of Vedanta( contained in Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Brahmasutram or 'prasthana trayam' as they are collectively called) by Adi Shankara who lived in the 8th century. According to him only Brahmam(crudely translated as God) is the reality. The world we see around us is an illusion caused by Maya that engulfs Brahmam. Yet somehow Brahmam is pure knowledge. The Jivatmas are also illusions and once this illusion is removed by right knowledge the Jivatma realises that it is itself Brahmam. Since, only one real entity is admitted, it is called as advaitam or non-dualism.

Visishtadvaitam - This interpretation of Vedanta has been given to us By Sri Ramanuja who lived in the 11th century. According to him, there are three eternal realities, namely , Brahmam, Jivatma and the world of insentient matter. These are termed Isvara, chit and achit. Chit and achit form the body of Brahmam. Hence Brahmam is their soul and inner controller. The relationship between Brahman and chit, achit is also described as the relationship between a substance and its attribute, Eg, Flower and its colour. Since these relationships signify an oneness, albeit qualified, the philosophy is roughly translated as qualified non-dualism. By adopting Surrender(Prapatti) or Bhakti (devotion) , the Jivatma has to reach Vaikuntam, the eternal abode of Lord Sriman Narayana and be in eternal devotional service to him simultaneously enjoying his infinite attributes with its infinitely expanded knowledge. 

There are many more interpreters of Vedanta (especially Brahmasutram) like Srimad Anandatirtha/ Madhvacharya, Vallabhacharya, Nimbarka, Srikanta, Srikara, Bhaskara, Yadavaprakasha, Vijnanabhikshu, Baladeva Vidyabhushana. However, for sake of brevity, I will stick to the two schools that I have stated above.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

VRIKSHAM - The Vedantic metaphor

लक्ष्मीनाथ समारम्भां नाथयामुनमध्यमाम् 
अस्मदाचार्यपर्यन्तां वन्दे गुरुपरंपराम्
Vedanta, which literally means 'End(or objective) of Vedas' is known from time immemorial for its metaphors to describe the state of affairs of this world, i.e., samsara (the cycle of birth and death) and the physical body of living beings, the mystery of which still captures our imaginations. The evanescence of this material existence is an important theme.

When we analyse the cause and effects of a phenomenon/problem , we naturally tend to talk in terms of the 'root cause' or the 'seed' of the problem and the 'fruit' as the result. This suits vedanta very well and hence we find the metaphor of the tree used creatively in similar contexts but with varying interpretations in different texts. The similes and metaphors of sanskrit literature are timeless. Deviating a little from the topic, let us look at one subhashitam to illustrate this point.

दीपो भक्षयते ध्वान्तं कज्जलं च प्रसूयते 
यादृशं भक्षयेदन्नं जायते तादृशी प्रजा      ||

[The lamp consumes darkness and generates soot/smoke. (Similarly) The type of food you
eat has a corresponding influence on the offspring.]

This is really an elegant comparison. At least I have never thought of darkness and soot as raw material and finished product, and that too relating them because of their black colour. The fact that a black input produces a black output is capitalized here to assert the importance of saatvik food. (Another variation of the subhashita ends as 'तादृशी मति: ' which means that the food you eat produces the quality of thinking that emanates from you).

Coming back to our metaphor, the tree**, the first example(and a famous one too) is from the Mundakopanishad (3.1):
द्वा सुपर्णा सयुजा सखाया समानं वृक्षं परिषस्वजाते |
तयोरन्य: पिप्पलं स्वाद्वत्त्यनश्नानन्यो  अभिचाकशीति ||

[Two birds living together, each the friend of the other, perch upon the same tree. Of these two, one eats the sweet fruit of the tree, but the other simply looks on without eating]

The two birds are the Jivatma(individual soul) and paramatma (Supreme soul). The tree is nothing but the human body while the fruit is the results of past karma. Here the onlooker, the paramatma, is not touched by karma whereas the jiva is bound to the cycle of rebirth. Observe how the flow of meaning occurs with this metaphor. An occurrence of the  natural world is transformed into profound metaphysics.

** The tree is often used as a metaphor to describe the Vedic literature. The four vedas including the various shakhas, six vedangas, Itihasas, puranas, dharmashastras, agamas, sutra granthas, bhashyams and acharya sri sooktis are all different parts of the tree of veda.

