30 May 2008

Andrew Sullivan

For a blogger, strangely I don't read a lot of blogs. I mostly stick to magazines and newspapers (online editions). The one blog that I read regularly is the Daily Dish, by Andrew Sullivan.

Andrew Sullivan is a 45-year-old British writer living in Washington DC. He has a PhD in political science from Harvard. He is Catholic and conservative. He is also homosexual and HIV positive. An unusual profile, to say the least :-)

Why do I read the Daily Dish regularly? I think it's primarily to do with the wide range of subjects the blog covers. Though Sullivan writes mainly on politics and current affairs, he also writes on other areas like religion and culture. Another reason is the unique insight he brings to each topic. Even when you don't agree with what he says (which is quite often), you will find his arguments interesting. A final reason is that his blog has a lot of links to other excellent articles. Some of the best stuff I've read on the web I found through the Daily Dish.

Of course, the blog is very America-centric. You won't find anything on India there. Even the viewpoint is a highly American one (which can be a little annoying at times). If you are OK with that, you will find the Daily Dish an enjoyable read.

Sullivan is not your usual American conservative. In 2006 he wrote a book called "The Conservative Soul", in which he accused the Republican party and the Bush administration of betraying conservatism. Today he is so pissed off with the Republicans that he is supporting Barack Obama in the US Presidential elections! In fact, he was perhaps the first pundit to predict that Obama could win the Democratic nomination – a prediction that looked insane at that time.

Sullivan's conservatism is, of course, Western conservatism – the political philosophy founded by Edmund Burke. One day I hope to write a post on Hindu conservatism, and how the two philosophies compare with each other.

28 May 2008

The Last Samurai: Review

A personal review of The Last Samurai:

When TLS was released in January 2004, I was in Hyderabad. That's where I first saw it. I saw it again after coming back to Poona. Later I bought the VCD.

Directed by Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall, The Siege, Blood Diamond), this 150-minute epic takes us to late 19th century Japan. It is set against the backdrop of the Meiji Restoration – the modernisation of Japan. While Emperor Meiji was a historical person, the other characters and incidents are fictional. Written by John Logan (Gladiator), TLS is an unabashedly romantic look at traditional Japan. (Nobody believes that the medieval period was perfect, or that every feudal lord was just and noble like Katsumoto. But that is not the point.)

An excellent screenplay, brilliantly choreographed sword fights and fine acting all add up to a great watch. Tom Cruise is good enough as Nathan Algren, but it is Ken Watanabe who steals the show. As Katsumoto he exudes dignity, strength, wisdom and compassion – a true Samurai.

The cinematic aspects aside, what appeals the most is the concept of the Samurai. Their life of austere simplicity. Their pursuit of truth and beauty. Their courage and idealism. Their code of duty, honour, loyalty and sacrifice. Their stoic outlook on life. As I have noted earlier, the Samurai were Zen Buddhists, and Zen Buddhism is the Japanese version of Yoga. So the Samurai were Yogis. What Krishna says about Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita find an echo in TLS, and it is not a coincidence.

TLS's loving depiction of traditional Japan makes us nostalgic for what once was. It makes us realise how precious our own culture is. We realise how important it is to preserve our identity and our way of life. That, perhaps, is the most important message we can take from 'The Last Samurai'.

27 May 2008

The Last Samurai: Quotes

Quotes from The Last Samurai:

Narrator: I say Japan was created by a handful of brave men – warriors willing to give their lives for what is now a forgotten word: honour.

Nathan Algren: They are an unusual people. From the moment they wake up they devote themselves to the perfection of whatever they do. I've never seen such discipline.

Algren: I was surprised to learn that the word 'Samurai' means 'to serve', and that Katsumoto believes his rebellion to be in the service of the Emperor.

Algren: What does it mean to be Samurai? To devote yourself utterly to a set of moral principles, to seek a stillness of the mind, and the mastery of the sword.

Katsumoto: A perfect cherry blossom is a rare thing. You can spend your whole life looking for one, and it will not be a wasted life.

Katsumoto: To know life in every breath, in every cup of tea, in every life we take. That is Bushido – the way of the warrior.

Algren: So you will take your own life, in shame. In shame for a life of service, discipline, compassion.
Katsumoto: The way of the Samurai is not necessary anymore.
Algren: Necessary? What could be more necessary?

Katsumoto: Do you believe a man can change his destiny?
Algren: I believe a man does what he can until his destiny is revealed.

Algren: This is Katsumoto's sword. He would have wanted you to have it. He hoped with his dying breath that you would remember his ancestors who held it, and what they died for. May the strength of the Samurai always be with you.

Emperor: You were with him when he died?
Algren: Yes.
Emperor: Tell me how he died.
Algren: I will tell you how he lived.

