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« Tapestry of An Intricate Life | Main | Anandpur Sahib Revisited »

March 07, 2007


Surprising indeed, since your ex-pupil's field of work,before he decided to take sanyas, was in an interdisciplinary study of biophysics and neuroscience. That doesn't sound like someone who could get mystified by paranormal occurrences. Or perhaps he had come across something that he couldn't explain by the paradigms he studied and decided to switch to being a monk instead of continuing with his scientific research. The seeds for this may very well have been sowed by his earlier exposure to religious philosophies and practices in his formative years (from the bio link you provided)

There is still much about how the universe works that science hasn't been able to figure out yet, though I believe that it will get there someday. Even Prof. Lauterbur is currently involved in research that includes finding the transition point between the chemical origins of biological life, or the point when the seething mass of the primordial soup on earth generated RNA-like molecules.
As as Arthur C.Clarke said "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".So Swami V might have decided that 'magic' was proof that science wasn't enough for him.

From what I have gathered by talking to his class mates, some have speculated that there may be an element of escapism involved. He may have lost faith and confidence in empirical science and found it easier and more satisfying emotionally to operate in the realm of faith. It's hard to say.

There may be another explanation here besides genetic propensities. I wonder what drove PG to science in the first place. Was he ever really interested in it, or did he do it because of the high prestige placed on it in his social/familial milieu, as is common among some Brahmins? I know many who went into Ph.D programs in science and technology without any deep curiosity about the subject, nor seeing its relevance in their daily lives. This is rather common in India, where science came as an imported pursuit from the West and is still largely done as a career even by university profs.

Perhaps at some point, the strain of living someone else’s dream got to PG. Perhaps he found himself out of his depth at Caltech. If he had barely integrated the scientific-rational spirit into his psyche (because he chose it for the wrong reasons), it could not have prevented him from going over to the other side.

Unlike so many others, he at least had the courage to dump what didn’t interest him and pursue his true calling – dwelling on and interpreting traditional knowledge for his own times. For all we know, he might well be a relatively rational yogi. :)

The escapism may very well have been a factor, too!

Ruchira, what did you mean by "some of his outlandish and illogical claims that defied logic"- any examples?

I am reluctant to divulge the exact nature of those conversations I had with P.G. just before he "disappeared." But with me, as well as with a couple of his friends, he showed a strong leaning towards the para-normal with emphasis on his powers to "do" certain things. It will be a bit bizarre to talk about it here.

As for Shunya's other claim about P.G.'s possible disillusionment or even just plain boredom with science, that under different circumstances would have been a perfectly plausible and common enough story, if true. I see no problem whatsoever in someone, even the very bright, going that route because they were initially pressured into pursuing science by well meaning parents. I have several friends who did that even after "succeeding" on paper - going into banking, teaching, music, business, publishing, art and what not. But P.G.'s adventure was truly remarkable.

I think in P.G.'s case, there was something more complex at play. He never denounced the scientific research he was doing. In fact some of the utterances often involved seemingly inflated claims of his own research. I think being out of his depth may have had something to do with it.
Conspicuously successful in the very structured educational system in India, he may have floundered in the more free wheeling and independent approach to higher education in the US. (I have seen that happen to other Indian students). That coupled with the sudden death
of his mother at a relatively young age, may have helped to push him
over the edge.

From what I have heard recently, he seems to be doing quite well even in the "material" sense. I doubt he is a "rational" yogi although he may be to his devotees. His tone that I remember from the last days of contact had a slightly unhinged and yes, "delusional" ring to it.

More readings from P.G/ Swami's recent writings suggest he is trying to bridge the gap between Gnostic Xtian texts known as the Essene Gospels and the concepts he has learnt from the practice of Kriya yoga. It all seems very esoteric and hard to follow for the non-initiate, but no doubt has its value to avid followers.
I'm sure that he can pursue this research in the relative comfort of an ashram, with devoted followers to handle the burden of everyday chores.

I think that is part of it. Run away from mundane responsibilities of marriage, making a living etc. . . I don't know. Perhaps I am being a bit judgemental here. But if P.G. would have chucked everything and gone to the Himalayas for a solo quest, I would have had more understanding of his choice. Diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks etc. Although it is of no concern of mine, what I find objectionable and a bit alarming is that with his own deeply held dogmas, he can mess around with the heads of other people, far less intelligent than himself and far more impressionable than his friends and I are.

Meanwhile check out where this article got linked! Nice.

Paranormal stuff, huh. The Indian yogic/ascetic establishment has also traditionally been a comforting refuge to all manner of maladjusted cranks, broken people, and delusional spirits (ok, one can also say this about Silicon Valley where I live now :).

