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Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Meditating For Moolah

Posted by anandrr on January 28, 2010

This being my very first trip to an Ashram of any kind, I was expecting to run into a strong cult of personality, but little that would annoy me. The surprises started at the get-go.

The ashram is a huge swath of land in San Ramon covering many hills, valleys, lakes, and what appear to be moderate-sized farms. We visited on a Saturday, the only weekend during Amma’s two weekend-Bay Area visit that she would be meeting with the public. “Giving darshan,” as we Indians say.

The main action is centered around an auditorium, a  middling barn-like structure built on the side of a hill. The area around the ashram had been converted into make-shift parking lots, each with a jarring title: the Kailash lot, the Rishikesh lot and so on.

The Punyam Trail to the Parking Lot

The Punyam Trail to the Parking Lot

The Kailash lot is connected to the auditorium via the Punyam trail that cuts across the intervening hill. No word on whether those who take the longer scenic route to the auditorium are missing out on the short cut to salvation.

As you walk to the event, you are surrounded by cars whose owners proclaim both their love for the mother as well as their extreme liberalism (2-heart-Amma license plates cheek by jowl with bumper stickers sloganeering for Peace) You also find that you are surrounded by a wide variety of Indians, some non-Indian Asians, and a large number of Caucasians dressed in white kurtas, salwars, and donning beads and necklaces. It is then that you realize that this combination of Indian and white is only seen in one other type of event in the Bay Area: classic rock concerts. Those who have been will recognize this readily: if you went to a Roger Waters or Mark Knopfler or Jethro Tull concert in the Bay Area in the nineties you would have come upon a curious demographic mix, old baby boomer Americans with tie dyes, pony tails and young twenty-something Indians raised on a steady diet of  classic rock. Replace the older hippies with a younger version, and you have the demographic mix of the “mother” events. As you approach the auditorium, you realize that the similarity to a rock concert is not entirely incidental, the business model seems to be almost entirely copied. There is one vital difference: the main event, the meeting (and embrace!) with the “mother” is free. But this event is surrounded by commercial merchandising that will take your breath away. To start with, just as the Stones go on tour with the prominent “lick” logo, so does the “mother.” She comes complete with a swooshy logo that would make Nike proud, as well as a slogan for the North American leg of her tour (Embracing the World, natch). Everything is on sale with a high markup. Books, tapes, CDs, holy water, holy ash, holy sandal wood, holy incense, holy puja material, holy everything, all duly blessed. Pictures and paintings of doubtful artistic value but incalculable blessing value. Food of doubtful nutritional and even less culinary value. But the one that had me gasping for air was the table with the offerings to the mother. Devotees like to take offerings to the mother when they gain darshan. Towards this, they can buy at this table a small box of Hershey’s kisses for $4 or a large bag of the same candy for $7. This is chutzpah that would make Donald Trump proud. Buy the items at Costco for a cheap $1-$2, sell them to a devotee at around 4x the price and then, follow me carefully here, get it right back from the devotee as an offering.

‘I don’t understand why you buy eggs for seven cents apiece in Malta and sell them for five cents’
‘I do it to make a profit’
‘But how can you make a profit? You lose two cents an egg.’
‘But I make a profit of three and a quarter cents an egg by selling them for four and a quarter cents an egg to the people in Malta I buy them for seven cents an egg. Of course, I don’t make a profit. The syndicate makes the profit. And everybody has a share.’
Yossarian felt he was beginning to understand. ‘And the people you sell the eggs to at four and a quarter cents apiece make a profit of two and three quarter cents apiece when they sell them back to you at seven cents apiece. Is that right? Why don’t you sell the eggs directly to you to eliminate the people you buy them from?’
‘Because I’m the people I buy them from’, Milo explained.

— Joseph Heller, Catch-22

At least Milo would be proud.

Once you’re past the curious demographics, the branding and the commercialism you finally find the groupies. You can’t have a rock concert without them, and the same goes for a  darshan. There they are, overcome by the mere sight of the lovely lady, alternately rapturous and stunned into speechless wonderment. I was put in mind of this one time that I ran into Vijay Amritraj at the Leela in Bangalore and my jaw dropped to the floor as I stood there and reminisced about his game-changing performance at the Davis Cup against Martin Jaite. I found myself strangely immobile, overcome by the dueling emotions of wanting to fall on my knees and kiss his ring and simultaneously unable to do anything lest this heavenly apparition suddenly disappear. I’ve never  been much for the divine souls myself, but I must imagine the feeling on encountering the amma is somewhat similar.