Emperor: I dream of a unified Japan – of a country strong, and independent, and modern. Now we have railroads and cannon and Western clothing. But we cannot forget who we are, or where we come from.

26 May 2008

The Last Samurai: Story

Story of The Last Samurai:

Japan in 1876 – For centuries Japan has been an isolated country, cutting itself off from the world. So it is still a medieval, agricultural nation. The new emperor Meiji decides to modernise his country. He opens up Japan to the world, bringing in railways, telegraph, firearms and Western suits. Not everybody is happy with these changes. A Samurai named Katsumoto revolts against the Emperor. The Emperor hires some American military officers to train his army to fight Katsumoto. One of these officers is Nathan Algren.

Nathan Algren and his colleagues go to Japan. They lead the Emperor's army in a battle against Katsumoto. The Imperial army is routed, and Algren is wounded and captured. He is taken to Katsumoto's village as a prisoner. During his time in the village, Algren gets to see the Samurai and their way of life. Gradually he is converted to their cause. He joins Katsumoto in his rebellion. In the final battle Katsumoto is defeated and killed, but Algren survives to tell the story.

20 May 2008

RSS and Muslims

Sudheendra Kulkarni brings to our attention* a little known fact: the RSS's attempt to reach out to Muslims.

"The Rashtriya Muslim Manch is an organisation inspired and guided by the RSS to bring together nationalist Muslims. It was launched four years ago with the blessings of RSS chief K S Sudarshan. Mohammad Afzal, a Delhi-based businessman, is the national convener of the Manch. On May 11, he and his colleagues organised the finale of the Manch's yearlong nationwide campaign to pay homage to the martyrs of the 1857 War of Independence. The concluding two-day meeting at Meerut had nearly 3000 delegates from 16 states.

"Afzal says, "There are many Muslim organisations in the country. Many of them wish to keep Muslims in a ghetto, away from the national mainstream. Our organisation aims to make Muslims aware of their Indian roots. This awareness of the common bonds of nationalism that unite people belonging to different faiths is the surest way to overcome the problems facing Indian Muslims." He and his wife Shahnaz Afzal are full-time activists of the Manch, which now has eight other wholetimers. The moving spirit behind the Manch is Indresh Kumar, a senior pracharak of the RSS, deputed to work among the Muslim community."

The importance of such an initiative cannot be exaggerated.

*"Look who commemorated 1857 in Meerut" – Indian Express, 16th May 2008. Strangely the article is not available online.

19 May 2008

Blog Squatting

I started my blog in September 2006. After blogging for more than a year I decided to make some changes to the blog. Chief among these changes were the blog URL and blog name. Since this is an India-centric blog I wanted to have "India" in the blog URL and blog name. I tried out several variations of "India" and found that all of them were taken. But what pissed me off was that all these blogs were inactive. Here's the list:
1. India.blogspot.com – 2 posts
2. Indica.blogspot.com – 4 posts
3. Indian.blogspot.com – 4 posts
4. Indiana.blogspot.com – 4 posts

I was furious. All these cool URLs had been wasted on some dead blogs. Talk about blog squatting! After 1947 we had land reforms that outlawed absentee landlords and gave the land to people who would actually use it. Today we need similar laws that will take away cool blog URLs from undeserving owners.

Anyway, there was nothing I could do about it. I had to settle for "Indian Take". The changes were made on 31st December 2007.

For the record, this was the old avatar of the blog:
Blog title = 21st Century Chronicles
Blog subtitle = A turbulent world seen through the eyes of an unknown Indian
Blog URL = http://psomax.blogspot.com
My display name = Psomax

16 May 2008

Zero Tolerance to Terrorism

In the wake of the Jaipur bomb blasts, we are seeing the same sickening drama all over again. Sample this gem from our honourable Home Minister Shivraj Patil: "Their aim (to create communal disturbances) has been thwarted. The people of Jaipur have not allowed their nefarious design to succeed." Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh have also made similar statements. This is not new. They sing this same tune after every terrorist attack.

This government seems to believe – and want us to believe – that the sole aim of the terrorists is to incite communal riots. So as long as there are no communal riots after a terrorist attack, everything is fine and we have won. It doesn't matter how many bombs go off or how many Indians are killed. All that matters is that there should be no communal riots. How convenient. How sickening.

Pranab Mukherjee's call for "zero tolerance to terrorism" looks like a stupid joke in this context. All this is testing the patience of Indians. By God's grace (and the good sense of Indians) there have been no communal riots after a terrorist attack till now. With one exception: Godhra. God forbid there should be another Gujarat 2002. But that is exactly what is going to happen if things continue like this.