I just googled him. A part of him sounds like a garden variety religious scholar and teacher of Kriya Yoga and meditation. The other part is less than kosher—he is also involved with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) folks—rabid Hindu chauvinists who play fast and loose with Indian history. They use his "conversion" to lend credence to the greatness of the Hindu Way (even a Caltech scientist, you see!). He is on record for calling Sanskrit "the mother language that birthed all world languages."

Shunya: All a bit disturbing, wouldn't you say?

As has been illustrated in prior discussions, I think you and Dean, although not personally religious, are more accommodating of others unthinking religiosity. At the level of individual religious folks, I too am not likely to split hairs. I consider it a coping mechanism and there is nothing wrong with that. But to argue that this mechanism of pain control, hope and optimism does not lend itself to superstition is unacceptable to me. Religious people bristle at the word "superstition" when it comes to their own faith. But when it comes to the similarly counterintuitive dogma of others, they are quick to deride them as mumbo jumbo. Virgin birth, physical resurrection after death, 72 virgins in heaven, reincarnation - are discarded as so much bunkum by some and held up as articles of faith by others. Yet when the skeptics take on ALL religions as a "strange" working of the human mind, a collective cry of protest arises from the community of believers of all stripes. Unlike Steven J. Gould (and my co-blogger Dean) I don't believe that scientists have no role in investigating the religious mind. It is just another emotion like love, hate, fear and competition which too occasionally lead us to behave irrationally.

Since I have already broken my rule of not addressing personal issues on the blog, I will illustrate this a bit further with some more personal observations and anecdotes. My family has/ had a very large number of atheists compared to the average Indian family. But the atheism was a unself-conscious, matter of fact way of life. No one was out to make a point. They just lived and died according to that dictum. But there are also religious people in the mix. My father in law is an adherent of Sikhism. My mother was and my mother in law is Hindu. My husband's younger brother converted to Roman Catholicism. His wife is Buddhist and so on. (I even have a Jewish cousin.) I have observed with interest and some amusement how to each, his or her own religion enjoys the special status which allows them to suspend reason and become willingly credulous for the sake of faith.

I will not engage in high faluting religious/ metaphysical/ philosophical hair splitting but will relate something interesting to illustrate the intellectual vs superstitious perception of religion to the common practioners of religions.

My mother was a practising Hindu for most of her life. Although not given to dogmatic behavior (she didn't demand for example, that my sister and I follow or believe what she herself did), she was given to regular observances of Hindu rituals which amounted to unquestioning "peasant" religiosity. My mother was a very good test case because she was also an educated and widely read woman, thoroughly conversant in eastern philosophy and languages. And she converted (sort of) in late age.

Apart from English and Bengali, my mother was well versed in Sanskrit and Pali and had extensive scholarly knowledge of Hindu and Buddhist religious texts. She maintained a cold eyed philosophical attitude towards Buddhism but not so towards Hinduism, her religion of birth and breeding. Hinduism held an emotional sway over her which accounted for a certain irrationality in her acceptance of some of the B.S. associated with it which she would try to justify using her scholarly understanding.

In her late seventies, my mother developed arthritis which resulted in painful joints. That made it difficult and eventually impossible for her to perform the ritualistic Hindu puja which required her to kneel, bend and sit cross legged on the floor. At this point in her life, my mother became a Buddhist - conversion dictated by a medical condition! She had learnt that it was permissible to say a Buddhist prayer sitting in a chair or on her bed. She probably considered herself a Hindu-Buddhist but her daily religious ritual became exclusively Buddhist. Around this time, we noticed that Buddhism (and Buddha) began to assume the same "holy" aura in her expressions which was quite different from the earlier intellectual attitude she used to exhibit towards it. It was very clear that as soon as she adopted Buddhism as her "personal" religious way, it was "elevated" to the same superstitious and awe inspiring status that Hinduism alone had earlier enjoyed.

Just to be clear, neither do I believe that scientists have no role in investigating the religious mind. In fact, I think the questions and projects described in the article are fascinating. I am cautious, however, about misrepresentation in and about scientific investigation, particularly by journalists and wayward scientists. For instance, contra Barrett in the article, "stuff just happens" often is a perfectly suitable explanation, for which there's no need to theorize an underlying cause, divine or otherwise. "Stuff just happens" is also a narrative, albeit not a strictly causal one.

