Ruminations of An Old Man

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Most octogenarians are shunned, wasted or both. Charlie Munger, among the few exceptions, has a cult following. He is intelligent, wise, & candid. The fact that he has become extraordinarily wealthy by developing his own shrewd investing philosophy lends additional aura, respect & attention. He is a man of few words and shuns publicity.

So, on the rare occasion when he speaks, its time to sit tight & lap it up.

A few gems from his commencement speech at USC Law School in 2007, on ideas & attitudes that worked well for him.

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…the idea that the safest way to try and get what you want, is to try and deserve what you wantIt’s such a simple idea, it’s the golden rule so to speak.

…there is no love that’s so right as admiration based love, and that love should include the instructive dead.

wisdom acquisition is a moral duty, it’s not something you do just to advance in life.

I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines, they go to bed every night a little wiser than when they got up and boy does that help particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.

…you can progress only when you learn the method of learning.

if you take Warren Buffett and watched him with a time clock, I would say half of all the time he spends is sitting on his ass and reading. And a big chunk of the rest of the time is spent talking one on one either on the telephone or personally with highly gifted people whom he trusts and who trust him.

I noted since the really big ideas carry 95% of the freight, it wasn’t at all hard for me to pick up all the big ideas in all the big disciplines and make them a standard part of my mental routines.

Once you have the ideas of course they are no good if you don’t practice. You don’t practice you lose it.

So I went through life constantly practicing this model of (multi-)disciplinary approach. Well I can’t tell you what that’s done for me, it’s made life more fun, it’s made me more constructive, it’s made me more helpful to others, it’s made me enormously rich, you name it, that attitude really helps.

I always obeyed the drift of my nature and if other people didn’t like it I didn’t need to be adored by everybody.

…when I talk about this multidisciplinary attitude I’m really following a very key idea of the greatest lawyer of antiquity, Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero is famous for saying, “a man who doesn’t know what happened before he was born goes through life like a child”. That is a very correct idea of Cicero’s. And he’s right to ridicule somebody so foolish as not to know what happened before he was born.But if you generalize Cicero as I think one should, there are all these other things that you should know in addition to history and those other things are the big ideas in all the other disciplines. And it doesn’t help you just to know them enough just so you can *unclear* them back on an exam and get an A. You have to learn these things in such a way that they’re in a mental latticework in your head and you automatically use them for the rest of your life.

If you do that I solemnly promise you that one day you’ll be walking down the street and look to your right and left and think, “my heavenly days! I’m now one of the few most competent people of my whole age forward. If you don’t do it, many of the brightest of you will live in the middle ranks or in the shallows.

The way complex adaptive systems work and the way mental constructs work; problems frequently get easier and I would even say usually are easier to solve if you turn around in reverse. In other words if you want to help India, the question you should ask is not “how can I help India?”, you think “what’s doing the worst damage in India? What would automatically do the worst damage and how do I avoid it?” You’d think they are logically the same thing, they’re not. Those of you who have mastered algebra know that inversion frequently will solve problems which nothing else will solve. And in life, unless you’re more gifted than Einstein, inversion will help you solve problems that you can’t solve in other ways.

…to use a little inversion now, what will really fail in life? What do you want to avoid? Such an easy answer – sloth and unreliability. If you’re unreliable it doesn’t matter what your virtues are, you’re going to crater immediately. So doing what you have faithfully engaged to do should be an automatic part of your conduct. You want to avoid sloth and unreliability.

Another thing I think should be avoided is extremely intense ideology because it cabbages up one’s mind. …if you’re young it’s easy to drift in to loyalties and when you announce that you’re a loyal member and you start shouting the orthodox ideology out what you’re doing is pounding it in, pounding it in and you’re gradually ruining your mind so you want to be very careful with this ideology. It’s a big danger.

I have what I call an iron prescription that helps me keep sane when I naturally drift toward preferring one ideology over another. And that is I say “I’m not entitled to have an opinion on this subject unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people do who are supporting it. I think only when I reach that stage am I qualified to speak.”

Another thing of course that does one in is the self serving bias to which we are all subject. You think that your little me is entitled to do what it wants to do…

Generally speaking, envy, resentment, revenge and self pity are disastrous modes of thought, self-pity gets pretty close to paranoia, and paranoia is one of the very hardest things to reverse, you do not want to drift into self-pity.

…a self serving bias, you want to get out of yourself, thinking that what’s good for you is good for the wider civilization and rationalizing all these ridiculous conclusions based on the subconscious tendency to serve one’s self. It’s a terribly inaccurate way to think and of course you want to drive that out of yourself because you want to be wise not foolish.

You also have to allow for the self-serving bias of everybody else, because most people are not gonna remove it all that successfully, the only condition being what it is. If you don’t allow for self serving bias in your conduct, again you’re a fool.

You don’t want to be in a perverse incentive system that’s causing you to behave more and more foolishly or worse and worse. Incentives are too powerful a controller of human cognition and human behavior 

Perverse associations, also to be avoided. You particularly want to avoid working directly under somebody you really don’t admire and don’t want to be like. It’s very dangerous we are all subject to control to some extent our authority figures strictly authority figures that are rewarding us. And that requires some talent, the way I solved that is I figured out the people I did admire and I maneuvered cleverly without criticizing anybody so I was working entirely under people I admired.

Darwin paid special attention to disconfirming evidence particularly to disconfirm something he believed and loved. Well objectivity maintenance routines are totally required in life if you’re going to be a correct thinker. And they were talking about Darwin’s attitude, special attention to the disconfirming evidence, and also to checklist routines. Checklist routines avoid a lot of errors. You should have all this elementary wisdom and then you should go through and have a checklist in order to use it. There is no other procedure that will work as well.

I realized very early that non-egality would work better in the parts of the world I wanted to inhabit. I think the game of life in many respects is getting a lot of practice into the hands of the people that have the most aptitude to learn and the most tendency to be learning machines. And if you want the very highest reaches of human civilization that’s where you have to go.

…an intense interest of the subject is indispensable if you are really going to excel. I could force myself to be fairly good in a lot of things, but I couldn’t be really good in anything where I didn’t have an intense interest, so to some extent you’re going to have to follow me. If at all feasible you want to drift into doing something in which you really have a natural interest.

…have a lot of assiduity. I like that word because it means sit down in your ass until you do it.

…life will have terrible blows, horrible blows, unfair blows, doesn’t matter. And some people recover and others don’t. And there I think the attitude of Epictetus is the best. He thought that every mischance in life was an opportunity to behave well, every mischance in life was an opportunity to learn something and your duty was not to be submerged in self-pity but to utilize the terrible blow in a constructive fashion. That is a very good idea.

All my life I’ve gone through life anticipating trouble and here I am well along on my 84th year and like Epictetus I’ve had a favored life. It didn’t make me unhappy to anticipate trouble all the time and be ready to perform adequately if trouble came. It didn’t hurt me at all. In fact it helped me

In your own life what you want is a seamless web of deserved trust.


 

Charlie Munger Speech – Video

Poor Charlie’s Almanack

 

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We Have Free Will, Bulls Don’t

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That was a comment made by a Judge of the Indian Supreme Court in a recent hearing, to support a previous judgement banning Jallikattu (bull fight).

Do we really have Free Will?

That has remained an unresolved question for centuries. We like to believe we are different from other animals & plants, the important difference being we are conscious beings with the ability to think & act independently. We think we have the ability to choose between different courses of action or thought or, in other words, we have free will.

A little introspection tells us we have no clear idea how we get the thoughts we get, or why we do what we do. We may say we chose to think about this or that, and chose to do this or that, that we have freedom of choice. But how did those different choices come about? Did the choices appear due to random luck or were caused by something we or somebody else thought or did before? If it was random luck, then we have no free will. If the choices were the result of something we did or thought before, then we are back to square one – why did we do or think that before? If the choices were caused by somebody else’s thoughts or acts, that again implies we have no free will.

Free will seems to be an illusion.

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If free will is an illusion, then who or what drives our thoughts & actions? Are we mindless robots controlled by a superior being?

Most of what we do & think are slowly being taken over by modern machines, AI, & robots. As these machines gain more intelligence over the next few centuries, will they also start questioning their own free will, as we are doing now?

Are we living in an illusory world with illusory free will?

If we, our world, free will & reality as we know it are just controlled simulations in somebody else’s mind or machine, should we really worry about what we do or think?

Is somebody is playing a game with us? Are we unwitting actors in somebody’s reality show?

Should we stop to think about this? Does it help?

Can we understand it at all?

Bulls don’t have free will

Free Will by Sam Harris

Are you living in a computer simulation?

 

Whither Hinduism?

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One’s religion is nothing but the dharma practiced by one’s forefathers. 

In our sanatana dharma….there is a weaving together of rites, the good conduct and discipline arising out of them, devotion to Isvara and finally knowledge of the Self.

– Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi

 

One can practice Hinduism in a few ways – follow its philosophy, pursue devotion or perform rituals. Or one can concoct a personal & convenient mix of all three paths, a widely followed custom over the ages. However, all these three ways have withered drastically in recent times. The key philosophies of Hinduism are largely unknown today. The pursuit of devotion exists, but is largely questionable. The meaning & purpose of rituals are fast getting lost in the mists of time.

Is Hinduism thriving, dying, changing or transforming?

  1. Hindu philosophy

Some like to argue that Hinduism is not a religion, but a way of life. They look at it as a bundle of wise thoughts & ideas (aka philosophy) handed down over the ages. If we contemplate over and practice even a few of these ideas, our lives would be enriched – so say the few who have bought into the philosophical history & richness of Hinduism, a fast dwindling minority today. Undoubtedly, Hinduism is rich in wisdom. The Bhagavad Gita alone is replete with wise ideas which can be readily incorporated into our daily lives. But Hindu philosophy has few takers today. It is considered archaic or obscure. Most Hindus don’t bother to study it. The few individuals, groups & institutions spreading the practical wisdom of Hindu philosophy are perhaps fighting a losing battle. Ardent practitioners of Hindu philosophical thought may just thrive on the fringes.

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2. Hindu devotion

Devotion has thrived, but its modern flavors and customs are questionable. Do devout Hindus pray out of fear or love or to curry favor or for display or to belong or to just pass time or…? It has been a mix of these and many other reasons, for ages. Devotion & prayers perhaps started out with fear & love for ancestors and blossomed into almost pure love for the Gods for some of our ancestors. However, over time, the nature of devotion has changed (some may say decayed). Today, many Hindus offer prayers either out of fear or to seek something. They fear the wrath of the Gods & dead ancestors. They seek material wealth or happiness or moksha or something else. Devotion & prayers are largely ‘give & take’ transactions today, much in sync with the modern business-driven world. Pure devotion is based on pure faith. That kind of devotion is largely dead.

3. Hindu rituals

Traditional rituals are disappearing at an alarming pace. Their original meaning & purpose are largely forgotten. Modern Hindus, brought up on a diet of science and exposed to the larger world, question old rituals. And very few of these questions are being answered convincingly, perhaps because there are very few knowledgeable Hindu scholars around. Rituals at the time of birth, marriage, death etc. have become largely perfunctory. Many perform rituals out of fear or to satisfy others. Social celebrations during weddings & birth have become more important & perhaps more satisfactory than rituals. A keen observer may realize some of these rituals & rites do have meaning & purpose. They enforce discipline and help us think about life & our purpose. However, rituals change with time, and are influenced by people, cultures, customs & traditions. They get distorted easily and their original shape, purpose & meaning can quickly get lost if we don’t have dedicated guardians. Specialist brahmin priests, who were the original guardians of these rituals, are a vanishing breed today. The original Hindu rituals will soon be lost.

…a religion will decline and decay if its spokesmen, however eloquent they are in expounding its concepts, are found to be guilty of lapses in character and conduct. 

– Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi

 

Do we have high-calibre spokesmen for Hinduism today?

We cannot dismiss the original purpose, meaning & logic of Hindu philosophy, devotion & rituals as meaningless & old-fashioned, without studying them. But the modern Hindu does not have the time or inclination to study Hinduism. Some turn to self-styled spokesmen (aka gurus), who may or may not be worthy of being followed.

Traditional (or original) Hinduism is dying. New-age Hinduism, as being practiced today, may not be a good replacement.

We could point out that Hinduism has evolved well in the past and trust it will do so in the future. Successful evolution requires good catalysts. Adi Shankara was one. We may need another.

 

Why Gates & Buffett Are Wrong

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The growing breed of capitalist philanthropists, many of them inspired by the likes of Bill Gates & Warren Buffett, seek to change, transform & improve the world and our lives.

Their thinking & approach is to run very fast for a long time, on their chosen philanthropic paths, to get to somewhere else which is a better world than now.

Modern Red Queens (aka intellectuals) point out we are in a fast sort of world, and it takes all the running we can do, to keep in the same place, and If we want to get somewhere else (a better world than now), we must run at least twice as fast as that. We thus witness the accelerating pace of business, technology, R&D, innovation, wealth generation & philanthropic activities.

But what if the bucket is leaking faster than the pace at which it being filled up? And what if the leakage accelerates, even as we attempt to fill the bucket faster?

In other words, what if the world & our lives are deteriorating faster than the pace of development & philanthropy?

Gates & Buffett, their fans, admirers & followers, are optimists. They believe the leaky bucket can be filled up, sooner or later. Few others believe the bucket is leaking faster & faster, and unless we put in more efforts to plug the leakage rather than filling the bucket, there isn’t much hope. Either hypothesis is yet to be proven conclusively.

The bucket is our world. We are filling it up with science, ideas, developments, & innovations. The capitalist philanthropists see the leakage and are attempting to plug it. Their philanthropic activities treat the symptoms, ignoring the cause. If Bill Gates wipes out Polio or TB, there are many other diseases in queue. If capitalists like Vinod Khosla solve the energy & transportation problems, there are many other problems in queue.

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Meantime, the root cause – human greed – is largely ignored and growing unchecked. It’s quite clear human greed & consumption has gained pace in the last few centuries, especially after the industrial revolution. More development, technology & innovation has fueled human greed even further. The bucket is leaking faster. We are filling the bucket faster. Will it help?

Our developmental & philanthropic activities need to curtail greed.

Else, sooner or later, the bucket may collapse.

Gates & Buffett, despite their best intentions, may fail.

 

 

 

The Difficulty Of Being Detached

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Detachment is a core thought in Hinduism, Buddhism and philosophies like Stoicism.

The logic & benefits of being emotionally, materially, & psychologically detached are compelling and have been thoroughly debated over the ages. While it is not easy, a student seriously practicing detachment will realize the fruits, sooner or later.

However, the path of detachment can be filled with pitfalls which have to be navigated skillfully. Two common pitfalls are

  1. Being surrounded by family, friends & others who don’t appreciate or understand detachment. For the fully detached person, unreasonable reactions & extreme opinions of others may not matter. But the practicing student goes through a disturbing period before he graduates. Family members & friends may criticize. Relationships can get strained. Social circle may shrink. The student may suddenly find himself lonely or alone.
  2. Losing joy or cheerfulness. The student practicing detachment may not be exactly sad or gloomy, but she might find herself less joyful or cheerful. Family & friends may point out she is not enjoying life & herself as before. She is not openly expressing joy and happiness as often as before. Is she ill? Is she scared? Is she losing the ability to feel & express joy? Are being cheerful & detached incompatible? One may have progressed on being detached emotionally, materially & psychologically, but does it mean one also has to distance oneself from a vibrant & joyful life?

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Reading & observing masters of detachment shows they are cheerful beings too. They laugh & smile readily. They lead vibrant & active lives. They are fully engaged in their chosen paths, full of joy & cheer, but also steady in practicing detachment. Just think of Buddha, Krishna, Socrates, Seneca & Gandhi. They travelled & taught to a big following, were cunning & waged wars, mocked & forced people to think better, were deeply engaged in society & politics, mobilized mass support to fight for freedom. They chose not to shun society and take refuge in the hills (though that’s another common path with its own pros & cons). They had flaws. They were masters & accomplished practitioners of detachment. Yet they were actively engaged in life, joyous & cheerful. How did they do it? How did they manage to be detached and yet be cheerful?

The questions answer themselves after a little thought. The masters chose to actively engage in their paths. They knew they must remain detached in their personal & inner lives. But they also knew they must engage actively with family, friends & society, if they were to leave the world a little better than what they found it to be. When one chooses to engage actively with the external world, its contradictory (& futile) to remain aloof & sombre. Why not be cheerful & spread joy?

Be detached, be cheerful. Its contagious.

 

 

 

 

On Aging & Death

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Should we think about how we would like to age & die, when we are still young & active?

It’s not good if our body ages faster, but the mind is strong & active. Our body cannot do what the mind wants. We may want to read, exercise, be independent etc., but we cannot do much if the body has aged faster than the mind. Imagine a 70-year-old man, frail & ill, but with an alert & conscious mind, possibly bed-ridden, & frustrated. Pitiable state.

It is also not good if our mind ages faster, but the body is strong & active. Our body, though robust, becomes a useless shell. All the bodily physical activities we do don’t matter. If the mind is not alert & engaged, a strong body is of no use. Imagine a physically strong 50-year-old woman in a coma or some other form of disease which dulls the mind. Pitiable state.

Many of us are caught in between, where the mind & the body do not age together or in sync.

The mind & body, if cultivated well, can age the way we want them to, even though we may not have full control over them and the events that buffet us over our lifetimes.

How can we do that?  What are the best ideas & practices? Can we learn from others who have been (at least partly) successful in aging their bodies & minds beautifully?

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Yes, of course. When we pause to think about it, many of us may intuitively know what we need to do. Adhering to a potpourri of good diet, exercise, thoughts & actions is the simple recipe. Each of these – diet, exercise, thoughts & actions – have been actively studied over the ages. We could start by studying the master practitioners in each of these disciplines and learn progressively as we age.

Mortality and death can be more difficult to contemplate, compared to aging. Many of us are scared to die. It’s an unknown void. Despite our scientific, religious & philosophical beliefs, the inevitability of death and the uncertainty of what happens after death may scare us. The thought of our own death becomes more complicated and fearful when our body & mind have not aged beautifully.

If we have cultivated our body & mind well, put them through a disciplined mix of diet, exercise, thoughts & actions throughout our lives, we should be able to manage our death well. History is replete with examples of great masters who have faced & managed their deaths admirably, in many different ways. How Socrates or Seneca thought about & faced their deaths may be very different from how Jesus, Buddha or Gandhi did so. And there are many other masters from all walks of life to learn from. Death may become just another milestone in life to be managed well.

The frenetic pace of our lives can make our aging & death painful and traumatic.

We should pause & ponder.

 

 

A Radical Way to Save the World

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We have been talking about escalating ills such as poverty, disease, income inequalities, & climate change for decades now. While the shrillness of the protests & discourses has risen, the measures we have taken to save us from ourselves are paltry.

We need to wage a war. A war against human greed, which perhaps is the single biggest cause of most of the ills buffeting us. By taking more from nature than what we need, hoarding more than what we need, owning & possessing more than what we need, desiring more than what we need, we are destroying the world & ourselves. And the one big reason driving all these is plain & simple human greed. Needs have limits. But greed keeps growing if left unchecked. For centuries, religion & philosophy have cautioned us against runaway desires & wants. Modern scientific progress & successive industrial revolutions in the last few centuries have fueled human greed immensely. The benefits of modern progress & development won’t matter if the monstrous growth in human greed is left unchecked. Even if we don’t bother about our children’s and grandchildren’s future, the quality of our own lives are being threatened by the ills caused by human greed.

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Can we take a few radical steps to save ourselves? Yes, if we think & act boldly.

  1. Ban advertising

Advertising abets consumption. Clever & ubiquitous advertising abets over consumption, aka greed. While capitalism is perhaps the best known model of growth & development we know of, its cancerous growth has largely been fueled by advertising of all kinds – through newspapers, magazines, TV, social media etc. Mobile devices & social media are now revolutionizing advertising further. We are fast becoming easier prey to bewitching advertisements & modern persuasion techniques employed by businesses. Our consumption and greed can only grow further & faster. What will happen if we ban all forms of advertising, except word of mouth? Trade & business will slow down, of course. The advertising industry will die. Some industries like media & entertainment, which largely thrive on advertising, may have to rejig their business models. The pace of growth & development will slow down. The benefits of scientific progress & innovations may not spread fast. Critical products & services, like life-saving drugs, may not reach needy people fast enough. But more effective governments and public administration systems can step in to manage a new world of zero advertising. Technology driven word-of-mouth (email, internet, social media etc.) can take over the basic function of advertising, ie., spreading the word, without spreading greed. Advertising is perhaps the biggest catalyst driving over-consumption. We should ban it. No half measures.

2. Impose high consumption tax

Unscrupulous consumption must be taxed heavily. Over consumption can be easily identified in rich & poor countries. Why should a single person or family need many houses, a fleet of cars, and so on? A progressive & evolving standard of consumption can be drawn up, perhaps unique to each country to start with. The consumption tax should be high enough to act as a severe deterrent, along with severe penalties. What happens if we have a high consumption tax, say, for buying more than 2 cars or spending more than a preset amount on housing? It will certainly slow down business & trade. Prices may come down. Cost of living will reduce. Human greed will come down. The downside is that reduced greed may not drive innovations, growth & development as fast as before. But do we need such a greed driven growth & development? We can, and need to, adjust to a slower pace of consumption & progress, as we did a few centuries before.

3. Reduce pace of economic growth

Why do countries want to grow faster & faster? India & China are not happy with 7-8% pa economic growth. Developed countries are not happy with 2-3% pa growth. Simple reason why every country wants to grow faster is to satisfy ever-growing human greed. Massive industrialization and fast improvements in quality of life in the west have fueled human greed in developing countries, which now are clamoring to claim their own share of the spoils. The ongoing race among countries to grow faster & faster will ultimately destroy us. We need to slow down. Can all countries grow a few percentage points slower? What will happen if China & India choose to grow at 5% or lower? The ensuing social & political disruptions may be difficult to manage, but still can be done with the right leaders at helm. We may find it difficult to live with lowered expectations. Business & trade will slow down. Incomes will go down. Buying that car and apartment may take a longer time. Scientific progress, innovations & human development may slow down. Governance & administrative mechanisms have to be improved to redistribute welfare and benefits equitably. But, look at the upsides. The pace of our lives will slow down. Reduced stress will lead to lesser lifestyle ailments. We may even begin to savor life, ourselves & the world better. More importantly, we would have saved the world from caving in on ourselves.

4. Shame & punish uber-consumers

Even as we embrace the above 3 steps, we will have dissidents. In a democratic setup, we may not be able to force all people curtail their greed. Consumption habits & behaviors may need a long time to change. We may still have the über rich who, despite a high consumption tax, may not be able to control or limit their consumption. Such a stubborn minority can even reverse the difficult steps taken for larger public benefit. Such people must be publicly shamed & punished into behaving & consuming responsibly.

5. Educate & institutionalize 

Despite strict measures, human greed can be strong enough to persist in murky corners. It can hide or lie low for 1-2 generations and erupt unexpectedly later, quickly reversing the situation. Greed catches on like a social wild-fire. We don’t want the next or later generations to step backward. Adults & (especially) children have to be educated, almost indoctrinated, on the above measures. Governments, businesses & other social bodies need to institutionalize these ideas to avoid reversions.

Are these ideas utopian? No.

Are they doable? Yes.

Will the present governments & businesses support it? No.

Do we have leaders who can do this? No.

Do we need a revolution? Yes.

Who, when, how ???

 

 

A Chat with Brahman

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Me: Who are you?

Brahman: I am Brahman.

M: Can you describe yourself?

B: I am you, the universe and beyond.

M: Wow, really?

B: Yes

M: Thats not really clear to me.

B: I am also known as the consciousness or creator. I don’t have any physical form or shape, or any other attribute you can think of.

M: Thats not easy to understand.

B: Yes. Thats because you are not ready to understand me yet. Just call me Brahman and lets move on.

M: Did you create me?

B: You could say that. But, technically speaking, that would be wrong.

M: Why?

B: Because you are a part of me and I am a part of you. Technically, you created yourself.

M: Sounds fantastic.

B: Yes, but thats what it is.

M: Then, who created this world, other beings, planets, stars & so on?

B: The same logic holds good.

M: You mean to say I created all these stuff?

B: Yes

M: Or was it you who created all these?

B: Both you & me. Remember we are one.

M: Sounds too fantastic.

B: (silence)

M: You are laconic. Lets proceed anyway. Why did you, I or we create all this stuff?

B: All these are part of us. So, technically speaking, we didn’t create anything.

M: Wow, mind-bending stuff.

B: You can say that.

M: You are saying you, me, this world, universe and everything in it are all just one big thing?

B: Yes, thats Brahman

M: That doesn’t make any sense to me.

B: Thats why I said before you are not ready to understand yet.

M: Thats disappointing.

B: You are on a journey. You can understand as you go along.

M: What journey is it?

B: A journey you call life

M: Are you saying I will understand when I die?

B: Not necessarily

M: Hmm, you are a difficult guy. Please explain

B: You can understand even before you die

M: Are you sure?

B: Yes

M: How are you so sure?

B: Because thats how you designed it.

M: You mean thats how I designed this journey called life?

B: Yes

M: I designed this mysterious journey of life and I also decided to understand it as I go through it?

B: Yes

M: Why should I go through all this trouble?

B: You are not ready to understand that yet.

M: Back to square one. Lets change tack. Why do we die?

B: You can call it a design constraint.

M: Ah, now you speak a language I understand. I won’t ask you why we have that constraint because I know I will get your stock answer that I am not ready to understand that yet. But, let me ask you what happens after I die?

B: Nothing really

M: Nothing??

B: Yes

M: How about going to hell or heaven?

B: They are figments of your imagination. They don’t exist.

M: Thats interesting. Many millions will be shocked to hear that.

B: Yes

M: Then what really happens to me after I die?

B: We just become one, you & me, like we were before.

M: Thats very heartening to know. So, no penalties or punishments for all my sins?

B: You already suffer in this life.

M: You mean to say I, or rather we, designed this journey called life in such a way that we get punished for our sins before we die?

B: You could say that.

M: What do you mean? Am I not right?

B: You are right and wrong

M: You are making me dizzy. Please explain.

B: What you call life is not real.

M: What??

B: It is an illusion

M: You, and I, created this illusion?

B: Yes

M: All this world, planets, stars, sins, punishments etc. are not real?

B: Yes

M: You are kidding me. But why?

B: Thats the design

M: And you & I designed it such?

B: Yes

M: I am out of my depth here. Oh, help me God.

B: Only you can help yourself.

M: Oh, yeah, I assume all Gods are also mere illusions.

B: Yes

M: Wonderful. What a piece of work. I should pat myself on the back

B: (silence)

M: I wonder where this chat is leading to.

B: (silence)

M: Should we stop here or continue?

B: Your choice

M: I knew that’s what you will say. And my choice is to continue.

B: Sure

M: If everything is an illusion, what about you & me?

B: We, you & me, are neither real or imaginary.

M: I give up.

B: Thats not your nature

M: Really?

B: Yes

M: If you say so. Lets move on to worldly stuff which I may understand better.

B: Your choice

M: Yea, I know that. Its always my choice.

B: (silence)

M: When & how was all this known material world & universe created?

B: Many millennia back. It may not useful to dwell on when.

M: Ok. But how?

B: You & me created it.

M: Just like that? Out of nothing or nowhere?

B: Yes

M: Thats preposterous. How’s it possible?

B: Anything’s possible

M: I guess I just have to take your word for it.

B: Yes

M: Since I am not ready to understand it yet.

B: Yes

M: Thats a easy answer. Are you not prevaricating?

B: No

M: Are you hiding something deliberately?

B: I, or you, cannot hide anything from ourselves

M: Why can’t you explain to me in a way I can understand easily?

B: You will understand by asking more questions to yourself.

M: Which means you won’t explain to me

B: That doesn’t help

M: I need to find out myself?

B: Yes

M: I guess thats how we designed it.

B: Yes

M: Wow, we are crafty guys, aren’t we?

B: (silence)

M: I know you won’t answer that.

B: (silence)

M: Ok, lets move on…to more practical things. Now that we have created this journey called life, and I am deeply immersed in it, what should I do?

B: You will have to go through this journey.

M: I know that. I mean how should I go about it? How should I lead my life?

B: Study the Vedas

M: Really? Is it so simple as studying a few texts?

B: Yes

M: What are the Vedas exactly?

B: Something like a design cum user manual.

M: Excellent. I like that description. Who wrote them & when?

B: They came about along with life.

M: Who exactly?

B: No one in particular

M: How’s that possible?

B: (silence)

M: Ok, I get it. I am not ready to understand it yet.

B: (silence)

M: Ok. Atleast tell me when were they created?

B: (silence)

M: Hmm, you really want me to read your thoughts, don’t you?

B: (silence)

M: Ok. I take it the Vedas were created when we, you & me, created this illusion aka world aka journey called life. Lets move on. What do the Vedas say?

B: They tell you how to lead your life.

M: To tell you the truth, I had a cursory look at them. They don’t seem to be as simple to understand.

B: You need to study them.

M: You mean study them really deep & hard?

B: Yes

M: But the Vedas seem to be vast & complex. I may need a whole lifetime to understand them

B: Yes

M: Don’t confuse me. Are you agreeing they are complex or admitting a whole lifetime is required to understand them?

B: Maybe both.

M: Don’t be difficult. Please explain

B: The Vedas are as complex as you think they are. They take as long as you think you need to understand them.

M: That sounds like one of your stock replies. Are you saying the Vedas are only as complex and as time consuming to understand as I choose them to be?

B: Yes

M: Does that also mean I can go through life and die without understanding them?

B: Yes

M: I can also die with just a partial or incomplete understanding of the Vedas?

B: Yes

M: I can also fully understand them and live an enlightened life?

B: Yes

M: You, I mean, we, you & I…we are awesome, aren’t we?

B: (silence)

M: We have designed, created something which is so illusory, complex and yet very open ended.

B: (silence)

M: I can choose to understand or remain ignorant.

B: (silence)

M: All this sounds fantastic. Lets push ahead. Can you give me the gist of the Vedas?

B: Vedas provide the ideas, models, & best practices.

M: What about the many rituals, codes of conduct, abstract hyms, myths, stories and so on?

B: You created them

M: You mean my ancestors?

B: Yes

M: But those rituals, beliefs, stories etc. sound boring or meaningless.

B: Everything has a meaning…reason.

M: Are those hyms, slokas, etc. really useful?

B: Try them

M: What if I find them meaningless or empty…or just plain superstitious?

B: They are not the only way

M: The only way? For what?

B: To understand yourself..understand me.…us.

M: What are the various ways?

B: Try faith, devotion, discipline, logic, reason…

M: Wow, all of these?

B: Not necessary

M: Just one will do?

B: Yes

M: What if I don’t try anything at all?

B: Thats your choice

M: I shouldn’t have asked that question when I knew the answer. But some people live life blissfully unaware of these ways.

B: Thats’s their choice

M: But they didn’t consciously choose that life. They just are ignorant, not literate enough, or just mad or diseased or something like that. What happens to them?

B: Nothing really

M: Aren’t they less favored or less equal than others, who are at least aware of such ways to a superior understanding of themselves?

B: You can help them

M: Ok, what about congenital idiots and people disadvantaged from birth?

B: Remember the illusion.

M: Are they all illusions?

B: (silence)

M: I know you said this whole life is an illusion. But the pains & travails of this life seem so real, complex, confusing & frustrating.

B: (silence)

M: Should I just ignore them all and focus on the ways to understand myself?

B: Yes

M: Then what about various religions which seem to prescribe different ways?

B: You are free to choose your way

M: What about philosophy, science, & other methods of enquiry?

B: (silence)

M: Ok, I get it…same answer…my choice. But is there a superior, faster way?

B: You can find out

M: Ah, you want me to wade through all the multitude of possibilities and choose the one way good for me?

B: Yes

M: Can’t you make it easier?

B: You can.

M: Oh, I can?

B: Yes

M: Hmm…I hope so. Lets go back to the Vedas. You asked me to study them. When & how should I start?

B: Study the masters.

M: You mean stand on the shoulders of giants and discover truth by building on previous discoveries?

B: Yes

M: Excellent, I love that. Should I start early or late in life? Now, please don’t say its my choice. Please be precise.

B: Earlier the better

M: I don’t have to wait until retirement?

B: No

M: Maybe that will be too late?

B: Maybe

M: But the illusion of this life is too persistent and compelling. How to come out of it?

B: Explore the ways. Study the Vedas. Contemplate.

M: But kids & young people can’t do it. They got to enjoy life first.

B: Study the vedas

M: Ok, ok…back to square one. Let’s proceed. Why is life so difficult, complex and disappointing sometimes?

B: You made it so

M: I made it so? How?

B: Because of your ego

M: What?

B: Your ego’s desires and self-importance keep growing if left unchecked.

M: What happens then?

B: It creates more complexities, attachments, disappointments and suffering.

M: Why did we, you and me, create ego at all? We could have removed it when we started all this.

B: We didn’t create it.

M: But then…how? Oh, I get it. It’s an illusion. Ego is an illusion.

B: Yes

M: Wow, we are awesome designers. So what next?

B: Control or ignore your ego.

M: Is that possible?

B: Yes. Study the Vedas and the masters.

M: Is it fun leading a life without ego?

B: That’s your natural state

M: What is life without desires and attachments? It sounds so dull, unpleasant, and uninspiring. Is it worth it?

B: Study the Vedas and the masters.

M: What happens when I control or ignore my ego?

B: You will achieve your natural state of tranquility?

M: You mean eternal happiness?

B: No

M: I can’t achieve eternal happiness?

B: Happiness and sorrows are illusions.

M: Oh, I forgot. They are part of our design of the illusory universe.

B: Yes

M: So I can achieve tranquility. Neither happiness nor sorrow. No ups and downs.

B: Yes

M: That sounds boring, almost inhuman.

B: That’s your natural state.

M: I am not so excited or eager to achieve that state.

B: You are not ready yet.

M: Hmm, I was hoping you would say that.

B: (silence)

M: What can I do about the increasingly chaotic life? It has grown more complex over time. Disappointments and suffering are perhaps growing faster now. What should I do?

B: Study the vedas.

M: Ok. How about others? How about the world? How can I change or make the world better?

B: Study the vedas. Study the masters.

M: Can I change myself, others and the world?

B: Yes.

M: Ok. I guess I should trust you, or rather myself.

B: (silence)

M: Ok. I start with controlling my ego and desires. Should I become a hermit and retire into the forest?

B: Not necessary

M: But how to control ego and desires,  and also live in this illusory material world with all its distractions?

B: Study the masters.

M: Give an example.

B: Krishna

M: Wow, but was he not a god?

B: (silence)

M: Oh, I get it. Gods are illusions. So Krishna is a good example and a role model.

B: Yes

M: And there are other masters I can lookup?

B: Yes

M: So that’s what the Vedic stories tell us. About various masters and their paths to mastery?

B: Yes

M: So what’s special about Krishna?

B: Think it over

M: He was seen as a god or demigod in a material world full of good and evil, desires and attachments.

B: Yes.

M: He perhaps led a self-indulgent life in his younger days, if we go by the stories. But he became a yogi and mahapurush later.

B: Yes

M: He acquired godly powers. Maybe he became one with you, brahman. He was you and you were him. He fought the evils of the material world – desires and attachments. He chose to live in this world and make it better.

B: Yes

M: You make me say fantastic things. Is it really true?

B: (silence)

M: You don’t answer anything directly, do you? You want me to figure it out myself.

B: (silence)

M: Ok. let’s play it your way. So you are saying I could follow Krishna, copy his methods and ideas, and I may have a good chance to become one with you, achieve tranquility etc.?

B: Maybe

M: Why maybe? Is it because Krishna is a tough act to follow or you don’t have confidence in me?

B: Follow your own path.

M: But take inspiration from the masters?

B: Yes

M: Sounds practical. So I can live in this material world, study the vedas and the masters, change myself and the world.

B: Yes

M: I can start with controlling my ego, desires and attachments?

B: Yes

M: Looks like it’s going to be a long journey

B: Not necessary.

M: I know. It’s my choice. I can make it long or short.

B: Yes

M: I guess I can consult you now and then, as I go through this journey of life.

B: I am aways available.

M: Thank you. Will talk to you again soon.

B: Sure.

 

Vedas & The Mind Of God

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Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati was a very lucid commentator on the Vedas.

He says the ultimate goal for each of us should be to become one with Brahman, the One reality.  The universe & our individual selves are illusions. The Vedas provide ideas & methods to help us realize this goal. The benefit of becoming one with Brahman is a state of eternal tranquility. That is our natural state we should strive for, with faith, devotion & discipline. We are going through a cycle of rebirths because of our past sins. Following the vedas can help us break out of this cycle and become one with Brahman.

Assuming the above is true, the big question, which is not answered very convincingly, is why did Brahman (or God) create such an elaborate illusory world at all, with struggling humans?

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This Brahman is intriguing. It’s no doubt a superior mind. A mind which cannot indulge in petty games. It must have created this illusory world for specific reasons. What can be these reasons?

  1. The first possibility is that we simply cannot understand this superior Mind & reasons. It has created us with our limited minds and we cannot fathom our creator. We possibly can understand the superior Mind and its reasons only when we achieve oneness with Brahman.
  2. All other reasons we can think of can only be speculations, but let’s do it.
    • The Brahman (or God) created this illusory world for our own benefit. The travails of life are an education. We will understand the purpose of this education only when we become one with Brahman. This reason is not convincing. Why would a superior Mind create an imperfect world with struggling creatures like us and then make us go through a difficult path to attain enlightenment?
    • The Brahman (or God) created this illusory world for its (his) own benefit. It (or He or She) wanted some entertainment or education or both or something else beyond our understanding, and so created this universe. This reason smacks of selfishness, an attribute which is difficult to associate with a superior mind.
    • The Brahman (or God) created this illusory world to study or prove something. While this sounds intellectual and possible, its difficult to see why a Superior mind has to study or prove anything at all. The Brahman is all-knowing. What is the need for the Brahman to prove anything to anybody?
    • The Brahman (or God) created this illusory world to fight something. To fight evils & demons and protect us. This reason reeks of self-indulgence. A superior Mind would not create an imperfect world with evils & demons, and then step in to fight its own creations. It is also difficult to believe an evil force exists outside this illusory world and this force has a strong influence on us. The Brahman (or God) is the One reality and all good & evil should be within the confines of this superior Mind.

We can speculate further. Will it be useful or futile?

Perhaps the Brahman (or God or the Superior Mind) & its reasons cannot be understood easily.

The Vedas provide enough material and multiple vantage points, to stand on the shoulders of giants, to study the superior Mind & its reasons. The study may lead us nowhere, or somewhere. But, it’s certainly fascinating.

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The Joys Of Quitting The Rat Race

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If we define the modern urban rat race as an endless, self-defeating & pointless pursuit of material wealth through a busy unsatisfying career ending in a bored retired life, many of us can identify with it.

While the race may have its moments of excitement & rewards, I suspect very few of us can truly admit to be enjoying (or have enjoyed) it.

What happens when we quit the race?

The thought of quitting may not even occur to many of us, as we keep running with blinkers on. A few thoughtful souls may bump into the idea, but drop it because of various reasons. Very few take the bold step to quit the race.

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Quitting the race requires boldness because its a compromise. A compromise not on the quality of life, but on the many material, psychological & emotional comforts the race bestows on us. Quitting means we may have to make do with less material goods & services. We detach ourselves from the crowd which dances to a different beat, but had so far provided us the psychological comfort of being with the majority. We go through an emotional turmoil when we think of quitting, as doubts & threats – big & small, self-imposed & from outside – assail us.

Two questions loom before us – is quitting feasible and is it worth it?

Quitting requires material, psychological & emotional strength. We need the psychological courage to take the road less travelled and the emotional courage to wage war on doubts & threats along the way, both of which are largely a personal struggle and a little support from outside can help. But the bigger courage we need is to overcome material comfort. Can we live in a smaller house, subsist on a smaller income or corpus, make do with lesser material goods & services, reduce our needs & desires?

Assuming we quit, is it worth it?

Like with many things in life, the joys of quitting are best experienced, largely. We can think about it, read about it, watch other people do it, but we need to quit to experience it. The smart person may choose to quit for a while to figure out its worth. But if she has been too involved in the race before quitting, she may soon feel listless and get back to the race. The joys of quitting are gained only when it is well thought out. We need a fair (if not exact) idea what we will do in a post-race life. We need the same material, psychological & emotional strength even after we quit, to pull us through the initial periods of doubts & threats.

The biggest joy of quitting is we are not in a race anymore. We are not in a race to earn more. We are not in a race to acquire more. We are not in a race to sacrifice our dreams to fulfill somebody else’s dreams. We are not in a race to pursue unsatisfying activities & goals. We are not in a race to destroy ourselves and the world around us.

Once we quit, we start living. We live the life we want. We don’t have to envy. We don’t have to compare. We learn more, better & faster. We understand ourselves better. We understand the world better. We can improve ourselves & the world. We may still choose to run a race, but that will be a race with rules & limits we set for ourselves. That will be a race more satisfying & enriching than the modern urban rat race.