Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Why trees are revered in Hinduism

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Nithin Sridhar
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(This article was published in NewsGram on 12 June 2015)

Since time immemorial, trees have been worshiped all over the world. In Ancient Egypt, Sycamore and Date palm were considered sacred trees. In Ancient Greece, many trees were held sacred to various gods. For example, oak tree was held sacred to Zeus and myrtle tree was held sacred to Aphrodite. Also Nymphs like Alseids and Dryads were associated with grooves and trees respectively. The Celts worshiped the groves of trees. In Japanese Shinto Shrines, the trees such as cryptomeria are worshiped.

But, it is only among the Indians- the practitioners of Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism, that the worshipping of trees has become very deep rooted and an inseparable part of Hindu religion, culture and lifestyle.

Louise Fowler-Smith in her article “Hindu Tree Veneration as a Mode of Environmental Encounter”, writes that “The worship of trees occurred throughout Europe but declined with the rise of religions such as Christianity and Islam,which regarded such activity as pagan. In India, however, Hinduism accepted local cults, many of which worshiped nature. The Rsis, authors of the sacred Hindu texts, understood the importance of preserving the environment, and reference is made to the divine quality of the natural world throughout these Indian scriptures. The early Hindu sacred texts, the Vedas and Upanishads, make frequent reference to sacred trees, referring to them as the most important living forms on earth. This contributed to the gradual change of the cultural perception of the tree. Sacred trees may now be found throughout India”.  She further writes that “Trees are decorated in India for a wealth of reasons. Historically sacred trees have been connected with rites of renewal, sexuality, fertility, conception, birth, initiation, death and rebirth. Throughout India, Hindu communities have their own individual deities, or Gramadevata- which are regarded as synonymous with the locality and everything within it. (…..)The deity is not visible to the local community, so a specific place or object is chosen to direct the act of worship. The Devasthana,or shrine of a Grama Devata, is usually connected with an important feature of the natural world such as a hill, a rock, a stream or pond. These shrines are most commonly associated with a tree or grove of trees, with the tree embodying the local goddess”.

Hence, as far as India and Hinduism is concerned, the worship of trees is not only a very ancient practice, but it is also a current living reality.

The Hindu scriptures lay a strong foundation for the worship of environment in general and trees in particular. Some of the important trees that are worshiped by the Hindus are Peepal, Banyan, Ashoka, Shami and Palasha.

Rig-Veda, one of the four divisions that Vyasa created in the Vedas, dedicates an entire Hymn (Book 10, Hymn 97) to the herbs. The Manu Smriti (1.49) says that plants and trees have life and hence they also feel pain and pleasure.

Some of the Hindu festivals like Amala Ekadashi, Ashoka Pratipada, Bakula Amavasya, Vata-Savitrivrata, Kadalivrata and Sheetala Puja are especially dedicated to the worship of various plants and trees.

To properly understand the philosophy behind the worship of trees, one must first understand the philosophy of Hinduism.

Worship of Trees as Brahman

 

Hinduism considers that it is Brahman or God who manifests, sustains and absorbs back the entire Universe and all its objects. Hence, each entity, whether living or non-living, is sustained by Brahman itself.

In Bhagavad Gita (10.20), Lord Krishna declares- “I am the Self, O Gudakesa (Arjuna), seated in the hearts of all creatures. I am the beginning, the middle and the end of all beings.”

Similarly, Isha-Upanishad (Verse 1) declares that- “God inhabits all the objects in the Universe”. Hence, God or Brahman manifests all the objects and then becomes seated in their hearts as their very own innermost Self/Atman.

Therefore, plants and trees are not lifeless entities, but instead, they are living beings that are inhabited by Brahman itself.  The same Brahman who inhabits the humans also inhabits the trees. Therefore, at the highest level, the worship of trees is nothing but the worship of Brahman who exists as the Innermost Self of both the trees and the humans. 

 

The Trees are then realized as being non-different from Brahman. But, such worship in a real sense can be practiced only by liberated sages (the Jivanmuktas) who alone can perceive their Innermost Atman in all objects and all objects as in their own Atman. However, others can worship Trees as a manifestation of Divine.

Worship of Trees as a manifestation of the Divine

 

Various trees have been associated with various deities. Ashwatta or Peepal tree has been specially associated with Lord Krishna. In Gita (10.26), he declares that among the trees, he is the “Ashwatta”. Similarly, Rudraksha (meaning Rudra’s eyes) seeds are associated with Shiva, Banyan tree is associated with Brahma, Ashoka tree is associated with Kaama (God of Love) and Palasha tree is associated with Soma or Moon.

Almost all Hindu deities are associated with one plant or the other. This association must be understood properly. Trees like Peepal and Banyan are living representation of the Gods. Hence, those Gods can be worshiped directly through the trees without having to invoke Gods into an idol or fire.

It is for this reason that Lord Krishna says he is the Peepal among the Trees, denoting that Peepal tree is home to Vishnu-tattva. Hence, a worship of Peepal is same as worshiping Vishnu in an idol. 