Yes, it’s disturbing all right. Ruchira, look what you've had a hand in creating! :)

As for my tolerance for religious folks, let me say a few things just for the record. :) That religion engenders superstition is evident enough (as you say). I don't oppose all religion because it isn't productive to oppose all religion, unless one can meaningfully talk about what to replace it with. I do not believe that humans, on a mass scale, can ever be rational. The very idea is absurd. Rationality is acquired by hard, conscious, personal effort. A few find enlightenment, the rest find refuge at various levels of faith and superstition, whether religious or secular. I am content therefore, as I’ve said earlier, to oppose only religion’s moral excesses (plentiful for sure) and finding ways to reduce them. I think it is important to make this distinction to pick the right battles.

I agree that scientists should explore the religious mind. No area should be taboo, including, if I may add, reason. In particular reason because that is our primary and best available tool; reason should keep the heat of its analysis also on itself; else a dogmatic idea of what reason is can take hold.

Thanks for sharing so many personal details. You have a remarkably diverse and interesting family indeed. This partly explains your own eclectic views and interests. Your mother was well versed in Pali? Wow!

Shunya and Dean:
Thanks for the clarification. I think I already knew what you have asserted. Perhaps I came across as putting words in your mouths which I surely didn't mean to. I myself may have a more impatient and heartless attitude towards religion (as it is practiced by the vast majority of the credulous) than most. I would like it to by shorn of its "mystic" character and put in the place where it belongs - a "natural" human proclivity of believing in the "unnatural" when our physical and mental balance are off kilter. That it has its uses, is undeniable, especially since as Shunya points out, we haven't yet hit upon a universally acceptable alternative. If the religious types restrict their reach to disbursing peace of mind and personal morality without declaring themselves as the bearers of "truth," I would have no problems. On the other hand, they can't really do the former without claiming the latter, can they? But as P.G.'s case illustrates, willfull distortions to promote harmful social agenda by religion is what scares me. But this is rehashing of the same old stuff. I have really nothing new to add.

Shunya, "well versed in Pali" may have been a bit of an exaggeration. My mother had a working knowledge of the language - her father was "well versed." She was much more proficient in Sanskrit. She was also a very "rational," fair minded and gentle woman. Her late age conversion was a source of some amusement for me and my sister.

BTW, I had nothing to do with P.G.'s transformation, I swear! In fact, it is strange that while I am somewhat irritated by the adult P.G., I still recall his youthful self with much affection.

"If the religious types restrict their reach to disbursing peace of mind and personal morality without declaring themselves as the bearers of "truth"- if only!
On the other hand, no religion ever evolved or survived (not even the likes of Buddhism) without some groups of fervid and evangelical followers ensuring the growth in numbers of the devout. Witness the peril that, as you pointed out, the Mandaeans and Parsis face in their dwindling numbers. Close to my town, a group of Harmonists (who celebrated the virtues of celibacy) died out after about 100 years in the area.
So, I guess that promoting peace and morality through religion has to be superseded by a greater devotion to propagating the religion through some 'exclusive feature' available only to the true worshippers.

Shunya's "I don't oppose all religion because it isn't productive to oppose all religion, unless one can meaningfully talk about what to replace it with" reminds me of a lecture I attended years ago by feminist "theologian" Mary Daly, in which she derided patriarchal religion and urged its abolishment. When she was asked by an attendee with what she would recommend replacing it, she said something to the effect of "That's like asking with what we should replace cancer!"

You are absolutely right. And that precisely is the "dirty politics" of religion - the claim to some exclusive knowledge or privilege. And hence the blood letting when competing dogmas clash. It is no different than any other business - the quest for monopoly over the minds and the pocketbooks of the credulous among us.

And yeah, celebrating celibacy is not going to do much for expanding the flock. Go forth and multiply makes much better practical sense. In fact many have argued that the theists will win the evolutionary war by outbreeding the atheists. And then there is the paranoia about which kind of believers are breeding like rabbits. As you may have heard, both fundamentalist Hindus and Christians are gravely worried that Muslims will win the procreation war. Wrongfully, they point to the practice of four wives permissible to each Muslim man. They never stop to think that it is wrong computation. While the practice creates a larger number of children in one household, it doesn't increase overall population. Multiple wives is not the factor, fecundity and lack of birth control is.

Kudos to Mary Daly. But who's listening to me or to Ms Daly?

Clearly, none of us here admires the deeply embedded religious urge in humans, but ">"> Mary Daly’s blanket comparison of religion to cancer strikes me as a stellar example of unreason (if she did make that comparison – perhaps she targeted only patriarchy in religion, a far better defined and more meaningful political/moral issue IMO).

Whatever religion is, it is not similar to a disease addressable by drugs and hospitals. Such glib reductionism can raise awkward questions about the “reason camp”.