In the Bhagavatha puranam(11.12.21-23), Lord Krishna, responding to Uddhava's question uses the tree as a metaphor with even more detailed correlations between its parts and the worldly existence. 

य एष संसारतरु: पुराण: कर्मात्मक: पुष्पफले प्रसूते  ||

द्वे अस्य बीजे शतमूलस्त्रिनाल: पञ्चस्कन्ध: पञ्चरसप्रसूति: 
दशैकशाखो द्विसुपर्ण   नीडस्त्रिवल्कलो  द्विफलोर्कं प्रविष्ट:   ||

अदन्ति चैकं फलमस्य गृध्रा ग्रामेचरा एकमरण्यवासा: 
हंसा य एकं बहुरूपमिज्यैर्मायामयं वेद स वेद वेदम्   ||

[This tree of mundane existence has no beginning, is characterized by activity and puts forth flowers and fruits. Two are its seeds, innumerable are its roots, three are its lower trunks, five are its upper trunks; it yields five kinds of sap, eleven are its branches; it bears the nest of two birds; three are the layers of its bark; it bears two fruits and spreads as far as the realm of the sun. Full of carnal desires, men of the world partake of its one fruit while the swan-like men of wisdom dwelling in the forest eat the other. He alone knows the Vedas, who through spiritual preceptors comes to realize the one God appearing as many forms through his Maya]

Here the objects indicated are:

Two seeds - Paapam and punyam
innumerable roots - Innumerable cravings
three lower trunks - Sattva, Rajas and Tamas
Five upper trunks -  Panchabhutams(the five elements)
Five kind of saps -  Objects of five senses(five tanmatras - touch, taste etc.)
Eleven branches -  Mind, five karmendriyas, five jnyanendriyas
two birds - Paramatma and Jivatma
three layers of bark - the three humours (vatam, pittham and kapham)
Two fruits - happiness and sorrow

Thus the metaphor ties together all the important concepts of Vedanta in a coherent manner.

Lord Krishna uses the tree metaphor with a variation in Bhagavad Gita(15.1-3). 

ऊर्ध्व मूलमध:शाखमश्वत्थं  प्राहुरव्ययम्   |
छन्दांसि यस्य पर्णानि यस्तं वेद स वेदवित्  ||

अधश्चोर्ध्वं प्रसृतास्तस्य शाखा गुणप्रवृद्धा विषयप्रवाला:|
अधश्च मूलान्यनुसंततानि कर्मानुबन्धीनि मनुष्यलोके ||

न रूपमस्येह ततोपलभ्यते नान्तो न चादिर्न च संप्रतिष्ठा |
अश्वत्थमेनं सुविरूढमूलमसङ्गशस्त्रेण दृढेन छित्त्वा   ||

[The wise speak of the imperishable banyan tree, which has its roots above and branches below. Its leaves are the Vedas and he who knows this is the knower of the vedas. Its branches extend all about; nourished by the three gunas, the sensory objects are its shoots and below, in the world of men, its secondary roots stretch forth, binding them in Karma. Its real form is not perceived here, nor its end nor beginning nor its foundation but with determination one must cut down this strongly rooted tree with the weapon of detachment]

The inverted nature of the tree is important. Since Brahmam or the Supreme soul is the substratum for all activities and existence itself, it is the root of all worlds and hence this tree is rooted in Brahmam. However, during every creation cycle, After samashti srishti (i.e., creation of raw materials like the 5 elements and their admixture, Sriman Narayana, the eternal Supreme soul creates Brahma, who then creates with his knowledge of vedas, the rest of the material universe that he is in-charge of. Hence the tree has its trunk as Brahma, who then goes on to create the inhabitants of all the fourteen lokas including bhoo lokam. Hence the tree's branches extends all over this material realm. 

The comparison of leaves of the tree to Vedas are is very clear to my level of understanding. However, I have an interpretation. The leaves are the receptors of sun's energy and nourish the plant because of this property. They lead to all further growth, production of flower and fruits in the tree. Similarly the Vedas are the source of any kind of prosperity, be it monetary or spiritual. Hence they are the leaves of the samsaric tree.

We find in the foregoing discussion that the tree is used as a metaphor for both the physical body of organisms as well as the whole world of samsara and this is an interesting fact in itself. There is school of belief which sees an organism's body as a microcosm. Every physical body is a universe in itself and undergoes the cycle of birth, growth and decay very similar to the universe. Thus the universe is the largest reflection of this microcosm.

Now what does this have to do with the tree?

'Hunting the hidden dimension'- a NOVA documentary on fractals has an interesting fact on the relationship between a tree and its parent forest. The distribution of sizes of the individual  trees within a forest appears to exactly match the distribution of sizes of different branches within a single tree. The forest has a fractal structure with the tree as an element and of course the tree itself has a fractal structure. Similarly, the whole world of existence could be thought of as a fractal of the innumerable jivas who undergo the cycle of their own.

The tree occurs in many other texts like Kathopanishad, AnuGita and other parts of Mahabharata, Vivekachoodamani of Adi Shankaracharya and also alluded to in devotional hymns, from which we can be quite sure that our ancestors wanted to get this message across to us down the ages. At least the spiritually inclined people, instead of trying  accumulate more wealth and/or power and fame, must strive to cut down this tree.

The solution to this 'tree' problem is given by the Lord himself in the Bhagavad Gita(15.4)
तत: पदं तत्परिमार्गितव्यं यस्मिन्गता न निवर्तन्ति भूय: |
तमेव चाद्यं पुरुषं प्रपद्ये यत: प्रवृत्ति: प्रसृता पुराणी                ||

Thereafter, one must seek that place from which, having gone, one never returns and surrender to that Supreme Purusha (i.e., Lord Sriman Narayana) from whom has streamed forth everything, from time immemorial.

Jai Sriman Narayana. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Debunking the 'Hindu evolution'

There is a lot of talk that goes on these days about how Hinduism is 'Scientific'. I also wrote a post a while back pointing out some similarities between the Nasadiya suktam in Rig Veda and the Big-bang theory but I also indicated that neither is a proof or evidence for the other and they run along different lines as to being sources of information on cosmos and reality. While we can compare, contrast and observe the similarities and differences, it is not very good to extend it beyond a certain measure and certainly not to the extent that Hinduism is 'Scientific'.

Now, I am pointing this out because if there is a revelation in any religion, which the Vedas are, then they do not come under the purview of science which only depends on pratyaksham(observation through the senses) and anumanam(inference) . Let us take up the dasavatharam, the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu and examine if they really have any connection with Darwinian concept of evolution. (It is an entirely different issue whether Darwiniam evolution is Science at all in the first place. This is because you have to have more faith to believe in evolution than in intelligent design)

The only feeble connection that we can observe superficially between the dasavatharam and evolution is that in the list of ten that is popular, the first is an aquatic creature(fish) followed by an amphibian(tortoise) and then by a land animal (boar). Then it is described further how the rest of the avatars typically represent an ascent and an evolution to man and beyond. I quote the following from another blog(as this presents the view that I aim to critique)


In fact in the study of the manifestations of Lord Vishnu, better known as the Dasha- Avatars, we find that the theory of evolution has been explained in a very subtle manner. They are
01. The first entry was made as The Fish (Macha-avatara). The life in water, as an amphibian, the earliest known life on the earth, from where the progress was chronicled.
02. Then came a life sustaining not only in water but progressed to some extent on land. The Lord took shape of a Terrapin (tortoise). (Koorma-avatara).
03. Amphibian became semi-amphibian, and then an animal in swamp or slush. Lord became a Boar (Varaha).
04. The animal progressed to half-human in the shape of Half lion + half-human (Nara-Simha)
05. Evolution, the path of progress took the half human to full human shape. The next avatar was that of a Dwarf (Vamana).
06. It is but natural that Dwarf will progress to a full human, but with a wavering mind, uncontrollable, and acting without reasons. Yes he came as Parasurama, a man without control.
07. Slowly the man became perfect. He was Rama. Always giving importance to the penance than the pleasure ever respecting the guru and the elders and remaining dutiful to others wherever he was.
08. And then the perfect human form emerged with cleverness and ability to think and win. A person of intelligence, taking decisions to suit the situation. He was Krishna. Ready to fight. Ready to mediate, and ready to love and ready to be loved.
09. Tranquility, submission, passion for peace is the next step from achieving everything. He was Buddha.
10. The cycle has to end, so that it can start again. Kalki, they say will come to destroy the world. So that evolution can take place again.

If the above had been presented as observations about these two pieces of information, then it is a fun comparison to read. However, there are so many inconsistencies in the way it has been presented especially with no mentioning of the various differences between traditional thought and Darwin's idea that we need to take a second look at it.

1. For this to be an evolutionary theory, the fish or the tortoise should not co-exist with any human beings or higher forms of intelligence like devas whereas we know clearly that a king named Satyavrata was the one who gave the fish a place in his palace before it grew bigger until reaching the size of the ocean. Similarly the tortoise. Lord Vishnu helped the Devas to get the amritakalasha by being a support for the mandara mountain while they churned the milk ocean.

2. These avataras all do not happen on earth. The matsya began its lila in South India while the kurma avatar happened somewhere in a non-human realm of milk ocean. The varaha avatara definitely did not happen on earth as it is Earth that he lifted out of another ocean.

3. The assumption that matsya is the first avatar of a cycle of creation is wrong. It is not supported by the Bhagavatha purana according to which it is the last avatar of the previous manvantara. The Lord takes the form of the fish to save the seed of all species so that they can start procreating after the end of the deluge. Hence even by this time cycle, it is not the first in the evolutionary line.

4. The Vaishnavas do not consider that the Lord's fish avatar is inferior to his varaha or narasimha avatara. They may have some differences but the lord usually comes with all his splendour everytime he appears to anyone in samsara lokas. Thus seeing an evolution into higher forms of life in the dasavathara is against the accepted traditional view of the nature of the avataras.

5. Elaborating on the previous point, it is not very intelligent to consider that Lord Krishna is more 'evolved' than Sri Ramachandra. In fact it is stupid. The choice of name and form and character of the avatara is in the hands of the Supreme almighty who is the all-knowing and all-observing consciousness. 

6. The important point that is overlooked by the avatar-evolution group is that these ten avatars are just a set that has been formed so that it is simple to handle even for illiterates. By no means do the puranas say that this is the exhaustive list. In fact, Bhagavatha purana lists 24 avataras.

One glance can tell us that it is not in an exclusive animal to man order. So, the complete account of the avataras by no means supports evolution.

7. Overlapping with some of the previous points is the fact that the timescales of puranas and current science do not correlate that well. If we consider the beginning of Brahma's day, then it is way shorter than science's estimate of 4.5 billion years for current age of earth. However, if we consider Brahma's birth as the beginning, then Vedic thought posits trillions of years to the universe whereas science has 13.7 billion years as its most recent estimate for age of the universe. Also, humans and all of creation has existed for all these years rather than being evolved from a single-cell organism upward.

8. The puranas, though differing in their account of creation, agree on the fact that after the creation of panchabhutas, tanmatras, indriyas and manas, Brahma was created by Lord Sriman Narayana. Brahma then created plants, animals and humans in that order. Nowhere is it said that he dropped a single cell onto the earth which then by itself evolved through random mutation and natural selection into millions of species found on the planet today.

So, the stupidest thing anyone can say is:

Thus Darwin didn't propound anything new, but we presume that he studied our scriptures deeply, and came out with his theory. He had to win the laurels, because his name is such. Daar in Sanskrit (also in Arabic) means Doorway. So standing at the doorway to win, he won.

There is actually another view that Darwin can be somehow made to be a spokesperson for Vedanta. This is also not a tenable view because he neither talked about rebirth nor spiritual evolution through different species in different births. His theory was more or less materialistic, though explicitly he did not negate god. Also, a man can be reborn in the animal or plant kingdom according to his karma. Therefore evolution has nothing in common with vedanta. Individuals who can see into the actual concept conveyed in different texts must burst this myth of Darwinism in vedic scriptures. This has been written, rewritten and regurgitated so many times that it has become an accepted truth (similar to 'vedic mathematics' which is marketed as being present in the Vedas while it is not). It is time we stop imagining things and start making progress in our respective fields, be it sciences/humanities/interdisciplinary ones.

We must analyse the assumptions and premise of each view(evolution or dasavathara) before coming to any conclusions about one being the same or derived from other. In short, it is the same people who point out that Krishna's life history is very similar to Christ's story, propagate this ridiculous idea of 'Hindu' theory of evolution.