All told, I suppose the most egregious aspect of the experience was encountering such a blatantly capitalistic enterprise cloaked in so much anti-materialistic spiritualism. In a sense, it is a matter of  some not insubstantial aspiration and achievement that a mere girl from the fishing villages of Kerala has ascended to the head of a huge multi-million (billion?) dollar enterprise, and who am I to fault her for her enterprise and gumption if this is how she chose to get there. On the other hand, it leaves one with the realisation that perhaps nothing is really sacred any more, not even the sacred. That takes getting used to, when I get there, perhaps I’ll have true zen.

Posted in Business, Capitalism, Corruption, Culture, Economics, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Oscars and the Matthew Effect

Posted by anandrr on February 23, 2009

Anand (Sr) writes about the Matthew Effect and the Oscars. To which we say:

  • Of course the Matthew Effect is dominant. Oscar nominations are a function of PR and lobbying more than anything else,  the marginal PR required for the ninth nom is much less than the marginal PR for the first.
  • Some noms make no sense at all. Button for editing? One imagines even the Academy is somewhat unsure what they are honoring. Or perhaps they think a consolation prize is in order so they nominate it anyway.
  • Winning an Oscar is all about being in the right place at the right time, so yes the Matthew Effect must dominate again. You have to find the right combination of Hollywood liberal guilt, Hollywood elitist condescension, and Hollywood self-preening and then make it work in your movie’s favor. If all of those are pointing in your direction, you win. (Sean Penn just had to win last night, or else who else could lecture all of us for voting against Prop. 8 last year? If Frost/Nixon had been nominated last year, it would have been a lock for many Oscars, perfect opportunity for Hollywood to tell us all how to vote in the upcoming general, but now that the great Hope and Changer has been elected in, its time is past.)

Final semantic consideration: who knew that “the rich getting richer” effect had such a good name and what’s more that the Matthew in question is the Matthew of the Bible specifically endorsing such unequal outcomes? This raises a theological question:

And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.  — Matthew 19:24

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. — Matthew 25:29

One surmises that the kingdom of God is not all that it is cracked up to be, or that between 19 and 25, Matthew went from being a commie to an unrepentant capitalist. Perhaps Ayn Rand had made an appearance as understudy prophet. One imagines Matthew 31 being all about the subprime debacle that followed.

Posted in Capitalism, Communism, Culture, Economics, Films, Funny, Media, Philosophy, Showbiz | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Zadie Smith Speaks in Tongues

Posted by anandrr on February 13, 2009

Ever since White Teeth, I have loved Zadie Smith. In a beautiful essay, she riffs on immigration, cultural identity, assimilation, Pygmalion, Cary Grant and much more all in the service of understanding Obama. Of course she is talking about America and its melting pot, but she could very well be describing a rapidly globalising India. Did I mention I love her?

Posted in Culture, English, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Flashback Friday: The Sun is Brahman

Posted by anandrr on January 23, 2009

Solar heating, then and now

Solar heating, then and now

One of my fondest memories is from a summer when I was but a stripling of  10 or 11. We lived in Ulsoor (spelled Halasuru these days, I’ve noticed), back then it felt like it was very far away from the city centre, how things change. The corporation would supply water at least once a day, perhaps a couple times a day, this continues to be a luxury in Bangalore. It is up to the people to figure out how to store the water for as long as they need it. I am not entirely sure how or why this is a good idea, if people are going to store all the water they will need and then some, surely it is more efficient to just keep the taps on, but I’m surely missing something. But to get back to my story, we lived in a house built before I was born so of course it lacked “modern” infrastructure like overhead tanks and pumps to fill them up. The result was that the time that the water flowed through the taps was precious and enough water had to be collected in sufficiently large containers and so on so as to last the entire day.

Now, the year I am referring to, perhaps this was one of those years that the monsoons had failed, for whatever reason the Bangalore corporation decided that summer that they would cut back on the frequency of water supply. My dad in his infinite wisdom obtained a couple large black drums that would be filled with water so it could be used later in a last-resort situation. These were sufficiently large drums that once they were filled at the tap in our “yard”, they were heavy enough that they would have to be left there and not moved anywhere. And so they would sit there in the Indian summer and bake all day. It must have helped that they were black, so any sun rays getting anywhere in their vicinity had no choice but to heat the water within the drums. It didn’t take my brother and me long to discover that a drum filled with cold water in the morning had very warm and toasty water in the evening. After a summer day filled with playing cricket or running around in the dusty streets, we could think only of taking the very warm water and enjoying lingering baths in them. The fact that the water appeared to have heated itself must have added a surreptitious dimension to the situation, here we were able to take a hot water bath in the summer with apparently no adult help required in turning on the water heater or anything, just transport the water into the house, and you were good to go. Bangalore’s weather demanded that you use the water as soon as possible, any delay beyond twilight meant that the water would cool quickly even in the summer, if I had known Newton’s Law of Cooling back then I might even have found a way to intellectualize the bathing experience. The bathing situation was of course curiously dichotomous: as kids we were excited by the prospect of “stealing” hot water from what had been mere cold water in the morning and the prospect of getting to use it all for a bath seemed curiously exciting, our parents were probably quite pleased they’d found a way for the kids to get the grime off their bodies so willingly in the evening. It didn’t make sense but there it was.

