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Showing posts from February, 2010

The Mahabharata on India as a British Gift to Us

During the lunch break of a training programme for corporate executives earlier this week, one of the topics that came up for informal discussion around the lunch table was whether India as a nation is a creation of the British or not. One view expressed was that it is since India as a nation did not exist as a single entity before the British conquered our land and made it part of the empire.

Of course, this is a widely held view and one that the British wanted us Indians to believe, or rather insisted that Indians accept and be grateful to the British for. However, the facts are very different. While it is true that ancient India was divided into several independent states and was ruled by different kings, this is true of the history of most modern nations in the world. But in spite of this, the concept of a unified India did exist, with geographical boundaries that correspond to the present state of India, apart from the parts that have since become separate nations, like Pakistan …

Religion and a Child’s Handful of Grass

I love Walt Whitman as a poet. Here are a few lines from his Song of Myself, which I find hauntingly beautiful.

“A child said ‘What is the grass?’ fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners,
That we may see and remark, and say Whose?”

The poem does not end here, but continues beautifully. However, this is enough for my present purpose, for my particular interest at the moment is in those last four lines: “Or I guess … and say Whose?”

When the child comes to the poet with a handful of grass in his hands and the question “What is the grass?” many answers comes to the poet’s mind. One of them is from the medieval times – the days of knights and their lady loves, of chivalry, honour, bravery, courage, cou…

Women & Sufism

Sufism has been a subject of deep interest to me for more than three decades. The position of women in Sufism is widely misunderstood. Therefore, when I came across this excellent article by Camille Adams Helminski, I thought of sharing it with my readers. The following is the complete text of the article, published on with the same title as above. For more on the subject, please visit

Since the beginning of consciousness, human beings, both female and male, have walked the path of reunion with the Source of Being. Though in this world of duality we may find ourselves in different forms, ultimately there is no male or female, only Being. Within the Sufi traditions, the recognition of this truth has encouraged the spiritual maturation of women in a way that has not always been possible in the West.

From the earliest days onward, women have played an important role in the development of Sufism, which is classically understood to have begun with the Prop…

The Butcher, the Harlot and Zen

A butcher’s job is considered one of the worst in any society. In India, where ahimsa is one of the highest values and vegetarianism is a way of life based on this principle of ahimsa extended to the entire living kingdom including that of animals, it is looked down upon as few other professions are. And yet the Mahabharata portrays a butcher as a saint, an awakened one – and awakened not through asceticism practiced but by virtue of his commitment to his job – selling meat and doing other things that his circumstances have decided for him.

The story begins with a brahmana ascetic called Kaushika [In the Bhagavata version of the story he is called Kapila. In the Kathasaritsagara, he is just a brahmana, without a name. My narration here closely follows the Mahabharata version.] Kaushika was seated under a tree one morning and was narrating the Vedas when droppings from a crane perched on the tree happened to fall on him. Deeply annoyed, he looked at the crane in fury and as his eyes fe…

Mere Paas Maa Hai: While There is Still Time

There was a very disturbing documentary shown on HBO recently: The Eleventh Hour. The documentary was about what we have done to the earth during the last one hundred and fifty years or so, where we have taken her in our greed and thoughtlessness and what we can do to save her and prevent our own extinction as a species. The same as the subject of the recent Copenhagen Summit. The documentary was aired at prime time: the 9.00 pm slot, the time reserved for the best shows. The Eleventh Hour deserved that slot.

I happened to see recently, through the generosity of a friend of my wife, another documentary on the same subject, or more or less the same subject: a documentary called Gaanv Chhodab Nahin – We Shall Not Give Up Our Villages. While the documentary on HBO discussed the whole earth, the focus of this documentary was on the tribal people of India, particularly of Chhota Nagpur, and what is happening to their land. The powerful refrain of the title song repeated throughout the docu…

Das Energi: You Can Eat the Cake and Have It Also

There is a tiny book called Das Energi, by Paul Williams. At one time the book used to be an underground bestseller and I used to love reading the book – it is a book meant for repeated reading and reflection. One of the readers had this to say about the book: “Everything I had read earlier was telling me ‘how’; Das Energi was saying ‘why!’

Here are a few interesting quotations from the book.

“Participating in the energy flow is the only satisfaction there is in life.”

“Hard work is relaxing. It is easy as falling off a log. It is a pleasure to make full use of one’s body. It is a pleasure to make full use of one’s mind… It is a pleasure to be part of the energy flow. A body or mind that is seldom in full motion is a body or mind that can seldom fully rest.”

“The only way to enjoy the show, to enjoy life, is as a participant. Perhaps it’s the people who think they’re spectators who spread the idea that all pleasure must be paid for. Don’t pay for anything – life is free.”

“The first law of…

Zen and Alberto Moravia’s Ashtray

In Alice in Wonderland, Alice asks the Cheshire Cat “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” says the Cat.

“I don’t much care where–“ says Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” says the Cat.

“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” says the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

Some of us do not seem to reach anywhere in our lives because we do not walk long enough in any direction. Many of us end up being not far from where we started and some indeed even further behind, as though we have been walking backwards.


Alberto Moravia has for long been one of my favourite authors. When I read recently his story The Ashtray, in the short story collection Paradise, I remembered the conversation of Alice and the Cheshire Cat and of the way many of us live our lives.

The Ashtray tells the story of a woman of indeterminate age, but who, it appears, is not yo…

Billu Barber

I had a poem in one of my school text books that asked rhetorically: Has the brave Krishna ever cried? Dheeranaya chentamarak-kannanundo karanjittulloo? Krishna as we see him in the Mahabharata is full of emotions – he can cry, he can pull his hair apart in frustration, and he can dance for joy, laughing uproariously. But Krishna as we see him in the Bhagavata is different – he cries only once in his life. That is when he meets as an adult and as the Lord of Dwaraka his childhood friend Sudama.

Tears come to some people easily, and to others not so easily. I belong to the first group. This is particularly so when I watch movies or a dance performance. I remember watching a Yakshagana performance based on the Bhasmasura story on the evening of 31st December last year and as I watched the dance of Shiva and Parvati there, I remember tears welling up in my eyes. On a recent stay in Mumbai, I remember becoming equally emotional on a different occasion, for reasons that are too personal to…