 

Trees and plants can be worshiped as a direct manifestation of various deities, or as objects conducive to the worship of those deities. Another way of worshiping the trees is by showing reverence to their life-force.


Worship of Trees as Living Spirits

 

The trees are to be respected and revered as living entities. They are not to be ignored as non-living objects that must be used and exploited for self-interest, but instead they are to be recognized as living forces that sustain the entire Earth.

Rig-Veda (5.41.11) says “May Plants, the Waters, and the Sky preserve us, and Woods and Mountains with their trees for tresses”.

This prayer recognizes plants and trees as living forces of nature that nourish humans and the entire planet. The flowers, fruits and shade that a tree gives are seen as items of nourishment that a tree provides us out of love.


This sentiment that recognizes trees as living beings can also be seen in the ritual that is prescribed for felling of trees for the purpose of making wooden idols for worship.

The tree that was selected for felling was worshiped by offering various substances to it. Then at night the Devatas, Pitrs, Rakshasas, Nagas, Asuras, Ganas and Vinayakas were all worshiped.
The idea behind the ritual is three fold. First, to ask permission from the tree to cut it; second to ask forgiveness from the tree for the violence caused to it; third to request the Devatas to impart better life to the spirit of the tree for the sacrifice it is doing.

These three modes of worshiping of the trees denote three stages of spiritual evolution of an Individual. A person first learns to communicate with the trees with an understanding that they are living forces of nature. Then, his understanding evolves and he perceives various manifestations of divine as inhabiting the trees. He will begin to worship different deities through the worship of different trees. Finally, he attains the self-knowledge that his innermost-self/Atman alone exists and he, the tree and all other objects are all in reality non-different from Atman. Hence, through the medium of tree worship, a person ultimately attains Moksha.

Bhoomi Suktam: Understanding the tender maternal nature of planet Earth

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Nithin Sridhar
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(The article was published in NewsGram on 5 June 2015)

The purpose of celebrating World Environment Day is to highlight the importance of preserving Earth. On this occasion, let us look into what one of the oldest Hindu scriptures, the Atharva-Veda has to say about environment and planet earth.

BhoomiSuktam or Hymn to Mother Earth is one of the most beautiful hymns that describes the beauty of Mother Earth and imparts lessons regarding the attitude a person must cultivate towards the environment.


It has 63 verses and occurs in Atharva Veda (12.1). The very first verse opens with a bold statement that defines the proper manner in which the Earth and the environment must be understood.

It (Verse 12.1.1) says that the Earth is upheld, is sustained by Truth (Satya), Eternal law/Order/Righteousness (Ritam), Consecration/Initiation (Deeksha), Devotion (Brahma) and Sacrifice (Yajna). That is, the earth that includes both the living beings as well as the surrounding environment are not just held together by gravitational and other physical laws of the Universe.

Earth is not a “jada/non-living” entity. Instead she is the “Queen of what was and what will be”. She is a living mother, a force that is sustained by Truth, Order, Austerity, Devotion and Sacrifice. Hence, it is these attitudes that a human is expected to implement in his life.


This does not mean that the Suktam is denying the physical aspect of the Earth. In fact, the verse (12.1.26), clearly says that rocks, stones and dust constitute the Earth. Hence, the aim of the Suktam is to highlight the fact that physical aspect is only the outermost layer of the ‘Reality’. And in order to understand Earth in a deeper, spiritual and in a meaningful way one must practice the qualities of Truth etc.

The Suktam (in verse 12.1.12) calls “Earth as the mother and humans as her sons”. Hence, as offsprings of Mother Earth, it becomes a duty of humans to not only help her sustain herself, but also to protect and enrich her. Therefore, it becomes an obligation on part of humans to practice truth, righteousness, and austerity in their day to day life.

They should develop the attitude of devotion and sacrifice regarding every object, every entity present in the surrounding environment. It is only such a practice which can sustain and enrich mother Earth. A practice of truth results in a strict adherence to righteousness. A righteous person will always be upright without caving into the selfish desires. Such a person will never commit those actions that can harm other entities that are present in the environment because he realizes that Himsa or injury is adharma or against the cosmic law.

The lifestyle of Ahimsa(non-violence) itself becomes an austerity that is driven by devotion and a sense of sacrifice. If, every person cultivates these attitudes towards the surroundings, it would automatically result in the protection, preservation and enrichment of environment.

 

The Suktam (Verse 12.1.4-6) further describes Mother Earth as the “Mistress of four quarters in whom food and cornfields have come to be, who bears in many forms the breathing and moving life; in which men of old have performed many tasks, where the gods have defeated demons, which is the home of cattle, horses and birds; which is all sustaining, treasure bearing, firm staying place, gold breasted home of all creatures, who supports the Universal Fire (Virat/Vaishwanara)”.

These verses further bring out the understanding of Earth as a nourishing, all sustaining Mother. All objects both living and non-living, the humans, animals, and the plants, depend upon the earth for their life. They derive their very existence from Earth and at death they merge back into it. It is Earth again which makes it possible for various plants and animals to be exposed to Sun-rays and hence be able to sustain and grow.