All of which came back to me as I stood under the shower spewing forth scalding hot water at me from our newly installed solar water heater. There turns out to be a certain joy in knowing that the only conventional energy involved in bringing you your hot water is the motor that pumped the water up to the tank. The utter simplicity of the system is beguiling, no conversion of light to electricity or turning turbines involved here, just the sun heating water in tubes and letting the laws of physics do the rest. Beautiful!

Having lived so long in a city and area where sunlight and natural light are at a premium, the first thing I noticed on my return to India was how much free A-grade sunlight we had pouring over us every day and how little energy the average Indian gets by way of electricity. Unlike the Bay Area sun, temperamental and unreliable, the Bangalore sun is always on yet temperate. (Cue joke about Superman going from the red sun of Bangalore to the yellow sun of the Bay Area). And yet, our ability to use sunlight and sun-heat to do any thing more than heat water in a manner that is economically viable is severely limited by the technologies available. It’s a little frustrating, but also somewhat hopeful, after all the day that we learn to tap the sun, that’s the day we truly attain energy-moksha.

Posted in Nostalgia, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Calvin and Hobbes go to Norway

Posted by anandrr on January 10, 2009

Sitting in the airport, there’s a foreigner sitting across from me reading a comic book whose characters look like Calvin and Hobbes. The only difference is that it’s not titled Calvin and Hobbes, but Tommy og Tigern (or even possibly Tommy ög Tigern).  I’m assuming that it’s Calvin and Hobbes in Norwegian or something. But wait a minute, on the one hand, you have characters named for two influential philosophers who stood for sharply differing views of human nature, and this dichotomy expressed in the characters’ views towards life.  On the other, you have Tommy and the Tiger? Did the creativity well freeze over in Norway?

Posted in Literature, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Dirt befell him

Posted by anandrr on September 21, 2008

Image stolen shamelessly. © Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project

The BBC is reporting that a large statue of Marcus Aurelius has been recently unearthed from the ruins of a bath. It is thought that an earthquake buried the bath and its statue occupants for posterity. If I may just add, it is rather fitting that Marcus Aurelius came in for this treatment, after all as Bertie Wooster once reported:

‘I wonder if I might call your attention to an observation of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius? He said “Does aught befall you? It is good. It is part of the destiny of the Universe ordained for you from the beginning. All that befalls you is part of the great web.”’

I breathed a bit sterterously.

‘He said that, did he? ‘

‘Yes, sir. ‘

‘Well, you can tell him from me, he’s an ass. Are my things packed?’

– Mating Season

Posted in Funny, Literature, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Drip Drip Drip Armageddon

Posted by anandrr on September 17, 2008

So this is what Armageddon looks like? Ben Bernanke is the Anti Christ and the Rapture involves our money disappearing from our portfolios leaving behind the empty shell of our Vanguard accounts here on Earth. No wonder Hugo Chavez smelled the devil when he spoke at the U.N. And boy does this look so quaint and old timey, like from a different century:

The White House on Tuesday criticized Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s planned nationalization of utilities and telecommunications companies and said any U.S. firms affected by it must be compensated.

“We’ve seen the results of nationalization in other places, and in general these types of actions do not produce economic benefits as expected,” said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council.

No shit, Gordon.

Posted in Business, Capitalism, Communism, Economics, Incentives, Philosophy, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

David Foster Wallace: RIP

Posted by anandrr on September 14, 2008

I was going to be irreverent and cynical about something today, but surfing around just before I started to post showed me the shocking news of the day: David Foster Wallace hanged himself in LA yesterday. Talk about the death of irony.

