Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

The essential writings of Dharmanand Kosambi

January 8, 2011

I had a chance to read Dharmanand Kosambi: The essential writings, edited by Meera Kosambi. I can not say that the book is uniformly good; however, there is enough of interesting history, social anthropology and some glimpses of a scholarly mind at work to make it a worthy read. If your interests are in history (of religion and Buddhism in particular), or social anthropology, this is a book that you do not want to miss. Here are some sample passages from the book for your reading pleasure.

With ample textual substantiation Dharmanand narrates the salient features of the Buddha’s life — first that his name was Gautama and that he was never named Siddhartha; then that he was the son of a wealthy Shakya landowner dependent on agriculture, but not a king or emperor; that the story of his having lived in three lavish palaces during the three seasons was a myth (although Dharmanand earlier believed it to be true); that he practised Samadhi since childhood; and that the reason for his renunciation was not the improbable incident of seeing an old man, a diseased man, and a corpse for the first time in his late twenties, but his distaste for violent quarrels such as those erupting between the Shakyas and the neighbouring Koliyas over the water of the Rohini river (although a general awareness of the frailty of life was also a contributory cause (From Meera Kosambi’s Introduction in the book, pp. 34-35) .

I would really love to read the book mentioned in the passage above, Dharmanand Kosambi’s Bhagavan Buddha.

We went to Ashoka’s stone pillar, inscribed on which are words to this effect: ‘Lord Buddha was born here; therefore I came in person to worship here, and erected this stone pillar’. (p. 177)

By the way, from the book, I also learnt that Ashoka exempted the village where Buddha was born from taxes and even gave some endowments; so, it looks like though Guptas methodically used grant giving to temples to further their imperial agenda, the example was set much earlier.

Among them was found a rock pillar of King Ashoka, on which appears a Pali inscription as follows:

Twenty years after his coronation, Priyadarshi, the Beloved of the Gods (i.e., Ashoka), came here personally and offered worship because Shakyamuni Buddha was born here. (He) built a wall of stone pillars on all four sides and erected (this) stone pillar. The Lumbini village was exempted from tax because Lord Buddha was born here, and some revenue was assigned (to the vihara?) (p.245)

Apparently, this stone pillar is what makes Buddha a historical person, and not a Puranic deity derived from sun worship (as some scholars believed).

Lord Buddha would rise at dawn and meditate or walk back and forth quietly outside the vihara. In the morning he would go into the village [or town] to beg for food. He would answer any question that anyone asked, then preach to him and lead him on the right path. …He would return to the vihara with the begging bowl in which the cooked food given as alms had got mixed up, and had his meal before noon. After eating he would rest a little and then meditate. In the evening he would preach to householders or or monks. Late in the evening he would meditate again or walk back and forth. At about midnight he would go to sleep, lying on his right side, placing one foot upon another, and using his hand as a pillow. This sleeping position is known as the sleeping position of the lion. (p. 257)

There are more information about Buddha’s travel habits in that section, which, again I enjoyed reading.

Till I read the book, I did not know that Vagh Bhatta of Ashtanga Hridaya is a Buddhist (and, that Maitri is an object of meditation for attaining samadhi).

Also, by far, of all the writings, I enjoyed Kosambi’s the translations of the rock edicts of Ashoka and his The Buddha, The Dhamma and The Sangha the most (from which the above quotes are taken).

Kosambi’s writings on socialism, nationalism, reasons for the downfall of the Buddhist sanghas, and his feminist ideas make very interesting and thought-provoking reading.

Let me end this post with a quote from the preface of Kosambi’s play called Bodhisattva (which, in some way, for me,  indicates the importance that films started gaining in the Indian entertainment and edification landscape in 1940s).

Anyone desirous of making a film or a talkie on the basis of this play should take advance permission from me, and make changes–if any–only under my supervision.

Have fun!


Brain as a sexual organ

May 20, 2009

Chat speculates!

Thirty-five thousand years ago is about the time that our direct Cro-Magnon ancestors were displacing Neanderthals in Europe. They had something going for them — more agile minds? language? imagination? Maybe the source of their success was not reproductive efficiency, as such, but eroticism. That is to say, maybe the conceptualization of sex was a driving engine of cerebral facility and language. The Playboy bunny. The Harlequin romance. Foreplay. Dirty dancing. Maybe sexual fantasy prepared the way for art and religion and technological innovation. Maybe the brain evolved as a sexual organ, and then found other things to do.

Prayers: outsourcing of!

May 16, 2009

Many years ago, I happened to be in Nanded in Maharashtra, and went to the Hazur Sahib gurdwara to pay homage to the last Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, who was assassinated there in 1708. There I came across something that baffled me. There was a row of cabins separated by thin walls of plywood in which akhand paths (non-stop reading of the Granth Sahib by a relay of paathees) were taking place with no one listening to them. I sought an explanation from the head granthi. He told me that people from India and abroad send money for akhand paths, to be followed by guru-ka-langar as thanksgiving or wish fulfilment. I could not comprehend how prayers recited by someone else could benefit a devotee who payed for them.

However, I found such practices prevalent in other communities as well. Hindus have havans performed in distant places; Muslims pay the expenses for people going for the Haj, hoping that the benefits will accrue to them. What came as a big surprise to me was the discovery that Europeans, Canadians and Indian Christians are also into outsourcing their prayers.

Khushwant Singh in Telegraph

Somehow, it also reminded me of this great fortune quote I get often:

“His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god. Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit.
Silence, though, could. It was in the days of the rains that their prayers went up, not from the fingering of knotted prayer cords or the spinning of prayer wheels, but from the great pray-machine in the monastery of Ratri, goddess of the Night. The high-frequency prayers were directed upward through the atmosphere and out beyond it, passing into that golden cloud called the Bridge of the Gods, which circles the entire world, is seen as a bronze rainbow at night and is the place where the red sun becomes orange at midday. Some of the monks doubted the orthodoxy of this prayer technique…” — Roger Zelazny, “Lord of Light”

Songs of the Gurus

December 9, 2008

Long back, when my brother used to live in Bangalore, one Sunday morning I visited him; at the same time, a Sardar came to his place to collect money for building a Gurudwara in Yeshwanthpur; when my brother gave him some nominal amount (Rs. 20 or so), the Sardar was not very happy; he argued as to why Gurudwaras are Hindu temples too and why we should give him more; he finally managed to get Rs. 100/- from my brother and gave us both a bear hug for showing our solidarity with his cause and left. For a long time, I was under the impression that his calling Gurudwara a Hindu temple was just a tactic to collect money from the Hindus who were the majority in those parts. However, after reading Khushwant Singh’s Songs of the Gurus: from Nanak to Gobind Sigh (Illustrations by Arpana Caur), a book of translations from Adi Granth, I realise how true that comment was.

Apparently, the word Sikh itself comes from the Sanksrit Shishya or Pali Sikka; further, at the very beginning, in his introduction, Khushwant Singh tells us that the Sikh religion is

a synthesis of Hinduism and Islam.

There are not only words like Rama, Krishna, Govinda, Hari, Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu and Allah in the poems, but also a strong stressing on the need to go beyond these labels; many a song also reminded me of the poems of Andal and Manikka Vasagar (God as the Husband and the Bhaktha/Bhakthai as the wife motif), Tamil Siddars, Akka Mahadevi and Basaveswara (the oneness of humanity, the uselessness of rituals and the futility of looking for enlightenment outside); finally, there is a very strong current of Hindu-Muslim unity, which, I think, is more relevant in these trying times; here are a couple of samples:

  • Some worship stones and on their heads bear them,
    Some the phallus strung in necklace wear its emblem.
    Some behold their god in the south, some to the west bow their head.
    Some worship images, other busy praying to the dead.
    The world is thus bound in false ritual
    And God’s secret is still unread.
  • One man by shaving his head
    Hopes to become holy monk,
    Another sets up as a yogi
    Or some other kind of ascetic.
    Some call themselves Hindus
    Others call themselves Mussalmans …
    And yet man is of one race all over the world;
    God as Creator, and God as Good
    God in His Bounty and God in His Mercy
    Is all One God. Even in our errors
    We must not separate God from God!
    Worship the One God,
    For all men the One Divine Teacher.
    All men have the same Form.
    All men have the same Soul.

Not knowing the original, I am not able to comment on the quality of translation; but the line

… Even in our errors
We must not separate God from God!

is poetic in any language and strengthens Khushwant Singh’s claim in the introduction that the Gurus whose poems are part of the Adi Granth are poets of great sensitivity.

There are also other interesting information that one can glean from these poems; here is a listing of the four sins, for example:

Drunk wine, thieved, fornicated and killed;

and, here is a listing of six good acts:

Learn and impart learning to others,
Sacrifice and make others give in sacrifice
Give alms and accept charity;

I find that this is the most curious list in that not only primacy is given to learning and teaching, but also accepting charity along with giving alms is considered as a good act (whereas an ancient Tamil poem takes a very different point of view:

ஈ என இரத்தல் இழிந்தன்று
ஈயேன் என்னல் அதனினும் இழிந்தன்று
கொள் எனக் கொடுத்தல் உயர்ந்தன்று
கொள்ளேன் என்னல் அதனினும் உயர்ந்தன்று

It is inferior to ask “Give me”; it is still inferior to say “I will not give”
It is superior to say “Take it”; it is still superior to say “I will not take”).

A nice book; it makes me want to read Khushwant Singh’s other much acclaimed two-volume book A history of the Sikhs and to look for CDs of the renderings of these songs — set to music along the traditional lines; unfortunately, though Khushwant Singh informs us that

The entire work is set to measures of classical Indian music. The hymns are not arranged by author or subject matter but divided into thirty-one ragas win which they are meant to be sung.

he does not recommend or inform of any specific, authentic rendering.

Tarini, the boat-Devi

June 20, 2008

Pratima Kamat writes about Tarini, a goddess worshiped in Goa, and the shared, syncretic ethos of the region that gave rise to the goddess and her worship:

The worship of Tara and Tarini is found in Orissa’s Ganjam district (which has the famous Tara-Tarini temple), Ghatgaon and Ratnagiri (where the Astamahabhaya Tara is worshipped). These are the patron deities of sailors and merchants. Tara is worshipped by sailors for safety and success at sea along the Orissa coast. The Ratnagiri Tara is believed to save her devotees from eight great fears, one of which is of shipwreck. Yet another fear, jalarnavabhaya, is of drowning in a sinking vessel.

Unlike in Orissa, the ‘boat deities’ of Goa, Tarini and Tar-Vir, are found away from the coast, in the sub-Ghat talukas of Sattari and Sanguem, against the backdrop of the Sahyadri mountains, in the villages of Keri, Bhuipal, Nagvem, Zarme, Sonal, Sanvarde, Bhironda, Dhamshe, Guleli, Shayll-Melauli, Malpann in Sattari; Ganjem in the Ponda; and Barabhumi, Surla and Talldem of Sanguem.

The spots where the sculptures have been found are almost always located along the banks of the Mhadei and its tributaries, lying either inside a temple or, weather-beaten in the open, amidst lush greenery, in the vicinity of a stream, and often in the periphery of the devarai or the sacred grove, and, in one instance, outside the Bondla wildlife sanctuary.

The boat-Devi is most commonly found to possess the attributes of an eight-armed Mahishasuramardini, though a couple of sculptures that contain interesting maritime information are chaturbhuja — with four arms. She is either seated on an asana in a boat, or on the boat itself, or is depicted standing in the boat. Almost all the sculptures exhibit human heads in the boat, with boatmen on either side of it, and in the Nagvem sculpture, the oarsmen are actually shown in the act of rowing the vessel.

Other than the ubiquitous boat, most of these sculptures contain related nautical and marine motifs, such as oars, anchors, mast, sail, pennant, fish and crocodile.

The Tarini and Tar-Vir sculptures of the Mhadei, Ragada and Valvanti river valleys provide valuable clues about ancient trade routes and practices, manufacturing centres, riverine ports, types of watercraft used, boat-building traditions and locations, trading communities and cultural interactions that took place as a consequence of thriving commerce.

The discovery of these sculptures has helped me give visibility to the hitherto-largely-undocumented contribution of the talukas of Sattari, Bicholim, Sanguem and Ponda to the commerce of ancient and early medieval Goa and the Konkan coast. Links may even be established between the east and west coasts of India on the basis of the resemblance of the Goan Tarini to Orissa’s Tara-Tarini. The similarities are not confined to the concept of a saviour-deity and the iconography of a goddess-in-a-boat, but extend to other cultural parallels such as boat festivals, and derivation of place-names.

The Tarini and Tar-Vir not only provide valuable clues about the Western Ghats-Arabian Sea trade, of which Goa (Sattari, in particular) had served as an important conduit, but also about the coming together of folk, Sanskritic, Buddhist and Jain traditions, as locally crafted syncretic saviour-deities for the river traders and boatsmen of the Mhadei.

Influenced by the play of varied cultural elements, the Mhadei river valley serves as the crucible of the syncretic Tarini. The goddess who is depicted as either standing or seated in a boat, is a rarity in Indian art. The commercial worthiness of the Mhadei, the Buddhist and Jain settlements that dotted the trade routes in the sub-Ghat region, the presence of the local Chari community as divine sculptors — all these contributed to the creation of the unique representation of the goddess-in-a-boat.

The Tarini is thus a syncretic vision of the Shakti of the Mhadei river valley, a saviour-goddess epitomizing the “shared faith” that characterized the cosmopolitan Sattari in the early medieval period. This taluka brought within its fold a surprisingly wide range of local, Sanskritic, Buddhist and Jain traditions — yet another reminder of the inclusive civilization that India once was.

A wonderful, and must-read essay!

Tributes: a polymath, a Buddhist scholar, a filmmaker and a SF writer

March 29, 2008

The magazine edition of the Hindu today contains (quite unplanned I suppose), tributes to several interesting people.

  • Ramachandra Guha pays his tributes to the polymath Damodar D Kosambi, and his father and Buddhist scholar Dharmanand Kosambi:

    A friend who lives in Goa writes to say that he is greatly enjoying the series of lectures being organised there to commemorate the centenary of the polymathic scholar D.D. Kosambi. The historian Romilla Thapar had spoken in the series, as had the jo urnalist P. Sainath; two Indians one thinks the notoriously judgmental Kosambi would have approved of, both for the depth of their research and the commitment to their craft.

    Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi was a remarkable man. Trained as a mathematician, he then went on to train himself as a historian. His day job was as a Professor of Mathematics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. On the train up and down from Poona (where he lived), and during the evenings, nights, and weekends, he gathered the materials to write some pioneering works of historical scholarship, among them A Study of Indian History and The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline.

    Among the community of Indian historians there is almost a “Kosambi cult” in operation. It is good that the civil society of Goa is joining academics elsewhere in India in paying tribute to his memory. But mostly forgotten in the meantime is a Kosambi who was perhaps an even more remarkable man. This was the historian’s own father, Dharmanand.

    I first heard of Dharmanand Kosambi from a friend who taught for many years at the University of California at Berkeley and is arguably the greatest living scholar of Jainism. His name is Padmanabha Jaini. It was in Berkeley on a cold January afternoon, years ago, that Professor Jaini acquainted me with the elements of Kosambi pére’s life. As a young man he felt the urge to learn Sanskrit; finding the urge irresistible, he left his wife and baby boy to go to Poona and study with the great Sanskrit scholar R.G. Bhandarkar. His studies inculcated further desires and ambitions; among them to make a deeper acquaintance with Buddhism. He travelled around the country, spending time in Baudh Gaya, in Sarnath, and in Kausambhi, near Allahabad, where the Buddha lived after attaining enlightenment. It was from this last place that he took the name by which he and his son came to be known. So far as I know, this remains the only “Kosambi” family in Goa, India, or the world.

    Dharmanand Kosambi spent a decade in the United States, in which time his son studied mathematics at Boston University (to add to the Sanskrit and Pali that he learnt at home). Reading about Gandhi’s movement made the senior Kosambi turn his back on America (and the scholarly study of Buddhism) to return to India and court arrest during the Salt Satyagraha. He was deeply attached to Gandhi; when the Mahatma moved to Wardha in 1934, Dharmanand Kosambi moved with him too. When I visited the ashram in Sewagram some years ago, an elderly (and knowledgeable) guide showed me the hut Gandhi lived in, as well as the huts occupied by his closest associates, such as Mahadev Desai and Mira Behn (Madeleine Slade). Then he pointed to a structure, as modest as the others, which he called “Professor Sahib Ki Kutir”. This was where the one-time Goan, Buddhist scholar, and Harvard academic had spent his last years.

    Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this most remarkable man concerns the manner of his death. In the summer of 1947, with the country on the eve of independence, Dharmanand Kosambi decided he did not need to live any more. So, in the hallowed Buddhist tradition, he simply fasted to death.

  • Pradeep Sebastian’s interview with Pico Iyer is a tribute to Anthony Minghella, a filmmaker who passed away recently:

    When a long-time editor at Time Magazine asked Pico Iyer recently to name all the people in the world he would be interested in interviewing, he named only two: Orhan Pamuk and Anthony Minghella. For Iyer, Minghella had been a hero, a one-of-a-kind filmmaker. The one director Iyer wanted adapting his novel, Abandon, for the screen. I knew all this, so when I first heard about Minghella’s death, I thought at once of Pico. In the past, we had often spoken of how much both of us loved Minghella’s first film (with its lovely title) “Truly, Madly, Deeply”.

    He had told me once that after seeing “The English Patient”, he had been inspired to write the kind of fiction Minghella would have delighted in. I have no way of knowing if the filmmaker did read Iyer’s beautiful and radiant novel, but I have often fantasised about bringing it to Minghella’s attention. I would say, handing Abandon over to him, “Here is the book you have been looking for, stop looking elsewhere.”

    Minghella’s most underrated film is “The Talented Mr. Ripley”. It is a film I have come to admire more and more, though Pico himself thinks it an interesting failure. (While telling me once, “Minghella’s failures are more interesting than most people’s successes.”) The week before he died, Anthony Minghella had just completed making a television film of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency for HBO and BBC.

  • Nalaka Gunawardane pays his tributes to Arthur C Clarke:

    “Do you know about the only man to light a cigarette from a nuclear explosion?” Sir Arthur C. Clarke was fond of asking his visitors a few years ago.

    Clarke, the celebrated science fiction writer and space visionary who died on March 19 aged 90, loved to ask such baffling questions.

    In this instance, the answer was Theodore (Ted) Taylor, a leading American nuclear scientist who designed atomic weapons in the 1950s and 1960s. Apparently, he just held up a small parabolic mirror during a nuclear test — the giant fireball was 12 miles away — and turned light into heat.

    “The moment I heard this, I wrote to Taylor, saying ‘Don’t you know smoking is bad for your health?’” Clarke added with a chuckle.

    In fact, he took an extremely dim view of both smoking and nuclear weapons, and wanted to see them outlawed. But he was aware that both tobacco and nukes formed strong addictions that individuals and nations found hard to kick.

    Years ago, Clarke had coined the slogan “Guns are the crutches of the impotent”. In later years, he added a corollary: “High tech weapons are the crutches of impotent nations; nukes are just the decorative chromium plating.”

Happy reading!

Pharyngula is convinced not only of heaven

September 22, 2007

But also of the existence of duck hunting in heaven 🙂

Besides, as everyone knows, there is duck hunting in heaven. Every day is opening day, and when the Great Mallard opens his bill and quacks the signal, all of the ducks start hunting … hunting the souls of expired ‘sportsmen’.