This is clearly spoken in the verse (12.1.15), wherein Mother Earth is described as one who supports both bipeds and quadrupeds, because of whom, the rising Sun spreads its undying rays on mortals. The nourishing aspect of the Earth is further highlighted in verses (12.1.29-30), wherein the Earth is referred to as “Purifier” using whose pure water a person purifies himself.

Mother Earth is further described as a place where all human actions are carried out. She is the basis, the foundation that holds together all actions. It is on her foot, that the altars are built and sacrifices are carried out (Verse 12.1.13). It is on her the riks and samans are chanted (Verse 12.1.38). The men sing and dance and the people beat their drums, rise the war cries and battle with each other (Verse 12.1.41). It is on her, the people grow various food grains (Verse 12.1.42), where people speaking different languages, practising different customs, all exist together (Verse 12.1.45).

But, the Bhoomi Suktam is concerned about those human actions that may turn to be harmful to nature. Verse 12.1.35 says, “What, O earth, I dig out of thee, quickly shall that grow again: may I not, O pure one, injure thy vitals or thy heart”.  The verse is clearly speaking about the misuse of natural resources and its harmful effect on the environment. It is advising humans to renounce greed and utilize the resources given by the Mother Earth in a useful way without hurting the nature in the process. The current activities such as unregulated and harmful mining and other such activities are clearly against these tenets expressed in the Suktam.

Towards the end, in Verse 12.1.48, Mother Earth is described as supporting both the fools and the wise, the good and the bad. The verse goes to highlight the motherly love and compassion of Mother Earth. She, in her magnanimity and compassion has given abode to all people, all objects. She does not discriminate between the fool and the wise or between the good or the bad. She supports everyone, including those who harm her and the environment in a dangerous way.

Such, is the compassion and love of Mother Earth for her children. Hence, people should realize her supreme love and sacrifice, and begin to live their lives in such a way that the environment is not harmed in any manner.

The BhoomiSuktam (Verse 12.1.63) ends with a prayer asking the Mother Earth to stabilize life and fill it with grace and splendor.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Why women must be allowed to take up combat roles?

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Nithin Sridhar
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(A shorter version of the article is published in NewsGram.com)
 
Last Saturday, Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar announced that women will not be a part of any combat operations of the armed forces due to the concerns regarding their safety. Expressing his concern regarding the various hardships that women may be subjected to if they were allowed into combat roles, he said “Think of what can happen if a woman is taken as a prisoner in combat operation”. While it is true that, women in combat roles may have to endure many hardships, at the same time it is also true that, men in combat roles also undergo similar hardships. Hence, before advocating a blanket ban on women from taking up combat roles, it will be wise to have a fresh look into the pros and cons of the issue.

This issue is up for debate in most countries including USA which opened up all of the combat roles for women only in 2013 (1). Apart from USA, the following countries like Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Eritrea, Israel, and North Korea also allow women into combat roles (2). 

The US Department of Defense’s Memorandum on “Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule (1994)” defines Direct Ground Combat as “engaging an enemy on the ground with individual or crew served weapons, while being exposed to hostile fire and to a high probability of direct physical contact with hostile force’s personnel. Direct ground combat takes place well forward on the battlefield while locating and closing with the enemy to defeat them by fire, maneuver, and shock effect” (3). One of the most important reason cited for the exclusion of women from such a Direct Combat is that they are not ‘Physically fit’ to handle such missions. Another reason cited is that they would be subjected to torture and rape if captured during combat. The Presidential Commission Report, 1992 prepared in USA (4) listed out various reasons for barring women from combat roles- 

1. Women are shorter, have less muscle mass and weigh less than men, placing them at a distinct disadvantage when performing tasks requiring a high level of muscular strength and aerobic capacity, like ground combat. Female dynamic upper torso muscular strength is approximately 50-60 percent that of males. 

2. Factors affecting cohesion would include: real or perceived inability of women to carry their weight without male assistance, a "zero privacy" environment on the battlefield, interference with male bonding, cultural values and the desire of men to protect women, inappropriate male/female relationships, and pregnancy--particularly when perceived as a way to escape from combat duty.

3. Direct combat units have few, if any, personal comforts comparable to those available in support units. Lack of privacy in combat units could result in morale and cohesion problems when normal and widely accepted standards of personal modesty must routinely be sacrificed in wartime or peacetime training environments.

4. Even if some women are strong enough to handle the physical demands of combat, the introduction of factors such as sexual entanglements and jealousies--even if the women don't invite such attention-- would make the forward commander's job more difficult.

5. A number of public and military surveys have found strong evidence that deployment of mothers in land combat units, implying a national acceptance of deliberate violence and brutality against women, is contrary to American cultural values, particularly when there is no military necessity to use women--much less mothers-in direct combat units.

6. As with combat aviation, the risk of capture is a serious cultural and military issue. David Horowitz testified that future American presidents "will be under pressure to win a war in four days or lose the war at home."

Martha McSally, a retired United States Air Force colonel who was the first woman in U.S history to fly a fighter aircraft in combat strongly contests these opinions. In her paper “Women in Combat: Is the Current Policy Obsolete?”(5) She makes following observations- 

1. Closer inspection of the argument from “physical strength” reveals two troubling double standards. First, as discussed more fully below, the argument that women should be excluded from combat because they do not possess the requisite physical strength is both over- and under-inclusive; many women have the physical strength to engage in ground combat while many men do not. Second, the Army does not submit male recruits to physical strength examinations before assigning them to ground combat positions. (…..)The double standard here is glaring: Male recruits are not disqualified from entering combat career fields for lack of physical strength, but all female recruits are peremptorily disqualified from such fields regardless of their physical strength. 

2. All personnel wearing the uniform must have some basic level of physical strength to ensure they can defend themselves in battle. However, a capable combat soldier must possess more than just physical strength. Skill, motivation, and a fighting spirit are just as crucial for the warrior, and all of these characteristics are gender-blind. Army and Marine leadership have recently been emphasizing additional crucial traits like judgment, discipline, restraint, and intellect, to name a few. (….)In order to get the best team of ground combat warriors based on physical strength and all other relevant qualifications, it is not logical to include marginally qualified CAT-IV males while excluding physically qualified CAT-I–III females.  

3. The Presidential Commission concluded that women’s presence might impede cohesion in ground combat units due to lack of ability to do the job, lack of privacy, traditional male views of women, sexual misconduct, and pregnancy. Cohesion between all males might also be impeded by a number of other elements—i.e., an individual’s lack of ability to do his job or carry his weight, selfishness, racist attitudes, lack of integrity, favoritism, or a variety of other dynamics that could degrade the team. However, none of these elements are inevitable and the right leadership climate can identify and eliminate the primary causes of degraded cohesion: double standards and behavior that “degrades the good order and discipline in the armed forces. The reality is that there are challenges in bringing a group of any human beings—male or female—together to form a cohesive and effective team. Add in the stresses of combat training and life-threatening situations and the challenges increase. Unit leadership must create a climate where every person is respected as a team member with equal opportunity, responsibility and accountability. (….)In sum, cohesion is a leadership issue, and leadership has the greatest effect on unit cohesion regardless of the gender composition of the team. 

4. Some critics of women in combat center their arguments on personal beliefs regarding the proper” roles of men and women. These critics argue that women must be givers and protectors of life—not takers of life—and that a man’s role is to protect and a woman’s role is to be protected. (….)Since the early 1990s, many credible national polls conducted on the subject has found that a majority of Americans support giving women the option to serve in direct ground combat. In January 1990, in the aftermath of the invasion of Panama, a CBS News/New York Times poll of 1557 American adults found that seventy-two percent of those surveyed thought that military women should be allowed to serve in combat units on a voluntary basis. 

5. Critics of women in combat state that Americans are not ready to deal with women POWs and all the risks that go along with being captured. . Elaine Donnelly, a well-known activist against omen in the military, has placed a great deal of emphasis on the risks of rape as a POW. Although the risk exists for women, it also exists for men, and both accept that risk as a part of their job. In either case, rape is a violation of the Geneva Convention. In the current war, male and female reporters, contractors, and civilians are also vulnerable to being kidnapped, tortured, raped, and executed. These are the horrors of war with an enemy whose strategy ignores these conventions. All men and women occupying military positions that render them more vulnerable to capture go through extensive training to prepare for this treacherous situation; each soldier must think through and accept the risks of experiencing potential horrors as a POW. And although the public is rightly outraged when any of our service members are captured, the lack of outrage about female POWs in particular undercuts this reason for excluding women from combat.

After thus considering all the arguments against the recruitment of women in combat roles, Martha McSally concludes that- “Common arguments against women serving in ground combat are not sufficient to exclude all women from being considered for combat roles. Some women have the physical strength to fill ground combat assignments, just as some men do not. Assessing recruits as individuals can provide the most capable and flexible fighting force. Women do not, by their mere presence, diminish cohesion in a war-fighting unit. And the American public is willing to have women serve in any role in the All-Volunteer Force for which they are qualified

These conclusions though made in an American context, they equally apply in Indian context as well. Harjit Hansi, in his paper “Employment Of Women In The Indian Army” (6) gives a list of similar arguments that have restricted the role of Women Officers (WO) in combat roles in the Indian Army. The three prominent arguments listed by him are- 

1. Hazardous Battlefield: Vulnerability of women operating in close contact battles looms heavily on mind of all field commanders. This is one prime concern that has prevented entry of women in combat arms and certain support arms. 

2. Deployment Restrictions: Bulk of the Indian Army (IA) is deployed majorly in difficult and rugged areas. The posts are isolated, sans any basic facilities, cut-off for months and the operational tasking warrant working in close proximity with men. Protracted and solitary deployment of WOs under such circumstances has attendant issues and restricts their employment. 