DFW was probably the best “young” writer in the business. I read Infinite Jest sometime in 2002 (and inadvertently joined the Bookcrossing club when I left it behind on the Caltrain), and I was hooked. Since then I’ve read a couple more of his books and I can only hope that some day I learn to be as inventive a writer as he, and as consistently able to suck in humongous quantities of information about entirely diverse topics (Tennis, Maths, Politics, Food…) and yet be able to write/talk about them very intelligently. Bill Clinton seems to do it, DFW did it, and then there’s the rest of us aspirers. Finally, very few writers are able to convert their writing into a performance to be enjoyed for its own sake, DFW could do it every time.

It is unfortunate that DFW will never write again, on the other hand I have now been reminded that there are at least 3 more DFWs to read, and if all else fails I can always spend a few months re-savouring Infinite Jest.

UPDATE: And Harper’s has a whole list of everything he wrote for them. And so did Rolling Stone. And The Atlantic Monthly was just waiting to be asked. Enough to read for the rest of the week.

Posted in Culture, English, In Memoriam, Literature, Nostalgia, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

In Praise of Mayawati

Posted by anandrr on September 4, 2008

We return ever so occasionally to American politics. We were once into it, now we merely dabble. All this talk of Barack Obama and McCain as somehow magically bipartisan and post-partisan makes us cringe. Apparently there is something wrong with being partisan. And there is a lot more wrong with people who change their mind to suit public opinion. So McCain is deemed better than Obama because McCain has principles that transcend time, or something. Leave aside for a moment that McCain has flip-flopped around quite a bit in his maverickness, what we want to know is: is pandering to public opinion really so bad? Eventually, aren’t all politicians engaged in some sort of pandering? Isn’t that the point of politics, don’t we all really want politicians who pander to us?

So it was with great joy that we read Nicholas Lemann in the latest New Yorker talk about The Process of Government, making the excellent point that all governments democratic and otherwise are essentially a set of interest groups fighting for primacy and that that is what makes Governments run. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this governing is a messy business already and democratic government is messier than most.

This is why we vastly prefer the Indian form to the American form. In the US we have two parties, each representing an awkward mix of interest groups and all this talk of bipartisanship comes about precisely because the pull of these various interest groups are subsumed by the big tents of each party. In India however, every interest group ends up being a political party. In almost every case (except perhaps the Congress party), we know exactly where the party stands and why it stands where it does. We mock the Communists quite a bit around here, but the nice thing is they represent a solid interest group, and they represent them through thick and thin. Usually most interest groups divide along caste lines and somehow that is supposed to be bad. But why so? If people believe that their best interests are aligned with others of their own caste, why not let them vote that way? At least everybody is being honest about their motives. And so it is that we like that Mayawati is single-minded about what she stands for and makes no bones about it. If the rest of us don’t like it, we really should form our own interest group to fight it and win that war of ideas, merely wringing our hands and bemoaning imperfections in our democracy will get us nowhere.

Image © Flickr user  counterclockwise used under Creative Commons License

Posted in Philosophy, Politics | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Mortals Shall Inherit the Earth

Posted by anandrr on August 19, 2008

I left the US before Radiohead’s performance in Golden Gate Park, what’s more it was going to be part of the Outside Lands Festival which means a lineup featuring Beck, Manu Chao, Wilco, and so many other fine fine bands. I could have looked so indie, so hip! And yet not to be! (If you’re reading this in the fine bay area, please do go, and tell me how much you enjoyed it so we can have some fine knife-twisting-in-the-wound action).

I was discussing this with a good friend, and I was reminded of my great grandmother’s saying, “Shahatha Irunda sakalathum kanalaam, Novada iru maname.” Our mother used to repeat this to us often, and loosely translated it reads, “Don’t worry too much, so long as we’re alive we’ll experience everything yet.” (Strictly translated it reads, “Without dying if you be, everything you will see, be without pain, O mind!” which also used to crack us up as children). But this saying has always confused the heck out of me. The whole point of being disappointed at not being able to go somewhere, see something, visit some place has to do in some fundamental way with our mortality, it is exactly because we live short lives that not missing any opportunity becomes important. Indeed if we were destined to live forever, we would not at all be worried that we missed Radiohead this year, after all once life had gone through all possible combinations, Outside Lands Festival in 2539 would probably feature the exact same line up and we would be fine. What made it especially ironic was that this philosophy was being promulgated by our great grand mother the one person most likely to be aware that indeed, mortality implied that we took our opportunities and ran with them.

We apparently think differently about these things these days.

PS: On a lighter note, if you have not watched the Futurama episode featuring Beck playing Golden Gate Park in 3000 AD, hie over to Youtube right away

Posted in Philosophy | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »