August 4, 2014

Swami_Vivekananda_1893_Scanned_ImageThis is an excerpt from an ongoing study towards my doctoral thesis, based on the teachings of Swami Vivekananda. I just thought I’d share this, as I have been asked many times about my opinion regarding what I consider ‘Hinduism’ today to actually stand for. It is a fairly self-contained portion of the thesis, and as such can be read and appreciated in that light.



Broadly speaking, Hindu philosophy can be divided into two main branches, each comprising six sub-schools, which are further divided into various schools. The finer details can be quite intricate, so what is presented here is simply a superficial overview with the purpose of contextualizing the current study and explaining where the philosophy and teachings of Swami Vivekananda fit in.

Orthodox vs heterodox Hinduism

The two main branches are the heterodox and the orthodox systems (nastika and astika in Sanskrit). The primary distinguishing feature of these two systems is that the former does not accept the authority of the Vedas, whereas the latter does, with varied interpretations. Hence, for our purposes, the emphasis is on the latter, not the former, since Vivekananda (as indeed, does modern-day Hinduism) uses that as the basis for his teachings.
There are six heterodox systems of philosophy, viz.:
1. The materialistic school of Charvaka;
2. The system of the Jainas;
3. The school of presentationists;
4. The school of representationists;
5. The school of idealism; and lastly
6. The school of nihilism.
The six orthodox schools are as follows:
1. The Nyaya;
2. The Vaiseshika;
3. The Sankhya;
4. The Yoga;
5. The Mimamsa; and
6. The Vedanta.
How the Hindu scriptures fit into these schools of thought can depicted graphically as follows:

As mentioned, the criterion for orthodoxy here is acceptance of the Vedas and Vedic literature as the ultimate authority. In fact, most Hindus would not recognize the tenets premised on heterodoxy as being part and parcel of Hinduism. In fact, there are mutually exclusive doctrines within the orthodox schools as well. Even within the Vedic tradition, there is a distinction between srutis (that which is revealed via direct perception) and smiritis (that which is interpreted and remembered). The former constitute that body of literature which always takes precedence of the latter since the smiritis are written for a particular society at a particular time, and therefore not necessarily applicable to all people for all time.

Before going on to explain they key tenets of each school, it would be worth noting that the Hindu mind advocates tolerance not only within the context of intra-Hindu pluralism, but also in an inter-religious context. This is often explained via an analogy with rivers flowing into the sea: just as each river will eventually reach the sea, so will all followers of whatever path they are on eventually ‘reach’ God. Sivananda (1977: 217) says that they are “like the six different roads which lead to one city”. This concept needs to be spelt out a bit for it to make sense, but the point I would like to make for now is that these systems are best understood as different perspectives of the same truth, not as different cults within the Hindu tradition. However, it is said that “No student of Hinduism ought to be satisfied without acquiring a clear and accurate knowledge of the principle distinguishing characteristics of the six philosophical schools” (Sivananda 1977: 217).

Since these six orthodox schools of thought are all premised on Vedic literature, it is necessary to understand exactly what this refers to. The word ‘Veda’ simply means knowledge, and some would not even want to commit to using this term in any sense which would classify a certain body of work. However, for our purposes, it would be necessary to do so. A study of the Vedas forms “generally the beginning of an advanced learning in the philosophical and religious literature of India” (Krishnananda 1973: 3).

The hymns in the Vedas are intended to invoke certain aspects of Divinity, represented by deities, which resonate different energies and are thereby able to synchronise with different aspects of life. Hence, these energies can be summoned for executing an ideal.

The deities which represent various aspects of both God and mankind are interpreted differently by followers of Hinduism. Some see them as purely symbolic – like Lord Vishnu representing God as preserver, yet having no autonomous existence if His own – whereas others indeed see them an actual entities who ought to be propitiated. Others still do not see these as being mutually exclusive, and the comparison used is that of someone looking at a wave and focusing only on that aspect of the ocean. Someone may ignore the wave and focus on the ocean as the only reality, or accept that it is ephemeral, or splash about in it and enjoy it for what it is at that point in time. Nonetheless, this does not preclude someone from knowing that the wave is, in a sense, unreal, and yet still indulge in it in whatever way he deems fit.

The various schools of thought are there to cater for the different ways in which people interpret God. It is interesting to note that the tantras and the agamas deify and spiritualise aspects of the world and of human nature which many would find appalling, offensive and even perverse. However, one could argue that the Hindus believe that all is part and parcel of the Cosmic Consciousness we call God, and therefore all people, regardless, should be given a recipe for spiritual edification. Tantric texts, for example, would not stigmatise the prostitute for being what she is, but instead prescribe a way to use sex to transcend body-consciousness. However, this philosophy falls under the heterodox schools, and nevertheless it would require a more exhaustive discussion which is beyond the scope of this thesis.

Getting back to the Vedas: the Vedic hymns are means of connecting with the denizens of the celestial world who perform various functions in various planes of existence. These may be gods, deities, ancestors or even disembodied spirits. These entities are propitiated in various ways, sometimes because the belief is that if they are not, some kind of misfortune will ensue; sometimes, these entities are called upon to assist with various problems, sometimes mundane, sometimes not. Ancestor worship is very much part and parcel of the Hindu tradition as well, as it is in various traditional African and pagan cultures. There are also mantras addressed to “the Universal Being or the Absolute” (Krishnananda 1973: 4). The worshipper has carte blanche in deciding which aspect of Divinity he wishes to tap into. In this context, Divinity does not preclude ancestors, even though they were once embodied beings. In fact, within the non-dual school of Hinduism, nothing is seen as separate from anything else, and all things are seen as manifestations of an underlying, pervasive spirit – it just happens to be the case that this spirit reveals itself in varying degrees from subtle to gross. This will be discussed in more detail below when the various schools of Vedantic philosophy are expounded upon.

There are four main Vedas: the Rig-Veda (comprising 10 chapters and 10 589 mantras), the Yajur Veda (comprising 40 chapters and 1 976 mantras), the Sama Veda (comprising 29 chapters and 1 875 mantras), and the Atharva Veda (comprising 20 chapters and 5 977 mantras). The Rig Veda is concerned with panegyrics to the deities. The Yajur Veda is divided into the ‘black’ and ‘white’ portions (as is the Atharva Veda). It contains sacrificial formulae, in both prose and verse, to be chanted at the performance of a sacrifice. The Sama Veda, actually, comprises sections from the Rig-Veda in song form, meant to be sung during various sacrificial rites. The Atharva Veda, said to be the ‘youngest’ of the four, comprises mainly spells and incantations.

The literal meaning of the word Veda denotes knowledge, but as it pertains to spirituality, actually connotes a superior, transcendent kind of knowledge. Traditionally, one associates the word Veda with the above-mentioned distinctions. These scriptures belong to the ancient Indo-Aryans who crossed the Indus River around 5000 BC, though scholars disagree on the exact dates, given that many contend that Vedic literature ante-dates the arrival of the said people (Nowbath et al 1960). These books are transcribed in classical Sanskrit, and are said to be a direct revelation from God. They are believed to embody supreme and sublime truths beyond the ken of the human mind. These truths were communicated to certain seers, saints and sages during their moments of supra-normal consciousness, which they committed to writing for posterity. Hindus believe that anyone can attain to this state of consciousness, if they follow certain steps and edify themselves spiritually such that they are able to transcend this ephemeral world and material- or body-consciousness.

The Puranas are ex post facto texts written by various saints for specific times, and attempted to fill various lacunae or ambiguities inherent in the original Vedas. As can be expected, there were multiple interpretations (and of course, misinterpretations), because different scholars tailored and interpreted the texts for various climes, and for this reason, the Puranas are to be read with a ‘pinch of salt’; they fall under the category of smriti, scriptures which were written for a particular purpose within a particular socio-cultural climate – not strictly meant to apply to all persons at all times. For example, most Hindus would agree that a scripture like the Manu Smriti, is largely anachronistic. For instance, in Chapter 5, verse 30 of the Manu Smriti, it is said that:

“It is not sinful to eat meat of edible animals, for Brahma has created both the eaters and the eatables.”

Later on it does qualify such statements by restricting it to ritualistic contexts, and elsewhere it is condemned – but this obviously creates a degree of ambiguity and confusion.

Gandhi (1957: 42) says that:
“The Manu Smriti at any rate did not teach me ahimsa. I have told the
story of my meat-eating. Manu Smriti seemed to support it.”

Of course Gandhi’s philosophy on meat-eating is no secret, as is the fact that most Hindus today would advocate vegetarianism as the ideal diet. Saints like Manu also spoke of the four classes of which society should comprise, based on one’s predilections, intelligence, etc., with rules and regulations for each class – which is where the caste system comes from. “But these can be modified according to circumstances, and in fact, history records many such adjustments” (Vedalankar 1965: 131).

As an aside, it is recorded in The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (Nikhilananda 1974: 59) that Ramakrishna ate fish:
“In my present state of mind I can eat a fish if it has been offered to
the Divine Mother beforehand.”

Later in the text, he is asked about animal sacrifice (Nikhilananda 1974: 119):
Adhar (to the Master): “Sir I have a question to ask. Is it good to sacrifice
animals before the Deity? It certainly involves killing.”

Master: “The sastra prescribes sacrifice of certain occasions. Take, for instance, the sacrifice of a goat on the eight day of the full or new moon”.

He later recommends that disciples do not go too deeply into it, and actually forbade the reading of certain scriptures, and says that “too much study of the scripture does more harm than good” (ibid: 194), and illustrates with the example of someone who goes to a pool of water to drink: someone who scoops the top-most part gets clean, fresh water to enjoy, whereas if you try to dig deeper you spoil the whole pool by making it muddy.
Few appreciate that Ramakrishna was very unorthodox in his teachings, and that his teachings differ greatly from that of Vivekananda, as documented in books by Dhar (1976) and Ananyananda (1979), for example. M., the pen name of the disciple of transcribed the Gospel, was very uncomfortable with Vivekananda’s emphasis on social welfare and service, and many of Ramakrishna’s other disciples questioned his interpretation of Ramakrishna’s teachings. M. confronted him directly on the issue, and was not happy with the response. His guru-bhais were very happy about his success, but “when the content of his teachings there became known”, there was a lot of dissension (Dhar 1976: 912), mostly because they thought fame was getting to his head, and that Ramakrishna’s teachings were being suppressed in favour of Vivekananda’s. This matter was settled, partly because it was Ramakrishna himself who named Vivekananda as his successor. At one stage, Vivekananda simply told them that the people ought to understand Vivekananda first before they even begin to understand Ramakrishna.

Ramakrishna even went so far as to say that “Even should Naren live on beef and pork, it could not harm in the least the great power of spirituality within him” (Ananyananda 1979: 134). It is a well-known fact that Vivekananda ate meat and smoked, as did Ramakrishna: “Shri Ramakrishna was about to smoke when Narendra hurriedly interrupted […]” (Ananyananda 1979: 130). When Vivekananda was taken to task on this issue by the orthodox priests and scholars, who tried to slander his name by claiming that he was breaking the rules and vows of monk-hood, he simply wrote in a letter:
“I am surprised you take so seriously the missionaries’ nonsense. . . . If the people in India want me to keep strictly to my Hindu diet, please tell them to send me a cook and money enough to keep him” (CW-5: 64), and later added that chastity and poverty are the two important vows for a monk to adhere to, and that he has never broken that.
There is a lot more to be said on this point, but as it is a digressive point, perhaps this would not be the forum to dilate upon this topic.

My point is that in one such Purana, namely the Vishnu Purana, which speaks of the significance of Lord Vishnu, the preserver of all aspects of the universe, it is said that the original Vedas comprised 100 000 verses and had fours divisions. As time went on, these divisions got confused and fell into veritable obscurity. Lord Krishna, who is believed to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, then “resuscitated the study of the Vedas and classified them into four books” (Nowbath et al 1960: 25). This is how we came to know these texts by those names and those divisions today.

It is worth noting that some authorities do not accept the Atharva Veda as an authentic division. Some point to the grammar used, claiming that it is a much later form, others infer this from the fact that the word ‘trayi’ is often used to refer to Vedic literature in the ancient scholarship, which denotes a tripartite distinction. This interpretation is not categorically accepted either, since Vedalankar (1965: 128) claims that this could refer to the fact these texts deal with “the three aspects of human nature: Jnana, Karma and Upasana”. In other words, those who prefer hands-on activities would prefer the path of karma, or work; those who are of an intellectual bent, would prefer the path of Jnana, or knowledge – philosophical contemplation on the Divine; and those who are of a mystic temperament would prefer the path of worship and meditation. These are all described as different paths to the same goal.

As mentioned earlier, if one reads the Atharva Veda, one would certainly understand why orthodox scholars would want to discount this as being part and parcel of Hindu sacred literature – it is filled with spells and sacrificial rituals, many of which are for worldly gain, like wooing a lover, material success, along with charms and spells to drive away diseases and “to injure the enemy” (Nowbath et al 1960: 27); furthermore, there are certain portions of the Atharva Veda and the Yajur Veda which “are concerned with black magic” (ibid 26). There are also certain mantras to bind your lover to you, which seem to be adaptations from the mantras of the Rig Veda, used during marriage ceremonies (another reason some think this scripture must have come into the literature at a much later stage). However, despite the ritual aspect, it must also also be noted that the 15th chapter (there are 20 in this Veda) is highly philosophical and speaks of the glories of the Supreme Being.

Now, each Veda has another four divisions, known as the Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanishad respectively. The Samhita portion comprises various hymns for the deities. The Brahmanas detail how sacrificial rites ought to be carried out. These are loosely designated as Karmakanda, the ritualistic portion. The Samhitas and the Brahmanas are meant to complement each other, since the hymns from the former are generally meant to be chanted during the latter’s rites. The Aranyakas is known as the portion dealing with mystical contemplation. The rites mentioned in the Vedas can be performed for material gain on earth, or for spiritual edification, for which the practitioner will be rewarded in the ‘hereafter’. For example, many Hindus will perform a ceremony to propitiate Mother Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, for monetary gain. Emphasis upon the latter, however, is what lead to the philosophic mysticism of the Upanishads, which is why this portion is referred to as Jnanakanda, the portion dealing with supreme knowledge.

The Vedas deal with just about every aspect of inquiry, from the mundane to the sublime. Topics like geography, logic and mathematics are dealt with. Science and astrology are too. As an aside, the 33rd chapter of the Yajur Veda talks of phenomena only recently ‘discovered’ (or perhaps proven would be a more accurate word), like space-time being conflated as one entity, resulting in gravitational force, the fact that the sun is the centre of the solar system, and that the earth revolves around it, the statement that only massless entities can transcend the speed of light, and a very accurate statement on how old the universe is. All these have been borne out in recent findings. In Naicker (2004) I tease this out in more detail.

The six aforementioned schools of thought are to be understood as being inter-related, even though they may seem to be ostensibly premised on mutually exclusive doctrines. Furthermore, these systems are paired together as follows:
i) The Nyaya and the Vaiseshika;
ii) The Sankhya and the Yoga;
iii) The Mimamsa and the Vedanta.
The understanding is that the Vaiseshika is seen as supplementary to the Nyaya; Yoga is a supplement to the Sankhya, etc.
A study of all these systems are actually “necessary to understand the Vedanta” (Sivananda 1977: 218). The Nyaya, for example, sharpens the intellect and enables the seeker to grasp the fine philosophical precepts found in the Vedanta. Many would consider the Nyaya a fundamental prerequisite for all philosophical inquiry.
There are very few followers of the Vaiseshika system today. Sankhya is also seen as an anachronistic system, since Yoga is said to be based on the Sankhya principles, and has, in a sense, taken its place. Yoga is practiced by many in its practical form, though there is an over-emphasis of Hatha Yoga, which is the physical aspect of it based on certain asanas (postures), and has regrettably been equated with Yoga in its entirety in Western popular culture.

The Nyaya and the Vaiseshika gives an analysis of the physical world. The world is arranged into various categories, and God is said to have made the universe out of atoms and molecules. After doing this, they prescribe various methods for knowing God.
The Sankhya outlines the Hindu concept of the mind. Yoga deals with thought control and meditation techniques, and various methods of disciplining the mind and senses and senses are outlined in the various Yogic texts.

The Vedanta philosophy explains in detail the nature of God (Brahman, in Sanskrit), and argues that the individual soul is, in essence, identical with God. Of course, there are three schools of Vedantic thought, which will be explained further below, but the culmination of all Vedic and Vedantic thought is said to be a true understanding of our one-ness with the Cosmic Consciousness which we call God, and furthermore that the material manifestation is actually an illusion (called Maya in Sanskrit) which will only be understood when we reach a state of spirituality whereby we have purified our minds and perfected our character to the point of becoming one with God – this is what is understood as Enlightenment (Samadhi in Sanskrit – aka Nirvana, Satori, etc). In fact, it is not so much to be understood as becoming one with God as a recognition of the fact that we are. Spiritual practice is simply a method of reclaiming that lost identity that we have forgotten: like a wave that, though it has a name and a form of its own, is really one with the ocean.
Hindus worship in various places, including natural environments like the seaside, rivers and mountain-tops. Almost every Hindu has an altar in his home. However, broadly speaking, the two formal places of worship are categorized under temples and ashrams. The former is where ritualistic worship rites take place, and often temples are dedicated to a particular god, goddess or avatar (incarnation of God on earth). For example, there are temples where a nine-Saturday fast is offered to the planets, meant to offset the negative influence the various celestial bodies have on us at various times, like when Saturn is in our birth house, as modern astrologers would put it. A temple priest would advise that the planets are negatively affecting your life, so after a fast for nine consecutive Saturdays, Hindus would go to a temple and offer various things to the planets (represented by nine stones, set around a tenth stone, representing the sun), which is believed to counteract adverse effects. It is also not uncommon for Hindus to worship the sun, ‘whom’ they refer to as Surya, by waking up early in the morning and saluting ‘it’ with various mantras and even postures, the most common of which is known as Surya Namaskar, which means something like ‘salutations to the sun’. Some break coconuts and offer it as prasad (blessed food), etc.

The idea is that God with form, represented in various symbols and images, is meant for temples and temple-worship. Ashrams, on the other hand, are ideally meant to dispense with this ritualistic aspect to Hinduism, and is meant for meditative practices which appreciates that God is not only a Formless entity, but it in fact the only reality. In practice, most ashrams still have a ritual element to them, but it is understood that this is a means to an end. Swami Vivekananda founded a famous ashram in the Himalayan mountains, called Mayavati Ashram, which completely dispenses with any kind of ritual-based worship, and does not have any image representing any aspect of God.

Furthermore, rituals performed for self-gain actually defeat the purpose of spiritual life. Hindus believe that we are trapped in what would be an endless cycle of births and deaths, and more materialistic we are, the more we would be dragged down into the world. The idea is to perfect oneself by loving everything equally, controlling the desires, etc. – and when one has done this, there would be no need for rebirth. We are born in this world to learn certain lessons, and if we fail in those lessons, we would have to come back until we have indeed learnt what we needed to learn. The more money we desire, the more earth-bound karma we generate, which ties us to the world more, meaning we would have to be reborn time and time again until we learn to renounce our love for Mammon. However, there are rituals meant to propitiate the goddess Lakshmi, who presides over wealth, and the belief is that she would grant material prosperity to those who pray to her. In many temples, there is a special kind of tree, to which you tie a red cloth and walk around eleven times – once a week. After the eleventh week, a special prayer is done. This is done specifically to find your special love and get married.

Now, it might seem contradictory that a tradition which prides itself in the advocacy of abstinence in every sense has these rituals – one to get more money, and one to get a wife/husband, but as mentioned from the Vedantic point of view this is to be understood as a means to an end. Material needs and desires are not frowned upon totally because different people have different predilections, and there are various aspects to Hinduism which caters for this. In fact, there are four stages in Hindu life, known as brahmacharya, grihastha, varnaprashta and sannyas. The first is the life of the student, where one is required to be celibate; the second is the householder life; the third, is when one is expected to engage in selfless service to humanity (after having completed the duties of a householder, when the children are independent, and the married couple purify themselves by becoming more spiritual); and the latter entails complete renunciation of the world by donning the ochre robe, following a strict vegetarian diet and cutting off all ties with family – relying completely on God for everything. It is believed that every person is meant to go through these stages. Each stage of life has certain recommendations in order to be successful at it. For example, chastity and obedience to your teacher are important to being a good student. Sublimation of your veerya (explained only recently as sublimation in modern psychology) is important as your semen contains very concentrated and pure energy, which will be wasted if used sexually, and will be transformed into a profound creative force if not. Aside from ethical considerations, the eating of meat is also forbidden because it dulls the mind, and induces laziness. There are various scriptures meant to be specifically for students, with concomitant rules and regulations. Just as school students find appeal in the universal charm of story-telling, some scriptures are in the form of stories, which is why we have so many epics, and the richness in symbolism is there simply because students appreciate the symbolism in a more sophisticated manner the more advanced they get.
Likewise, in the stage of married life, which is the second one mentioned above, there are various scriptures which tell of how to conduct yourself as a householder. This includes the rites and rituals that ought to be performed during the wedding ceremony, what being a good mother entails (summarised quite nicely by Sivananda [2001]), what being a good father entails, etc. Of course, there is guidance on being a good husband and a good wife as well, together with the duties and prayers each has to do to maintain a spiritual atmosphere in the home. Key to a healthy marriage is a healthy sex life, which is what a part of what the Kama Sutra is meant to address.
Scriptures like the Upanishads, upon which Vedantic philosophy is based, are meant for the final two stages of life, when you have gathered life experience, with more than just a bookish knowledge of your profession, have passed the stage of material acquisition to the point where you see its futility, have conquered sexual desire, etc. It is only in this context that a reading of the said scriptures, together with their moral implications, makes any sense. This is why Vedanta entails having a rather sophisticated view of the world, and requires standards of discipline not otherwise expedient.

My point here is that there are scriptures dedicated to each and every aspect of life, even one with advice on how to fulfill your partner sexually (known as the Kama-Sutra: kama meaning ‘sexual love’ and sutra meaning ‘precepts’). Furthermore, there are four wings to every person’s psyche, known as artha, kama, dharma and moksha, somewhat analogous to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This aspect of human nature is also not neglected. The tantric scriptures, for example, advocate using the pleasures of the world to heighten your awareness and therefore your consciousness. This is not very different to the Shamans who use peynote during various rituals to get more in touch with nature. In addition to other worldly pleasures, tantra advocates using sex as a means to heighten your energy levels. It claims that by concentrating on a particular whilst engaged in sex, you exchange and heighten your energy levels to such an extent that you experience exactly what you would experience during conventional meditation, but at a much faster rate. The trick is, however, to not only delay orgasm, but to not take the experience to orgasm at all. I’m obviously summarising and therefore compromising the subtleties and complexities of the technique and philosophy behind the practice. It exists, and is actually more widely practised than one would assume. In his book, which he by the way regards as one of his masterpieces, Essays in Life and Eternity he dedicates a very terse chapter to tantra, chapter 25, entitled “Tantra Sadhana”. He says in the said work, for example, that ‘greatest obstacles to spiritual perfection are wealth, power and sex, and it is these that the Tantra intends to harness’ (Krishnananda 1989).

Hinduism, then, being described as a ‘way of life’ is not as clichéd as one might imagine, since every aspect of human life is catered for, but I mention this to make the point that Vedanta is to be understood as not only the culmination, but also the transcendence of everything else.

This is why it is said that the Vedantic ideal is to completely do away with ritualistic tendencies of any form. Vivekananda describes this ideology very boldly and unambiguously as such:

This is the religion of non-dual philosophy. It is difficult. Struggle on!
Down with all superstitions! Neither teachers nor scriptures nor gods exist.
Down with temples, with priests, with gods, with incarnations, with God
Himself! I am all the God that ever existed! There, stand up philosophers!
No fear! Speak no more of God and [the] superstition of the world.
Truth alone triumphs, and this is true. I am the Infinite
(CW-1: 502).

An outline of the Vedanta philosophy

The word Vedanta can be broken up into two constituent words: veda and anta. As mentioned, veda means knowledge, and anta can be translated as end of. Hence, we could take the word ‘vedanta’ to literally refer to the end section of the Vedas, namely the Upanishads, or some scholars like to give it a more poetic connotation, and explain it as the culmination of all others philosophies within the Hindu tradition, as mentioned.

Some of the doctrines of the Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Sankhya and Yoga and Mimamsa are opposed to the teachings of the Vedas, due partly to the fact that they are based only superficially on Vedic principles. The Nyaya and Vaiseshika rely too much on human reason, which is limited and fallible. When applying logic using the human mind to transcendental matters, it is sure to fall short, since essentially they try to fathom the infinite using finite means. The Vedas and the Upanishads were transcribed by seers who, it is believed, acted as mere conduits and wrote from direct inspiration. Furthermore, these saints are believed to be enlightened beings who have transcended body consciousness. They did not rely on deductive logic and rationalistic philosophizing.

The Mimamsa school has laid great stress of rituals. They take the ritualistic aspect as being the ‘be all and end all’ in the Vedas. Worship and scriptural study are seen as peripheral. This is refuted by the Vedantins, as we have seen above: realization of the Self (ie. of our one-ness with God and the universe) is the foremost thing, and rituals are assessories.

Scriptures are said to be either revealed (sruti) or interpreted (smriti). Those that belong to the latter are less authoritative because they are essentially commentaries written for various saints or scholars at various points in time. In a sense, those which rely more on apologetics can be seen as less reliable than those borne as a result of Divine intuition.

Adi Shankara was the founder of Advaita Vedanta. During his time, all six systems flourished. Hence, he had to refute these other systems in order to establish his monistic theory. Today, however, Sankhya, Vaiseshika, Mimamsa and Nyaya are virtually not practised. Hence, it is a pointless exercise to go into too much detail expounding the nuances of these systems – that in itself would require a thesis.
Suffice to say, then that the Vedanta is the most satisfactory system of philosophy, and in fact, Vivekananda is of the opinion that what we refer to as Hinduism today is tantamount to Vedanta.

One of the distinguishing features of Vedantic philosophy, according to Vivekananda, is the idea that “nothing in the universe is permanent”, and he adds that “Satan did not have much chance in India” (CW-1: 496), meaning that the belief in a devil which functions as the antithesis of God did not and still does not make sense to the Eastern mind. Nature comprises two components: Âkâsha, which a very fine substance, and the other is called Prâna, which is the animating force behind the Âkâsha. All material substances manifest as a result of Akashic actions, some finer (like the mind) and some grosser (like solid objects). Both these aspects pervade the entire cosmos. One can imagine Akasha as the ocean, and Prana as the force which gives form to ‘portions’ of this otherwise formless mass, creating something like blocks of ice in various shapes and animating it. In fact, “the whole universe is a combination of Prâna and Âkâsha” (CW-1: 223).

If one conceptualises the universe as such, it is obvious why there is little room Satan and its concomitant upshots: evil, damnation, etc. – hence Vivekananda’s comment (that “Satan did not have much chance in India”) simply means that it never was part of the Hindu belief system. It has never been a fear-based, ‘do-as-I-say’ type philosophy.

An ancient sage by the name of Vyasa is said to be the founder of the Vedanta school of thought. This system is based on the writings to be found in the Upanishads, and, as explained earlier, it contains the doctrines set forth in the “closing chapters of the Vedas”, which is literally what the Upanishads are (Sivananda 1977: 270). There are 108 Upanishads, and of these there are 12 principle Upanishads.

There are three main sub-schools of thought which grew out of Vedantic thinking. Each proponent commented on the Upanishads in his own way and built his own philosophy. Vyasa was very critical of the Vaiseshika and Sankhya systems especially.

The three main schools of metaphysical thought within Vedantic philosophy
According to Vivekananda himself, “The Vedanta philosophy, as it is generally called at the present day, really comprises all the various sects that now exist in India” (CW-1: 357). He later goes in the same discourse, entitled The Vedanta Philosophy, he goes on to say that Vedanta really has become one and the same as Hinduism itself. The Vedanta, then, from a practical purview, forms the scriptures of the Hindus, and all systems of philosophy that are orthodox have to take it as their foundation, as mentioned above. “All our commentators, when they want to quote a passage from the scriptures, as a rule, quote from the Vedanta” (CW-1: 357). The most well-known commentators on the Vedanta are Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhva. They founded the schools known as Advaita, Visishtadvaita, and Dvaita Vedanta. These may be translated roughly as ‘non-dualism’, ‘qualified non-dualism’ and ‘dualism’. The conventional Hindu mind does not see a tripartite arrangement which perceives the world in three different ways, but rather as rungs on a ladder, each one necessary for understanding the other. A simple illustration would be someone who looks at the ocean and sees a massive body of water. The Advaita Vedantin would openly declare that there is only one ocean, and that the waves are ephemeral, constantly changing and certainly not real; the only reality is the ocean, from which the various waves emanate. The Visishtadvaita Vedantin would say that though the waves may have an ephemeral existence, as long as they are there in that from, we have to acknowledge their existence, short-lived as it may be. The Dvaita Vedantins would tell us that it is silly to imagine that waves and the ocean are the same thing. This might be true in some sense, but a surfer cannot go to the depth of the ocean and expect to surf – he needs to waves, and for him, their ontological status is given as axiomatic. The same goes for people studying wave-patterns, or for children who go to the beach especially to splash in the waves. Hence, the latter is a more pragmatic philosophy.

These different Vedanta systems have one common psychology, and that is, the psychology of the Sankhya system. The Sankhya psychology is very much like the psychologies of the Nyaya and Vaisheshika systems, differing only in minor particulars. This is why the latter two systems are seen as redundant today. As mentioned earlier, the Vedanta and the Sankhya are to be seen as complementary.
The Vedantists agree on three points:
– They believe in God,
– They see the Vedas as Divine revelations, and
– They believe in cycles.
The belief about cycles is as follows: all matter throughout the universe is the result primal matter (Âkâsha), and all the forces acting upon each other, is the outcome of one primal force (Prâna). Prâna acting on Akasha is projecting the universe. The word ‘creating’ in this context would be inaccurate, because the eastern concept of creation is not the same as that of the western one – whereby there was a big bang and something manifested out of nothing. No sect in India advocates such a belief, which is why projection is preferred since Hindus believe that there was an underlying stratum to all creation which has always existed, but manifests itself cyclically through the process expansion and contraction ( or ‘creation and destruction’, or ‘the big bang’ and ‘big crunch’, or ‘evolution’ and ‘involution’).
At the beginning of a cycle, Akasha is motionless, unmanifested. Then Prana begins to act, more and more, creating grosser and grosser forms out of Akasha — plants, animals, men, stars, and so on. After some time this evolution stops and involution begins, everything being resolved back through finer and finer forms into the original Akasha and Prana, when a new cycle follows. This parallels the claims of modern physics, which postulate red shift and blue shift, and holds that the universe started with a ‘big bang’, and is therefore expanding, but will eventually stop expanding and start contracting, resulting in a big crunch, which will once again expand, starting with another big bang… (Hawking 1995).

Within the Vedantic context, however, there is something beyond Akasha and Prana. Both can be resolved into a third thing called Mahat, the Cosmic Mind. This Cosmic Mind does not create Akasha and Prana, but changes itself into them. It ought to be evident now why the English word ‘God’ is problematic within the Vedantic context, but suffice to say, Mahat would either be a key property of your conventional God, or even tantamount to it.

According to Sankhya psychology, in perception there are, for example, the instruments of vision – the eyes. Behind the eyes is the organ of vision, namely the optic nerve, together with its centres. The point here is that the ‘organ’ of vision is not exclusively the external eyeball. We obviously require other things for perception to take place – it is indeed a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one. The mind must attach also itself to the organ. Furthermore, the sensation must be transmuted to the intellect. When this is done, there is a reaction which come from the intellect, and along with it flashes the external world and egoism. This is when the individual will comes in; but still, this not complete the picture. Just as every picture, being comprised of consecutive impulses of light, something stable must be there to create what Kant would call the ‘transcendental unity of apperception’; hence, all the notions formed in the mind ought to be garnered and projected on something that is not moving, relative to the body and mind, and this is what is called the Soul, in conventional parlance, or Purusha, in Sankhya, or Atman, in Vedanta.
According to the Sankhya philosophy, the reactive state of the mind is the intellect (Buddhi), which is an extension or an upshot of the mind. This, in turn, is seen as a certain manifestation of the Cosmic Mind (known as Mahat). The Mahat manifests as matter in its various forms: the universe in nothing less than a synthesis of this entire process.

Behind even Mahat, the Sankhya conceives of a certain state which is called Avyakta or unmanifested, where even the manifestation of mind is not present, but only the causes exist. It is also called Prakriti. Beyond this Prakriti, and eternally separate from it, is the Purusha, the soul of the Sankhya which is without attributes and omnipresent. The Purusha is not the doer but the witness. The illustration of the crystal is used to explain the Purusha. The latter is said to be like a crystal without any colour, before which different colours are placed, and then it seems to be coloured by the colours before it, but in reality it is not. The Vedantists reject the Sankhya ideas of the soul and nature, partly because Sankhya scholars do not equate the Purusha with God, and in fact dispense with the idea in general (Sivananda: 1977). Hence, there is a gulf to be bridged over between the Purusha and the Prakriti (the immaterial and the material). How can these different colours, as the Sankhya calls them, be able to act on that soul which by its nature is colourless? This separation is not something which Vedantins would agree with, because the latter affirm that this soul and nature are one. It must be noted again that the Vedanta and Sankhya systems are not antagonistic to each other. The Vedantic God developed out of the Sankhya’s Purusha. All the systems are actually premised on the psychology of the Sankhya. The Vedanta and the Sankhya believe in the infinite soul, except that the latter postulates a multiplicity of souls, and assumes that the universe does not require any extrinsic explanation, hence the general interpretation that the Sankhya is an atheistic school of thought. Vedanta, on the other hand, believes that there is only one Soul (which the Vedantin would equate with God), which has the appearance multiplicity.

Of course there is a branch of Vedanta which is dualistic (Dvaita Vedanta), but in this philosophy it is clearly stated that there must be a God which pervades the universe, and is indeed the material cause of such. The difference between this approach and Advaita Vedanta is that they postulate a tripartite distinction, namely: God, soul, and nature. Though ‘nature’ and ‘soul’ can be construed as extensions of God, they are distinct and shall remain so forever more.

These forms manifest themselves at the inception of each age, and when it ends they still coexist in a subtle state, but maintain their separate identities as it were. The non-dualists will not agree that this is the case.

Advaita philosophy is premised on the notion of inductive inference. Just as by knowing the constitution of a piece of paper, one can infer things about every other piece of paper, so to the question is asked: what is it that knowing which, all else is known? Of course, this presupposes that there is indeed an underlying entity that imbues and pervades all of creation, and is yet very subtle – but if one can understand what this is, all else will be understood for this is the material of which everything else is constituted.

Hence, the belief (of the non-dualists) is that this one underlying substance manifests itself in ostensibly different forms, and by the process of negation and elimination, one can get to the underlying ‘form’ using various means.
In Sankhya, what is referred to as nature is accepted in the Vedanta, except that nature is seen as a different manifestation of God – one that is necessarily ephemeral.

Now, this Being manifests itself as the various components of the universe. This is not, however, to be misconstrued as a pantheistic theory, especially since Hinduism is stigmatised with the apparent worship of various deities. It would have to be explained how an infinite, subtle unperishable Being manifests itself into that which is precisely the opposite: a material universe which is finite, gross and perishable. Here, Advaita Vedantins postulate the concept of Vivarta Vâda (apparent manifestation). This means that whilst the dualists (both the Dvaita Vedantins and the Sankhya followers) see the world as an evolution of God and/or nature, strict Advaita Vedantins see the universe as only an apparent evolution of God. So whilst God is the material cause of the universe in one sense, it only appears as such, much like the crystal placed in front of a red cloth would appear red. It is not that the ‘redness’ of the crystal does not exist – it’s there as long as your senses are duped. Some may in fact still choose to enjoy the chromatic play for whatever reason, though knowing that it is, in a sense, unreal. This is, crudely put, the paradigm adhered to by the qualified non-dualists.

These changes are initiated by space, time and causation (Desha, Kâla and Nimitta respectively in Sanskrit). This gives rise to various names and forms (Nâma and Rupa). It is this which causes differentiation amongst various things in the universe (or apparent differentiation, in keeping with non-dualistic parlance). Kantian philosophy draws a distinction between the noumenon and the phenomenon. Roughly, the former is the underlying unknowable reality behind the universe, whereas the latter is our human-specific perception of the universe, conditioned by the spatio-temporal nature of our perceptual organs. The Vedanta would agree with this, except that Kant argues that we can never transcend our spatio-temporal nature and therefore we can never comprehend the noumenon, which is beyond space and time. Vedanta would disagree in that the Reality is indeed knowable: Kant presupposes that we can never perceive the world outside of space and time, whereas Vedanta does. For example: it is typically taken as axiomatic in the physical sciences that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. However, this is premised on the assumption that everything has a mass. Contemporary quantum theory not only questions this, but also goes so far as to postulate negative mass! Stephen Hawking explains that black holes have an ‘event horizon’, which delineates its entry point. The obvious question is: why does the border itself not get sucked into the black hole? Hawking claims that the border must be constituted of material which has no mass, or even has a negative mass and is therefore being ‘spewed out’ in small amounts, which means that it is in a state of constant flux (Hawking 1995). The point is simply that transcending the speed of light is indeed impossible with regards to objects which have mass, not otherwise. Hence, it would be inaccurate to claim that the special theory of relativity is wrong, and more accurate to state that it applies in a limited sphere. Likewise, Kant was not wrong: he is correct in that the noumenon will indeed be unknowable whilst we are caught up within space-time, and as long as we rely on our limited physical senses. However, according to Eastern philosophy, the mind is a tool which can be used to transcend even that. The world is often described as Maya, sometimes translated as magic or illusion, and compared to the dream-state, whereby upon waking we understand that what we saw, experienced, etc was completely false – yet…true whilst it was happening. It was as a result of ignorance that we thought the dream was real while it was happening. It is said that advanced souls are aware of the fact that they are dreaming, and can even manipulate event within the dream. Likewise, advances saints, seers and prophets can do so in this world, hence the numerous stories of miracles.
It would be a mistake to see the various schools of thought as contradictory or mutually exclusive. It would be more accurate to see these as complementary: they are meant to be graded in a series of spiritual experiences.

The dualists see man as a servant of God. The qualified non-dualists want to elevate man to a divine state such that he is worthy to serve in the house of God, which presupposes that one needs to edify oneself in various ways in order to attain that state. The non-dualists hold as their ideal a complete merging with God, thereby becoming one with Him. The latter holds that the entire cosmos is essentially a manifestation of that primal energy called God, and not at all separate – God pervades every aspect of the cosmos, yet also transcends it. One can imagine and ice-block in the ocean, which happens to be shaped like the universe. The ocean is basically made of the same substance, but the ice is ‘different’ in that it does have some kind of form, which will eventually melt away and merge with the ocean.

All the orthodox systems of Indian philosophy have one goal in view, the liberation of the soul through perfection. The soul is seen as trapped in a body, therefore separated from its source.

Within the non-dualistic philosophy, everything is God, and God is everything, so in the context of this study, any metaphor that used with the intention of getting the mind focused on God or some aspect of Divinity, which really is your own latent spirituality manifesting, would be deemed an apt metaphor for conceptualizing God. Vivekananda often illustrates this point with the example of someone who sees a rope but perceives it to be a snake: initially, his reaction will be one of fear, but when he discovers that it is merely a rope, all this dissipates. He points out that “the mind which saw the rope is not deluded […] One thing is taken for another, not as something that does not exist” (CW-1: 505). Likewise, he concludes, we see matter, and mistake that as the only reality – we mistakenly identify the underlying, “Infinite as matter” as being the only reality; this is not unsurprising as we can only “perceive one thing at a time”, but actually, it must all “be one thing” (ibid: 505).
The Universal Soul (Paramatman) becomes individualised as various individual souls (jivatma), yet, it ought to be said that the individualisation of souls seems contradictory, and indeed it is said that this individuality is also created by ignorance or illusion. An ice block thrown into the ocean is understood to exist as a separate entity, but only in a limited sense. The soul, ego, intellect, mind, body and matter are not to be seen as separate entities: it is the same thing, in descending order of ‘subtlety’. The individual soul (jivatman) is qualitatively the same as the Great Soul, God (paramatman), like a drop of sea water, compared to the sea, except that the embodied soul is tainted with desires, like a drop of sea water that has sand/dust particles mixed with it. One needs to cleanse one’s soul by various spiritual practices, then when it is ready it can merge with the Super Soul – like the droplet being placed back in the ocean after being separated from the dust particles. “What is meant by the world is God as seen as all things by our senses” (CW-1: 505 – my italics).

Advaita Vedantins do not see any contradiction in simultaneously practicing various approaches, or even in switching between the three. In fact, there is nothing strange about embracing all paths – no Hindu would see a problem with the fact that I attend various churches, sometimes fast for Ramadaan, and attend esoteric workshops on paganism, as well as read their various lores and scriptures. Of course the belief is that one path should be adhered to, but knowing of and studying the other paths can only be a good thing. The only caveat being that if one wants to attain a certain goal, one should follow a particular and stick to it. One could think of driving down to Durban in a car, but then halfway there, decide to take another car, or a train, or a bus. It just complicates things, and delays one’s progress on the journey. However, one could take a car the first time, and the next time, take a bus – and see which method suites him best. This is why there are various methods prescribed for various things even within the Hindu tradition, yet other methods are not frowned upon, and are often assimilated into the culture and tradition. In The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, it is documented that Ramakrishna himself (who was Swami Vivekananda’s guru, guide and mentor) underwent various spiritual practices for periods of time, where he lived as a Muslim, a Christian, a tantrika, etc (Nikhilananda 1974). Ramakrishna would point out that whilst living as a Muslim, he could not enter the Kali temple, of which he was the presiding priest.

It is therefore said of Vivekananda that he regarded his movement as “dedicated to the service of Shri Ramakrishna, and that he held up Ramakrishna before his brother-servants as a divine manifestation, incarnate for the good of all mankind, were in no way incompatible with his unflinching adherence to Advaita as the movement’s philosophy, inspiration and fulfillment. It was indeed Shri Ramakrishna himself who taught him to experience the ultimate truth of Advaita whilst being at the same time a lover of God” (Ananyananda 1979: 541).

Scriptures like the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayan are meant to be interpreted allegorically, and one would find that they tally nicely with the precepts espoused in the Vedantic school of thought. Hence, these texts, known as the itihasas in Sanskrit (epics), are to be seen as story-like illustrations of abstruse philosophical tenets for the layman (this term being used very loosely here).

As an aside, belief in a God is not even fundamental to the Hindu religion, any more than (assuming sea-creatures were cognisant) one fish would require another fish to acknowledge the existence of the ocean – one may choose to acknowledge the life-giving force which surrounds it, whilst another not. For example, Vivekananda says that a Karma-Yogi (vide ante) “need not believe in any doctrine whatever. He may not believe even in God, may not ask what his soul is, nor think of any metaphysical speculation. He has got his own special aim of realizing selflessness; and he has to work it out for himself” (CW-1: 111).

Vivekananda summarises the whole of Hindu philosophy quite nice nicely in the following excerpt, from his talk entitled The Hindu Religion:
“We believe in a God, the Father of the universe, infinite and omnipotent.
But if our soul at last becomes perfect, it also must become infinite. But
there is no room for two infinite unconditional beings, and hence we believe
in a Personal God, and we ourselves are He. These are the three stages which
every religion has taken. First we see God in the far beyond, then we come
nearer to Him and give Him omnipresence so that we live in Him; and at last
we recognise that we are He. The idea of an Objective God is not untrue —
in fact, every idea of God, and hence every religion, is true, as each is but a
different stage in the journey, the aim of which is the perfect conception of the Vedas.
Hence, too, we not only tolerate, but we Hindus accept every religion, praying in the
mosque of the Mohammedans, worshipping before the fire of the Zoroastrians, and
kneeling before the cross of the Christians, knowing that all the religions, from the
lowest fetishism to the highest absolutism, mean so many attempts of the human soul
to grasp and realise the infinite, each determined by the conditions of its birth and
association, and each of them marking a stage of progress. We gather all these
flowers and bind them with the twine of love, making a wonderful bouquet of worship”
(CW-1: 331).

Swami Vivekananda’s reputation

There have been many influential modern sages and saints who taught Hindu philosophy (defined as Vedanta), like Sri Aurobindo, Ramana Maharishi, Swami Sivananda, Paramahamsa Yogananda, Neem Karuli Baba, Satya Sai Baba and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. These sages also teach yoga within the context of Advaita Vedanta, so at least their philosophy is premised on the same ideals as that of Vivekananda. They all have massive followings worldwide, but none would dispute the status of Swami Vivekananda as a God-man, saint and scholar, and they have formally paid homage to him. I would contend that Hindus all over the world over share the sentiment. I hope to find concurring views in my interviews with various Hindu scholars and swamis from different organizations.

Swami Vivekananda’s birthday, 12th January 1863, has been declared as National Youth Day by the Indian government, and is obviously celebrated the world-over, especially by disciples of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, which Vivekananda founded in his guru’s honour (Sri Ramakrishna). It is documented that at one stage there were 68 branches in South Africa alone (le Roux: 1965).

Whilst abroad, Vivekananda also corresponded with famous philosophers like Herbert Spencer and politicians like Robert Ingersoll, and on more than one occasion “discussed religious and philosophical matters with him [Spencer]” (Ananyananda 1979: 448). After his talks at the World Parliament of Religions, where he first gained a reputation as a world teacher, he was invited for dinner by the famous scientists Lord Kelvin and Hermann von Hemholtz. He also befriended famous singers like Emma Calvé, Emma Thursby, and Antoinette Sterling; and most notably, he was visited by J.D. Rockefeller, whom Vivekananda inspired in an admonitory manner to share his wealth with the needy – resulting in “his first large donation to the public welfare” (CW-9: 329).

This is to mention but a few. From this, it is evident that Vivekananda’s influence would necessarily be spread far wider than that of other teachers of Hindu philosophy.
Vivekananda was also reputed to have had a phenomenal memory: he knew the entire contents on Encyclopaedia Britannica by heart, such that he could cite anything from any page, and could even tell which page and volume a particular excerpt was from when arbitrarily read to him. It is recorded that nobody could outdo Vivekananda in debate, even though he was challenged by the greatest intellectuals from the best universities in America and the United Kingdom. In fact, he was even offered the position of chair of Oriental Philosophy at Harvard, which he declined since he felt it was inappropriate for a monk to assume such a position.

Aside from what the literature says, the current study was meant to have incorporated in-depth, semi-structured interviews with Hindu monks from various orders, but the data proved too ‘thick’ for the current study, and warrants a separate study. It is mentioned here because what was said in response to the question asking about their opinion regarding Swami Vivekananda’s reputation is quite telling, since not all the monks interviewed were from the Ramakrishna Order. Here are some of the responses recorded:
S1: “Hinduism, I don’t believe, has ever has a better spokesman. I think Swami
Vivekananda would be acknowledged by all to be supreme; not just in the
Ramakrishna Math, but amongst all Hindus as the greatest exponent.”
S2: “He is one of the greatest souls on earth, not just for Hindus. He was fearless
going to the world, and he had a Divine command from within to inspire the world.
People who don’t even know much about him will agree with closed eyes [that he is
one of the greatest and most influential Hindu saints].”
S3: “Swamiji embodied true humility and simplicity, and from that we all have a
universal lesson to learn. What stands out for me is the kind of language he used.
It is fresh and accessible, giving us the pearls of wisdom from the ancient
S4: “He simplified and presented ancient wisdom in modern language to a Western
audience. He quoted from the srutis, and in that sense authenticated his message,
so yes in that sense he was an authoritative voice of God; these truths were
revealed to him in meditation.”
S5: “That is not an exaggeration at all; he was truly an authentic voice [of God] for
the modern age for sure.”
S6: “[He was] a dynamic world leader. He had a mission to fulfil, and Ramakrishna was
to be the guide and mentor in getting him started on that mission.”
S7: “Vivekananda was a real ‘crest jewel of discrimination’. Aside from being a great
saint, he was also a great intellectual. He approached the study of religion very
scientifically and intellectually.”
S8: “He was the first one to bridge the gap between East and West, and he made us
truly proud as a nation interacting amongst the intelligentsia of the Western
S9: “Yes, of course; otherwise Ramakrishna would not have been hand-picked him as a
leader, with specific instructions to his other disciples to follow Naren’s lead.”
S10: “Vivekananda was the most important saint in modern times, a spiritual giant. One
of his most important contributions was not only to bring Vedanta to the layman,
but to bring it to the West, where materialism and hedonism was becoming so
rampant. He also inspired a sense of patriotism in his countrymen, not in a
nationalistic sense, but in a spiritual sense.”
S11: “[…] there are a few things to be said. One is that he was the Master’s chosen
leader, and my first allegiance is to him, Sri Ramakrishna. Of course, he has a
great intellect as well, and was perhaps chosen for that reason too, amongst
others. Regardless, he is indeed an authentic voice of the Divine, and I think few
would disagree.”
S12: “We forgot the life eternal, and Swamiji brought it back. That’s not only for
Hinduism, but for the whole of life and to all religions. Surely God spoke through
him, just as He did through Shankaracharya; he brought the truth, and Vivekananda
updated it and brought it to the common people.”
The swamis labeled S1, S2, S6, S7, S8, and S10 were not monks of the Ramakrishna Order, and were mostly (with the exception of one) full time residents in ashrams not belonging to the Ramakrishna Mission; it is therefore telling that they, as the religious leaders of the Hindu community, would hold Swami Vivekananda in such high regard. The others were monks of the Ramakrishna Mission, and serving full time in that capacity in ashrams around the world.

In conclusion:
[…] his greatest service was to India, for by revealing the unity of Indian religious
ideals, a unity that had not yet found self-conscious expression in the communal
consciousness of Hinduism, he conferred a great dignity upon the Hindu outlook on
life. Definitely stated, the principle contribution to Hinduism […] was: first his
philosophical and religious synthesis of the faith of his forefathers; second the idea
of the Mother-Church, embracing all the forms, from the lowest to the highest, of
its religious vision; and third, though not least, the unshakeable position that he won
for Hinduism by his scholarly and spiritual interpretation, thus giving it prestige
among the enlightened thinkers and theologians of the West and raising it in the
estimation of the whole Western world. And the most eloquent elements in all these
triumphs were his commanding personality, his supreme personal realization, and
the unimpeachable authority of his statements
(Ananyananda 1979: 422).

This overview provided a very broad overview of Hinduism, with the intention of contextualizing the Vedanta philosophy within what otherwise could have been seen as a veritable quagmire of abstruse philosophy. This is important since Vivekananda explicitly aligns himself with the Vedanta, and even says that what is considered Vedanta today ought to be seen as tantamount to Hinduism, meaning that the heterodox as well as the non-Vedantic Vedic texts (the ‘karma kanda’ section of the Vedas dealing with ritual worship) ought to be seen as inapplicable, obsolete and anachronistic within contemporary Hinduism. Vivekananda therefore helped shift the focus of modern-day Hinduism. Finally, Swami Vivekananda’s standing within the context of modern-day Hinduism was discussed, and it is fair to conclude that he is indeed one of the most influential Hindu scholars in the history of Indian philosophical thought.

Reference list
Ananyananda, S. ed. (two volumes). 1979. The life of Swami Vivekananda by his eastern and
western disciples. Mayavati: Advaita Ashram Press.
Dhar, S.N. 1976. (two volumes) A comprehensive biography of Swami Vivekananda. Madras:
Jupiter Press.
Gandhi, M.K. 1957. The story of my experiments with truth. New Delhi: Jaico Books.
Hawking, S. 1995. A Brief History of Time. London: Bantam Books.
Krishnananda, S. 1989. Essays in life and eternity. Divine Life
Society Press: Rishikesh.
Krishnananda, S. 1973. A short history of religious and philosophic thought in India. Divine Life
Society Press: Rishikesh.
le Roux, C.P. 1965. The Ramakrishna movement in South Africa. Doctoral thesis: University of
Naicker, S. 2004. Science and Vedanta. Religio, August 2004, issue 2, pp. 8–10.
Nikhilananda, S. (tr.). 6th edition. 1974. The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. Madras: Jupiter Press.
Nowbath, R.S., Chotai, S. & Lalla, B.D. (eds). 1960. The Hindu heritage in South Africa.
Durban: The South African Hindu Maha Sabha.
Sivananda, S. 2001. Sthree Dharma – the ideal of married life. Rishikesh: World Wide Web
edition – http://www.sivanandadlshq.org: accessed on 5 May 2012.
Sivananda, S. 1977. All about Hinduism. Divine Life Society Press: Rishikesh.
Vedalankar, P.N. 1965. A glimpse into the Vedas. Bombay: Vindayar Books.


August 16, 2011

Theoretical framework

Cognitive Linguistics (henceforth CL) was born as a reaction to the Chomskyan school of Generative Linguistics (henceforth GL). Whilst the influence of GL can scarcely be exaggerated, CL is fast gaining ground and could rightly be referred to as a rival paradigm.

Both CL and GL actually subscribe to tenets that are rooted in very old philosophical and linguistic traditions. Panini, for example, analysed the Sanskrit language in his classical text, the Astadhyayi, most comprehensively and meticulously along regional, stylistic, social and pragmatic lines. Tomes have been written on syntactic, morphological and phonological rules, together with rules for variations and optionality – and indeed the deep vs surface structure phenomena (Kiparsky, 1979).

Bundgaard (2003) writes about one of the early precursors to generative grammar, and rightly traces some of the fundamental claims arrogated to Chomsky back to the German philosopher Edmund Husserl, as expounded in his famous Logical Investigations. The said work pointed out that language reveals “a lot about the mind” (p. 5), and that language is a discrete combinatorial system. A distinction is also made between “Unsinn” (senselessness) and “Widersunn” (nonsense). An instantiation of the former would be a statement like Shop a go to car be in, where both the word-order and lexical items do not make any sense; an instantiation of the latter would a statement like Colourless green ideas sleep furioussly, where the grammar is acceptable yet the statement is devoid of meaning. Pinker (1994) attributes the latter example to Chomsky, which he used to illustrate the dichotomy between syntax and semantics. Chomsky would also point out that an Unsinn-type statement is not logically possible, whereas a Widersunn-type statement is. Whilst Husserl would not endorse Chomsky’s insistence on treating semantic phenomena almost as an epiphenomenon, we see here that this distinction is not an original one.

Bundgaard then cites Husserl as stipulating that we need to strip language of superfluous verbiage, and find out according to which principles language combines it constituent parts into meaningful wholes. Chomsky takes this to imply that we ultimately need to reduce rules of grammar to a finite set of phrase structure rules, analogous to mathematical formulae, which will generate all possible sentences in any language (Chomsky, 1966). Bundgaard points out that we need to “find a priori rules that specifically govern the combination of linguistics elements” (Bundgaard, 2003: 14). Husserl however did not believe that an analysis of this kind should exclude semantic considerations; in fact, according to Bundgaard, an analysis of this kind should be “semantic through and through” (p. 10).

Husserl’s analysis, then, may be regarded as a semantic combinatorial system, which is an enterprise Chomsky would indeed be averse to endorsing. In fact, it is precisely this fact that caused the rather acrimonious drift to ensue between George Lakoff and Noam Chomsky, and their subsequent ideas. This has been documented in detail by Harris (1993), and alluded to in Botha (1989). Lakoff never intended to work ‘outside’ the generative school by developing what he then called “generative semantics”, but Chomsky saw this as a threat to his own ideas viciously attacked Lakoff for questioning the axioms upon which generative grammar was based.

Bundgaard then goes on to detail why it is important to outline these “syntactic templates”, and illustrates how these said templates cannot dispense with what he refers to as “global semantics”, analogous to what we may call context or pragmatics. He then draws parallels between the approach suggested by Husserl and that of Leonard Talmy, pointing out that the latter claimed that a study of semantics as a genuine combinatorial system must be a systematic study of the kind of structure specified by closed-class elements, ie. linguistic elements which do not admit new members to its set. Bundgaard illustrates this with regard to how using different prepositions form different conceptual structures apropos to the open-class elements in the proposition; hence, the said preposition does more than just fulfil a grammatical role, as traditionally assumed.

The point of Bundgaard’s article serves to illustrate that although one would traditionally take Husserl’s approach to be a precursor to generative grammar, it would actually be more commensurable to draw the analogy between cognitive linguistics and the said approach, and to point out that both GL and CL date back to much older traditions, though the respective names may not have been in vogue.

In his concluding remarks, Bundgaard points out that any analysis of language would have to account for “principles of syntactic combination” (p. 26), but one should not reduce the linguistics enterprise only to this and relegate other aspects of the combinatorial system to epiphenomena; the point is to understand and formalize how such combinations serve as a facilitating, two-way vehicle between thought and the world.

This background is relevant since it serves to illustrate how a relatively modern approach to the study of language has its roots in a tradition which ante-dates Chomskyan linguistics, and should not be viewed solely as a reaction to the latter, as many scholars have assumed – cf. Faucconier’s article, in Janssen and Redeker (1999).

CL is an enterprise quite unlike other schools of thought in that it covers a variety of themes, and the movement cannot be pinned down to a single founder. However, one of the overall goals is ultimately to show how language can give us insight into human nature and thought.
Explaining the relationship between language and the brain, therefore, is meant to explain a substantial part of human nature.

Conceptual Metaphor Theory (henceforth CMT) is one of the sub-themes within the CL paradigm. In a CL context, metaphor is defined as a mapping of a source domain onto a target domain, with concomitant restrictions like the invariance principle, which refers to the fact that these mappings must occur in a way that is “consistent with the inherent structure of the target domain” (as defined by Lakoff in: Evans et al, 2007, p. 279).

By this broad definition, phenomena like synecdoche, simile, metonymy, personification, pathetic fallacy, allegory and parable are conflated. These are primarily literary devices which serve the same purpose conceptually. Attempts have even made to integrate metonymy into CMT; as an aside, Goossens (1990), for example, coined the term ‘metaphtonymy’ in an article discussing how metaphor and metonymy interact. This is indeed a complex and contentious issue, as is the relation between metaphor and blending. It is not clear whether these are distinct processes, or whether one may be subsumed under the other – and if so, which is to be subsumed? In light of this contention, Lakoff and Fauconnier put out a statement clarifying their position on this.

Lakoff refers to his approach as embodied realism, and claims that since we are embodied beings, all our thinking is based on bodily awareness, which expands to other entities and to the world as we grow older. We start off with learning conceptual metaphors, based on our experiences, which become part of the way we think. Lakoff & Johnson (1980) document various conceptual metaphors which we use in our everyday lives, without even recognizing it as such, for example by saying I spent an hour on the computer, we are employing a TIME IS MONEY metaphor, whereby you can “spend” it. In later books, he explains how research in the field of neuroscience is trying to trace the neurological bases of conceptual metaphor. For example, according to this line of thinking, when we see books being piled on top of each other, we see the height rising, which activates one part of the brain; we also notice the amount getting more, which activates another part of the brain. When we see such things often enough, we start to form a minimal neural pathway between these two brain centres, and a metaphor is born. From then on, we automatically start to associate ‘up’ with ‘more’, hence the metaphor UP IS MORE, such that we understand what The price of fuel went up means, even though there is no necessary link between the two. Likewise, we start to associate ‘up’ with ‘good’, such that if someone is low down, we mean that he is immoral; when talking about God, who is the Ultimate Good, we look up, etc. Hence, our sense of morality also has its basis in conceptual metaphor, which is embodied (Lakoff, 1996).

Lakoff also believes that conceptual metaphors are the cogs which make up frames, which govern both our political and religious views. Frames are cognitive schemas which govern the way we function in the world, and are the driving force behind the tacit rules of social decorum and the like. In Lakoff (2008), he explains various cultural narratives in light of framing and conceptual metaphor, with emphasis on how these lead us to embrace either progressive or conservative politics. Lakoff points out that:

We can no longer conduct 21st century politics with a 17th century
understanding of the mind…. In thinking, the old view comes originally
from Descartes’ 17th Century rationalism. A view of thought as symbolic
logic was formalized by Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege around the
turn of the 20th Century, and a rationalist interpretation was revived by
Chomsky in the 1950’s.
(Lakoff, 2008: 6).

The brain gives rise to thought, amongst others, in the form of conceptual frames, image-schemas, prototypes, conceptual metaphors, and conceptual blends. The process of thinking is not algorithmic symbol manipulation, but rather neural computation, using brain mechanisms and global cognitive tools not modularised for the processing of language only. Hence, it is through our framing and conceptual metaphors that we understand the world around us.

In Lakoff (1996: 245-262), he postulates two models of Christianity, one based on a conservative interpretation, the other based on a liberal one – based on an overall FATHER metaphor. Lakoff’s point is that we conceptualise God and His attributes metaphorically, which guides our interpretation of a sacred text like the Bible, as well as what we take our religion to stand for. He claims that there is a match between a STRICT FATHER interpretation of Christianity and conservative, right-wing politics, and consequently, between a NURTURANT PARENT interpretation of Christianity and progressive, left-wing politics.

Research Problem

Lakoff’s claim that there is a link between the FAMILY metaphor in religious discourse and our political ideologies is rather contentious, and does not form an important part of this term paper. What I am interested here is using this model to see how applicable would this framework be to other schools of religious thought. Does this polarity exist outside of a Judaeo-Christian context, which Lakoff writes about? Is he justified in claiming that frames and conceptual metaphors govern our religious thought and understanding?

More specifically, two questions are considered:
Are the two said family models relevant in a Hindu context – are there alternative models, family-related or otherwise, that we can base our philosophy on?
Even if they are relevant, do we necessarily need to explain our religious understanding in terms of frames or (family) metaphors in the first place?

Brief overview of Hindu Philosophy

Hinduism is a very interesting religion in that there are various schools of thought which fall under the umbrella of Hinduism. Furthermore, Hindus have hundreds of sacred texts which are quite varied, and fall under different categories. These categories will be explained in detail in light of the six main schools of Hindu thought.

One of the mainstream schools go by the name vedanta, which refers to the end portion of the Upanishads, which in turn are the philosophical writings forming part of the Vedas.
There are three main schools of thought which constitute vedantic philosophy, namely:

Dualism (dvaita), propounded by Madhva,
Non-dualism (advaita), propounded by Adi Shankara, and
Qualified non-dualism (vishishtadvaita), propounded by Ramanuja.

What we would consider mainstream Hinduism today falls under the non-dualistic branch, and is called Advaita Vedanta in Sanskrit. Swami Vivekananda revived this school of thought, and is therefore credited with popularizing Vedantic philosophy in modern times, especially in the West. Hence, his writings/teachings form the basis of my study.

Hinduism can be construed as pantheistic, polytheistic, theistic, henotheistic and even atheistic. However, in the Advaita Vedanta context, God is seen as an omnipotent, omniscient and all-merciful Being, in the same vein as the mainstream theistic religions.

I will not go into too much detail here due to space constraints, as it can get quite detailed and nuanced. When relevant, in the analysis section below, I explain more in light of the various metaphors and frames used in context.

Suffice to say that in light of the abstract nature of the subject, it may taken as a given that we will need to concretise our understanding of God specifically, and Divinity more generally, using metaphors. Whether these tie in to metaphors of the family or not remain to be seen, and perhaps we will see that the ensuing schemas are quite novel, and may or may not be consistent within a particular paradigm, as Lakoff assumes it should be.


CMT is used as a tool to analyse a body of work pertaining to Hindu philosophy, specifically focusing on the following texts:
– Vivekananda’s addresses at the Parliament of Religions, convened in Chicago in September 1893;
– Vivekananda’s commentary on a classical Sanskrit text by the saint Patanjali, compiled into a book entitled RAJA-YOGA;
– Transcripts of 21 of Vivekananda’s discourses/lectures given across America and the UK.

The above constitute the bulk of the material found in The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda – Volume 1, henceforth CW-1. The edition I have used is the “Mayavati Memorial Edition” published in 1977.
After reading through the text manually, I noted the various metaphors, and grouped them into related frames (or more accurately, perhaps, metaphors at a superordinate level). Thereafter, I searched for key words in an electronic version of the said text, just in case I may have missed some during the manual reading. A concordance program called AntConc (version was used for this, and a KWIC analysis was done to search for the relevant key words. Of course, human intervention was further required to check which of these words linked to phrases employing them in a metaphorical manner; conceptual metaphor is, by definition, something perceived conceptually, and therefore cannot be detected by a computer program.
Sentences like
The balloon went up
The price went up
will be parsed in exactly the same manner by a machine, meaning that they will be considered syntactically homogenous without any appreciation for the fact that one is literal and the other not. Furthermore, specific lexemes cannot be distinguished as literal or metaphorical by the computer; cf. the use of the word ‘father’ in the following sentences:
Vivekananda’s father was a well-known lawyer in the Calcutta region
We must aspire to perfection, just as our Father in heaven is perfect.

If the corpus contained these two sentences, it would simply show two hits when ‘father’ is searched for. The computer has no way of ‘knowing’ when the word is used in a metaphorical sense, and when not – all a concordance program can do is present the user with the word, the number of times it occurs in the corpus, and with a KWIC analysis, the context in which the word occurs. As mentioned, this is why an ex post facto manual reading was necessary even after using the concordance program.

Results: analysis and discussion

The conceptual metaphors found in the texts can be grouped into 24 different frames :


“And of this Indian Mother-Church” (CW-1, p.3)
“India herself, the Motherland, as she already exists” (CW-1, p.3)
“These, then — the Shâstras, the Guru, and the Mother¬land — are the three notes that mingle themselves to form the music” (CW-1, p.3)
“I thank you in the name of the mother of religions” (CW-1, p. 6)
“these sects were all sucked in, absorbed, and assimilated into the immense body of the mother faith” (CW-1, p.8)
“Ignorance is the mother of all the evil and all the misery we see” (CW-1, p. 34)
“Blessed, indeed, is the woman to whom man represents the fatherhood of God. Blessed are the children who look upon their parents as Divinity manifested on earth (CW-1, p. 42)
” ‘Thou art our father, and wilt take us to the other shore of this ocean of ignorance’ ” (CW-1, p.111)
“Patanjali, the father of the Yoga philosophy” (CW-1, p.125)
“Kapila, the great father of the Sânkhya philosophy” (CW-1, p. 165).


‘Life is infinite, one chapter of which is, “Thy will be done,” and unless we realise all the chapters we cannot realise the whole’ (CW-1, p. 197)
“There are all the past chapters, and this present chapter, and there are a whole lot of future chapters before him” (CW-1, p. 266)
“No child is born with a tabula rasa — with a clean, blank page — of a mind. The page has been written on previously” (CW-1, p. 185)


“That shows that consciousness is only the surface of the mental ocean” (CW-1, p. 10)
“[…] the ocean of memory can be stirred up” (CW-1, p. 10)
“[…] my body is one little continuously changing body in an unbroken ocean of matter” (CW-1, p. 13)
“[…] each man is only a conduit for the infinite ocean of knowledge and power that lies behind mankind” (CW-1, p. 69)
“[…] with the help of this body you will cross the ocean of life” (CW-1, p. 82)
“This little wave of the Prana which represents our own energies, mental and physical, is the nearest to us of all the waves of the infinite ocean of Prana. If we can succeed in controlling that little wave, then alone we can hope to control the whole of Prana” (CW-1, p. 84)
“[…] the whole universe was an ocean of thought, he and everyone else had become little thought whirlpools” (CW-1, p. 85)
“In an ocean there are huge waves, like mountains, then smaller waves, and still smaller, down to little bubbles, but back of all these is the infinite ocean. The bubble is connected with the infinite ocean at one end, and the huge wave at the other end. So, one may be a gigantic man, and another a little bubble, but each is connected with that infinite ocean of energy, which is the common birthright of every animal that exists” (CW-1, p. 87)
“Think of the universe as an ocean of ether, consisting of layer after layer of varying degrees of vibration under the action of Prana” (CW-1, p. 88)
“All are parts of the same ocean of Prana, they differ only in their rate of vibration” (CW-1, p. 89)
“[…] this world is only one drop in an infinite ocean” (CW-1, p. 101)
“[…] the waves in the ocean of the mind” (CW-1, p. 104)
“If it [the mind] is clear, and there are no waves, we shall see the bottom. The bottom of the lake is our own true Self; the lake is the Chitta and the waves the Vrittis” (CW-1, p. 112)
“ ‘One moment of company with the holy makes a ship to cross this ocean of life’ ” (CW-1, p. 123)
“This body is the boat which will carry us to the other shore of the ocean of life” (CW-1, p. 124)
“[…] the Purusha so great that the whole universe seems as a drop in the ocean and falls off by its own nothingness” (CW-1, p. 141)
“The whole universe is one ocean of matter” (CW-1, p. 144)
“[…] the knowledge takes the Yogi across the ocean of birth and death” (CW-1, p. 164)
“[…] the infinite river of souls is flowing into the ocean of perfection, of self-realisation” (CW-1, p. 175)
“Supposing we are materialists, for argument’s sake, we shall have to come to this, that the whole universe is simply an ocean of matter, of which you and I are like little whirlpools. Masses of matter are coming into each whirlpool, taking the whirlpool form, and coming out as matter again. The matter that is in my body may have been in yours a few years ago, or in the sun, or may have been the matter in a plant, and so on, in a continuous state of flux. What is meant by your body and my body? It is the oneness of the body. So with thought. It is an ocean of thought, one infinite mass, in which your mind and my mind are like whirlpools” (CW-1, p. 213)
“[…] everyone from the highest angel to the lowest particle of matter is but an expression of that one infinite ocean” (CW-1, p. 214)
“There is, as it were, an infinite ocean behind, and you and I are so many waves, coming out of that infinite ocean” (CW-1, p. 221)
” ‘As so many rivers, having their source in different mountains, roll down, crooked or straight, and at last come into the ocean — so, all these various creeds and religions, taking their start from different standpoints and running through crooked or straight courses, at last come unto THEE’ ” (CW-1, p. 222)
“As the gentle falling of the dew at night brings support to all vegetable life, so, slowly and imperceptibly, this divine philosophy has been spread through the world for the good of mankind” (CW-1, p. 222)
“It is only a question of time, and time is nothing in the Infinite. It is a drop in the ocean” (CW-1, p. 238)
“ ‘As all the rivers of the world constantly pour their waters into the ocean, but the ocean’s grand, majestic nature remains undisturbed and unchanged, so even though all the senses bring in sensations from nature, the ocean-like heart of the sage knows no disturbance, knows no fear.’ Let miseries come in millions of rivers and happiness in hundreds! I am no slave to misery! I am no slave to happiness!” (CW-1, p. 262)
“I want to love where this mighty river of my love can go, the ocean of love; this rushing tremendous river of my love cannot enter into little pools, it wants the infinite ocean” (CW-1, p. 273)
“But you find out that it is very difficult to cross this ocean [of Maya by] yourself” (CW-1, p. 279)
“[They are] different little whirlpools in this ocean of mind” (CW-1, p. 283)
“The manifold does not destroy the unity. The millions of waves do not destroy the unity of the ocean. It remains the same ocean” (CW-1, p. 284)
“Let us realise [that] we are the infinite power. Who put a limit to the power of mind? Let us realise we are all mind. Every drop has the whole of the ocean in it” (CW-1, p. 286)


“[…] we can send electricity to any part of the world, but we have to send it by means of wires. Nature can send a vast mass of electricity without any wires at all. Why cannot we do the same? We can send mental electricity” (CW-1, p. 138)
“When the mind has been trained to remain fixed on a certain internal or external location, there comes to it the power of flowing in an unbroken current […] towards that point” (CW-1, p. 104)


“[…] just as in the case of electricity the modern theory is that the power leaves the dynamo and completes the circle back to the dynamo, so with hate and love; they must come back to the source” (CW-1, p. 109)
“We know there is no progress in a straight line. Every soul moves, as it were, in a circle” (CW-1, p. 236)


“The human mind is like that monkey, incessantly active by its own nature” (CW-1, p. 97)
“As the snake is happy in giving up his old skin” (CW-1, p. 180)
“The organs are the horses, the mind is the rein, the intellect is the charioteer, the soul is the rider, and the body is the chariot. The master of the household, the King, the Self of man, is sitting in this chariot. If the horses are very strong and do not obey the rein, if the charioteer, the intellect, does not know how to control the horses, then the chariot will come to grief. But if the organs, the horses, are well controlled, and if the rein, the mind, is well held in the hands of the charioteer, the intellect, the chariot reaches the goal” (CW-1, p. 132)


“The lamp is constantly burning out” (CW-1, p. 65)
“So we must work faithfully using the prescribed methods, and light will come” (CW-1, p. 72)
“[…] the mind is in three states, one of which is darkness, called Tamas, found in brutes and idiots” (CW-1, p. 112)


“If you boil all their theories down, the residuum will be that” (CW-1, p. 84)


“And when it reaches the metropolis of all sensations, the brain, the whole brain, as it were, reacts, and the result is the full blaze of illumination, the perception of the Self” (CW-1, p. 92)


“[…] each man is only a conduit for the infinite ocean of knowledge” (CW-1, p. 69)
“I have already spoken of the Ida and Pingala currents, flowing through either side of the spinal column” (CW-1, p. 94)


“Instead of being knocked about in this universe” (CW-1, p. 58)
“The world is ready to give up its secrets if we only know how to knock, how to give it the necessary blow” (CW-1, p. 73)


“Breath is like the fly-wheel of this machine [referring to the body]” (CW-1, p. 80)


“So Pranayama is not breathing, but controlling that power which moves the lungs” (CW-1, p. 85)


“[…] we shall conquer nature, we shall be masters of phenomena of nature” (CW-1, p. 233)
“God’s children are your Master’s children. [And children are but different forms of the father.] You are His servant” (CW-1, p. 249)


“Wherever there is life, the storehouse of infinite energy is behind it” (CW-1, p. 87)
“On reason we must have to lay our foundation” (CW-1, p. 103)


“The Chitta is always trying to get back to its natural pure state, but the organs draw it out. To restrain it, to check this outward tendency, and to start it on the return journey to the essence of intelligence is the first step in Yoga, because only in this way can the Chitta get into its proper course” (CW-1, p. 113)
“Those Yogis who do not reach perfection die and become gods; leaving the direct road they go into one of the side streets, and get these powers. Then, again, they have to be born. But he who is strong enough to withstand these temptations and go straight to the goal, becomes free” (CW-1, p. 163)


“[…] just as by the telescope and the microscope we can increase the scope of our vision, similarly we can by Yoga bring ourselves to the state of vibration of another plane” (CW-1, pp. 88-89)


“Whenever a prophet got into the superconscious state by heightening his emotional nature, he brought away from it not only some truths, but some fanaticism also, some superstition which injured the world as much as the greatness of the teaching helped” (CW-1, p. 102)
“What we call knowledge is a lower state than the one beyond knowledge. You must always bear in mind that the extremes look very much alike. If a very low vibration of ether is taken as darkness, an intermediate state as light, very high vibration will be darkness again. Similarly, ignorance is the lowest state, knowledge is the middle state, and beyond knowledge is the highest state, the two extremes of which seem the same” (CW-1, p. 119)


“It [the Vedanta philosophy] is, as it were, the very flower of all the speculations and experiences and analyses, embodied in that mass of literature” (CW-1, p. 220)
“He [Lord Krishna] taught that a man ought to live in this world like a lotus leaf, which grows in water but is never moistened by water” (CW-1, p. 12)
“The seed is put in the ground, and earth and air and water are placed around it. Does the seed become the earth; or the air, or the water? No. It becomes a plant, it develops after the law of its own growth, assimilates the air, the earth, and the water, converts them into plant substance, and grows into a plant” (CW-1, p. 19)
“Little do these ignorant, deluded persons dream that whilst they are congratulating themselves upon their miraculous power to transform human hearts, which power they think was poured upon them by some Being above the clouds, they are sowing the seeds of future decay, of crime, of lunacy, and of death” (CW-1, p. 97)
“Then will all sorrows cease, all miseries vanish; the seeds for actions will be burnt, and the soul will be free forever” (CW-1, p. 105)
“Put a seed into the ground and it disintegrates, dissolves after a time, and out of that dissolution comes the splendid tree” (CW-1, p. 110)


“On reason we must have to lay our foundation, we must follow reason as far as it leads, and when reason fails, reason itself will show us the way to the highest plane” (CW-1, p. 103)


“If you take my advice, do not put your neck into the trap. The moment they try to put their noose on you, get your neck out and go somewhere else” (CW-1, 267)
“We have got ourselves caught in the trap, and we will have to work out our freedom” (CW-1, 141)


“Buddhism … broke the chains of the masses” (CW-1, p. 257)

23. FOOD

“Those that only take a nibble here and a nibble there will never attain anything” (CW-1, p. 99)


“[…] sound symbols play a prominent part in the drama of human life” (CW-1, p. 45)

As mentioned, these metaphors are only a portion of those found, but I believe it gives an accurate overview of the crux of Vivekananda’s key ideas from the said texts. Most metaphors are attached to frames which are unsurprising in the sense that they are perfectly commensurable with common sense, in sync with other schools of thought (including Occidental ones), and therefore require little explanation to be interpreted.

The FAMILY frame gives us an interesting take on how Vivekananda conceives India, Hinduism and the key exponents of the various schools of Hindu thought. He believes that India is oldest cultured society in the world, and therefore refers to it as the “Mother-Church”, “Motherland”, etc. Likewise, Hinduism being the oldest religion known to man is referred to as “the mother of all religions”, ostensibly implying that all other religions are off-shoots from this original way of life. He qualifies this later on by referring to Judaism as the oldest Occidental religion, and Hinduism as the oldest Oriental religion, and elsewhere adds Zoroastrianism: “Three religions now stand in the world which have come down to us from time prehistoric — Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Judaism” (CW-1, p. 8). His general point though is that Hinduism is unique in that “Judaism failed to absorb Christianity and was driven out of its place of birth by its all-conquering daughter” (CW-1, p. 8). Furthermore, only “a handful of Parsees” (CW-1, p. 8) remain as a shadow of the grandeur that may have once been. Hinduism, however, embraced sect after sect over the thousands of years of its existence, ostensibly questioning the universality and applicability of Vedic. Yet, “like the waters of the seashore in a tremendous earthquake it receded only for a while, only to return in an all-absorbing flood, a thousand times more vigorous, and when the tumult of the rush was over, these sects were all sucked in, absorbed, and assimilated into the immense body of the mother faith”, that being Hinduism (CW-1, p. 8). Hence, the various schools of thought that have sprung up over the years have never become break-away factions, with the exception, perhaps, of Buddhism, though that too may need to be qualified.

Regarding the BOOK frame, Vivekananda explains nature (both human nature and the natural environment) as a kind text that, with the right kind of ‘literacy’, we can understand, interpret and come to grips with. The knowledge we gain from this would be, ultimately, an understanding of who we are, and where we fit in to the grander scheme of things – the realization that we are part and parcel of this universe, not a separate entity, as we think we are, whilst still in our ‘illiterate’ state. The means by which we would attain the kind of ‘literacy’ which would enable us to ‘read’ this book would be the various spiritual practices delineated in the various texts, specifically the eight-fold practice of Raja-yoga.
Vivekananda also describes the human mind as a “blank page” which has been “written on previously”, and categorically declares that “no child is born with a tabula rasa” (CW-1, p. 185); hence, he is a classical empiricist in that he subscribes to the Lockean axiom, viz. that “there was nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses” (Uzgalis, 2010). This may sound contradictory, but can be understood if one bears in mind that Eastern thought subscribes to the doctrines of reincarnation and metempsychosis; whilst actual memories are generally eradicated after death, the predilections embedded in one’s being remain. These are called samsaras. Even concrete memories are believed to be recorded in the ether, and can be tapped in to.

The most pervasive frame used by Vivekananda is that of WATER. The human mind (Chitta, in Sanskrit) is described as either as a lake, or an ocean. When the mind is active, there are ‘waves’ created on this ocean, and the more sensory stimulation we are subjected to, the more ‘waves’ we create in our minds, causing us to be more restless. When we restrain our senses, we allow these ‘waves’ to subside, thereby enabling this ‘ocean’ to subside. The aim of yoga is to get the mind to be as calm as possible, since the mind, though necessary to function in everyday life, precludes us from getting in touch with our intuitive self, which enables the individual soul (jivatman) to connect with the cosmos, which can be seen as the Greater Soul (Paramatman), of which the individual soul is a part – separate only insofar as the wave is ‘separate’ from the ocean. Memories are like bubbles which sink (sic) into the ‘ocean’, and can be called up (remembered). Memories from long ago sink deeper, but never disappear – this includes memories from previous births, which is why the “ocean of memory” can always be “stirred up” (CW-1, p.10).
Advaita Vedanta holds that the world does not really exist. In this sense, Vivekananda may be deemed an idealist. The world as we see it is merely an illusion, and with the dawn of the relevant knowledge, we will see that what we once perceived as something real, will dissipate into nothingness – the world is just a conglomeration of ideas. In CW-1, Vivekananda alludes to an incident regarding Humphrey Davy, the famous British chemist, where whilst teaching a class he was overpowered by some kind of gas which heightened his sensory perception, and during that moment he was able to see through the phenomenon (the term being used in the Kantian sense) and perceive the nounenon behind the forms, whereby Davy described the “whole universe” as “an ocean of thought”, and every person thereby, a “little thought” whirlpool in this ocean (CW-1, p. 85).

The concept of Prana is an important one, and may be defined as the underlying, animating force which pervades the universe. In the context of the Raja-yoga text which Vivekananda provides a commentary on, it is important to note that this particular text is based on the Sankhya, the details of which are not important, except that there is a belief that beyond this Prana is something called Purusha, which is Supreme Intelligence. The goal then of Raja-yoga would be to tap into this cosmic Prana by controlling this Prana housed within your own body, after which you can tap into the Purusha. Unlike Advaita Vedanta, the Sankhya philosophy does not subscribe to this idea of oneness. Hence, the very idea of ‘merging’ into an ‘ocean’, as the Vedantins would like to, is foreign. This is why, in this context, he now talks about us as housing “little waves” of Prana, which we must control, and will enable us to tap into the “infinite ocean” of the greater Prana, so to speak (CW-1, p. 84). This would give the practitioner various powers, detailed in the text. Furthermore, if we do not allow ourselves to be distracted by these powers, we would be able to tap into the Purusha, which is “so great that the whole universe seems as a drop in the ocean”, and thereby attain enlightenment (CW-1, p. 141).

Scarcely is there ever mention of God in Vivekananda’s writings. This may be because the word connotes something foreign to Hindu philosophy. When describing the “infinite ocean”, and its “tiny bubbles” and “little waves” all being part of it (CW-1, p. 87), the analogue in this context for the ocean would be what the Western mind would call God. What marks the Hindu conception of God as different here is that people, the world, the universe (all analogues for the bubbles, waves, etc.) are not separate from each other, or from God; a large wave and a smaller wave are separate only in a very artificial sense, such that “everyone from the highest angel to the lowest particle of matter is but an expression of that one infinite ocean” (CW-1, p. 214). The radical thing about this belief is that there is no qualitative difference between one wave and another, even if one is, for the moment, bigger than the other. Hence, every “drop has the whole of the ocean in it” (CW-1, p. 286), meaning that we are really the same as each other, and indeed as God. The body we have gives us a false, temporary form, which precludes us from merging with God, like a wave that gets thrown out and ‘forgets’ to go back to the ocean, where it belongs. The belief is that every being will one day merge into the Cosmic Consciousness we call God, hence the proclamation that “the infinite river of souls is flowing into the ocean of perfection” (CW-1, p. 175).

The CIRCUIT frame conceives of the body as a conduit for thoughts, which behaves like electricity. This does not only refer to nerve currents ‘flowing’ in the central nervous system, but also to the idea that certain people can transfer their feelings and thoughts to other people, as if by wireless technology. Furthermore, Vivekananda claims that the entire universe is pulsating with energy, which every person can tap into. If the prescribed methods are followed, every person can tap into this energy and become a powerful dynamo, “flowing in an unbroken current” (CW-1, p. 104).

Regarding the CYCLIC frame, Vivekananda believed that strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a straight line, even in the context of basic Euclidean geometry; it only seems that way from our limited perspective. Even motion can never occur in a straight line. He explicitly states that “every motion is in a circle” (CW-1, p. 109), and illustrates this using the following hypothetical thought experiment: if we were somehow able to take an object and project it into space with enough power, and live long enough, assuming the object encounters no obstructions, would “come back exactly to your hand”. He then concludes that any “straight line, infinitely projected must end in a circle” (CW-1, p. 109). In recent times, this notion has gained increasing popularity in light of Einstein’s theories of relativity, which has empirically proven that space-time is indeed curved, and that the Euclidean axioms do not apply to space-time geometry. However, Vivekananda takes this as a basis to make a metaphysical point, namely that we are all going to go back where we came from: we are on a path of learning, and will eventually end up where we started, at the very beginning of time, in a state of sunyata (nothingness), being one with the universe. That is why every soul moves “in a circle” (CW-1, p. 236). Vivekananda also explains that the emotions and thoughts that you send out will always come back to point of origin, as it is like the power which “leaves the dynamo and completes the circle back to the dynamo” (CW-1, p. 109).


I have not discussed the other frames as the same themes run through them in different ways. The remaining metaphors listed above can be understood within this context. Nevertheless, an in-depth analysis of all the frames and their concomitant metaphors mentioned here will require scores more to be written – far beyond the scope of this paper.
The FAMILY frame was indeed used, but certainly not with the primary aim of portraying God as a father figure of some sort, or even as a nurturant parent, as can be seen from the examples cited above. Hence, Lakoff is incorrect in his prediction that our political views are necessarily based on our conceptions of the government as a parental figure, and that we superimpose these views consistently onto our religious beliefs. Hence, Lakoff’s “guess […] that what makes conservative Christians conservative is that they interpret their religion as requiring a Strict Father model of the family” may apply to Christians and/or American politics, but does not apply in the Eastern context since there is no necessary connection between one’s political views, and one’s religious views (Lakoff, 1996, pp. 247-248). Also, there is no consistent family metaphor used to conceptualise God, as Lakoff predicts.
It is evident, then, that Vivekananda’s interpretation of Hindu lore sets it apart from most other traditions in that there is no concept of evil, hell and punishment, for example. None of the metaphors employed frame any issue along retributive lines, and there is no notion of God as an authority figure who needs to be feared in any sense.

Though there are analogues with other Eastern traditions, what we see here is a claim that humanity is one, not only qualitatively the same as each other, but the idea is that the whole of creation is essentially a manifestation of this one essence. This is what sets Advaita Vedanta apart from other schools of Hindu thought, and from other religious traditions.

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Mayavati Press.

My second trip to India

August 15, 2011

After going to South Africa [I lived and worked in Saudi Arabia at the time of writing…] to visit in December 2009 (mainly for aunt’s 70th birthday party), I decided that I will NOT go back home for the following holiday, despite missing home dearly.

So, even though I really wanted to go back to South Africa, I thought it better to use the opportunity to go back to India – I had always planned to go back, and still plan to go again at least a few more times. Well, we’ll see about that. Nevertheless, I was blessed with the opportunity of returning to India in February 2010.

I decided to go to Calcutta this time, and spend more time doing something more in keeping with my desire for spiritual edification. During my first trip to India, I only went to Calcutta because I wanted to see this alternative medicine university which I wanted to enroll with; upon going there I discovered that the great saint Ramakrishna was from the same city. After going to his Dakshineshwar temple then, I felt rather silly for not also going to Belur Math, founded by the great Swami Vivekananda. For this reason, I booked my place right at the ashram’s guesthouse.

However, I couldn’t go straight there. They were fully booked for the first few days of my trip because it happened to coincide with the birthday of Sri Ramakrishna, which meant that pilgrims … flooded the place. So, upon the advice from the swami in charge of Belur Math, I went to the ashram in Kamarpukur first, famous for being the birthplace of Sri Ramakrishna. They were able to accommodate me for a few days before I proceeded to Belur Math.

Upon arrival in Calcutta, the first thing I did was actually go to the alternative medicine university, and register for my graduation. I registered for a course at this place when I was there in February 2009, and a year later I completed it and was lucky enough to HAPPEN to be there for the graduation! The graduation was scheduled for a day after I was meant to depart, so I decided to delay my return and attend the graduation. Anyway, the reason I had to go there was to register my name, and pay the relevant fees for the gown and the conference (yes, it was a conference-cum-graduation thingy). Those poor people saw me after I had been travelling for about three days, so I was not very… presentable, as the first few seconds of this video attests to:


The dude in charge always appears in such pomp and glamour, and it’s always such an effort to get to his office (fill in the form, state your reason, etc. – though I must say it WAS a rather smart office!), that I was glad I looked the way I did, just to be different. I did apologise though. The university’s driver, Sujeet, also came to fetch me from the airport, but after waiting for about three hours decided to leave. Flight was delayed, and he assumed I’d be coming to the international airport – I didn’t; I came to Calacutta on a connecting flight via Bombay. Oops. Kinda forgot to mention that. I apologized for that too.  

Anyway, after registering I went to the same hotel I stayed in the last time I was there, on the famous Sadar Street; famous for being the place tourists go to. Very nostalgic. It was good to be back, and I missed my old friend JJ, who by now would have been dragging me down to the pub to have a few beers. Alas, I had to drag MYSELF down there this time.      

I had to make an offering at the ancient Kalighat temple, which entailed getting a red and gold sari for the Mother, as well as three others for charity. The dear Dr Suresh Agarlal, head of the Indian Board of Alternative Medicines, advised me that the temple was not very far from where we were, and Sujeet showed me where to get the sari from. So I went off to find my saris, and was pleased to have found exactly what I had been looking for. I rushed back to my hotel to get ready for the temple.   

I was very excited about going to this particular temple. This is a very ancient temple, dedicated to the goddess Kali, with whom I have always been intrigued. Also, this is one of the oldest temple’s in the world, having been alluded to in the most ancient of scriptures. There is also a famous story in Hindu mythology of the goddess Sati, consort of Lord Shiva. In brief: Sati’s father was having a feast, and he didn’t invite his daughter because he disapproved of her union to the Lord Shiva, primarily due to his being a celibate recluse. Lord Shiva, being the… Zeus of Hinduism, was offended by this insult, and his consort calmed him down and promised to go to papa and get an explanation. However, when she went there she was shunned and treated as an outsider. She was so grieved by this that she killed herself (goddesses do have these weird powers), so she wouldn’t have to face her Lord’s wrath.

When Lord Shiva discovered this (now Lord Shiva is one god you DON’T wanna mess with, if you know anything at all about him…  – he IS the Lord of destruction, after all) he was really REALLY … upset, to say the least. So after beheading his father-in-law (but not before replacing his head with that of a goat’s, and reviving him), he began his notorious dance of destruction, which would have annihilated the entire universe, had Lord Vishnu (the Lord of preservation) not intervened. First, he flung his discus at the corpse of Sati, cutting her body to pieces, which fell to various places on earth. Then, he manifested himself as a beautiful female and lied down in front of Lord Shiva, in the hope that he will see the beautiful form and stop. Anyway, there are various versions of what happened next; some say this didn’t work, and the goddess Kali had to come down to stop him.

Anyway, my point here is that the toes from the goddess Sati’s right foot fell on the location where Kalighat temple is now built. This is one of about fifty one places where her body fell. These are referred to as “places of great power” (Shakti Peethas, in Sanskrit). As perverse/macabre as this sounds, I must say, I would love to visit her other body parts sometime in the future.

Non-Hindus are wont to mock the mythological/allegorical aspect of the religion, due to ignorance of course, because the derelict nature of the mono-theistic religions is not only simpler to understand, but it’s the only thing many people are exposed to – so something like this seems exotic, quaint, backwards, primitive. I’m rather tired of explaining the existence of these myths, and the fact that we go to these temples with a sense of awe and reverence due in part to its association with such stories. Spiritual evolution proceeds in stages, just as education does. As a young child, you are taught moral lessons in story form; it’s not a coincidence that children’s fairy-tales end with a “and the moral of story is…”. After you mature intellectually, you can learn the same lessons directly by instruction, and then you tailor/adjust your moral principles according to your life’s circumstances. Likewise, in spiritual practice, stories are meant to grab your attention, and to be understood on different levels, according to your spiritual and intellectual level. The characters in the Bhagavad Gita, for example, are meant to be understood allegorically: Arjuna represents the individual soul; Lord Krishna representing the Divine Soul (God); the five horses pulling the chariot represents the five senses; the chariot itself represents the human body, and so on. It can be interpreted like this on different levels, metaphorically, symbolically, etc. Hence, it doesn’t actually MATTER if Lord Krishna was a historical figure, and whether the battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas actually took place.

Likewise, the story of Sati may or not be taken literally, but the multiplicity of interpretations allows each person to take what he wants from it, and to draw inspiration from it in his own way. On one level, the collective belief in this story adds a kind of energy to the associated places, and that in itself makes it special. One needs only to GO THERE and FEEL the energy pulsating throughout the place.

So back to my story. I went to the hotel, freshened up, and packed my saris. I was meant to give the red and gold sari to the temple priest, and ask him to dress the image of Mother Kali with it on a Friday. Thereafter, I was meant to find three elderly women, and give them the other three saris. I was a bit worried about accomplishing the latter task, because India is FULL of beggars, and as soon as you give even one person something, you are usually surrounded by dozens of others, all shouting for food, money, anything; can be quite daunting, especially since I’m never QUITE sure what they are saying! (And they are rather quite sure I DO, given my Indian phenotype). Anyway, I thought I’d work on that after actually going to the temple first.   

Off I went then to a taxi, with my saris in my backpack. After finding out that I’m a foreigner (since I didn’t speak Hindi or Bengali), the driver charged me about ten times what would normally be charged. After arriving, I felt a strange sense of excitement as I approached the temple grounds. My bubble was soon burst when I was surrounded by weird people, claiming to be Brahman priests, and insisting on helping me for a fee. One guy just wouldn’t leave me alone, and followed me all the way to the altar. After I took out the red and gold sari, which looked rather expensive, I also took out a 500 rupee note to put into the box as donation; before I knew it, both items were grabbed, money gone (taken by the creep who followed me – place was too crowded to do anything), and the sari was passed on to the priest and placed right on the Mother’s head. Hundreds of saris were given and thrown to the ground. For some reason, mine was chosen, though there were literally hundreds of others from all over the place. The priest did say that Mother has chosen my sari, and I was quite charmed that she did.

The priest picked me out of the crowd, and asked me to come down to the image. I had to climb down using a rope to get there. The image of the Divine Mother Kali was absolutely breath-taking. Much bigger than I expected; almost as big as I am. From pictures of the image I’ve seen elsewhere, I imagined it to be no bigger than 30cm’s in height. This particular image is unique to Kalighat, I think. She is made of touchstone, with a huge tongue made of gold, and three large eyes (one on the forehead). It felt as if She was looking right into my soul when I stood before Her. I can still close my eyes and feel the energy, the vibrance, emanating from Her. I drank the water poured onto Her tongue (after putting the first round on my hair, much to the priest’s chagrin), and bowed before Her Majesty, chanting the relevant mantras. With the hundreds of people behind me, I felt a bit weird, so I started to make my way out, but the priest stopped me asked for a donation of something ridiculous like 5001 rupees. I explained that I didn’t have that kind of money to spare, and that I quite sure the Divine Mother understands. On that note, I left. (I did wonder at various points what my Muslim brothers back in Saudi Arabia would say about all this.  lol).

When I was almost back at the hotel, I realized that I had forgotten to hand out the other three saris. I thought I’d go back after lunch.

I found a familiar restaurant (which I’d been to a year before that), where I enjoyed a nice curry, and went back to the hotel to rest a bit.

It was early evening when I made my way back to the Kalighat temple. As I was walking, I asked my dear Mother Kali where on earth I would find three elderly women to give these saris to, and after about five minutes of wandering around the stalls in the market of Kalighat Road, I found three women, all elderly, all wearing almost exactly the same thing, sitting next to each other on the side of the road, holding identical begging bowls in their hands.


Anyway, I took out the saris and gave them each one. Mission accomplished. I then made my way back to the hotel, after buying a few things from the market, one of which was a replica of the Mother’s image in the temple.         

I packed my bags, and went out for supper to another restaurant up the road.

The next day I was to leave for Kamarpukur.

Early in the morning, I set out to the train station, where strangely enough, no one even heard of this place! Well, maybe they just didn’t understand me. Because I looked like a native, they kept trying to speak to me either in Hindi or Bengali (the regional language of Bengal), and assumed I was kind of being pompous by speaking only English. At the train station, there was a book store which sold books published by the Ramakrishna Centre, so I thought I’d ask there since he MUST know, as I was going to the Ramakrishna Centre, famous for being the birthplace of the great Sri Ramakrishna. Alas, the dude at the counter could not speak English. One of the customers browsing advised me on which train to take, but his advice was rather confusing; and he was a bit confused about why I was not asking for help from the ‘Information’ counter.

After a few hours of trying to find the relevant train at the station, the crowds, the shouting, the filth, etc. just got to me. Aside from being clueless, I know that it’s normal for a train to be at least a few hours delayed in India. Hence, I decided to take my bags and find a taxi.

As I left, I was hounded by dozens of taxi drivers, each shouting that he will take me wherever I wanted for the best price. The pre-paid taxis are run by the relevant authority, and the generally charge fairly, so I tried to go to their counter and inquire. However, before I got there, I had to wrestle through a crowd of protestors who kept telling me they knew where I was going and would take me there for the best price I could imagine. Of course, all the prices were ridiculously high, so I told them to bugger off.

Just before I could reach the counter outside the train station, a taxi driver grabbed my bag and told me that he will take me there for just a thousand rupees. This was a reasonable price, I thought, so I agreed. When he packed my bags though, I discovered that he had no idea where I was even going!

So after making inquiries about this place in Kamarpukur (on the phone, shouting across the road to arbitrary people, etc.), he eventually said that he can’t take me there for that price. I had no idea what exactly he was saying, but I did get that he told them I couldn’t speak Hindi or Bengali because I am from South India – which made them look at me with a wry smile, like I was some quaint zoo animal.

Then when I said I’ll take my bags and find another person who DOES know, he quickly said that he will take me there for a thousand five hundred rupees. I agreed, so off we went.

The trip took about eight hours all together, and we had to change taxis en route.

I reached the ashram in Kamarpukur around midnight. This was Shivaratri night, so I was happy I could be there. No one was really available to see to my accommodation, since everyone was at the satsang hall involved with the prayer. After going back and forth between the guest house and the main ashram, I was eventually seen to. Relieved, I left my bags in the room and was able to attend the satsang.

Though exhausted, I felt very blessed to be at such a holy place during this auspicious time. The weather was perfect, despite the fact that mosquitoes were rife. Everyone was so happy, content. The music was mellifluous, and I loved every second of it.

Whilst having a chat outside the main prayer hall around the bonfire, I made some friends. One of which was Santanu, who was a tremendous help to me. They could not believe that I was there all the way from South Africa; of course I had to explain the usual story of how/why I’m not actually Indian. Sigh.

Around 3.00am I felt very tired, and decided to go and get some rest. I was disappointed in myself, but I suppose I could have put my fatigue aside if not for the thousands of mozzies attacking me. When I found the gates locked, I thought Lord Shiva must be trying to get me to stay, so I stayed for another hour or so. At about this time, I went to make an offering of milk, honey, etc. at the Siva Linga, and I was told that I’m not allowed to since I was wearing pants. I thought… how ironic given Vivekananda’s and Ramakrishna’s stance on these things. And I would have pointed it out too, were I not so tired, and if I thought they might actually understand me, so I just sat down quietly, closed my eyes, and prayed. Then a few minutes later, I was called and asked to make the offering regardless.    

After a while, one of the locals told me that I am indeed looking exhausted, and offered to show me the way back to my room – and help find the gatekeeper to open the gate. So he showed me to the gate, and after shouting for Arjun, the gatekeeper, got the gate opened for me.   

As I was walking down the road, I saw some guy with a torch shouting at me. It was very dark, being a rural area with no street lights, and I could hear him calling some friends of his. I tried to ask him if he spoke English, and he just kept walking towards me, shouting at both me and his friends, presumably in Bengali. As they approached, I noticed that they were carrying sticks, which took me back to Goa 2009 – not a very nice flashback…

I was thinking about just letting them approach and beating them up (lol), but thought about things like: damaging my phone, and the fact that no matter what, I can’t escape unscathed. So I retreated quickly, found the entrance to the ashram, and went back inside.

Was that Lord Shiva again getting me to stay up for Shivaratri? I wonder…

By now it was almost daybreak, and Santanu explained that it was the night watchmen. He explained that the Congress Party has recently taken over from the CPIM (COMMUNIST PARTY OF INDIA – MARXIST). In fact, en route to Kamarpukur, I saw a rather ineffectual march by some protestors carrying red flags with the ‘hammer and sickle’ logo on it. I wondered what they were up to then, but now I was told that the locals were often tormented by the CPIM for not stopping the Congress from taking over.

Anyway, he came with me and met the guard, whom he knew quite well. After explaining that I was a guest at the ashram from South Africa (who doesn’t speak Bengali or Hindi), he apologized and shook my hand. Luckily Santanu studied to be an English teacher, so I could communicate with him.   

Then I finally proceeded to my room, where I was glad to get some rest.

A few hours later something interesting happened…

I was meant to meet with Swami Sastravidananda, who is in charge of the guest house, at about nine o’clock. Not surprisingly, I didn’t hear my alarm go off as I was in deep sleep. At exactly nine o’clock, I felt someone touching my left arm; I was sleeping on my right hand side. I opened my eyes, and thought it odd since we cover the beds with mosquito nets, and I saw that the net was unmoved. More confused than frightened, I slowly turned my head to see what/who was touching my arm, and I there I saw an image of Sri Ramakrishna! (I was wide awake at this point, so whether you believe this or not, it was not a dream). As I looked at him he broke out into a gentle smile, and then suddenly disappeared. As he did so, I felt this quaint surge of something like static electricity running through my body, and I closed my eyes again. When I did so, I saw bursts of purple light in my field of vision, and as the colours faded, so did this surge of energy which permeated my body.

You reckon that was lack of sleep?

Anyway, I got up and looked at my phone – it was nine o’ clock exactly.

I got dressed, and rushed off to meet the swami.

After booking my room for the remainder of my stay, he told me that I’m lucky because if I came few minutes later, he would have had to give the room to someone else, since people were arriving in large numbers from out of town for Sri Ramakrishna’s birthday celebration; I happened to be in a room containing four beds…     

Over the next two days I enjoyed seeing the place.

There’s a large pond in the centre of the village, and I’m told by our friend Santanu that the local word for ‘pond’ is ‘pukur’. The word ‘kamar’ refers to the caste of people who used to live there. So… that is the etymology of the name Kamarpukur.

Sri Ramakrishna was married at the wish of his parents, primarily his mother, when he was very young. Ramakrishna did not object to this. It must be said that they never actually lived as husband and wife, and actually lived separately except for a brief period when Ramakrishna was ill. Anyway, Sarada Ma, affectionately known as the Holy Mother, was from a neighbouring village called Joyrambati. At her birthplace, stands a beautiful ashram which I visited twice during my stay. The room in which she lived is preserved as it was when she lived there.

Nearby Joyrambati, there’s Vivekananda Math; a beautiful structure overlooking the village.

Behind the Ramakrishna Math there’s a collection of life-size murtis depicting various portions of the Hindu epics. I was most taken aback by the image of Krishna-Kali, which is literally half of Lord Krishna, and half of Mother Kali (at 10 seconds):


Suppose it’s meant to symbolize something like the ying-yang emblem. What startled me a bit though was that the Kali half of the image was very… nubile, and the pairing of Mother Kali with Lord Krishna I found a tad quaint as well (cf. 0:45 http://www.youtube.com/user/suren1946#p/u/4/dUt9MbR7LLU).

I liked it though, and fancied having something like that in my backyard one day!

In addition to other ancient temples in the area, I also saw the ancestral home of Sitanath Pyne, who hosted a function where a play was staged starring… Gadadhar (which was Ramakrishna’s birth name). There was a stage in the front yard, which is still there. In this play, Gadadhar played the role of Lord Shiva, and even at that young age was drawn into a state of Samadhi whilst still on stage. In front of this is to be found the ruins of an ancient temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. I kinda forgot that, so when Santanu was explaining the history of the place to me, I stepped on the foundation of the temple with my shoes, eliciting looks of horror from them (the descendants of Sitanath Pyne still reside in the house, so one of them was there with Santanu – hence the ‘them’). Oops. I did apologise, of course.    

Sri Ramakrishna never had a formal education, though he did attend some classes in his very young days. After a few lessons, he merely pointed out that all this worldly education is empty and pointless, and that all he wants to do is dedicate his life to God. I was taken to the site where this took place. 

At the ashram grounds itself, a temple is built at the exact location where Sri Ramakrishna was born, with a murti of him erected there as well. On the ashram grounds is to be found the room in which he resided, as well as a tree which he planted. These places pulsate with a very subtle, powerful yet ineffable energy force. I often sat for long periods of time outside what was Ramakrishna’s room, closed my eyes (‘meditated’ would be too grand a word) and bathed in the effulgence…

Having arrived there on Shivaratri night, I was also blessed to be there for Ramakrishna’s birthday celebration. I had to leave the ashram guest house the day before the birthday since there were throngs of people streaming in from all over the country. Our friend Santanu found me a place to stay in a private guest house. Not very comfortable, but as Santanu said, “I think you’ll adapt”. The lock for the door seemed to be from the days of King Arthur. The door was smaller than me, and the bed was rock hard. Water had to be heated separately, and had to be pumped into a bucket from the well outside. The ‘bathroom’ was also outside, which made bathing at night a bad idea…

These are not COMPLAINTS. It was actually quite nice living like a local! The place also reminded me of my grandparents house in Tongaat (now my father’s, technically), or at least, what it was like when we used to visit when I was younger. In fact, since I also grew up on a farm in the south of Johannesburg, it also reminded me a bit of what life was like there in the 80’s – the windmill pumping water from the borehole, the bucket baths, etc.; filled me with a wistful sense of nostalgia.

One of the days, I had an interesting experience at the lunch table in the ashram. Whilst eating, they bring a variety of curries every few minutes. On this particular day, a few minutes after serving the dhal, came a guy with a huge pot of fish curry! I was very surprised that they would serve fish at an ashram, though I know full well that Swami Vivekananda himself ate meat, and that Sri Ramakrishna did not forbid it outright; it depends on your temperament, and your mode of worship. Furthermore, the Manu Smriti allows for the consumption of meat, including beef; and most of you would know that Kali worshippers, and TANTRIC practitioners especially, have no problem with meat-eating. All this I fully understand, but I was still very surprised to see fish curry being served at a monastic institution. My look of shock/surprise when they were trying to serve me must have made me look like a complete moron!  

Anyway, the next day was the celebration, starting with a march around the ashram premises at 6am; but I overslept and went late, despite Santanu admonishing me not to. It was a whole day affair, consisting of dances, prayers, kirtan, talks, etc.

At the end of the day, I felt very grateful and very blessed to have the good fortune of being there for such an auspicious event.

The next day I was to leave for Belur Math, and the current headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, founded by Swami Vivekananda. Vivekananda spent his last days on those very premises, and his room is kept exactly as it was when he occupied it; the calendar in his room still reads “4 July 1902”, the day he shed his mortal coil.

Anyway, back to my story: since I was leaving the next day, I had to arrange a taxi with the person in charge, who gladly assisted me. He told me to come in the morning, and he’ll call a taxi for me.       

That night, I was approached by one of the female satsangees, and asked something in Bengali. I had no idea what she was saying, but I figured that her name was Nivedita, named after Sister Nivedita, the celebrated disciple of Vivekananda, who dedicated her life to women’s education in India. I felt really bad, since she really tried and tried to tell me what seemed to be oh so important. When it was time to call it a night after the evening arati, I managed to fathom something she said: that she is leaving now, but hopes to say goodbye to me in the morning before I leave, and will wait for me at the temple at eight o’ clock. I agreed.

That night, Santanu invited me for supper to his house, and came to fetch me at nine o’clock from my room, since it was dark and I didn’t know the way. It was an interesting experience. His aunt (late father’s sister) and an elderly friend of her’s were there too; they came for the function, and stayed in the room next to mine. I met them earlier, and found them most pleasant. We were served by Santanu’s mother, and two other young females. I thought it might be rude to ask who they were. We sat on the stoep outside, and were served a hearty meal of rice and a variety of curries, followed by dessert.

The lights went out earlier that day, but that certainly didn’t spoil the evening. We spoke about South Africa, Indian politics, and Swami Vivekananda.

What touched me most about the people of India in general, and my friends at Kamarpukur in particular, is the fact that they are very content with their lives, and never utter a word of complaint, despite living in veritable poverty. The teacher, the doctor, the clerk, the cleaner and housewife all sit at the same table. The concomitant sense of humility they espouse really moved me, and made me think about our Westernised society, where everything is a fierce competition, and everyone is trying to prove themselves to be better, more successful than the next person. Brothers are prepared to kill brothers simply for land and money (literally, in my case!), and this individualistic mind-set gets worse with each succeeding generation. In India, the sense of community is still there. There is no distinction between the individual’s success, and the family’s prosperity; and “family” is not restricted to the immediate family. What little they have, they share it.

Santanu is unable to get a job, despite having a degree. His mother is a housewife, and his father died of throat cancer a while back. To make ends meet, Santanu does private tuition, teaching English; they grow a few crops on their not-so-large land. Yet they are always SMILING, helping each other. And during my evening there, I heard NOT A SINGLE negative thing, not a word of gossip. We discussed philosophy, religion, politics, and I was humbled by how much these people knew, despite their lack of formal education. 

What a contrast to an evening with my friends/family back in South Africa!

Anyway, after supper I thanked them most sincerely and went back to my room.

I was sad to leave Kamarpukur, but very excited about going to Belur Math. I have read dozens of books by and about Vivekananda, and the very thought to going there filled me with the kind of excitement you feel when… you’re a teenager in love. (Or what I’d imagine it to be, since my teen years were rather sterile in that regard…) What a weird simile, but I hope you get the point.

They were kind enough to help me arrange a taxi from Kamarpukur to Belur Math, and told me that I should inform in the morning about ten minutes before I wish to leave so they can make the arrangements, which I duly did. However, I was asked very nicely by

Nivedita to meet her at the Ramakrishna Temple at the entrance at eight o’clock; actually, to be more precise, she couldn’t speak English very well, and simply told me in very broken English that she’ll wait for me at eight o’ clock at the said temple. I agreed, and left it at that.

The next morning there she was, waiting. She dragged me by the hand to the temple to offer obeisance, and then insisted I come with her (all signaled by hand). She did say “Joyrambati, Joyrambati –”, which I evenually figured meant that I cannot leave the region without visiting the domicile of the Holy Mother. I couldn’t explain to her that I’ll be late if I left after going there, or that I HAVE actually been there; she didn’t speak English. So… I just had to go along. I didn’t really mind going again though, except for the fact that Belur Math is closed at certain times during the day, which means that if I arrived later I might not find anyone there to assist (though it turned out alright in the end – the Math WAS closed, but the residence I stayed at, Vivekananda Kutir, was actually still open).

Be that as it may, she enthusiastically showed me around Joyrambati, as well as some other places I didn’t see the first time round, like Vivekananda Math, which was nice.

Thereafter she took me back to Kamarpukur, where I got to say good-bye to Santanu and co., and arranged for the taxi. He was not really impressed that I was gone touring with Nivedita and delayed my departure; his tone and body language said so, though he tried not to show it. Mmmm. Anyway – 

The journey to Belur Math was not as long as I expected it to be, and we even had time to stop and have lunch at some dodgy venue. Food was good though! Don’t think I had too much of a choice on whether to stop or not though. Passed some beautiful green plantations en route.

Upon arrival, we went to the famous Belur Math, and indeed found that the gates were closed. Luckily, when I showed the driver the address of the place I’d arranged to stay at, it was actually on the next street, and the person in charge was there, so I was able to check in to my room upon arrival.

After leaving my bags I took a walk around the town, and bumped into a quaint lady outside who asked for my name. I discovered later that she was also a guest at Belur Math, and encouraging conversation on that day was the biggest mistake I made on that leg of my journey! Her name was Majusree Jana, and she rather troublesome – I initially assumed that she was just friendly, but then her questions became more and more creepy with every conversation, especially after chewing on that horrible-tasting tobacco stuff that Indians chew to get high. I don’t really think it’s very fruitful to go into details there, so let’s see how this story develops…

Though I was very enamoured to be in Vivekananda’s city, I was taken by the poverty and squalor of the place and people. Once again, details are not relevant, so I’d rather not go into the morbid details there. I was once told by someone in South Africa that if you set foot in Belur Math, “you’ll never say you’re in India”. Never knew what that meant, until you see the contrast – inside the Math grounds, the place is absolutely spotless. No spitting, no littering, etc. The moment you LEAVE the place, you’re surrounded by squalor…


When the Math was about to open, I very excitedly made my way there. I noticed two universities bordering the Math, which I hoped to visit later. Walking through the gates, my heart-beat began to increase, and all those stories I’ve read of the great Vivekananda came flooding through my being. It was so very exhilarating. I walked as slowly as possible, taking in every moment I could. I had no idea what was where, but I noticed a very interesting building a few meters in. As I ambled closer and closer, I noticed that it was the Ramakrishna Museum. With a sense of awe, I ascended the staircase.

The dude at the door said something to me in Hindi, then repeated in what HE thought was English when he saw my look of confusion. Then I was ‘fortunate’ enough to get a ‘translation’ from that to slightly less worse English – I was to pay a five rupee entrance fee, refrain from taking photos, and switch my phone off. I was disappointed about not being able to take any photos, since this was not really a temple. Most holy places in India prohibit photography, especially temples, since they believe that by photographing the images, buildings, etc. you diminish the spiritual power of the place – you take a part of it with you.

As you can see, I was still able to illicitly take pictures in many places; in the museum, it was not an option as there were watch-men all over the place, at every corner, leering at you. 

Of course, the contents of the museum more than compensated for that. Having the opportunity of seeing cool things like the famous ‘red’ overcoat we see Vivekananda often pictured with; the original, hand-written letters he wrote (his writing does bear an uncanny resemblance to mine!); his dishes, the suitcase he used when he first travelled to the States…

If one knows the stories behind these things, it’s like a jolt down memory lane. It made the stories I read about so avidly REAL, like I was re-living experiences I’ve actually been through.  

As an aside: if you don’t actually know who Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda were, you wouldn’t quite appreciate the import of these things. Like I say to my students, a Google search would be a good STARTING point…

Well, after the museum it was getting late so I didn’t have time to see much else. As I left, I met a rather pleasant Irish woman who asked me if I was joining the arati – having not known until that point that there was one, I was glad to find out.

 An arati involves the waving of lamps in honour of a particular deity, together with the chanting of various prayers. It often marks the culmination of a service, but is also a typical ritual done every morning, midday and evening, as these are times conducive to spiritual edification.

 But I digress:

The arati takes at Belur Math place every evening, and they sing the most mellifluous arati: it was composed by Swami Vivekananda in honour of his guru Sri Ramakrishna. It’s the most amazing feeling listening to the Ramakrishna Arati, knowing the relationship the two had, and knowing even vaguely the meaning. As far as I know, this particular arati seems to be sung only in West Bengal, probably because it’s composed in Vivekananda’s native language, Bengali. (Though I have on one occasion heard it being sung at the Ramakrishna Dham in Johannesburg, South Africa…)

 I was very impressed with the number of people in attendance of the arati. It created a very special atmosphere, and despite the seemingly thousands of mosquitoes around, I really enjoyed the feeling of spiritual elevation that came with being there – I don’t often have this problem, but sitting in my car writing this, I’m battling terribly with the words to even describe what it was like being there…

For the remaining days, I took my dhoti to the temple and covered myself with it to protect from the mosquitoes. 

Anyway, after attending my first arati, I ambled back to “Vivekananda Kutir” where I was staying. On the way I bought something to eat from a local place that seemed to be comfortable calling themselves a RESTAURANT.

Belur Math was built in Ramakrishna’s memory, and dedicated to the promulgation of his teachings. The Ramakrishna temple is one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture I’ve ever seen, and houses some his relics at what is now a shrine with a beautiful marble statue of him; see at 2.00 minutes:


Vivekananda initiated the project, but the building was only completed after his death…

The next day I went early enough to see most of the places I wanted to see, including

the temple where Swami Vivekananda’s ashes are housed and the room in which he stayed and entered into mahasamadhi (during his last few years). His room is kept exactly as it was the day he died. As I sit here and relive my visit to this most hallowed grounds, I feel a sense of feeble inadequacy as I know my words can never come close to capturing the mood, the feeling, the awesome surge of energy one feels upon walking through the Math grounds. I recalled the various images conjured up from my readings of and about Vivekananda, his antics, his witty comments to disciples and friends…

My remaining days were spent like that. Often I would sit outside Vivekananda’s temple (to avoid the steady stream of visitors), or inside the Ramakrishna temple. There was certainly no dearth of things to see, but I chose not to walk around too much and spend my time sitting quietly at one place.

For those who don’t know, Belur Math is situated right on the banks of Mother Ganga. Just standing there watching it flow is itself an experience which cannot be described in words. I pretty sure anyone who stood there would understand what I mean, be he Christian, Jew, Muslim, Wiccan, Druid, agnostic or whatever. I also had the opportunity of bathing in the Ganges as well, which was really cool, since I didn’t get down to doing that last time round. Won’t bother trying to describe what that was like – an early morning bath in the Ganges, facing Surya Devi, with Vivekananda’s Temple just behind me…

The last time I was in India, I visited Dakshineshwar, but did not go to Belur Math, which was only a boat-ride away – didn’t know that at the time. I was glad to discover that I could take a boat to Dakshineshwar as well, which I did many times during my stay.

I also took this clip upon arrival – got into a bit of trouble at the end…:


You can see more pictures from 2.45 in the following clip:


I was going through a very traumatic emotional experience in my life at the time, and I shed tears of agony outside Ramakrishna’s Temple in Dakshineshwar. I banged my head over and over again on the staircase overlooked by the Mother; I begged her help me, to give me the strength and fortitude required to cope. I bought a stack of prescription tablets a few days back, with the express intention of … taking them. At once. WHAT exactly I was going through, and why, is not relevant. Suffice to say I was filled with a sense of shame, self-hate, and most of all, a sublime sense of emptiness. I needed it to end there, and I have always had this sense that my life was not meant to have passed 30. Alas, it did, but the point here is that I really wanted it to be over. So I never actually intended leaving Belur Math. I prepared myself to die right there, in the holiest place on earth, on the banks of the holiest river in all the three worlds. I decided what would be done with what little money I had, my belongings, etc. I wrote little letters to a few people, explaining my intentions and wishes.

I recalled Sri Ramakrishna crying in a similar manner to the Mother, on a few occasions at least wanting to end His earthly sojourn; I mean in over and above the famous occasion whereby he grabbed the sacrificial tool and threatened to kill Himself then and there should the Divine Mother not reveal Herself…

Not that I would dare compare myself to Him, but I also knew that the Mother would not discriminate, for we are all Her children.

I did indeed behave like a crazy individual. I spoke to Her, I scolded Her, fought with Her, swore at Her. WHY ARE YOU NOT PROTECTING ME? WHY ARE YOU CAUSING THIS? YOU HAVE ALL THE POWER IN THE WORLD, YET YOU LET ME SUFFER IN YOUR HANDS! My earthly mother is fallible, and therefore her behaviour towards me ought to be condoned and forgiven; what excuse does the Divine Mother have? After placing my love and my trust in Her, after giving Her my heart, She was allowing me to suffer; She had the power to save the earth from destruction, surely She can help me now in my time of need…    

As the sun set, I felt a strange sense of peace pervading my being, and a feeling like that of swirling static electricity right in the centre of my forehead.    

I still felt down, scared and anxious, but I sensed that Mother Kali heard me. I know this sounds schizoid, and as an academic it is rather quaint that I would write in this manner, but… there are some things just beyond logico-deductive reasoning…

Regardless, as darkness descended on the horizon, I felt a concomitant darkness descending around my soul. I had to leave to return to Belur Math, where I was staying, or I would have been stuck there – the last boat was about to leave.

The boat ride to and from is itself quite an experience. If one of those boats happened to topple, or if someone fell overboard, there would be absolutely NO CHANCE of a rescue. The river is gigantic, and the current very powerful (excuse the singing; I was inspired…):


Luckily, nothing of the sort happened. Not that I would have not minded (!?mound?!) dying, but drowning would not be my first choice – gotta be the worst way to go, second to burning, of course…

Sigh. How macabre.

Upon returning to Belur Math, I passed the tea lady, and bought a cup of tea in those lovely little clay cups which I later discovered were made from the clay found on the river bed – rather eco-friendly as when they are thrown back into the river, they simply melt away…

By now, the Math was closed, and all that was left was to get dinner and retire to bed.

I got my dinner from the same place every evening – a little restaurant which happened to be en route to the guest house.

I would try to be up as early as possible, so as to spend as much time as possible at the Math.

For the entire week I would go to Belur Math, and just spend time imbibing the ambience. I would sit around on the banks of the Ganges…go to Swamiji’s room, recall the hours He would have spent sauntering around that very land…browse the books for sale… etc.

When the time came for my departure, I arranged a taxi with the Math, who charged a rather exorbitant fee I thought…

I had to be back in Calcutta on that day as I had a graduation to attend that evening – I regrettably was unable to attend a function at Belur Math happening on that day as well…

I left with an extremely heavy heart, as I was about to lose something (someone, actually) very very dear to me; I would have done anything to reverse this feeling and this situation, but I knew I was to blame to a large extent and that this situation may not be reversible.

Regardless, I was blessed to receive a phone call before leaving from the only person who could make me feel better at the time; aside from the situation, the conversation was also strained because of the incessant hooting.

I stayed in a hotel familiar to me, since I stayed there before on my previous trip. This time, our friend Sujeet arranged the accommodation.

Since I was there in the wee hours of the morning, around 6am, the room was not vacant as yet; I had to hang around for about three hours before my room was available. They were kind enough to give me a temporary waiting room after about an hour though…

During my stay there I have never been more depressed in my life. I was about to lose someone very dear to me, and I did not know how to handle it, hence the allusion earlier. I tried to take solace in the fact that I was graduating from a course I worked fairly hard for. Of course, having had to attend a graduation ceremony all alone in a foreign country was not ideal, and added to the sense of loss and isolation I already felt:


One of the most interesting people I met at the conference was a yoga therapist from New York who was nearly a hundred years old – can be seen at 2.26 and again at 2.40 in the above clip. She was so very lively and full of life. Embarrassingly so. She gave an interesting talk on living in the spirit, and guided us into meditation.

The person you see just after her in the video (at 2.45) was another one of the guests of honour, and gave a keynote address. When I asked about the white mouth-covering, I was always told that “He’s a Jain”, as if that was suppose to answer my question. I eventually found out that the Jains take the whole Eastern philosophy of non-injury to other living being very literally, to the point where they cover their mouths to prevent breathing in bacilli, etc., and therefore not kill them! He delivered his entire speech with the mouth thingy on. Needless to say, I understood nothing. Yes, all the speeches were in English. The others had no trouble understanding though.   

I also met a girl at the ceremony named Sasikala. She was also alone, and asked me to take a photo of her as she wanted a souvenir. I gladly did so and emailed the pictures to her afterwards. Aside from graduating, she was also receiving an award of some sort – I didn’t pay attention to what exactly.

I enjoyed talking to her and learning about her work and what she does. See at 0.52 1.30 in the clip above. As a nutritionist she was involved in research on new supplements, some of which she holds patents for. After chatting a little at the graduation, we decided to meet later on that evening to see the streets of Calcutta. She very hesitantly admitted that she was staying at the YWCA hostel not far from where I was, so it was easy to find a mutual meeting place. 

She was quite keen to see all the Mother Theresa-related places, since this was the city in which she worked and served. (Sasi was very hesitant to admit that she was Christian, but eventually did. Then it all made sense). However, we had no idea where to start, so we thought we’d ask some of the locals. They were generally uncooperative, because they assumed I’m Indian, and therefore must be able to speak some Indian language, so when I approached them, they would always reply…first in Hindi, then in Bengali, then a few other languages, and eventually, very curtly, in English.

Perhaps that’s an anti-colonial thing. Or perhaps they view pseudo-natives as snobbish if they insist on speaking only English. Very few people would also believe that I’m from South Africa, which also didn’t help.

As a result, I found myself speaking rather loudly, clearly, and concisely when asking anything. Funny that, because we found a gentleman walking across the street and we approached him to inquire: “Hi. Do you know where we can find Mother Theresa’s … place?”

The reply: “Well sir, Mother Theresa has several places associated with her name all over the city. Which place in particular are you interested in visiting?”

I was so taken aback by the sudden, unexpected burst of eloquence, that I didn’t know what/how to answer!

Sasi mumbled something about the church, which he seemed to gloss over, and duly explained the various places we could visit. However, none of these places were within walking distance, and the public transport routes he explained seemed rather long-winded and confusing. Hence, after some deliberation we decided to drop the Mother Theresa idea. (I saw a rather… ‘interesting’ book about her a while back by Christopher Hitchens called THE MISSIONARY POSITION. How rude.)

After ambling around a bit, I suggested we get something to eat, and I found a place which was somewhat disappointing. Just about everything on the menu was unavailable, including the drinks. Anyway, we eventually found something and duly ordered; not the worst dish I’ve had, I must say.

The one thing I found rather quaint about Sasi was that she spoke almost exactly like my paternal grandmother – who is also of South Indian descent. The accent is so stereotyped here in South Africa (within the Indian community), since succeeding generations have accommodated due to integration at various levels; the accent my grandmother has is thereby viewed as belonging to the older generation. Of course society was much more insular even one generation back, for obvious reasons. My granny speaks what would be referred to as a “basilect” in sociolinguistic circles, which is the most rudimentary form of a language, barring pidgins and creoles of course. I suppose it takes someone with an appreciation of South African Indian English to understand why I was so rather piqued to hear such a young girl speaking with the said accent.     


Sasi, being a traditional Indian from the South (of India), asked me about marriage, or such plans in the near future. I explained that I’ve been avoiding that demon since I can remember, and alluded vaguely to a particular challenge I was experiencing relationship-wise. She felt comfortable enough to share something with me which made me realise how lucky I am to NOT live in a society like India (cf. below the story of Jessica Vaas as well: QED). She has a male friend whom she knew from childhood. As the years went by, they grew closer and closer, until he eventually expressed a romantic interest in her. Of course, in India there is a serious stigma attached to such things, so the parents had to be informed. The boy’s mother was not happy with this development, and duly instructed him not to see her anymore, and advised a few months later that another girl has been chosen for him. After numerous altercations, his mother said that if the boy chooses to marry this girl, she (the mother) will commit suicide. The boy then informed Sasi of this. He declared his loyalty, but also pointed out that he cannot allow his mother to be so unhappy. His solution to this quandary was to go through with the arranged marriage, THEN see how to wangle out of it. Perhaps divorce and make Sasi the ‘second’ wife, so to speak. Funnily enough, while she was with me, the boy she was talking about phoned to inquire where she was, what she was doing, etc. Of course, she didn’t reveal that she was in male company, and duly pointed out that she was staying in the (girls only) YWCA hostel. Afterwards, she pointed out that he was “Ornleee scolding scolding and staying soooor much.”

Her resolution was to keep contact with him until his marriage, and then sever all ties. When/if he wants to speak or meet, she will make excuses not to.

She also pointed out that sometimes she cries at night especially until there’s “no water” left in her eyes.

I didn’t know what to say, so I did as little talking as possible, following the classical Rogerian (Rogersian?) model.

All the while I was silently thinking how grateful I should be, and that my situation seemed really bad only a few hours ago – so bad that my world was crumbling to point where all I wanted to do was close my eyes and never open them again. NOW I was re-thinking all that. How many young people in India go through the same thing? I mean, my parents (mother especially) have tried to coerce me into marriage, but I was resistant to the very idea since early boy-hood. They still do not accept my position, but what would I have been subjected to had I been in India?

I shudder to think…      

Be that as it may, we went for a walk around the streets of Calcutta after dinner. I found that in many ways she was just as much an outsider in that part of India as I was. Being a Tamilian, she was only able to speak English, India’s lingua franca; Bengali and Hindi being the dominant languages. South Indians are, in many ways, looked down upon by people from the North, and that became more and more blatant as the evening wore on. I myself would often get a derisive look after it was mistakenly said of me (I could roughly understand when it was in Hindi): “He can’t speak Hindi – he’s from South India.” I wouldn’t bother explaining/correcting; too much effort.    

I was very impressed with Sasi’s bargaining skills. In most cases, she was able to bring them down by about a FIFTH of the original price!

After we had enough of that, we decided to start calling it a night, but not before getting some pani puri (which means something like “water bread” in Hindi), which Sasi insisted I must try. We found a dude somewhere who was selling it on the street: it’s basically an edible bowl which gets re-filled about four times with a kind of spicy, flavoured soup-like substance – very delicious!

Thereafter, we tried to get back to our respective domiciles, but…realised that we were a bit lost. After walking around for about another hour, we realised we were VERY lost. Sasi started asking people which way the YWCA hostel was, and people would give her this weird, glazed look. Sometimes clearly a look of derision, sometimes confusion, sometimes both. I was never able to figure out why: maybe it was the YWCA reference; maybe it was the accent.  

I took it upon myself to start asking, and we eventually were able to get back, piece-meal, to the required place.

I was leaving the next morning for Saudi Arabia, so Sasi asked me come round and say goodbye before departing. I hesitantly agreed, since I was worried about getting late, and would have had to pack and get a earlier start than normal.

Anyway, I stood outside the hostel duly at 8.00am and miss-called her. She came down, we went for tea, and I left.

She thanked me for everything, and asked me to try and look out for a job for her brother, who was struggling a bit. I asked for her to email me his CV, which she did, but alas I was unable to assist. (Anyone out there looking for an IT technician?)

Took the taxi to the airport, and had a few hours to kill before getting the connecting flight to Bombay. I waited for about two hours before the flight before inquiring about where to board, only to find that I was meant to have taken a BUS to the OTHER side of the airport. I was way too late now, and resigned myself to the fact that I was going to miss my flight and be late for work.

Stressed and frantic, I got to the other side of the airport, and got my boarding pass for Bombay to fly about five hours later. From Bombay, the earliest flight was only leaving the next DAY, which meant spending the entire evening and night at the airport, and making sure that I was on time for the flight the next day.

At that moment I felt so down, so broken. I just wanted to curl up and cry. 

I found a public phone and called a friend in South Africa. A rather costly affair, I discovered afterwards – the advertised rate was per second, not per MINUTE, as I thought. Anyway: I was relieved to have someone to talk to, even though this particular person was at the time on the brink of severing ties with me for good L 

I found it rather magnanimous of her to be there though…

After realising that I was gonna be bankrupt if I phoned her too often, I decided to just find a place to chill for the night. Surprisingly, I did find a nice sleeper-seat type thing. I sat down, leaned back and closed my eyes, grateful that I could finally ‘rest’ – though I was really worried about sleeping through the night and missing the flight again!

After a while two ladies sat next to me and started a rather interesting conversation about yoga and spirituality. After about an hour, the one lady mentioned that she did some yoga classes in South Africa, and mentioned a few places I was familiar with. I took this as an opportunity to give my two cents worth, and I joined the conversation. Rather interesting, as we spoke about the various aspects of yoga, Hinduism and spirituality. This lady’s name was Melissa, and she was from Australia. The other had to leave soon after, so I didn’t quite get her name, etc.

Melissa is an air hostess for one of the Middle Eastern airlines (Emirates, I think), and spoke about how she had to sacrifice a long-term relationship to pursue that dream. She then asked me if I’m married or involved. Sigh.

I explained that I am interested in someone in South Africa, but…it was a bit rocky at the moment. Her advice was that I would never know whether the relationship WAS worth saving or not until I did whatever I could to TRY and save it. Working in Saudi Arabia would not help. If I stay in Saudi Arabia, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life, asking the “WHAT IF…” question. Even if it didn’t work out, and it fell to pieces the moment I arrived back in SA, at least I would KNOW.   

Turns out that prediction was sort of true, since it basically started falling apart from the moment I arrived, but that’s another story.

I decided to take her advice, since she reinforced an idea that has been there for a while. I thereafter duly started making arrangements to get a job back in SA. I signed the contract a few months later, and started in July 2010. That too, is another story.

Melissa was not going to get a flight soon, and I had to make my way through by about 4.00am. I got my boarding pass, and checked in my luggage, even though I had about ten hours to kill.

While walking around, I saw a rather friendly looking person at one of the shops, and I struck up a conversation. Her name was Jessica Vaas. I explained the WHOLE story (the shop was very quiet) and she was very sympathetic. She told me that since I’m gonna be stuck there for so long, I must visit whenever I feel bored. I must have done that dozens of times.

I suppose it was inevitable that she would ask me about my wife, and I pointed out that I don’t have one, and that it’s probably best if I avoid marriage. She concurred! I was flabbergasted. After a while, she admitted that she was forced into a marriage even though she had no interest in such things. All she wanted to do was to be by herself, and work to help support the family. However, in India such arrangements are generally made by the elders, usually driven the parents, and the news is given to you ex post facto. By this time, resistance is futile since both sides of the family would have agreed, and arrangements would already be well under way. I must hasten to add that this practice seems to work also, since I’ve met people from India (both married and unmarried) who gladly accept this custom, and would even defend it against our Westernised version, not without justification.

However, for Jessica this was not working: she cut both her wrists when she discovered that the marriage was going to go ahead despite her remonstrations. She was found lying on her bed by her mother, blood everywhere, who only then reneged on this marriage business. 

She showed me BOTH her wrists, very badly scarred. A spine-chilling story.   

The bridegroom-to-be also cut his wrists a few days later, saying afterwards that if he couldn’t marry her, he wouldn’t marry anybody.

He also sobered up afterwards, but at the time of this conversation was resolute that he will never marry until she does, in case she changes her mind.

She’s adamant that she will remain single forever more. 

She did point out that suicide is a sin, and that she’s glad to have another chance since such people might end up in hell. She’s Christian. Even had a picture of Christ on her desk, whom she was fond of kissing every now and then. 

I felt so comfortable in her shop that she let me take over when she had to leave for a few minutes. I felt rather important, though at times embarrassed. This shop was one of the last you encounter before the boarding gates, so prices were quite high, resulting in some people turning away in disgust. There are always those desperate few, however, who have to get that one last souvenir or something to eat before leaving.

I’m glad to say I even made a few sales.

Jessica was kind enough to ask if I was hungry, since it’s been so many hours since I’ve been waiting. However, after my phone calls to South Africa I was pretty much broke, and politely pointed out to Jessica that I was alright. Being perspicacious enough, she figured out that I probably was out of money, since I was effectively there for two days more than scheduled, so she took some eats down from the shelf and insisted I take it at no charge! She then got me a cup of tea as well.

 I was very grateful for that since I really was famished. Regrettably, such acts can never be repaid – by me, in any event. Luckily, there’s always the whole law of karma thing. In India, even the Christians are subject to it, which works in their favour. 

 Well, at last after such a long, tedious wait, I was eventually able to board my flight back to Saudi Arabia.

 They weren’t TOO upset about my late arrival.



Humans or monkeys?

July 8, 2009

ARTICLE BELOW TAKEN VERBATIM FROM: http://chandrashekhar.sulekha.com/blog/post/2009/07/humans-or-monkeys.htm?utm_source=BosMailer&utm_medium=Email&utm_content=W2_0807_Blogs

Sleepy little town of Kuala Kubu Baru is just about one and half hour’s drive from the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. It is a very picturesque town in the hills. Tucked behind Kuala Kubu Baru hospital and golf course, is an institution called Taman Sinar Harapan . This institution was set up in 1984 by Ministry of welfare Services, Government of Malaysia, to provide custodial care for severely mentally retarded children and young adults below age of 25. It can house 400 male and female inmates.

Sounds very impressive, isn’t it? Well! A private investigating team visited this institution few days back and found in the locked rooms of the home, some 30 naked men-some chained and caged. Their bodies were covered in their own faeces and urine. The men looked just skin and bones and were extremely frail. You cannot believe this! O.K. Have a look at this photograph.

                                                                                                                                                                                                   photo star/asiahumans%20or%20monkeys[1]


The inmates, who were not in cages, were locked to metal beds with metal chains. There were no mattresses or pillows on the bed. This was supposed to have been done to avoid self-injury by them. No clothes were provided to them so they could not hang themselves. Under these conditions, I am sure, that even a sane person would like to hang himself.

What a cruel way to care for mentally challenged persons? I am sure you would agree.

6 July 2009

My Trip to India

March 28, 2009

After a brief deliberation as to what to do for our mid-semester break, a friend and I decided to go to India, given the proximity and relative economy, bearing in mind that I am currently in Saudi Arabia.

I have long wished to visit India, given that I am not only Hindu, but of Indian descent. It is rather sad fact that I know virtually nothing of my lineage in terms of where exactly my family comes from. I know only that my father’s family must in part have come from Tamil Nadu, and my mother’s from somewhere in the north of India. I have recently discovered that I do indeed have some family in Chennai, which is situated in Tamil Nadu; my parents informed me of this during their fairly recent visit there.

Before I discuss the actual trip, I feel compelled to clarify certain things regarding South Africa, so that the readers from other parts of the world can understand, and so that South African Indians see and understand themselves as others see them as well. My older brother once travelled to Dubai, for example, and came back rather confused; but that’s another story which I will not go into here.

South African Indians are a unique lot in so many ways. One of the things that stand out for me in my travels hitherto is the ignorance all over the world of the situation in South Africa. Having been to England, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and India, I can vouch for the fact that very few people actually understand what South Africa is about. The very concept of racial diversity is confusing to all them, including the English.
The depth of ignorance all over the world is remarkably striking, and I still find it rather quaint.

In Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, for example, they finally concede that there are White people in South Africa, since most South Africans working there are indeed white. They know that there MUST be Black people there as well; some cite having seen them on TV, some say so because Nelson Mandela is known to be Black, and others infer it from the fact that South Africa is part of Africa… Now given that understanding this is such an effort, you can imagine how confusing it is to the average person that there are also Indians, Coloureds, and Asians in South Africa. In fact, this is not the confusing part, since the presence of Indians in South Africa is not the same as… the Chinese in America (or South Africa, for that matter).

One would expect the Indians and the English to know better, for obvious reasons, but alas they don’t! It is very strange how easily history is forgotten, despite books like Uma Mesthrie’s From Cane fields to Freedom, and Gandhi’s The History of Satyagraha in South Africa.
It is interesting to note that South Africa has the largest Indian population in the world, outside India of course. Some would say that the UK has surpassed SA in that regard, but even if that is true, they are referring to immigrants who are now living in the UK, not a native population, who have been there since 1860.

For those who don’t know, the English decided that it would be very profitable to get cheap indentured labourers to work in the sugar cane plantations on the Natal coast. The native Zulus were considered “unsuitable” for the said task, though the reasons for this have always been unclear. With the Indian government’s consent then, Indians were shipped over to South Africa on five and ten year indentures. They were told that South Africa was the land of milk and honey, that money grew on chilli trees, etc., and were thereby tempted by the offer. Not that it would have taken much effort, since these were generally rather poor people who would not want to pass up such an opportunity.

This recruitment took place between 1860 and 1911, and were pooled mainly from the southern part of India, making the majority of the coolies either of Tamil or Telugu origin. Later on, the north Indians came along as traders and managers.

Conditions under indenture were far from congenial, and certainly different from slavery only in name. The record is clear in this regard, and scholars like Raj Mesthrie, in his book English in Language Shift, alludes to this fact; his wife, a professor of history, exposes the facts in more detail in her book, From Cane Fields to Freedom. Workers were literally owned by their master, and had the same rights as that of an animal. Suicides were common, as workers were pushed beyond their limits. In his autobiography, Gandhi tells of a story of a Tamil worker, named Balasundaram, who was badly beaten up by his master (bleeding mouth, his front teeth broken, etc.), who was subsequently transferred to another master thanks to Gandhi’s legal intervention.

True history is not to be found in the text books, and it is a sobering thought imagining what my very own forefathers would have went through.

They were told that they would be given some land on which to live after their indenture was over, if they chose not to return to India. The British reneged on this, leading to a vicious struggle which initially Gandhi was part of. The British assumed that these ignorant, uneducated coolies would take a little piece of land, and become autonomous subsistence farmers. When they discovered that these newly freed Indians were not only doing that, but also educating themselves, opening up small businesses, and starting to make an active contribution to their upliftment, the occupiers decided that they need to be gotten rid of before they became a threat.

After losing that battle, the government went on another campaign to eradicate the Indians in South Africa sometime in the late 1940’s. My paternal grandmother, living in Tongaat, tells of the story when my father was a baby, and the army came to all the Indian suburbs to confiscate the babies, who were subsequently burnt alive. My grandparents got word that they were doing this, hid my father away, and pretended to be childless.

The older generation chooses not to talk much about incidents of this kind, as they reopen wounds that have long healed.

After this went on for a while, the Natal Indian Congress ( which was founded by Gandhi) contacted the Indian government, informed them of the atrocities being committed against the South African Indians, and requested assistance. The Indian government responded quite timeously, and threatened to send in the military if such atrocities did not stop. The N.I.C. wielded quite a lot of clout in those days, and such violations duly stopped.

The N.I.C. not only fought for the rights of Indians in South Africa, but also for an end to apartheid. My own maternal grandfather, who I never knew, was a political activist, and actually housed Nelson Mandela for two weeks when he was in hiding; my aunt [mother’s eldest sister] used to cook food for him, and surreptitiously bring it to him at a convenient time. She cooked the food herself, and describes putting the various curries into different pots, which were wrapped up and delivered. My aunt, being an embodiment of pure love, would serve anybody with the same degree of sincerity and compassion. She would serve a beggar in the same way, and she never even mentioned the service she provided to someone who was to later become an international icon; I myself learnt of this via another uncle. When I asked her, she told the story, without a hint of pride or egoism.

This was of course prior to his imprisonment.

Many forget that the Indians in South Africa are the descendents of veritable slaves, and the reason for this willful amnesia is two-fold: Indians themselves want to forget the past and look forward to a brighter future, and others look at the success that Indians have made of themselves and see only that. Be that as it may, that should not preclude us from understanding our history. The current generation of Indians in South Africa are by and large monolingual speakers of English. This is not a coincidence; it is an upshot of assimilation into South African society. You cannot make an active contribution in a hostile society unless you prove that you are worth something, so we had to embrace the language of the oppressor at the expense of our own – a survival strategy, if you will. This decision has serious consequences, since language is an inextricable part of our cultural heritage, but as mentioned it was a necessary trade-off. Put simply, the wherewithal of linguistic proficiency made us more marketable.

Anyway, as we got closer to winning the battle of apartheid, the senior members of the N.I.C. were given prominent positions in the ANC, and the former faded away, as per the latter’s intention. It is for this reason that the Indians’ role in abolishing apartheid have never been duly acknowledged.

Despite South Africa being the launching ground for Gandhi’s career, despite Mandela’s admiration of him, and despite the facts that so many are aware of, these things are not part of recorded history.
As I say, true history is, and will remain, in the hearts and souls of the oppressed.

Now, once the reader understands this, he can understand why my visit to India was more than just a holiday. Being a third or fourth generation South African Indian, I do not consider myself… “Indian”, yet I remain true to my cultural heritage as a Hindu. As mentioned, I’m also a monolingual English speaker. Despite this, I feel a strange connection to the Mother India which many others of my generation do not. I have no doubt that this is due in part to my spiritual predilections.

Having an Indian phenotype had both its advantages and disadvantages in India. For one, the natives did not accost and badger me continually for money and offers of assistance, as they did my colleague with whom I made the journey (who’s White). However, they kept speaking to me in a variety of languages I could never fathom, even when I asked something in English. I have noticed that Indians often code-switch, so they assume that you must be bilingual at least. With my English-sounding accent, it seemed like they simply assumed that I was being arrogant and snobby by refusing to speak my own language…
Anyway, let’s rewind and start from the beginning. The first thing I needed to do was get a visa. Since I work in Al-Baha, which is a little town south-west of Jeddah, so little that it seems even Saudis outside the region do not know it, I had to go to the Indian embassy in Jeddah to make the relevant application. The distance from Jeddah to Al-Baha is like a journey from Johannesburg to Durban. Since the embassy is closed over week-ends, I had to take a day off work and go to Jeddah, which is where the nearest embassy is.

Now, in Saudi Arabia they confiscate your passport upon arrival as a means of control. Hence, my colleague and I had to put up quite a fight to get it this time! They make quite an issue out of it every time you want your passport for travel purposes, starting with a sycophantic letter requesting leave, etc. This time, because it was not an official holiday, they assumed that we were planning to runaway – such is the Saudi mind set. Trying to get them to understand why a visa application has to be done in person is also a mission, given that everyone here is either extremely obtuse, lacking in linguistic proficiency, or both.
Anyway, we eventually got our passports. The application went fairly swimmingly, and we booked our tickets with Gulf Air, after a conscious decision to avoid Saudi Arabian Airlines, since they suck. Another motivation to fly with Gulf Air was a stop-over in Bahrain.
College closed a few days earlier than scheduled, so we left three days prior to schedule. However, they could not find an earlier flight to India, so we had two full days to experience the island of Bahrain, which I was quite looking forward to since I heard so much about it.
I found Bahrain to be a very friendly place, on the whole. Even the drivers were courteous, and would stop or slow down for pedestrians even when they were not required to. The bars were quite cosmopolitan, with people from all over the world, usually there on business. There are a fair share of Saudis in the bars too, generally inebriated beyond sanity. In Saudi Arabia, alcohol is totally banned, as per “Islamic Law”. Bahrain is an Islamic country too, which is why the bars are to be found in the main hotels only.

Aside from the availability of alcohol, the other thing Bahrain is notorious for is prostitution. The bars are usually full of Chinese hookers, who accost the patrons for business. They of course assume that you are fairly affluent, being a foreigner, and that you thereby have 50-100 BD (which is 500-1 000 SAR, or 1 000-2 000 South African Rands) to “spare” for such services; whether you actually want such services or not is never in question, and after fending them off diplomatically they always downgrade their service to a massage, for a cheaper price. I didn’t accept this either, even though I did indeed need a massage, since I was suffering terribly with lower back pain! Anyway, I find the very idea of paying for sex repulsive, so it was a refusal based on principle.

Aside from the bars and prostitutes, there was not much to speak of in Bahrain. I went to check my email, and found that many web-sites are restricted by firewalls, just like Saudi Arabia, for example. So when it was time to depart, I was glad.

There were two main things I wanted to do in India: one was to see Mathura/Vrindavan, and the other to see a certain university in Calcutta, which I was interested in doing some studies with. For this reason, I wanted to fly to Delhi and make my journey from there. However, when we arrived at the Bahrain airport, they told us that our flights have been cancelled!

After an unnecessarily protracted altercation, they finally told us that we can fly to Bombay instead, which we had no choice but to agree to. My colleague had been adamant all along about going to Goa, which I was not at all interested in – I mean I didn’t even know it was part of India! Since we serendipitously ended up a lot closer to Goa than we would have been, he took this as a sign, and I relented; this was how we ended up going to Goa, which I will always regret, since this precluded me from seeing the more (spiritually) significant places in other parts of India.

Anyway, so off to Bombay we went. (I trust the reader will pardon me for using the ‘colonial’ names).

Upon our arrival, I was struck by the not unexpected condition of the airport, and the number of beggars outside. It wasn’t the presence of beggars that struck me, but the quasi-design behind it: they were all dressed almost identically, all middle-aged women, and all had babies with them – all seemingly the same age. I really do not think these are all women who happened to have babies around the same time, and are thereby begging to make ends meet. I doubt the babies belonged to them in the first place. I was told by a swami in South Africa that many beggars are born into a begging family, and accept that as their lot in life, and do all sorts of horrendous things like sever their limbs to make begging more viable. I surmise that something similar was at play here.
My colleague insisted on leaving the airport as soon as possible, even though I thought it would be better to find out where the city is, change money, etc. After some nagging, I agreed to just go along and change my money later, since he said he’ll pay in the mean time, and seemed to know where to go. After trying to find a taxi, we were told that we must take a pre-paid taxi. When they asked him where he would like to go, his response was: “Er… Bombay”. The official looked at me, then back at him, and said, “Yes sir, you are in Bombay now; which part of Bombay would you like to go to?”

After I explained that we don’t really have a set destination in mind, but would like to go somewhere central, close to the city, and cheap, they issued a ticket and off we went in a taxi. Of course if we just found out what is where from the airport’s information centre, things would have been much easier. The taxi driver took us to many places which seemed overpriced, and told us that there are no hotels for less than a thousand rupees, which was obviously not true. I discovered later that hotels generally make ‘deals’ with the taxi drivers to take passengers to their place, and in return the taxi driver driver gets a commission for this ‘favour’. This was why he did not want to take us to a hotel which was reasonably priced.

After driving for a while we found an acceptable hotel, which, though located in a dodgy area, was clean and tidy; we paid the fee, we went to look around town, find an ATM, and get something to eat. After a while, my colleague read that there were other hotels available at a cheaper rate, so he decided that he going to the hotel to tell them off and take his money back. After an unnecessary fight, which entailed some obtuse logic, threats to call the police, and a call to the tourism board, my colleague decided that he is going to leave despite having paid the money. This lasted for about an hour. He decided that he could not stay there as a matter of “principle”, and that he would reimburse me for the money lost.

On that note we left to another hotel closer to the city centre, and ended up sharing a room to “save costs” – his suggestion of course (since my colleague now agreed to pay the night’s accommodation as well as the money lost at the other hotel).

Upon taking a walk through the town, I was taken by the crowds, poverty, and reckless driving.

One place we frequented was Leopold’s Café, famous for two reasons: tourists seem attracted to it, and two of its staff members were victims of the terror attacks which happened not too long ago. It is clear that the scars left are there to stay.

One day I passed an “Ayurvedic Guru” sitting on the roadside, with an assortment of herbs/medicine displayed before him. As I was suffering terribly with lower back pain, I stopped and asked him if he had any remedies for it. He explained that he had both a massage oil, and some kind of herbal tablet. Since I had no one to apply the oil, I opted for the tablet, which cost 120 rupees/gram. He recommended taking two grams, but I was skeptical so I just took one.

Having done wrestling, karate and weight-training for a number of years, I seem to have caused some damage to my lower back, as I have to my knees and wrists as well. My back is particularly vulnerable due to trauma induced from getting slammed continually during my wrestling stints with the AWF and the WWP, two local wrestling organizations. A few games of tennis, albeit months later, served as… the straw which… err hurt my back.

I cannot exaggerate how bad my lower back pain was. For nearly two days, I could barely walk. After nursing myself with applications of Radian Massage Cream, purchased from the local supermarket, and consuming dozens of pain-killers (including Panado and Myprodol), I was just able to cope. But after taking this Ayurvedic tablet just ONCE, the pain COMPLETELY disappeared! Had I purchased the recommended two-week supply, I’m sure I would have gotten more long-term relief, but even now the pain only re-surfaces occasionally, and no longer precludes me from playing sports, even though I still have to be cautious.

Anyway, in Bombay I had the good fortune of visiting a famous Lakshmi temple: Mahalakshmi Mandir. It was teeming with devotees, and of course beggars. Here, like in so many places all over India, photography of the main deities is strictly prohibited.

The other place which had a profound impact on me was Mani Bhavan, the residential quarters of Mahatma Gandhi during his stays there. The simple room, rather vast library, and mini-museum were both fascinating and poignant.

There are many stalls on the streets, and one is tempted at every corner to buy something. I bought myself an abridged copy of the Vedas. Translated of course. Max Müller, for whom the great Swami Vivekananda had nothing but praise, even calling him a divine reincarnation of a popular Vedic commentator, had a hand in its translation. Who knows – I might even read it one day!

The beach in Bombay was a pleasant experience, though one must add that had it been cleaner and less crowded, it would have been more pleasant.

Anyway, we spent only about two days in Bombay. In general, it is a very active city, full of people trying to make a quick buck, by any means possible. Aside from the schemers trying to provide you with a ridiculously exorbitant personal taxi, there were also those who sidled up to you and coyly showed you a joint, waiting for your response.
Another hairy experience we had was walking into what seemed like a normal bar (think the place’s name was Cannada, or something similar), only to find rather sinister looking individuals dressed in black suits, and the place satiated with smoke, created by burning an excessive amount of labaan. We asked if they served alcohol, and they said that they did. When we sat and were served our drinks, we discovered a rather attractive girl dressed in a yellow Punjabi standing about six metres in front of us. I couldn’t help noticing that she kept looking at me and smiling. I of course took this as a compliment, winked, and smiled back. She took this as a compliment too, and kept staring. It got a bit creepy after a while, especially since she was joined by a few other girls, all dressed in rather regal-looking saris and punjabis. Since I was a hungry, it being supper time, and I was sure that the word “restaurant” featured on the board outside, I ventured to ask one of the dudes who were also gawking at us what was upstairs – assuming of course that the restaurant was there –, since it didn’t quite seem like a restaurant. He did not answer, and pointed to his colleague. He walked up, and answered with an emphatic YES, without hearing the question. I asked again what was upstairs, and he said again YES!, which prompted me to ask him if he understood English. (As mentioned, Indians generally take this to be rather patronizing, since they assume that I am native Indian).

When he pointed out that he does indeed speak English, I asked again, and this time he said, “Tell me what you want, and we’ll see what we can do…”

Pardon me for being slow, but it was only THEN that it struck me! We were in a whore-house, and it also eventually transpired that the best thing to do was to negotiate with the girls directly should I have any queries.

We finished our drinks and left as soon as we could, much to the disappointment and chagrin of all present, after paying about four times the normal price for the drinks. We were in a bit of a hurry since we were catching a bus to Goa soon.

The bus was very crowded and uncomfortable. Every bump was a jolt that shook your entire body. The journey was no less than twelve hours. My colleague, who arranged the tickets, said that we will have our own compartments with a ‘sleeper’. In fact, all we got was a tiny little ‘mattress’ only big enough for one person. Luckily, I was able to change this for a seat. As mentioned, I had no intention of going to Goa in the first place, which made the bus ride there even less pleasant.
Upon arrival in Goa, I negotiated with a taxi driver to take us to a cheap guest house in the northern part, called Calangute. Whilst the city was like your typical Indian city, busy, bustling, polluted, overcrowded, etc., the beaches were quite picturesque, with a number of beach shacks which served a variety of food and drinks.

On the way back from a walk into town one night, we were walking along the beach trying to find our way back. It must have been around 3am, so we were surprised to find a beach shack still opened. We stopped by and got a drink. There were two guys sitting there, with what seemed like two ladies. After my colleague discovered that the one was not quite a lady (sic) – and the reader can fill in the other details thereby –, and after I noticed my phone missing and upon discovering that the other lady was a prostitute, we left.
I must add that I actually pointed out to my colleague, in front of ‘her’, that her legs were… unshaven. I asked her why, since prostitutes all over the world at least take care of their appearance, and she said that she only waxes every other month…

The following night, we were walking along the beach when I was accosted by a Goan youth, who seemed to own one of the nearby beach shacks. He wanted to know why I was there, etc. Suddenly he started pushing me, and even slapped me. I apologized for offending him, like a good Gandhian, and told him that we were only trying to find our way back to our guest house, and after apologizing again, shook his hand. But then my colleague, who had taken a walk, was on his way back and saw the guy pushing me. After asking what’s going on, he pushed the Goan dude. I held him back, and said that it’s okay, etc. We then left, but a few minutes later were surrounded by about thirty young boys, with sticks!

As they encroached, my colleague pulled me into the ocean, and said that we should just stay there. They wouldn’t let up, and kept coming closer and closer. We knew that as long as we were in the ocean, they could not hurt us as much as they could on the beach. However, even though they hit us when they could, they seemed afraid to face us in the ocean. After about thirty minutes of cat-and-mouse, my colleague decided to go onto the beach. Before that, he held my hand, since I was getting panicked, and said: “Listen, all we have now is each other. Just stay here and we’ll be fine. We have only three options. We can stay here, we can face them, or we can split and run for it.” Neither option was very appealing, as we did not know what these boys wanted. Eventually, he just walked out, and they all gravitated towards him.

I considered fighting them, using the ocean as leverage, but then considered the risks too great. There were just too many of them, and had it escalated into such a fight, people would have no doubt been drowned, possibly me too, and they would have gotten even more angry. I also had the keys to the room in my hand, as well as a notebook (in which I was writing ideas for the various projects I am busy with), which I did not want to lose; had I started fighting, I would have to let go of both.

I walked out as well, but as there were only three of them hitting me with sticks, I pushed them aside and RAN like I’ve never run before! They chased me, but I eventually lost them. I tried to find help, knocking at every door I could find. “I need help. A group of guys are chasing me to beat me up, and my friend is STILL on the beach getting beaten up!” Nobody seemed to believe me, since such things do not happen in Goa. Those who did, nonchalantly redirected me to “someone else”. Eventually, I was just too exhausted, did not know where I was, and just lied down in what seemed like someone’s backyard.

It was freezing cold, so I did not sleep or even rest, and as the sun was rising, I got up and found my way back to the guest house.

Little did I know, my colleague ended up sitting with the aggressors and having a few beers with them! It had something to do with one of them cutting the side of his eye with a stick, which accidently broke while he was being hit.

The next day he was full of praise for them, in keeping with his superficial judgements of character.

Whilst in the ocean, I did not know if these people were planning to beat us to death or not. Neither of us had anything of value with us, and this was known to them. Hence, their motive was merely to hurt us, and I did not know how far it would go. I chanted, and prayed, and called upon God. After getting hit a few times, I figured He was not gonna help, but the thought that I could be beaten to death even at this moment was a very sobering one.

I also knew that by being in the ocean I was causing a lot of damage in another realm, which is something only very few people will understand. This made me even more anxious to get out, but by the time I did the damage had already been done. I cannot explain here why, but this damage so far amounted to a loss of about R60 000, the near death of someone very close to me, and ineffable stress and strain to another close ‘friend’. It may have implications for my father’s health as well, again for reasons which I cannot explain here.

This was my primary concern the second I left the scene, and the subsequent danger has not yet passed.

Anyway, the next day, nobody could believe our story. I think it was simply a matter of racial prejudice. In Goa, they do not like people from mainland India, because they come to Goa in hoards, and leave the place in a mess. When they saw me, with my Indian phenotype, they assumed I was Indian, and reacted accordingly. My colleague was painted with the same brush, until they saw his face and discovered that he was actually White, which was when they became apologetic.
Anyway, such was the trip to Goa.

I was glad to leave, not only because of the incident, but because I had enough of the beach. As beautiful as it was, it gets monotonous after a while.

I went into town, and booked a train from the Vasco da Gama train station to Calcutta.

It was a locomotive train, and took more two days to get there! The most depressing thing about this trip was that I had to spend Shivaratri night travelling on a train, after looking forward to doing so in an ashram or temple. Aside from the train being delayed by five hours, we were further delayed by a strike which stopped the train for nearly two hours. Had it not been for this, I would have been able to enjoy Shivaratri somewhere in Calcutta.

After arriving in Calcutta, we found a hotel fairly easily, at a reasonable price – though they still overcharged at the end.

Having discovered that Calcutta was home to two of the greatest souls that walked the earth, I was indeed excited, and made it my priority to go there to these hallowed grounds. I am of course talking about the great saint Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, and his inimitable disciple Swami Vivekananda.

Dakshineshwar, where Ramakrishna lived and preached, was about a half an hour drive from the city, and as I was short of time, I skipped lunch and got a taxi to Dakshineshwar, after going first to the Indian Board of Alternative Medicines to register for some courses. I went into some of the many temples dedicated to Lord Siva, and had the honour of sitting at the bedside of Sri Ramakrishna, where the great man himself lived and slept.

I deeply regret not visiting the Divine Mother Kali’s temple, as I only discovered afterwards why this particular murti is so sacred to Hindus. Ramakrishna had a very personal relationship with the Divine Mother Kali. He spoke to her like you would your own mother. He would serve her food only after tasting it to see if it was good enough for Her. One day, a devotee brought three gold bangles to be put on the Divine Mother. The devotee realised afterwards that it might not be possible to put all three bangles on for the Mother, and pointed this out to Ramakrishna.

Now, for those who don’t know, the Divine Mother Kali holds the head of the slain demon in one hand, which is why it would not be possible to don a contiguous bangle. The head symbolises annihilation of the ego, necessary for the progress on the progress path. Ramakrishna nevertheless accepted the gift, and thanked the devotee.

He then went to the Mother, asked her to put down the head for a while, and put the jewelry on for her. After that, She resumed her conventional pose.

Such was Ramakrishna’s relationship with the Mother.
Those bangles are still worn proudly by the Mother.

Also, whenever Ramakrishna had any problem, concern or query, He would go to the Mother, hold Her Feet, make his request, and get an immediate answer. Whenever he would hear some kind of gossip about His disciples, He would immediately consult the Mother, and return with a gleaming smile, saying to the gossip-monger “Mother says it is not so, and She know all…”

Hence, this image of the Divine Mother is especially sacred, and because I didn’t know this at the time, I allowed myself to be deterred by the very long line outside the temple. In addition to this, I had to get back to the alternative medicine university to fetch my student card and study material, and my colleague was waiting for me outside.
I made a note of visiting Belur Math whilst there, but because time was limited, I did not. I deeply regret this too.

Ramakrishna’s Math is also on the banks of the Ganges, and I did not go into Her sacred waters. This was my other regret.

Next time, I suppose.

In Dakshineshwar, I booked tickets on the famous Rajdani Express to Delhi the next day. I was advised by a very affable and helpful gentlemen, Mr Mukerjee, that there was a ticket office there.
After seeing a bit of Calcutta, I bought a few more books, including a very disturbing one called The Book of Kali. There’s so much we do not know about our own religion – it’s scary, and fascinating.

Anyway, the next day we were off to Delhi. The train was indeed much better than the previous one we took from Goa. Meals were served (unlike the previous train, which did not – you had to buy your own, or dispense with it), it was much faster, and more comfortable.

We left in the afternoon, and reached Delhi around mid-morning the next day.

I suggested that my colleague stay there, since, as a Krishna devotee, I wanted to go to Mathura and Vrindavan. So from the airport, I went to the tourism office to find out the best way to get there. I was advised by them to hire a car for two days, since the driver will avail himself and know the main places.

The driver, who bore an uncanny resemblance to my uncle Rabichand, was named Lakhan Singh. He knew very little about Hinduism, aside from the obvious things, and could never answer even simple questions honestly – he always pretended to know. I don’t quite know why he felt the need to preach incessantly, knowing that I am Hindu. He also feigned knowledge of Mathura and Vrindavan, and refused to admit that he didn’t quite know the place very well. His boss at the tourism office told me that he knew the place very well, and he claimed that he did as well, but when I noticed that he could never take me where I wanted to go without asking people I figured that he did not quite know the place.
Since I was in Vrindavan, I wanted to stay in an ashram, not a hotel. This was not a fiscal decision, it was a spiritual one. I was told on the train by Mr Mukerjee and another young man, Saurav Modi (whose email address I regrettably lost), that there were plenty of nice ashrams to stay at. I also had a photocopy of the relevant pages from my colleague’s Lonely Planet travel book, which mentioned this fact and also gave the names of two such ashrams. However, this fool of a driver kept taking me to strange-looking hotels, insisting that there aren’t really any ashrams for visitors to stay at. I showed him paper, complete with an address and phone number, and he was still confused because he did not know the place, and had already stated that there aren’t such places, and was obviously embarrassed. After asking a few people, he took me there. En route, I pointed out plenty of signs ‘advertising’ ashrams which provide food and accommodation.

Before this, he actually took me to another place which he thought was a hotel. Before we went in, he gave me long story about how the government of UP funds this particular hotel, which is why it is both cheap and clean. He knows it to be clean because he said he stayed there a while back whilst on a previous tour.

When we went in, it was nothing but a beer garden.

He then admitted that he didn’t really stay there.
He assumed it was a hotel because there was a board outside mentioning a hotel, with prices.

Anyway, we eventually got to an ashram, which was quite nice. Meals were simple, cheap, and quite satisfying.

I went to a Hare Krishna service in the evening, which, as usual, ROCKED.

I then walked through the town of Vrindavan, and bought a few things before heading back. These included a T-shirt, with a picture of Baby Krishna on the front, and the wording I LOST MY HEART IN VRINDAVAN on the back; the complete set of the epic Mahabharat, two books (Human Devolution and Krishna Leela), a rudrasha mala, and a cloth depicting Lord Krishna doing the notorious Rasa Leela.

I also passed a building called The Vrindavan Research Institute, which piqued my curiosity. They were closed though, but I resolved to go there the next day.

I asked my driver if he knew anything about the place when I got back, and he gave me another concocted story about the life of Krishna, and how this place works to preserve it. Nothing he said made sense, so I knew he was just pretending again. When I went there the next day, I discovered a museum, some offices, and a room where very old books were kept. The museum displayed relics, coins from the Moghul Empire, ancient manuscripts and the like. Very little was known to me. In the offices, people were so busy reading scripts that they did not even notice me. As an academic, I thought I could even be so presumptuous as to offer my services somehow. I dropped that idea when I realised that I am a monolingual English speaker with very little knowledge of my own religion and culture. How embarrassing.

Anyway, my morning started at the birthplace of Lord Krishna – Krishna Janbhoomi, as it’s called. I was very excited to see the actual place where the King of kings manifested Himself. As I walked in, I was surprised by the level of security. I was searched very thoroughly, and the guard even opened my wallet, and examined the coins and notes there. I had coins from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, South Africa and England; and notes from South Africa, England, Saudi Arabia and India. This seemed to make him suspicious, and he said something in what sounded like Hindi. Very few people speak English in this part of India, so I often had difficulty communicating. After a while, someone translated for me, and he got over the coins. As an aside, I must be the ONLY Linguistics post-graduate who speaks only one language in the world. Anyway, I then discovered that he also wanted me to deposit my phone at the “cloakroom”, so I had to go back out and leave my phone there. Upon re-entry, I was searched again.

Finally, I got in. I walked around for a while, looking at the gigantic temple at the entrance. There was also a scene portrayed at the entrance of Lord Krishna playing in the forest. Made me wish I could have been there when/if this very scene happened.

The birthplace itself is designed to look like a prison cell. Krishna was born to Vasudeva and Devaki in a prison cell. What happened was that Kansa, Devaki’s sister, “gave” her to Vasudeva in marriage. He was actually already married, but Kansa was the king so what he says goes. Furthermore, Vasudeva was his best friend, and Devaki was also very close to him. He was a very evil king, who deposed his own father and took over as king. Anyway, whilst celebrating the wedding of his sister, a holy man told him that the eighth child of Devaki would slay him and end his reign of terror. This made him furious, and he wanted to kill them both to prevent the prophecy from coming true. They persuaded him otherwise, and since he was close to them both, he did not kill them, but… threw them in jail instead.

After each child was born, he took the new-born babe and smashed it against the wall, obviously killing it. He did this after every birth.
Krishna is the eight incarnation of Vishnu, and as such the same could not happen to Him. When He was born, the gods gave the father instructions to take him away to a nearby village, Gokul, where He was entrusted to the care of Nanda and Yashoda. The guards fell asleep, and when Krishna was carried across the Yamuna River, which was much deeper than it is now, it miraculously parted ways to allow them to pass. Krishna was swapped with Yashoda’s newly born daughter, and Vasudeva returned to his dungeon, after which everything normalised.
Kansa was of course informed that a new baby was due, and was therefore waiting for the news. When the guards awoke, they informed the king of the new birth. He angrily stormed into the cell, grabbed the baby, and burst into a mad laughter when he discovered that it was a girl. He grabbed her and flung her against the wall, but legend has it that she disappeared into the sky and turned into lightning, which surprised and angered Kansa.

He suspected that something was awry, and knew that his nemesis was out there somewhere, and therefore ordered ALL the babies in the land to be killed. Thus began the stories and exploits of Lord Krishna.
He lived for 125 years, when he left in 3101BC, it marked the dawn of the Kali Yuga, and the world slowly started to descend into chaos. Now, we are in the Kali Yuga – the age of Kali. This “Kali” has nothing to do with the Divine Mother Kali. No. This Kali is a demon; a male demon. He is married to Alakshmi, the goddess of misfortune (she’s the older sister of the more popular goddess, Lakshmi), together they rule the world, which is why we have so much war, suffering, hate and pain in the world. Alakshmi rides a donkey, wears torn clothes, carries a broom, and eats lemon and chillies. Nothing like her younger sister.

After about 4 300 centuries, Lord Vishnu will come again in the form of Kalki, and the story is told in a scripture known as the Kalki Purana. He will then kill Kalki, end the Kali Yuga, destroy all evildoers, and mark the dawn of a new Golden Age.

But that’s another story. Krishna was then raised by Yashoda in Vrindavan, where his deeds were recorded in the Bhagavatam.
The very stone on which Lord Krishna was laid when he was born is said to be the one still there in Mathura, and I was privileged and awe-struck to touch it with my own hands. I sat in front of it for about two hours before I left.

After that I went to the Yamuna Ghat, where Krishna rested after his battle with His uncle Kansa, who He was destined to slay. I did not spend much time there, since I was being hounded by strange people who were saying things I did not understand.

After that I went to Vrindavan, and saw the river bank where Krishna used to peep at the bathing ladies (gopis), and even used to steal their clothes! He was indeed quite naughty. In fact, the ‘consort’ you usually see him with is not his wife. Radha was a gopi, who Krishna took a fancy to; his wife is Rukmini. I still don’t understand the symbolism behind that, but you can be sure that if Krishna does something, there’s some kind of ethereal profundity behind it. We cannot judge by own standards.

