Monday, February 20, 2017

Don't use phone while driving!

Few weeks back our car was rear-ended - a teenage driver crashed into our car at 45 mph while my wife was waiting at the red signal, on her way to pickup our 6 year old daughter from school. Luckily, no one was hurt, though our car had moderate damage and his car was totaled. We were quite glad that the accident did not happen after my wife picked up my daughter. This teenager, who got his driving license only a week back, did not apply brakes at all. It was as if he never noticed the red light or the car before him. He claimed that his brakes failed but we know the real reason for his accident - he was distracted by his mobile phone.

A day after the accident, a friend forwarded a video on Whatsapp which showed a heart rending news item of an entire family (mom & 3 children) being wiped out by a distracted truck driver.


The camera inside the truck captured the driver changing music on his smart phone and he did not notice the traffic halted on the freeway. It all happened in seconds. I ask everyone to watch this painful video because the message is extremely important.

Most of us (including me) are guilty of using phone while driving to change music or search for a location in maps. We think it is all right, that things are in control, that we are safe drivers etc. And we often talk over phone or attend business meetings while driving. We use hands-free and so we think it is safe. But studies repeatedly show that even talking over hands-free is distractive. Remember, it just takes 1-2 seconds to make a mistake. And the mistake can be made by others too and if we are attentive enough, we may have a chance to escape from their driving mistakes.

So do yourself a favor. Do not use your phone at all while driving. It is best to not even take hands-free calls. Make a rule to touch phone only when the car is completely stopped. You may be saving yourself, your family and someone else's family too! After our experience with the teenage driver, I decided to do it myself strictly. Our phones can wait, our life can wait while we are driving.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

5 inspiring readings for the New Year

Whether we change or not, we all have a desire to improve ourselves.  New Year offers a logical opportunity to pause and reflect. That is why "new year resolutions" are very popular, though in practice most resolutions do not live long. Yet, I think it is always useful to be "inspired". Inspiration can pull us out of lethargy. So here are 5 articles that I found most inspiring to make a positive change in my life. Hope they help you too!

  1. Managing Oneself: I have great admiration for Peter Drucker, the management guru. My love for him started when I read his article in HBR titled "Managing oneself". It contains wonderful advice for creating a "fruitful life", starting with knowing your strengths, putting yourself in a career that utilizes those strengths and planning for a productive retirement. I read it every 6 months or so to get inspired. Very highly recommended. The HBR article is not freely available on the web, but that article itself is a condensed version of a chapter with the same title in Drucker's book "Management Challenges for the 21st Century". You can read that 34 page chapter here. It may take an hour to read and comprehend, but that will be an hour well spent.
  2. 7 habits: Many years before Drucker, Stephen Covey entered my life through his wonderful book "7 habits of highly effective people". If I have to recommend one personality development book, I would choose this! The 7 principles Covey describes are simple to understand and remember. The principles are immensely practical too and they helped me a lot to conquer my fears during my B.Tech days. A very good summary of the book can be found here
  3. Setting priorities: Habit 3 of seven habits is "putting first things first" which is best described by a quote from the book - "Things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least". We are overwhelmed by too many things in our life and unless we make a conscious effort to focus on the essentials, we get lost in doing things which do not add much value. This short HBR article titled "The disciplined pursuit of less" offers a great reminder for this. 
  4. Overcoming procrastination: If you are like me, you will find that reading great stuff does not help much in putting it to practice. I struggle to find the motivation to act in my best interests without getting distracted by temptations. This brilliant HBR article offers practical suggestions to make us get to action. 
  5. Taking it easy: It is a known experience that setting high goals for ourselves has a side-effect of leading us to frustration when we do not meet our expectations. The very effort to be "productive" might make us feel stressed. So here is a recent long read article from Guardian that looks at the history of time-management and questions the focus we put on "productivity". It is a refreshingly different take on productivity and can help to put the four articles above in perspective.

Here to a more satisfying new year!

Happy New Year 2017

I never celebrated New Year and till few years back I used to feel it is nothing special. It is just another day and why so much fuss about it, is my thinking! I still do not celebrate New Year, but I realize that it offers a nice opportunity to reflect, reassess and reform. Every step we take should be better than the one before and as we step into a new year, it is useful to think about how our future steps can be better.