3. Special Requirements: Due to certain social & domestic obligations and physical constraint, service in Army pose a greater challenge for WOs vis-a-vis their male counterparts. Their role as wife, mother, need for spouse postings etc adversely affect their continuous availability to the organisation, more so at sub unit level, where the deficiency of officers is maximum. Maternity leave of 180 days, 60 days each of Annual Leave and furlough deny a unit of an officer for 10 months with no relief forthcoming.

The hardships faced during war or capture is no doubt real and unbearable. But, it is equally so for both men and women. Hence, arguing that women are somehow more vulnerable than men is faulty. Every person who enlists in armed forces is well aware of the risks involved. Hence, when a woman officer voluntarily is ready to serve in combat roles, she should be given a chance to do so. The same applies in case of deployment to remote areas. It is true that women serve multiple roles as wife, mother etc. But, it is also true that men also serve similar roles of husband and father. Hence, if a woman and her family is ready to adjust to her lifestyle choices, then there is no reason to disallow her from taking combat duties.

Regarding the issue of physical and psychological fitness. though men and women are biologically different, yet this in itself cannot be criteria for disqualification of all women from combat roles. Instead, each interested woman must be subjected to required physical and psychological tests and only those who qualify must be recruited. It should be noted that, recruiting women into combat roles should not translate into compromising with the require standards. As any such lenience or compromise in the merit criteria will directly affect the performance of the said combat units. Instead, a comprehensive criteria must be adopted that takes into account all the various skills and factors and not just the physical strength. Hence, the arguments that are forwarded against the induction of women into combat roles are in reality, only assumptions based on obsolete notions.

Further, the nature of warfare has changed drastically. Traditionally, women were not allowed in front line activities. They were restricted to support activities at the back of the line. But, today, all activities are exposed to front line risks. The line between combat and non-combat operations have blurred. Hence, even those women who are serving in supporting, non-combat missions are also routinely exposed to combat risks. The American encounters in Afghanistan and Iraq serve as an example. Therefore, a blanket ban on women from taking part in combat missions makes no sense. Instead, a provision to allow women to take up combat duties on a voluntary basis must be made. There are considerable advantages in recruiting women into combat roles. 

1. There will be larger talent pool from which people can be recruited into various combat roles. The combat roles not only requires physical strength, but also requires other personality traits like quick decision making, discipline, intellect, strategic thinking etc. Hence, women can add value to combat units. 

2. Recruiting women will also help to bridge the gap between demand and supply of the soldiers and officers. Indian armed forces are currently faced with a shortage of 52000 personnel, including 11000 officers (7). 

3. Women are well equipped to deal with some scenarios than men. The US established all female Lioness team specifically to accompany all male Marine combat units into insurgent infested areas of Ramadi, Iraq. Lioness team was tasked with searching Iraqi women for weapons or explosives, during home raids and served to provide a “calming presence” to Iraqi women and children. A similar job was entrusted to Female Engagement Teams (FET) in Afghanistan. Though both Lioness team and FET were conceived as a support team, they performed combat duties as well.

These show that women in combat units can act as a valuable asset to the armed forces. Hence, the criteria to induct people into combat roles should be purely on the basis of merit and not gender. Therefore, the Defense Minister should reconsider his decision to keep women away from taking up combat roles

References: 
1. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jan/24/us-military-lifts-ban-women-combat 
2. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/01/25/map-which-countries-allow-women-in-front-line-combat-roles/ 
3. Memorandum from Secretary of Defense to the Secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force et al., Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule (Jan. 13, 1994). http://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/irectGroundCombatDefinitionAndAssignmentRule.pdf 
4. Women In Land Combat, Selected Findings - 1992 Presidential Commission. http://www.cmrlink.org/content/women-in-combat/34414/women_in_land_combat?year=2004 
5. Women in Combat: Is The Current Policy Obsolete? By Martha McSally. http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1133&context=djglp 
6. Employment of Women In The Indian Army by Harjit Hansi. http://www.claws.in/1378/employment-of-women-in-the-indian-army-harjit-hansi.html 
7. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/armed-forces-face-shortage-of-over-52000-personnel/

Game Theory and Jyotishya

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Nithin Sridhar
_____________________

(This article has been published in NewsGram.com under the title "Missing link: John Nash’s Game Theory can make Vedic Astrology more accurate")

John Nash, the famous American mathematician and his wife died last Saturday in a fatal taxi crash in New Jersey Turnpike. His most remarkable contributions were in the field of Game Theory. His discoveries like Nash Equilibrium, have resulted in the use of Game Theory in various branches like economics, politics, warfare, psychology, evolutionary biology, logic, ethics, social and human behavior etc. This article seeks to explore, whether there are some common points between Game Theory and Vedic Astrology (Jyotishya), which can be utilized to integrate them, so as to improve the efficacy of Jyotishya. Before, proceeding further, let us briefly understand, what Game Theory is all about. 