You keep focusing on the philosophical "essence" of religion and I keep railing against its practice. For the vast majority of the adherents, it is precisely the illogical "orthopraxy" which makes sense. How many times to bathe in a day, what to eat, when to shave one's head, to accept certain articles of faith without question. And yes, the patriarchy in ALL old world mainstream religions - the idea of the "uncleanliness" of women accepted without batting an eyelid by billions of women. Does it make sense? And what good does it do? It doesn't to me. And I am concerned with this - the part that governs day to day life and the general outlook towards the world.

I am not focusing on how Thomas Aquinas peceived Christianity or what an erudite professor of comparative theology in a university thinks of religious edicts. The vast majority of religious people do not know and do not care. Yet, when perverted criminals resort to anti-social and criminal behavior in the name of religion, the hue and cry is "that is not true Islam / Christianity/ Hinduism." When questioned closely, they are ready to justify a lot of nonsense in the name of true religion. For example, the exclusion of women from religious hierarchy - amazingly by women themselves. If a system has so many flaws in its basic structure how can we distill acceptable practice from there? What good does it do to invoke "true" religion? "Islam is a religion of peace," "Christianity is a religion of forgiveness," "caste system is based on valid sociology and division of labor." How many times have we all heard these claims after a plane is flown into a tower, an infidel country is invaded for its oil or a Dalit is lynched? Even when common folks are not involved in the actual act, have you not heard so called educated and informed co-religionists make excuses including the overwhelming support for 9/11 in Islamic nations? I have. Repeatedly. And I despair. You may claim that it is politics. But as long as the banner of religion is raised in the public square to justify the act, I will look to religion for the motivation. I have even heard women say submissively that all the misogynistic pronouncements have their scientific reasons. There are Buddhists who believe in demons, ghosts, spirits and calmly declare that Buddhism is a "rational" religion which does not subscribe to these notions - they learnt it from Hinduism! Again, the self serving distinction between what one's "true" religion is and its corrupted practice. If this is not a mental disease, I don't know what is.

It is one thing to appreciate the benefits of meditation (prescribed by all religions)- a physiologically tested practice and another to attach irrational thought processes to it. If concentrating one's mind, deep breathing and relaxation are good for you, can we not do that without subscribing to other unverifiable factors? Can we gaze at our navels, count backwards from a thousand and derive the same benefit? We should find out. Except for failing to exert a hypnotic effect on the masses, where else has the reason camp gone wrong? As for name calling, who has been doing it for millennia and killing for it? (Atheism is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia in this day and age.) Why is it so scary when the atheists get abrasive? I agree with you that all discussions are likely to come to a more fruitful conclusion without shrillness and ad hominems. But why is the overwhelming burden to be "nice" on the skeptics? Why should they pretend to respect something they don't? If I smoke in your presence and you don't like it, you will have no hesitation to tell me to stop or to go far away from you. Why can't the toxic effects of religion be similarly questioned by those who see more harm in it than good?

Assuming that the human brain is constructed in a way that religious thought is desirable and even essential for a fulfilling existence for a majority of humans, these dusty old divisive superstitions are not what will cut it. A healthy debate is essential and believers have to stop living in parallel universes of reason and unreason. Or, we have to literally "transcend" this atavistic trait that expresses itself with disturbing regularity in a certain number of members of our species and the rest follow like so many sheep - just to be on the safe side.

Fair enough. Let’s leave aside the philosophical underpinnings of religion and focus on its practice. Again, there are two sides here. The side you have just laid our nicely, of all that is wrong with religion, its excesses and transgressions (call this negative religion). The other side is also something you mentioned earlier in this thread, religion as “disbursing peace of mind and personal morality”. To be fair, let's add community and social cohesion, succor in trying times, etc. (call this positive religion).

You and Sujatha talked of the tendency of positive religion to slide into negative religion via its “fervid and evangelical followers”. This certainly happens often enough. Now the million dollar question is: what is the best way to reduce negative religion? My view is that this cannot be done by talking about eliminating all religion. I say this not out of decency or respect for others, but as a matter of smart strategy. It does not make good rational sense to approach it that way. I’ll explain in a minute.

I would like to point out that we are used to handling such “sliding” tendencies in the secular realm. Take capitalism for example. Through research, careful analysis, and understanding of this beast, we have learned (and are still learning) to mitigate and manage the severe ills of unchecked capitalism (exploitation, disparity, drain on natural resources/environment, etc.). We do this via safety nets, affirmative action, labor laws, subsidized housing/health care, courts, and myriad other ways. Eliminating capitalism is not a viable option anymore; we can’t have only its benefits and none of its ills; what we want is to keep its benefits and reduce/manage its excesses.