So here I wish you all a Happy New Year!

New Year is a time for reflection...
Our triumphs and failures
Our joys and sorrows
Our hopes and disappointments
All inspiring us to move ahead

New Year is a time for aspiration...
To become more joyful
To spread more love
To make life more fruitful

May in this new year
We become more of what we want to be
More of what we need to be

Happy New Year!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

O papa lali (Geetanjali) - a profound melody!

Today (June 2nd) is the birthday of two great film personalities - music director Ilayaraja and director Mani Ratnam. “Geetanjali” is one epic film in their combination, the only straight Telugu film by Mani Ratnam. It is a wonderful love story, beautiful and philosophical. A terminally ill guy and a girl, both in the prime of their youth, find eternal love and solace in an impermanent world through their relationship. Ilayaraja’s magic plays a big role in this movie where he wonderfully creates the mood of the story through his amazing compositions and background score. Lyrics by Veturi are to be specially mentioned too because he captures the soul of the movie in the depth of his poetry. I will attempt to translate/explain here the lyrics of a song in the movie.

The soothing melody “O paapa laali”, sung wonderfully by SPB, is anything but soothing in its content. The girl is hospitalized again and this time doctors do not give much chance to her. The guy, full of despair, sings this song imagining that he is consoling her. In his imagination, she rests in his lap and he keeps caressing her hair. He is indeed consoling himself that the darkness of night spread around him will eventually go away and dawn comes down smiling. Cinematography, music, lyrics - all gel together to create one of the most artistically brilliant songs of Telugu cinema.

The song begins with this pallavi

ఓ పాపా లాలి
జన్మకే లాలి ప్రేమకే లాలీ
పాడనా తీయగా

Lullaby to you, my love
Lullaby to your life
To our love
Let me sing sweetly

Lullaby to life and to love! What a beautiful expression! These young lovers, hit hard by fate, surely need this soft embrace of a lullaby.

The first stanza is heart touching -

నా జోలలా లీలగా తాకాలని గాలినే కోరనా జాలిగా
నీ సవ్వడే సన్నగా ఉండాలని కోరనా గుండెనే కోరిక
కలలారని పసిపాప తలవాల్చిన ఒడిలో
తడినీడలు పడనీకే ఈ దేవత గుడిలో
చిరు చేపల కనుపాపలకిది నా మనవి

Filled with sorrow, I plead with the breeze
To be as gentle as my lullaby!
I request my heart beat
To be tender so as to not disturb her!
I ask my eyes to restrain themselves and not shed tears
For a girl, whose dreams are still fresh, is resting in my lap
And the shadows of my tears may not tarnish the temple of that Goddess!

What a wonderful poetry! The Telugu words used are so tender and beautiful that a mild wave of sorrow will fill the listener even if he doesn’t understand the meaning of the lines!

In the second stanza, the guy pleads with the nature around him to cooperate -

ఓ మేఘమా! ఉరమకే ఈ పూటకి గాలిలో తేలిపో వెళ్ళిపో!
ఓ కోయిలా పాడవే నా పాటనీ తీయని తేనెలే చల్లిపో!
ఇరుసందెలు కదలాడె ఎద ఊయల ఒడిలో
సెలయేరుల అలపాటే వినిపించని గదిలో
చలి ఎండకు సిరివెన్నలకిది నా మనవి

O cloud, do not roar today, just fly away please!
O cuckoo, please sing my song and spread some sweetness
Dawn (hope) and dusk (despair) oscillate
In the cradle lap of my heart, a dark closed room where no sweet music can penetrate!
O moonlight! I request you to give way to the morning sunshine!

The guy’s mental state is portrayed here. He can’t tolerate unpleasant things (roaring cloud) and tries something pleasant (song of a cuckoo) but even that does not give him solace. His turbulent inner feelings do not leave him alone. He is hopeful this moment but filled with despair again in the next moment. His heart has become a dark closed chamber and nothing sweet or beautiful can penetrate inside. In just a few lines, Veturi captures so many feelings! The last line is interesting. Moonlight is pleasant and gives the impression of light but there is actually darkness around and only dawn can demolish that darkness. His “hope” is like that moonlight but he wants a “confirmation”, he wants dawn.