Game Theory is a systematic study of exertion of Free-Will. It is used to study, analyze and predict various human decisions, where the decision of each Individual is influenced by the decision of the others in the game, and all their decisions collectively determines the final result. Roger B. Myerson (in Game Theory: Analysis of Conflict, Harvard University Press) defines Game Theory as “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers”. He further states that, Game Theory provides general mathematical techniques for analyzing situations in which two or more individuals make decisions that will influence one another’s welfare. Hence, Game Theory aims to understand the mutual relationship and influence of free-wills of different people in the game. 

To be fully defined, a Game must have these four elements- players (those who exert free will and take decisions), the actions (choices) that are available for the players to choose from, the strategies that each player applies in taking action, and the payoff’s or the results that each player obtains as a result of his actions. Some of the assumptions underlying the Game Theory include, the players being rational individuals. That is, the exertion of free-will by each player will be aimed at maximizing his payoffs. Secondly, every player understands that other players are playing for maximizing their own payoff’s as well. Hence, the determining factor behind decision making is “self-interest”.

Now, if we link this concept of Game Theory to the concept of Karma in Hinduism, we will notice that there are certain elements that are common to both. The concept of Free-Will plays a very important role in Hindu view of the universe. The whole universe and all the interactions within the universe follows the law of Karma- the law of cause and effect. Each action results in a specific result. Hence, the present situations and life choices that an Individual faces, is a result of his own previous actions. Similarly, his present actions will place him in various situations in future. Therefore, destiny and free-will are one and the same thing- Karmas. The former refers to the actions performed by the exertion of free will in the past and the latter to the exertion of free will in the present. 

To the question, what drives a person to perform actions? “Desire for happiness” is the answer given by Hindu scriptures. In other-words, self-regard and self-welfare is the primary motive behind all actions. The Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha that constitutes the four purusharthas or goals of life that is central to the Hindu way of life, is designed to lead a person slowly on a path that ultimately imparts Supreme-Bliss. Hence, all actions be it for Dharma, Artha, Kama or Moksha, they are all guided by motivations of attaining the results/payoffs offered by them. If it be said that, taking decisions in self-interest is contradictory to practice of dharma (ethics and duty), the answer is given by Lord Krishna himself in Gita (2.30-38). Lord Krishna urges Arjuna to fight the Righteous Mahabharata battle by saying that, if he fights, then there are only two possible outcomes. Either Arjuna dies in the battle and attains heaven and enjoy the heavenly world or he will conquer and enjoy his kingdom. In either case, following his Kshatriya Dharma and fighting in the war is beneficial to Arjuna. Hence, even in the case of Dharma (ethics, righteousness, morality, duty), being economically rational i.e. taking decision in self-interest is the most natural reaction for a person. Another element of commonality is the factor of influence of decision making process of one player on the other. Though in Game Theory it is explored in a purely rational basis of how a player understands the strategy of the other, the Hindu Philosophy explores the interactions between two Individuals based on the Karmic debts or Rina that binds them. Any interaction between two people is not a coincidence, but it is outcome of complex bond of Rina or Karmic debt that those Individual share with each other. And their present interactions and their mutual exertion of free-wills will be influenced by this Karmic debt that exist between them. The Rina or Karmic debt is a bond of give and take that is formed due to actions in the past. 

Hence, the past Karmas that are bearing their results in the present for an Individual, the Karmic Rinas between the interacting Individuals, the mental make-up of an Individual and the factor of rationality/self-interest of the Individual will determine the manner in which he will exert his Free-Will. Game Theory only uses the last factor, the factor of economic rationality or self-interest in its analysis of free-will. The Behavioral Game Theory also takes into account the mental make-up of an Individual. But, both of them have no information regarding the past actions. Hence, the Game Theory is only limited to present exertion of free will determined by only a limited number of factors.

On the other hand, Vedic Jyotishya deals with predicting the future events based on the past Karmas that have begun to fructify. Every person takes birth as a certain animal, or in a certain house and faces certain situations in his life based on his previous Karmas committed over millions of past lives. The sum total of all the previous karmas are called as “Sanchita Karma”. And a small portion of Sanchita Karma that is ready to give results is called as “Prarabda Karma”. It is this Prarabda Karma that decides the time, place, and manner of birth. It decides the various life events, various life situations that a person is placed into in his life. Jyotishya uses various methods that includes using birth time and location and making the natal chart, to determine the Prarabda Karmas that are in store for a person in that particular life. It then, uses this information to predict the future events. But, what it does not take into account is the performance of Agami Karmas. Agami Karmas are the actions performed by the exertion of free will in the Present. And these exertions of free will can significantly change the events and directions in which the life of a person is moving. But, Jyotishya does not take into account these Agami Karmas. Hence, many of the predictions turn out to be untrue. If the concepts of Game Theory can be harmoniously integrated with the concepts of Jyotishya then the predictions can be made more accurate. Further, Jyotishya will be able to analyze and predict even the exertions of the Free Will in the present.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Secularization or Destruction of Yoga?

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Nithin Sridhar
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(An edited version of the article has been published NewsGram on April 20, 2015)

In what is being seen as a landmark judgment by some quarters of population world-wide, an appeals court in California, USA has upheld a decision by the San Diego Superior Court that the yoga program in the Encinitas School District is ''devoid of any religious, mystical or spiritual trappings.'' The appeals court has ruled that the said yoga program is secular and it did not had the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion. It has been reported that in 2013, a lower court in California had ruled that “yoga has become a distinctly American cultural phenomenon”. This judgment has once again raised the question “Is Yoga Secular or Religious?” But, it also raises a more important but often ignored question, “Whether the ‘secular Yoga’ is really Yoga?” The article tries to explore answers to both these questions.

What is Yoga?

Yoga literally means “Union” or “Conjunction”. Patanjali Yoga Sutra (1.2-3) defines Yoga as a state wherein the patterns (vrittis) of the mind has been removed or stilled, so that the “seer” (i.e. Atman, the Witness) abides in his real nature”. Hence, yoga is a state of Samadhi, wherein the Self or Atman has been isolated from the limitations of Non-Self entities like body and mind so that the Atman alone shines. This state is achieved by stilling the mind by causing all the various thought-modifications of the mind to cease. Just as various thoughts and dreams are products of modifications of “manas/mind”. Similarly, from purely subjective perspective the objective universe one perceives is also due to the modifications of one’s mind. The Atman is the witness and the body and the mind are the objects. Hence, when the mind is stilled and the modifications of mind are brought into a stop, the objects merge into the subject and the Atman which is the subject alone remains. This state of Samadhi is called as “Yoga” or “Union” because there is a Union of duality of object and subject giving rise to the non-dual abidance in Atman.

What is the goal of Yoga?

The whole system of Yoga is designed to attain this state of Self-abidance. Patanjali describes an eight limbed process to attain the ultimate Union. These eight limbs are- yama (external discipline), niyama (internal discipline), asana (posture), pranayama (breath regulation), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (one pointed concentration), dhyana (meditative absorption) and samadhi (Ultimate Union). It is to be noted that Asana or practice of various postures and pranayama or the practice of breath regulation are not considered as foundational limbs. Instead they occur as third and fourth limb respectively. The foundation limbs are yama and niyama which constitutes various external and internal disciplines. Yama includes ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (celibacy) and aparigraha (freedom from avarice). Niyama includes shaucha (cleanliness), santosha, tapah (austerity/control of mind and senses), svadhyaya (self-study) and ishvara pranidhanani (devotion to God).Without a constant practice of these yama and niyama, no amount of Asana can lead to higher limbs of Yoga. The Yama and Niyama aims to purify the mind and impart detachment and dispassion to the practitioner. The aim of Asana is to keep the body healthy and make it a proper instrument for higher practice. The Pranayama aims to regulate the breath which is very much necessary for stilling the mind. It is only by a proper synchronization of all the four limbs that a person is able to withdraw his senses (pratyahara) and attain one-pointed concentration (dharana). If, a person was to practice postures alone then all one will be able to attain is a healthy body. But, developing a healthy body is not the ultimate goal of Yoga. In fact it is not the ultimate goal of human life itself. According to Hindu philosophy, the ultimate goal of human life is Moksha and all other activities and goals be it Kama, Artha or Dharma are to be aligned to make way for an individual to ultimately reach the goal of Moksha. Hence, be it Yoga or Bharatanatyam or Indian Classical music, every aspect of Indian life was conceived as a medium to attain an eternal abidance in Atman i.e. Moksha.

Hence, having a healthy body or a healthy life-style cannot be ultimate goal of Yoga. Instead it can only be a secondary and interim goal that is aimed at turning the body and the corresponding lifestyle into conductive instruments that are then able to attain the ultimate goal of Samadhi.

Is Yoga Secular or Religious?

“Secularism” refers to the separation of religion from political, social and economic systems and institutions. The creation of this separation is rooted in European history where the concept was used for the separation of the state from the hegemony of the church. But, no such separation ever existed in the Indian concept of life. The foundation of Indian life is Sanatana Dharma and this Dharma dictates every aspect of Indian life. There is no artificial division of sacred and secular in the Dharmic view of life because there was never a conflict between secular subjects and faith-based subjects, between science and religion. Dharma guides both secular and sacred aspects of life. In fact, Dharma harmoniously unites both and helps an individual to work towards the highest goal of Moksha. The Hindu concept of life aims at using even the most secular activities into attempts at reaching the higher goal. The music, dance, martial arts, physical exercises or medicine everything is helpful in equipping an Individual to attain the Moksha.

Hence, to the question whether Yoga is Secular? The answer is definitely not. Whether Yoga is religious in the sense that it is faith-based alone? The answer again is a “No”. When any activity is upheld as being secular, it often means that the activity completely is unreligious in nature without any element of religion or spirituality. Similarly, when any activity is considered as “religious” it means that the activity is only faith based without any scientific or verifiable element in them. But, Yoga does not fit into either of the definitions. It is not secular because it is not a physical exercise regimen that is devoid of any religious value. Instead the ultimate goal of Yoga is the “Abidance in Atman” which is among the most basic tenet of Hinduism. Similarly, it is not entirely religious in the faith sense, because it is a well designed complete system which rests on individually verifiable results and not on blind faith. Yoga is a dharmic life-style system that has both, faith and non-faith elements, both verifiable and ethical elements that aim at imparting the highest goal of “abidance in Atman” to the practitioner. Hence, when a person or an organization attempts to secularize Yoga, it results in serious consequences.

Secularization or Destruction?

In the present case of Yoga programs that were held in Encinitas School District, it is reported that the Yoga program was secularized by removing all the religious elements including the removal of the usage of Sanskrit words like Namaste and Sanskrit names of the postures. The Padmaasana for example was promoted as “criss cross apple sauce” posture. Now the question is, what is the basis of considering the terms like “Namaste” and “Padmaasana” as religious and hence needed to be removed? Padma-asana simply means “lotus-posture”. It is one of the basic postures that help a person to enter a deep meditation. The term “Padma” or lotus is used not only because the asana resembles a blooming lotus but also because, a person retains the grip on his body even after entering deep meditation. Just as a lotus floats in water, staying above water yet being in constant touch with it, a practitioner will remain in deep meditation without casting off his body. But, any such symbolism and understanding is lost when it is translated as “criss cross apple sauce”. That exactly seems to be the goal. The present example clearly denotes that in the name of secularization, a ripping away of Yoga from its Indian and Dharmic roots is being carried out. There is nothing religious about the usage of terms like Namaste or Padmasana that they should be discarded. They are discarded because they are words of Sanskrit and hence indicate that Yoga is a product of Indian Civilization and Sanatana Dharma. This is a clear case of dilution and digestion of Yoga.

Rajiv Malhotra in his Indra’s Net describes a two stage process of this digestion of Yoga. In the first stage, Yoga is reformulated either as a health programme or as ‘spiritual but not religious’ programmes so that the practice of Yoga is diluted and is put into a neutral ground where it can be easily digested into western culture. In the next stage, this digested version is reformulated into Christian Yoga on one hand and into various systems of knowledge like Western cognitive science, neuroscience etc on the other hand. Hence, in two easy steps, Yoga which is rooted in Sanatana Dharma and whose aim is abiding in the Atman is turned into a Christian religious practice. Therefore, a direct result of this secularization of Yoga is its dilution, digestion and eventual destruction of its dharmic teachings. And such a digested Yoga which is devoid of its dharmic teachings is no Yoga at all. Just as a person is considered dead when his soul lives the body, similarly when Dharma is uprooted from Yoga, it will no longer remain as Yoga. It would remain only an outer shell, whose essence has been sucked out.

If it be said that, there is nothing wrong with such digestion of Yoga as it has paved way for Yoga to reach larger number of audience helping them practice a healthy lifestyle. The answer is that, if a diluted version of Yoga can be of such immense help to people, then one can only imagine the various ways in which a genuine Yoga can help in transforming one’s life. Don’t the people have the right for both materialistic and spiritual welfare? Why should any person be devoid of wholesome benefits of Yoga? Further, if a person is only interested in body-building or health benefits, there are other practices like gymnastics, aerobics etc. that they can involve themselves with. And if any person is genuinely interested in Spiritual progress as well, then he or she should have no problem in adopting the Dharmic outlook and philosophy that forms the core of Yoga. Hence, no argument can be used to justify this digestion and destruction of Yoga.

What is the way forward?

The genuine teachers of Yoga in India and the west must take initiative to counter any attempts at dilution or digestion of Yoga. This can be done by-

1. The Yoga teachers must first become strongly grounded in the traditional practice of Yoga. They must be not only thorough in various aspects of philosophy and practice of Yoga but they must be also aware of basic Hindu philosophy.

2. The Yoga teachings must be imparted only to those students who are competent to have it and it must not be sold like a commercial products.

3.  The Yoga must be taught as a wholesome dharmic system whose aim is both material and spiritual welfare and not as an exercise regimen.

4.  The Yoga teachings should not be diluted for the sake of promoting oneself or gaining more students. The traditional teachings, its terminologies, its meaning and significance etc. should not be distorted.

5.  The Yoga teachers must uphold the tradition and promote the tradition instead of promoting their own self.

6.  Each student must be assessed for his capability and only those teachings that are suitable to him must be imparted. But, this should be done by keeping wholeness of Yoga in mind.

7.  Any specific part or limb of Yoga should not be promoted as a distinct practice on their own. Instead a wholesome teaching of Yoga must be imparted but specific instructions can be based on Individual capacities.

The Hindu parents should become aware about Hindu religion and Philosophy. They must become aware about significance of Yoga in material as well as spiritual welfare. They must learn Yoga in its entirety and practice them as a medium to attain ultimate goal and not just as health regimen. They must teach the same to their children as well. These simple measures go a long way in preserving the authentic tradition of Yoga and protecting it against secularization and digestion.