Two more posts advocating the idea of dasavathara-evolution:

Note: The author of the second article is hopelessly entangled by the idea of everything in science is already present in Hinduism and tries to present some quote or the other from the scriptures trying to bend it to some concept in science. It is better to ignore him while studying both Science as well as scriptures.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Resumes to interviews to offers - Part 3

The Onsite interview

The undergraduate qualifying interview that is held on-campus(my experience is from India) consists mostly of one round of HR (Human Resource) and one or two rounds of technical interview depending on the company. The onsite interviews that I faced in the US for all the technical positions gave me a whole new perspective on interviews. So, in this part I would like to share my and some of my friends' experiences during onsite interviews.

Follow up after the phone round typically takes anywhere between a week and two. However, there are abnormal cases which can extend upto a month even. Some companies do not bother to let you know the result of your interview at all (even if you try asking them).The last statement is true even for the result of some onsite interviews. I was asked to give a list of three references after 10 days after one of my onsite interviews and never got any news after that. Recently, one of my friends told me that the onsite interview that had already been scheduled, was cancelled at short notice because of the company's decision to go on a hiring freeze for a few months.

Companies, especially smaller ones and startups look for the local candidate pool in order to avoid spending on travel and relocation. So, if you are in a situation where there is very little local job availability and you know friends who are staying elsewhere, then you can mention their addresses on your resume to get a call. This really is helpful since smaller companies do not consider you even if you are ready to relocate at your own cost. However, the profitable thing to do in that case would be to accumulate at least a couple of interviews in that locality and visit the place later to face the interviews.

If you are scheduled to have the onsite interview in a place other than yours, then the company books the flight tickets, hotel and rental car 1 week in advance. I must say, they seamlessly do this for the candidates. In fact they can give you a pre-loaded debit card later on to compensate for your expenses during the stay.

Now on to the interview.....

Typically, the interview is scheduled to anywhere between 4 hours  to 8 hours consisting of 4 to 8 rounds. Not many companies however have 8 hour interviews. There is the other extreme. One of my friends had 12 rounds from morning 9 am to evening 7pm at Apple.

I am writing all of the following from an electrical engineering interview perspective but I think much of this might overlap with any other engineering discipline too.

Some companies give the schedule of the rounds before hand. If that is the case, then you have lesser hassles. You have a good idea of what kind of questions might be asked. It is good to be abreast with what your friends/seniors are facing in interviews. For example, in a round consisting of Circuits, one can expect with a good degree of confidence questions about set-up, hold times of flip-flops, comparison of different logic families, dynamic logic etc. Even in these kinds of subtopics it is easy to know the kinds of question usually asked, by reading the textbooks thoroughly and asking others. Do not go unprepared for fundamental questions. Some students might have the impression that onsite interviews mostly involve  advanced questions. This is a myth. I have often been asked basic questions in many rounds of onsite interviews. And if you mess up these, then you end up maintaining the status quo (of unemployment) for a long time. You cannot be sure of the result.

Team members sometimes frame a nice question reflecting a problem that the team might be trying to solve at the moment. It can also be a block level description of the fundamental environment that will be encountered during work. If such a broad open-ended question arises, then try to  use all that you have studied and gathered to give the best possible answer. My friend was asked "what is a computer?. Can you explain me the basic blocks of a computer? We can proceed from there". Candidates might get stumped on hearing such questions because not everyone is really prepared beyond exam-type questions. Having an overall knowledge of the systems involved in your area of specialization is a very good idea.

One interview tip (especially for onsite) --- State and explain your answer even if you are very doubtful about it. This helps the interviewer gauge your thinking process. One interviewer was leading me to one small problem after another in the scheme of a big problem. At one stage, I had an answer in my mind but was just not telling him that for I felt that would look stupid. Eventually, he explained the solution and that ended up being the same thing that I had thought of. When I exclaimed that "That was exactly what I was thinking" the interviewer snapped back saying "I can't give credit to you for that. No matter what you say  now, it can't change my mind ".  Not everyone gives you that sort of reply. However, it might very well be the thought in their minds.

Be truthful when replying to questions that seek the level of your knowledge in a specific area. If you blow your trumpet now and fail to answer even basic questions later on, that could be the end of it. One interviewer was happy with my performance because I had told him earlier in the round that I had only a theoretical knowledge of a particular topic and he tested me on the fundamentals alone(This was a round on the PERL language).