Here's a suggestion to Sonia-Manmohan-Shivraj. Why not assume that the aim of the terrorists is not to cause communal riots, but just to kill Indians? Period. Because that's what they are doing (and they are doing it very well). With this change in attitude, the picture should look a little differently to Sonia-Manmohan-Shivraj. Every time a bomb goes off, we lose. Every time a bullet is fired, we lose. Every time an Indian is killed, or even hurt, we lose. This is what is meant by zero tolerance to terrorism, Pranabji. This is the mindset needed to win the war on terror.

But the UPA is not interested in trivial things like winning the war on terror and protecting the life of the "aam aadmi". They are worried about more important things like the elections. I repeat: there is a limit to the patience (and good sense) of Indians. If the current state of affairs continues, we will see an eruption that will make the Gujarat riots look like a picnic. No Indian wants that. Let us pray that our rulers come to their senses – before it is too late.

15 May 2008

Science Meets Spirituality

David Brooks looks at how the latest research in neuroscience is validating ancient spiritual beliefs. Science is converging towards spirituality. He calls it "neural Buddhism". He rightly notes that this poses a serious threat to revealed religions (like Christianity and Islam).

Brooks says, "The self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships". This line really struck me. Why? Because I have been coming around to the same conclusion of late. Just replace "relationships" with "experiences". Relationships are a subset of experiences.

Brooks helpfully gives a list of names for those interested in reading on the subject. Here's a closer look at who these guys are, and what they have written:

Andrew Newberg (associate professor of psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania)
1. The mystical mind: Probing the biology of religious experience
2. Why God won't go away: Brain science and the biology of belief
3. Why we believe what we believe: Uncovering our biological need for meaning, spirituality, and truth

Daniel Siegel (associate clinical professor of psychiatry, UCLA School of Medicine)
4. The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are
5. The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being

Michael Gazzaniga (professor of psychology, University of California Santa Barbara)
6. The mind's past
7. The ethical brain
8. Human: The science behind what makes us unique

Jonathan Haidt (associate professor of psychology, University of Virginia)
9. The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom

Antonio Damasio (professor of neuroscience, University of Southern California)
10. Descartes' error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain
11. The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness
12. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, sorrow, and the feeling brain

Marc Hauser (professor of psychology, Harvard University)
13. Moral minds: How nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong

Just reading the names of the books is quite an education :-)

13 May 2008

The Vice President

Now that it's more or less settled that it will be a McCain vs Obama showdown in November, attention has shifted to who will be the vice presidential candidates. Salon magazine has an interesting quiz for readers to 'pick' the running mates for McCain and Obama. Accordingly the top 3 picks are...

For John McCain
My picks:
1. Tim Pawlenty (Governor of Minnesota)
2. Fred Thompson (Senator from Tennessee)
3. Wayne Allard (Senator from Colorado)
Salon readers' picks:
1. Colin Powell (we know this guy)
2. Tim Pawlenty (see above)
3. Mike Huckabee (former Governor of Arkansas)

For Barack Obama
My picks:
1. Kathleen Sebelius (Governor of Kansas)
2. Ted Strickland (Governor of Ohio)
3. Chris Dodd (Senator from Connecticut)
Salon readers' picks:
1. Jim Webb (Senator from Virginia)
2. Wesley Clark (former General)
3. Kathleen Sebelius (see above)

For both candidates my second and third picks are way off mark. But my first picks seem to be close to the bull's eye :-)

PS: I have been following the US presidential primaries closely, and have been tempted a lot to blog about it. But I remembered this rap on my knuckles and decided to restrain myself ;-)

12 May 2008

The Unbearable Emptiness of Being

What is life? It is a series of moments – each one unconnected with the other. Each moment in itself is meaningless. All the moments taken together also do not add up to any meaningful whole. Any meaning is at best relative, not absolute.

So what are we to do? How are we to live? Most people don't ask themselves stupid questions like, "What is the meaning of life?" and hence do not face this problem. But for those of us who do, what is the solution?

Milan Kundera spoke of the unbearable lightness of being. The fact that life is meaningless should be seen as a blessing, not as a curse. Absence of meaning is nothing to cry about; it is a source of freedom.

How many of us can bring ourselves to look at life in this way? Most of us cannot. We persist in asking the question, even though we may never find the answers. All that we have is the unbearable emptiness of being.

09 May 2008

The Year Is 5110

Q: Which year is it now?
A: 2008
Q: How is it year 2008?
A: Because it's been 2008 years since Jesus Christ was born

The calendar we are using is the Christian calendar. It is a relative system, not an absolute one. When the European countries colonised most of the world during 1400-1900, they spread their customs in the lands they ruled. Thus the Christian calendar (along with many other things) became the default for the whole world.

For practical purposes we may continue to use this calendar, or at least be aware of it. But we must also be aware of our own calendar(s). The two Hindu calendars most commonly cited are Vikrama and Shalivahana. The Vikrama calendar is followed mainly in north India. Its zero year corresponds to 58 BC; so according to it the current year is 2066. The Shalivahana calendar is followed mainly in south India. Its zero year corresponds to 78 AD; so according to it the current year is 1930.