For such great lyrics to come out, we need a situation that inspires the writer. We need a director who can extract the needed feeling in the song. We need a music director whose tune establishes the mood of the song perfectly so that the lyrics can just flow out. Kudos to Mani Ratnam and Ilayaraja for making this happen and to Veturi!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Book Review: The Battle for Sanskrit

The Battle for Sanskrit: Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred, Oppressive orLiberating, Dead or Alive?The Battle for Sanskrit: Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred, Oppressive orLiberating, Dead or Alive? by Rajiv Malhotra
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first Rajiv Malhotra's book I read. It concerns itself with criticizing Sheldon Pollock's views on Sanskrit and its social impact on Indian society (I heard his name for the first time in this book). It is indeed a class work of criticism. Malhotra speaks of Pollock respectfully, presents Pollock's views well and gives a dispassionate counter view-point. Rajiv Malhotra mentions that he even met Pollock twice to discuss their disagreements. This is really a very professional and dignified way to approach criticism and I am quite impressed with that!

Coming to the core topic of this book, I am surprised that there are intellectuals like Pollock who think that Sanskrit language itself is a "language of oppression"! Of course the Sankrit Kavyas are blamed by people like Pollock for portraying patriarchy, hatred, social oppression and what not, but to take it further and blame the language itself is something only intellectuals can do! Rajiv Malhotra does not deny that these "dangerous elements" pointed out by Pollock exist in Sanskrit literature but he does not treat these as the "core characteristics" of the Sanskrit language/literature. Traditional interpretation of the Sanskrit kavya literature is that it is essentially "sacred" in nature and hence Malhotra points out that one needs to approach it accordingly to understand it in the right spirit. I side with him on this. So there may be some troubling aspects in Ramayana but normal people read it for inspiration and spiritual development, not to oppress woman or cultivate hatred against Dalits/Muslims as Pollock seems to imply.

Malhotra explains in detail that the issue is much larger than Sanskrit language and literature. It has to do with efforts by people like Pollock to replace/reinterpret certain aspects of Indian traditional thinking with Western approaches. Pollock thinks he is doing a favor to Indians by flushing out the "toxicity" embedded in their literature but he is actually "throwing out the baby with the bath water", Malhotra argues convincingly. In the end, "toxicity" is not really out there in Sanskrit language or literature or Hinduism but in the human mind. Man thinks he is replacing the external toxicity but he is actually creating a new version of it! So it is amusing that Pollock himself is doing the very same things he is opposing in Sanskrit literature (being hegemonic in his views, seeking sponsorship, spoiling the purity of literature with his own interpretations etc), as Rajiv Malhotra explains towards the end of the book.

At parts, the book gets too detailed and intellectual for my taste but it is an eye-opener in many aspects. This book is a must-read to understand the current intellectual eco-system with its social and political biases against the Indian tradition. I give the book 4 stars only for the "readability" aspect, it is a somewhat dry book (guess all intellectual books are!). But the content itself is surely 5 star!

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Swami Chinmayananda - Greatness personified!

“The day you take up the policy of giving love instead of demanding it - that day you will have rewritten your entire future destiny - Swami Chinmayananda”

Today (May 8th) is Gurudev Swami Chinmayananda Saraswati's 100th birth anniversary. This beautiful doodle created by Chinmaya Mission as a mark of devotion towards him has the words "Chinmaya Sadgurave Namaha" -

Chinmayananda, widely hailed as the second Vivekananda, has done a tremendous contribution to spread the real essence of Sanatana Dharma among Hindus. He used English as the main language to communicate his message to the English speaking educated class who were increasingly becoming averse to Hinduism due to their misconceptions. He wrote excellent commentaries on several Hindu scriptures including Bhagavadgita and Upanishads. His vision of making the "family" as a member of the mission and not just the individual, is perhaps his master-stroke. Chinmaya Mission is unique in having thoughtfully designed Balavihar classes for children (Pre-K to 12th grade) and study groups for adults along with many Satsangs and Seva activities. This distinguishes them from similar organizations like Rama Krishna Mission, which are mainly focused on individuals.