Now why is this approach not applied to the religious realm by smart people? Why is there an intolerant, radical call to eliminate all religion? Organized religion is like capitalism in that while it has a positive side, it also contains within it seeds of extremism and strife. We could focus our energies on understanding the beast of religion (why exactly has Middle America turned more religious in recent decades, for instance, or in other regions of the world; why is this shift happening now, in the way it is) and find practical ways of checking and managing its negative trends. Europe has applied this rational approach to thorny social issues of prostitution, drugs, etc.

It is well known that working at the grassroots level, Hamas and Shiv Sena provided the basic services—education, hospitals, sanitation, job assistance—which civic society failed to provide, and that is significantly why they have so many loyal followers. Now we say, Oh, Hamas is poisoning the minds of their people, let’s find a way to eliminate them. If these basic services were provided by the state, would we still see so many people flocking to them (try this thought experiment)? Rather than systematically understanding organized religion and how it works in society, the all too common instinct is to pick on its excesses, label it irrational, and call for its elimination (Harris/ Dawkins). It’s like someone picking on the excesses of capitalism and calling for its elimination. Good luck with this militant approach. Militancy works best in specific and well defined areas (women in priesthood, etc.), when affected parties are personally involved. Railing against illogical people will only raise our bile and blood pressure. What we should do to affect positive change should be the pressing concern.

Why not adopt a sociological approach to solving a sociological problem? This has to begin with the acknowledgement that organized religion serves a positive role in many lives (even if it doesn’t for you). That there are no quick, radical solutions is the second realization—this is what the best social reformers have always known (think 19th century Bengal; or how Gandhi fought untouchability). That it’ll take enlightened people at the helm in many societies to make this happen is the third realization. It’ll require massive global investments in education, health, safety nets, and other basic services. Over time, the cesspool of negative religion will begin to dry. This is the only proven and durable way of curing diseases of the mind.

No, sure it doesn't have any value for me as is abundantly clear by now. My own world view towards religion is largely shaped by the presence of several skeptics in the immediate family whose confidence, honesty and strength of conviction stood up very well against the grumblings of the religious. My father, both my grandfathers and several other beloved members of the family were openly and unapologetically un-religious. (One humorous aside, my maternal grandfather, the philosopher / linguist used to consult the Hindu almanac to plan his travels. He used to pick the most "inauspicious" days for traveling. He knew that the trains would be empty because the faithful would stay away ... and he would have the entire compartment to himself.) I saw no difference in the morality, kindness and altruistic instincts of these non-believers and their religious counterparts. In fact, if anything, theirs rose above any consideration of caste, creed, good karma, heaven or hell. I found that very refreshing and more convincing. There was no other motive in their generosity and lending the helping hand other than a sense of fairness.

If positive religion could be harnessed in the way you suggest, it would indeed be a step forward. But that is as much a utopia as my (and Dennetts') fond hopes for morality without faith. I don't see it happenning in a hurry, if at all.

In fact it is interesting that you brought up capitalism in the context of the spread of religion. I suspect the swell in religiosity across the globe has something to do with the defeat of communism and the victory of capitalism. The American right wing was quick to point out after the collapse of the Soviet Union that God was on the side of devout America and hence also favors personal wealth and the free market. It is not a coincidence that Reagan was able to exploit this sentiment and slash social services. After the great blow to their confidence, the Russians are now turning to unfettered money grubbing, religiosity and other nonsense. They want to be like Americans. Why argue with a successful economic and spiritual model? (I don't know how the right wing explains China which still remains mostly irreligious although "faith" and superstition are creeping back there too.) And have you not noticed the explosion in mindless religiosity in India ever since the BJP opened up the markets and the Pandora's box of militant religiosity? How many Indian millionaires do you think sincerely believe that their wealth is a gift from God? And the more puja they do to bribe the gods, the more wealthy they will be? Which is why I am leery of tying up religion to social services (a la Shiv Sena and Hamas) - the compromise always comes back to bite one in uncomfortable places.

BTW, the most meaningful and long lasting social reform brought about in Renaissance Bengal was by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar - the most prodigiously brainy and fearless atheist moderen India has known. He also happened to have a masterful grasp of ancient texts and religious philosophy. Since he didn't dilute his message with the "honey" of Ram, Rahim, Ishwar, Allah, he didn't capture the imagination of the mushy public like Gandhi did. More is the pity.

As usual,I think we have exhausted our repertoire of arguments (I know I have:-) Changing subjects, did you happen to see my sketch of Anandpur Sahib?

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