All this is very confusing. So instead of these two regional calendars, we can remember one national calendar. According to Hindu tradition, the Kali Yuga began in 3102 BC (when Krishna died). So the current year is Kaliyugabda 5110. As per this, we are in the 52nd century (not the 21st). It also fits in neatly with the notion of India being a 5000-year-old civilisation :-)

08 May 2008

Hindu Militancy

The case for Hindu militancy is simple. We have a glorious culture and way of life, yes. But that is not enough. We must also have the strength to defend it. Anything good and beautiful attracts unwanted attention. What is the use of having a refined civilisation if you don't have the strength to protect it? In its 5000 years of history, Indian/Hindu civilisation never attacked other countries. The mistake we did was to think that everybody is like us. And we paid the price for it. We are still continuing to make this mistake.

We are tolerant and peace loving, yes. But everybody is not like us. The sooner we realise this, the better. We Hindus are polite to a fault – we refuse to admit that somebody can be intolerant and aggressive.

Two notes of caution here. First, some people think the answer is to become intolerant and aggressive like the Semitic religions. Absolutely not. We are Hindus. We should remain Hindus. We must think, talk and act like Hindus. We must continue to be tolerant and universal in our outlook. Second, rule of law is supreme. The law must be respected at all costs. Nobody should break the law, or take the law into his own hands. Any effort has to be within the four corners of the law.

Will Durant said it best: "... the Islamic conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history. It is a discouraging tale, for its evident moral is that civilisation is a precious good, whose delicate complex order and freedom can at any moment be overthrown by barbarians invading from without and multiplying from within. The Hindus ... had failed to organise their forces for the protection of their frontiers and their capitals, their wealth and their freedom, from the hordes of Scythians, Huns, Afghans and Turks hovering about India's boundaries and waiting for national weakness to let them in. For four hundred years (600 – 1000 AD) India invited conquest; and at last it came. This is the secret of the political history of modern India ... The bitter lesson that may be drawn from this tragedy is that eternal vigilance is the price of civilisation. A nation must love peace, but keep its powder dry."

07 May 2008

The Strength of Hindus

"The Islamic conquest of India shows that Hindus were weak and cowardly."

This is how most people (even patriotic Indians) see our history. But look at the facts:
644 AD – Arabs first attacked Sindh
712 AD – bin Qasim conquered Sindh
1023 AD – Ghaznavi conquered Punjab
1192 AD – Ghauri conquered North India
That is, from 644 AD to 1192 AD, it took Islam more than 500 years to conquer our country.

Compare this with Islam's other conquests. The Arabs started pouring out of their peninsula after the Prophet died in 632 AD. By the end of the Umayyad Caliphate in 750 AD, they had conquered all of West Asia, North Africa and Spain. That is, the Islamic juggernaut flattened every land from the Pyrenees to the Indus in just about 100 years. But we were able to hold off this juggernaut for more than 500 years. Not a small achievement.

There is an untold story here. It is the story of the heroic resistance of India's northwest provinces (Sindh, Punjab, Rajputana). It is the story of the true character of Hindus – one of strength, valour and sacrifice. This story has been left out of our textbooks. It must be written in letters of gold. Every Indian must know it.

PS: I owe this insight to Dr Ravindra, the RSS's Saha Bauddhik Pramukh in North Karnataka.

06 May 2008

RSS Training Camps

An important aspect of the RSS that few outsiders know of is the RSS training camps. These were earlier called Officers Training Camp (OTC). Today they are called Sangha Shiksha Varga.

The training camps are held all over the country every year during April-June. There are totally 4 levels of training:
1. Prathamika Shiksha Varga (Basic training camp) – Duration is 7 days. Usually held at the district (zilla) level.
2. Prathama Varsha Shiksha Varga (First year training camp) – Duration is 21 days. Usually held at the provincial (prantha) level.
3. Dvitiya Varsha Shiksha Varga (Second year training camp) – Duration is 21 days. Usually held at the zonal (kshetra) level.
4. Trutiya Varsha Shiksha Varga (Third year training camp) – Duration is 30 days. Held at the national level in Nagpur.

At the training camps, both physical (sharirik) and theoretical/intellectual (bauddhik) training are imparted. Sharirik training includes danda yuddha (combat with a cane), niyuddha (unarmed combat), samata (drill), yogasana and playing games. Bauddhik training includes lectures and group discussions.

The primary purpose of the training camps is to impart the various skills needed for running shakhas. Needless to say, to qualify for any training camp you must have completed the previous level of training! :-)

05 May 2008


Philosophy is not meant to be merely studied. It is meant to be lived.
Philosophy is not about reading books. It is about living life.