I first heard of Chinmayananda during my B.Tech days (possibly year 2000) when I met a Brahmachari (Uddava Chaitanyananda Ji, now Swami Sarvesananda) of the mission along with a friend who is a CHYK (Chinmaya Yuva Kendra) member. I was very impressed by the brilliance and wit of the Brahmachari. At that time, Chinmaya Mission conducted a Bhagavadgita competition which involves reading Chinmayananda's commentary on the Gita and answering a multiple-choice questions test! It is a sweet memory for me to participate in that competition. It is also my first tryst with the Gita. I got a good understanding of what it says and was inspired by the overall message. Before that, I read a lot of Vivekananda's works and became his great fan! I found Chinmayananda to be equally wonderful. Yet, I did not read much of Chinmayananda after the Gita competition (for that matter, even Vivekananda! It was at this time that I started exploring modern and non-traditional spiritual personalities such as Jiddu Krishnamurti).

After moving to San Diego in 2012, I again heard of Chinmaya Mission when a friend casually mentioned that their kids to go to Chinamaya's Balavihar. I googled and learnt that San Diego is special because Chinmayananda left his body here. There is an aptly named center "Chinmaya Jyoti" in existence here for a long time. I was fortunate to visit Chinmaya Jyoti soon after this to attend a Satsang with Guruji Tejomayananda who is the current head of the Chinmaya Mission Worldwide. I was very impressed by the beautiful ashram with its serene surroundings and by the divine simplicity of Tejomayananda and the nectar of his wisdom. Now my daughter goes to Balavihar and learns about our culture in the Chinmaya way and I benefit from the study groups and the Satsangs. At Chinmaya I am learning about Vedanta, the essential Hindu philosophy, which for me is a continuation of what I started to learn with Vivekananda.

As with Isha Foundation (another organization I am associated with), I find very nice people at Chinmaya too. Their devotion to their Guru and the organization is most touching to me, though personally I do not get too attached to any organization/Guru. I have no doubt that both these organizations are doing a great service in their own way by spreading the Sanatana Dharma. I feel fortunate to have been associated with them!

To offer our thanks to Gurudev on his 100th anniversary, we are offering a pledge in the spirit of "Unto Him Our Best". Here is my pledge -

"I will strive to uplift myself by myself through the guidance of the eternal Vedantic ideals whose glory is shown to me by the great Gurus!"

With profound pranams to Gurudev on his 100th anniversary...

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Homeopathy - medicine or superstition?

In the second part of the documentary "Enemies of reason", Richard Dawkins evaluates the scientific basis of Homeopathy. I am surprised to learn that Homeopathy believes in "like cures like". This is exact opposite of what Ayurveda believes (like increases like) and what modern medical science knows. Dawkins explains that this is not the same concept as a "vaccine" which introduces a diminished form of a virus to provoke the body's immune system. Instead, Homeopathy believes that "what causes similar symptoms cures those symptoms". So diluted poison ivy cures skin rash because undiluted poise ivy causes rash! To cure streaming eyes, the medicine is, you guessed it, diluted red onions!
Even more curiously, Homeopathy believes that "the more the active ingredient is diluted, the more potent it becomes". Most Homeopathic medicines are marked 30c. This is, hold your breath, 1 part medicine : 100^30 parts water! This is so huge a scale that for a single drop of medicine, not even the entire water on earth is enough to dilute. Homeopaths acknowledge that there is not even a single molecule of active ingredient in the medicines sold, it is just water!
So how does it work then? Enter another theory which says "water in the bottle of medicine has memory of the active ingredient" even though there is not even a single molecule of the active ingredient present. It is worth noting here that this "water memory" theory is also believed by some non-Homeopaths. For example, here Sadhguru (of Isha Foundation) says the same thing. Unfortunately, there is no scientific basis for this theory. Dawkins points out that Homeopathy has consistently failed to generate any positive outcome in the controlled scientific experiments. It is only as good as a "placebo".

But it must be said that many people vouch for the effectiveness of Homeopathy. Even I have a "homeopathic cream" at home which helps a lot in pain relief. Is it just placebo effect? May be. Or may be not. Homeopaths are trying their best to convince people that there is a scientific basis which "scientific fundamentalists" like Dawkins are refusing to acknowledge. This article makes a very strong case. But if we then read this article, we get a different picture.
In the end, one has to make a personal choice. It is a bias surely and my bias is towards science. I feel it is always better to be on the side of science than on the side of mysticism. So my current view, given the facts, is that Homeopathy is indeed a placebo but possibly a harmless and useful one.