Sometimes, the name of an interview round is misleading. For eg, I got my schedule for an onsite interview that had a round called "Architecture". Right from that moment, I nurtured a doubt in my mind that it could not be only computer architecture but might include something else too.  This was supported by certain questions that I had faced in the phone round and the requirements in the skill set. It turned out to be right to such a huge extent that there was no computer architecture(as we study at college) at all in the round. Instead, it was all about extempore thinking at a higher level of abstraction called transaction level modeling (that consists of blocks like Arbiter, generator,monitor, FIFO etc). I asked the interviewer at the end of the round about the absence of questions from the computer architecture area to which he replied that he did not want to ask  those questions precisely because students study them at college!

Interviews can be held in a dedicated conference room where the candidate is imprisoned, so to speak. The interviewers shuttle between the rooms in case of rush interviews where often there are more than five candidates being interviewed simultaneously. This was the case with all my onsite interviews except one which was conducted in the cafeteria. While this might evoke thoughts of a noisy environment, it would most likely not be the case as you would be asked to settle in a corner which is relatively isolated.

Though aptitude questions are generally not encountered in EE interviews, one team asked me to solve a few puzzles. So, if you are not a person who is naturally interested in brainteasers and puzzles, then it is a good idea to resort to these for relaxation during your interview preparations. It also generally helps you improve your lateral thinking and problem solving abilities. I was uncomfortable at first, when I saw a few sheets in the interviewer's hands that had "Algorithmic logic puzzles in C". However, I was relieved when he handed out the other sheet and I saw the monks, the eggs and the like on it.

There is another difference in questioning methodology. Interviewers can have a scratchpad or a laptop from which they ask you questions and you have to work out your answer on a sheet of paper or on the board(which looks funny if the interviewer sits there in his "formal shorts" and you write on the white board wearing your blazer). Alternatively, you can be given a sheet with questions and space for solutions.(It is advisable to carry a bunch of plain sheets along with at least 4 or 5 copies of your Resume to an onsite interview). You have to work it out while the interviewer 'supervises' and interrupts you to know how you arrived at a particular answer. In any case you are expected to be interactive. You must ask all the relevant questions in order to churn out an answer/solution. This in itself is a positive attribute. I can tell that with some confidence because I was told "Good. You did not disappoint me" at the end of such a round.

Finally, an increasingly important round in interviews. ie, Behavioral.  When I first heard this name, I thought it was related to behavioral modeling and verilog. However, looking at the other rounds, I found out that this was to check how the interviewee acted in specific employment-related situations. Some people like to call it 'an advanced HR round'. This round is important but not taken too seriously for engineering job offer decisions though. It asks the same old questions with which you have been uncomfortable all along, like 'Tell me about yourself' , 'what are your strengths and weaknesses' , 'Why should we hire you?', 'Why do you want to work here?', 'Where do you see yourself in 5 years?', albeit in a more polished way, old wine in a new bottle. Though the answers to these might be simple or straightforward or might not even exist , you are supposedly tested for your "attitude" here. So, take time to go over behavioral interview preparations on the internet. There are nut cases that can come up with questions like "Will you quit your job if you get $1 million in a lottery?" .

The Lunch hour is usually a relaxation time during the interview process. I say 'usually' because there are known cases of eat-as-well-as-answer-a-question Lunches. I was fortunate not to face one. Theories run around that you are being indirectly 'tested' during lunch hour for your socialization skills. Though I will not deny that there is some truth in that statement, it is ridiculous to put on an artificial 'attitude' during that time. 'An interview candidate who was smiling/laughing throughout the lunch time sealed his fate then and there' observed one of my friends. He probably put on the dunce cap unknowingly while trying to impress people. Just relax and be normal. Do not overact.

In conclusion......

The interviewers look for basic knowledge and analysis skills in an interview. They write out a detailed report on how you performed, what are your strong areas and so on. This along with your resume can influence what task you are assigned initially in the company. Therefore, take good care to present your answers and your thought processes. Also, do not think that an answer is too simple to be true. Just start answering and develop it. Just be. Tackle the moment. You will sail through smoothly.

All the best for all those people searching for jobs.