Krishna used to also go to the forest at night, and woo the women of the town with the mellifluous sound of His Flute, dancing with them and caressing them sensually. They would forget their husbands, and their household chores, and dance the night away with Lord Krishna, who multiplied Himself and danced with ALL of them, pleasuring them in turn. This is known as the Rasa Leela, and is documented in scriptures like the Bhagavata Purana. I stood on the very ground on which this was said to have taken place.

I also saw a tree, which is said to be over 5 000 years old, and HOLLOW! Krishna used to play on this tree as a little boy, which is why it still exists. I attended a service at ISKON’s Lenasia branch, and the speaker mentioned this tree, with no xylem and phloem vessels, which still bears green leaves – something which would not normally be possible. I thought then how cool it would be to see and touch this tree, and I did. It really is hollow. There are even holes/breaks in the “branches”, which allow you to see right THROUGH it. There are trees in this garden which the locals insist are not really trees. They are actually the gopis who take the form of trees, and spring to life at night, to re-enact the Rasa Leela. These trees are also said to be over 5 000 years old. I broke a piece from one of the branches after someone told me that it’s good luck to keep it with you – this slightly offended the obnoxious man who was following me round, and was later to ask me for a large donation in one of the temples.

Many of the temples are said to have been manifested by Krishna out of thin air. I visited them, but there was unfortunately no evidence that is was not man-made. Not that I don’t believe it; just that I don’t have another weird and wonderful thing to share.

One temple has a murti of Radha holding Krishna’s flute in Her hand. It is said to be the only temple in the world with such a murti, but I am yet to verify this.

After enjoying Vrindavan, I asked Lakhan Singh to take me to Gokul, and he politely pointed out that there was nothing really to see in Gokul, and said that it was a bit far out. I just wanted to go because that was where Krishna was taken after He was born, but I let it be.

After seeing a few more temples around Vrindavan, we headed back to Delhi. After driving for a while, I realised that I left my passport, and other important documents, back at the ashram, so we had to go back to get it.

THEN, we really left for Delhi. I once again saw the giant murtis of Mother Durga and Lord Siva, and felt the pang of regret once again, as I was unable to capture the moment on film. I really should buy a camera some time soon.

I arrived at Delhi International Airport in the evening, and had to wait the entire night for our flight, which was only leaving at 6am the next morning. I sat down, and took out one of the books I bought from Calcutta – The Book of Kali. After a few hours, my colleague passed by. He decided to sleep on the floor until boarding time.

As I read this book, I SMS’ed the weird and wonderful things I discovered to Natasha, only because she’s a devotee of the Divine Mother Durga, and thought she might be piqued by my new discoveries. She seemed more offended than anything else. Maybe that’s because she thought I was picking on her Mother. I suppose anyone would take
offense at that.

All in all, it was a fascinating and life-changing trip. I will indeed go back as soon as I can.

I forgot to mention that I lost my shoes at the Krishna Janbhoomi. When I went back to get it, I couldn’t find it, and nobody around could speak English, so I couldn’t really ask for help.

When we arrived in Bombay, my colleague lost his bag too – well, it just didn’t arrive actually. He refused to wait for it, as mentioned, he was very eager to leave. So, let’s just say he lost his bag in Bombay.
I lost my phone in Goa, my shoes in Mathura, and my “heart in Vrindavan”.

Anyone wanna jump up and sing HARE KRISHNA with me?

The Dalai Lama fiasco 25 March 2009

March 25, 2009

As a South African working abroad, few would dispute the fact that I am very proud of my country and my people. We have come a long way in a remarkably short time.

As a South African of Indian descent, I proudly stand tall in my community’s achievements, despite being a descendent of veritable slaves. I look at my countrymen as South Africans, not Blacks, or Whites, or Asians; they see me not as a Hindu, or an Indian, but as a South African too.

Mahatma Gandhi launched his political career in South Africa, and the twenty odd years he spent there fighting for the oppressed shaped him as a man, a lawyer, a politician, and social reformer; and it is in THIS land that he earned the title “Mahatma”.

We have successfully separated religion, politics and the judiciary. When the danger of conflating these raised its ugly head, we the people raised our voices.

We have a true multi-party democracy, with very few filters precluding you from running for office, unlike the USA, for example.

All are welcome in South Africa. Whether you’re a Communist, or a Republican; atheist or missionary. Unlike Saudi Arabia, where I am afraid at every turn, in South Africa I can say what I like.

As a school teacher in South Africa, I could stand in front of a multi-racial class at Parktown Boys’ High School and criticize Islam for the wars in the Middle East, and the human rights violations in right-wing Islamic states; my Muslim students would respond, and we would end the lesson in polite and respectful disagreement.

As an actor, I was once interviewed by Africa Awakes, which airs throughout the continent. During the interview, I was asked my opinion on many things, not just the entertainment industry. I used the words “kaffir” and “coolie” a few times, to illustrate a point, and everything I said, no matter how controversial, was aired in its entirety.
As a Life Orientation teacher at Turffontein Primary School, I taught various religions as part of religious education component. Nobody stopped me from including “Satanism” and “Wicca” in my course, complete with excerpts from the Satanic Bible and various Wiccan texts. The final exam was moderated by both the deputy principal and my HOD, who merely warned that if parents raise any complaints, I must be prepared to justify my choice of subject matter. Hinduism is far more uncanny than any of these so-called religions can hope to be, so I felt it my duty to teach about as many religions as possible.

As a Life Orientation teacher at a South African Jewish school, called Toras Emes, I also taught them about comparative religion and HIV-AIDS, which, though not without controversy, still went ahead. Of course they didn’t agree with rose-tinted picture of Islam I portrayed, and some were even blatantly hateful; but we discussed it openly and honestly, and I learnt a lot not only of Islam, but of the Jewish mind-set too. In the end, there was no animosity at all, though I had to humbly concede my ignorance on quite a few issues.

The point is simply that this is freedom. Freedom of speech, and freedom of expression.
Norman Finkelstein pretty much cannot get a job anywhere in the US because he simply spoke his mind as an academic on the Israel-Palestine issue. Aside from being an expert on the issue, he never said anything contrary to the factual record, but because he speaks and writes against US interests, he is duly punished. Yet Norman, together with his friend Noam Chomsky, still asserts that America is the ONLY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD WHERE THERE IS TRUE FREEDOM OF SPEECH.

They say it’s bad, but other countries are worse.

I suppose they haven’t really experienced much else, so let’s forgive their ignorance.

Alexander Bard, Swedish musician and author, quotes South Africa as being one of those countries where even the poor, unemployed squatter-dwellers are informed of what is happening socially and politically, and uses this part in part as the basis for his theory expounded in his book NETOCRACY.

In 1999, Mandela’s grand-daughter graduated from Wits University. He walked around the campus talking to students, like he himself was one us. Which other country would allow a figure of such stature to walk around freely on campus grounds?

At this university I met (okay, when I say ‘met’, I mean it loosely; only five of them I met IN PERSON) Tony Leon, Nadine Gordimer, Chinua Achebe, Susan Sontag (a few months before her passing), Don Mattera, Chris van Wyk, and … the Dalai Lama.

His speech was awe-inspiring, and after I read the story of what happened in Tibet, and how he was exiled by the Chinese, I was taken by his magnanimity. I was glad that my alma mater was giving him a chance to express himself.

Anyway, in light of everything that my country stands for, I am astounded and embarrassed by what they are doing RE: the refusal to grant the Dalai Lama entry. I heard it asked: Who is the Dalai Lama? Well, my answer is: it does not matter who he is. We DO NOT refuse people entry into our country under the pretext that … we are hosting the world cup next year, as if people will forget about the football if the Dalai Lama comes. We are also not bullied by other countries when they try to order us around; the USA, for example, cannot make us a coalition force, even though they might state that we have to be either with “them, or against them”.

The spin-doctoring that works in places like the USA does not and will not work in South Africa. Thabo Mbeki knew this when he fired Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, which is why he did not bother trying to cover up the reason – he just told the nation that he didn’t owe us an explanation, knowing that he couldn’t lie about it and get away with it.

Hence, it is obvious that we are succumbing to orders from China.

Is this because they are a leftist state, like our ruling party? Why should
we follow China’s orders?

Our country is crawling with Chinamen, many of them have parents or grandparents who fled China as stowaways. Why would they do this?

You have to write to government for permission to have more children than your allotted quota. During the earthquakes a while back, government officials proudly stated that those who lost children will be ALLOWED to replace them by having another child.

China is a free country, except if you talk about:

– Taiwan
– Tibet
– The government.

It does not matter WHAT you say. The point is that such discussions could lead to the truth, so it is banned all together.

During the 2008 Olympic games hosted by China, poor people living in regions too close to stadia were simply evicted – D6 style – so that the place would look good for visitors. Taxi drivers and tourist officials were instructed not to speak about it, and not to take them to the locations where people were moved to.

I will not go on, except to state that China does not have a very impressive human rights record. Hence, they have absolutely NO moral authority to give us orders on who to allow or not allow into our country.

I graduated with Jean-Bertrand Aristide in April 2007, who is in our country because he has been granted asylum. (The state president was there too, and I was pleased to note that people were walking PAST him to greet ME, and get MY autograph…) The point being: we do not close our doors even to controversial figures like Aristide, why do we do so to the Dalai Lama?

Clearly, this decision was not made on moral grounds, and the notion that it will “divert attention” from the world cup is something nobody I have hitherto spoken to has taken seriously.

If China’s political clout was the factor at play, then why don’t we join the war on terror, curry favour with the US, and even send a few troops to Iraq and/or Afghanistan?

Of course I understand why we our government is so scared to marginalise China, but we should never compromise our fundamental principles to please even an economic power-house like China.

I would be upset if anybody had a visa turned down without a substantial reason. This is not only about the Dalai Lama. I’m not even Buddhist.

It’s a matter of principle.

That is NOT what Gandhi fought for in South Africa; that is NOT what Mandela stood for; that is NOT what South Africa is about; and finally, it is not what we as proud South Africans should stand for.
Let’s stop this now, before we slide down a slippery slope.
I have included a note sent out to alumni from Wits University, where the Dalai Lama was due to speak.
Thanks to our vice-chancellor for expressing his sentiments.

Dear Wits alumnus/alumna                                                            wits-logo
His Holiness the Dalai Lama was scheduled to deliver a public lecture at Wits University on Saturday, 28 March 2009. This event has been cancelled due to the South African government not granting a visa to the Dalai Lama. The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Loyiso Nongxa, has issued the following statement on behalf of the University.


Wits University expresses its profound dismay at the decision taken by the South African government not to grant a visa to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, to attend a Peace Conference in South Africa along with other Nobel Peace Prize Laureates.

The University does not accept the rationale offered by the South African government to bar this stalwart of peace from entering the country. The decision of the government ridicules the values enshrined in our Constitution, and the freedoms for which so many South African have lived, and indeed died.

The Dalai Lama was scheduled to deliver a public address at Wits University on Saturday, 28 March 2009, following on a similar lecture that he delivered to a full capacity audience at Wits during his last visit to the country. To have the voice of the Dalai Lama silenced at both the Peace Conference and the Wits Public Lecture is a setback to the principle that rigorous intellectual debate and reflection is central to the defence of democracy. As part of its commitment to being a publicly engaged institution, Wits hosts numerous public engagement activities and provides an intellectual platform for robust debate. We believe that making differing perspectives and views accessible to our community is a vital part of sustaining and defending the constitutional values that we express as a country.

No country in the world has produced as many Peace Prize Laureates as South Africa, a testament both to the struggles that we have waged in this country for the principles of human rights, as well as to the great stature of the South Africans who have found transcendent ways of expressing the struggle for freedom. It is with this tradition in mind that we view the exclusion of the Dalai Lama from our shores with grave misgivings. This betrayal of a key constitutional value provides a clear window into the fragility of the democracy we are trying to sustain.

It is our responsibility as a University to express our concern at this development. Wits University takes this opportunity to strongly condemn the action of the South African government in denying His Holiness the Dalai Lama access to South Africa. We add our voice to that of other leaders, calling on the South African government to apologise to the nation for this oversight. It is a betrayal of everything that we, as South Africans, fought against during the apartheid regime and a gross violation of the values we espouse as a nation.

Prof. Loyiso Nongxa
Vice-Chancellor and Principal
Wits University
25 March 2009

On the Palestine-Israel Conflict

January 31, 2009
A “complicated” case

A lot has been said about this rather sad issue, and part of the problem is the fact that those who have no voices never get their side told. This problem is not at all complicated. There are reasons why the United States and Israel want to make it SEEM complicated.
The most telling problem with this issue can be summed up in three letters: USA. Israel is being used by the U.S. to create instability in the region, for as long as the Middle East is politically unstable, it justifies American ‘intervention’ in various ways, which would ultimately result in control of their oil resources. Saudi Arabia was never invaded, despite the fact that Osama bin Laden’s family is still here, and despite the fact that something like 9 of the 14 suspects from 9/11 are Saudi Arabian. (Yes, bin Laden is Saudi, not Afghan). Of all the Islamic countries in the world, Saudi Arabia is the MOST extreme and the LEAST democratic, being the only country in the world still run by an absolute monarchy. The people in Saudi Arabia are brainwashed in that they know little of the outside world, and all talk of religion, politics, etc. is banned. Even a bad word against the king (or any of the ‘princes’, who run the individual provinces) is literally deemed blasphemous. What could be more un-democratic? Is this not another reason to invade, and liberate the people? The fact that it did not happen means what?
Well, Saudi Arabia already allows America virtually free reign over its oil profits; that’s why. There’s nothing complicated about it at all.
It is also simply a brute fact that Iraq was a secular country under Saddam Hussein, unlike Saudi Arabia, which is theocratically run. It follows from this that Iraq was certainly LESS democratic. (I, by the way, work in Saudi Arabia, and therefore know firsthand what the country is like).
I do not find the claim that the Iraqi invasion was planned long BEFORE 9/11 implausible. Too many have forgotten the gulf war that was started circa 1991 by daddy dearest. The point then was the same as it is now: to do what it takes to control Iraqi oil profits, and instill a puppet government to oversee it. Iran does not allow the US to rape it of its resources, hence the outcry; how DARE they! Venezuela does not either, and we all know the frenetic ravings against Hugo Chaves. Why? Because he thinks Venezuela should control her own resources.
The belief is that democracy cannot exist outside the USA. If it does, it has to be sanctioned (and controlled) by the USA. The international community has been calling for free and fair elections in the Palestine, and when it happened, the results were simply not what the Master wanted, and was therefore unilaterally declared null and void. Only those who are aligned with or controlled by the US are allowed the status of a democratic state.
South Africa is certainly the best example of a democracy in the world. From a bloodless revolution in 1994, the legacy of Nelson Mandela, a multi-party government, and civil liberties that are unprecedented. (As a popular South African comedian pointed out: “We’re so democratic, we can get a new president WITHOUT elections” ). Despite this, the USA had South Africa’s ruling party, the ANC, listed as a TERRORIST ORGANISATION until July 2008! Why was this listing finally reneged? It was a “GIFT” in honour of Mandela’s birthday.
Even left-wing radicals like Norman Finkelstein (who I otherwise admire greatly) perpetuate the American myth that South Africa, like other African countries, is now becoming a wretched, poverty stricken country and therefore dire need of US “aid”.
If one compares what American “democracy” is to South Africa, most objective Americans would be embarrassed, not just by the embarrassing disparity, but by the American political system in general.
Anyway, once “American Imperialism, and its quest for global dominance” (to borrow a subtitle from one of Noam Chomsky’s books on the subject) is understood, the next point becomes apparent. As long as the Palestine issue is “mind boggling” and “complicated”, it cannot be resolved. If it is resolvable, and Palestine gets its state-hood, then Israel has no claim to its resources and land, and it would eventually stabilize and prosper. There are also strong suspicions that this might also be an oil-rich area, which means untapped profits for guess who…
I will not write more on the U.S. involvement in this matter, as there is extensive literature on this topic out there. Chomsky’s book, “The Fateful Triangle”, is by most objective standards the most honest and open account to that effect.
The problem is so very simple and resolvable, that it would be laughable if it were not so tragic.
Firstly, Israel invaded Palestine in 1967, and till this day illegally occupy East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. After the invasion, Israel started to refer to these territories as DISPUTED TERRITORIES, and this phrase has been reiterated over and over again by Israeli and pro-Israeli media all over the world.
What is not mentioned is that there is nothing “disputed” about these territories! Israel bulldozed the homes of benign Palestinians, slaughtered those who refused to leave, and occupied the said territories. What makes this occupation worse than the occupation of, say Iraq, is that this is a government funded (and needless to say U.S. backed) CIVILIAN occupation.
If you were forcefully removed from your home in this manner, and had to observe Israeli settlements being erected a few days later, and had to watch this happen with the title deeds to YOUR HOME still in your hand, what would you do?
This what the U.S. and Israel refer to as the “right of return” policy, where they say that Palestinians do not have the right to return to their homes. Israel has stated time and time again that if any negotiations are to take place, it will only take place on the understanding that PALESTINIANS DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT TO RETURN TO THEIR LAND.
In negotiating this particular issue, I would probably understand that practically I cannot return to what is rightfully my land. I would expect at least an apology though, and some kind of compensation. As mentioned, those who refused to leave their own land were simply bulldozed with their homes; those who returned were treated as trespassers, and those who even WANTED to return were told that they do not have the RIGHT to.
If the Palestinians do not give up this right, Israel is not prepared to even discuss the matter. Of course they aren’t, and are thereby labeled as:
I asked the question earlier as to what you would do if your home was bulldozed without any concern as to whether your family was in it or not, and YOUR LAND was occupied by another. Well what I would do is not relevant, but Hamas, on behalf of the people, chose to do something. After years of watching their own Palestinian people being illegally evicted, they resorted to the only other tactic they know: they started firing rockets. They still do with the express statement that if Israel leaves the land they illegally occupy, all will be fine.
The notion that one day Hamas just decided to start firing rockets for no reason makes no intuitive sense. The record clearly shows what came first, and although I am no fan of Hamas, is simply a brute fact that they are firing into THEIR OWN land. Israel just shows them the middle finger when Hamas point out that their land is still theirs.
In fact, it is not just the Palestinian people who believe this, even though one would think that just having a title deed to your property matters. The International Court of Justice ruled in June 1996 that East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are ILLEGALLY OCCUPIED PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES, and that Israel should give back what they have taken.
They also ruled that the wall which annexes the said land [what Israel wrongly calls a FENCE, for obvious reasons] is illegal, and must be torn down.
The ICJ ruled citing UN Resolution 242, which speaks of the INADMISSIBILITY OF ACQUIRING TERRITORY BY WAR, and article 49 of the fourth Geneva Convention says that settlements on such land is illegal.
Instead of respecting the law, Israel just chose to ignore the ruling. Some Israeli historians, like Benny Morris, will tell you that there’s nothing wrong with slaughtering an entire nation, citing the USA as a precedent, and concluding that without such action the great American Empire would not have been born. Other pro-Israeli scholars, like Alan Dershowitz (who happened to be one of O.J. Simpson’s defence lawyers), simply choose not to acknowledge the authority of the world court.
In addition to that, the United Nations has been voting every year since 1989 on a peaceful resolution of the Palestine problem. Of course, in accordance with international law (which is not only confined to the ruling above), they put forth the resolution as a two-state solution, with Palestine and Israel as sovereign states, on the 1967 borders, as per the ICJ ruling. The ENTIRE WORLD (more than 160 countries, including the UK) votes in favour of this, with Israel voting against it, joined by the USA, and recently by Australia. [America managed to bully some smaller islands, like the Republic of Palau (one of the smallest – and newest – countries in the world), into voting with them as well].
Since America is one of the five countries with veto rights, nothing can be passed without their approval, and the resolution therefore gets rejected.
So ultimately, this is not really a complicated matter at all. It’s just that the USA refuses to resolve it. They do this by refusing to accept the ICJ ruling, and by showing the UN and the rest of the world the middle finger year after year.
At one point, the USA said that they will only negotiate with Palestine if they have a democratically elected government. There was an election in 2006, which Hamas won, claiming 76 of the 132 parliamentary seats. Since the USA did not want Hamas to win, they simply decided to boycott the newly elected government, and impose sanctions on them. This is because the USA wants a puppet government who would do what they order, so Hamas is no longer recognized. The pretext here is that Hamas is a terrorist organization, and they will not allow that (strange, since they knew very well that Hamas was on the ballot). This cheap tactic is vacuous, since by any objective standard, the USA is a terrorist state, and despite having the ANC, South Africa’s ruling party, listed as a terrorist state [until July 2008, as mentioned earlier], Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama [before he even started his campaign] have been to South Africa prior to this were quite prepared to have healthy relations with this “terror” organization.
At the time, Obama pointed out that he does not endorse any election with Hamas on the ballot, which says something about his position.
Furthermore one need only to refer to reputable organizations like the International Society of the Red Crescent, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem (the latter being an Israeli human rights organization, with the mandate of overseeing the occupied territories) to get a more objective perspective on what Israel is doing.
It is clear then, that the problem is systemic, yet unnecessarily befuddled by pro-Israeli propaganda.
A side note on the “Obama Nation”
In light of the recent onslaught on Gaza, just a few weeks before Obama’s inauguration, all he said was that he will only speak on this issue after January 20th. Needless to say, the slaughter of Palestinians would have ceased by then, and he knew that. This would give him a breather to revert to the usual spin-doctoring in light of what the Jewish lobby orders. It is no coincidence that the speech Obama gave at AIPAC during his campaign was the most pathetically sycophantic one ever – to such an extent that he and his campaign had to sheepishly shy away from some of the positions articulated during that speech.
Eventually all he said was that if his daughters were having rockets fired on them, he would “do anything” to protect them; one wonders what AIPAC paid for that comment. He didn’t say much about what he would do if Israeli tanks bull dozed his home down with his daughters in it.
He ran his campaign on the theme of CHANGE, yet after he was elected he suddenly reverted to politics as usual. Even during the campaign, we slowly saw the issue of the American occupation of Iraq recede into the background, whilst at the outset he touted that as his main message. The people he is appointing to his cabinet are avid supporters of the “war”, and by and large Washington old-schoolers.
In light of this, it is really no wonder that Obama has also suddenly announced that he will try and withdraw all combat troops from Iraq within a year. Why TRY, and why only COMBAT troops? That obviously means that non-combat troops will remain, like they do in so many Middle Eastern countries. Why does he want this? Well, the same reason Bush did.
But … how can he DO that? He ran his entire campaign on his promise of change, starting with a COMPLETE withdrawal or troops from Iraq, amongst other things. So seriously, can he suddenly change his mind like this – as he is doing with everything else?!
He is now elected, and does not have to spin tales anymore, aside from a little spin-doctoring that is.
One has to quote Ogden Nash at this point: THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME.
I am very disappointed by what has transpired hitherto, as I, like so many others, believed him when he made all those promises.
Obama may mean well, but ultimately he is a cog who has to turn with the others, so it would be unlikely to see any concrete change anyway.
In Conclusion – a caveat
The purpose here was just to give a very basic overview of some facts that seem to be lacking in the mainstream media and therefore in public discourse. I am neither pro-Israeli nor pro-Palestinian. I am simply against the slaughter of innocent people, in whatever context that may occur, willy-nilly.
These facts have been documented by reputable scholars, and if you are interested in a more precise account, with exact names and references, I urge you to consult the following sources:
Or just go to YouTube and search for the names “NOAM CHOMSKY” and “NORMAN FINKELSTEIN”.
I assure you, there are no two people on the planet who know more on this topic than these two great intellectuals.
I just learnt that Noam Chomsky was denied entry into the West Bank; he was invited by the philosophy department at Bir Zeit University to deliver some lectures (cf.http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/noam-chomsky-denied-entry-into-israel-and-west-bank-1.290701).
If we cannot do much more, we can at least set the facts straight when this topic arises. We have all seen the suffering that is being incurred, and we cannot sit back and do nothing. That much is clear.
Educating ourselves, and understanding what is really happening, would enable us to cut through the chaff of public discourse and move forward with a clear purpose, and a clear understanding of what needs to be done.
Suren Naicker

Tribute to my late Uncle

January 26, 2009

Working overseas, I was deeply saddened and shocked by the rather untimely and sudden passing of my uncle, Atham.

He was mockingly known as Tom Thumb, and we sometimes referred to him as “Tom Thumb Mama” [the latter being an Indian kinship term, meaning “mother’s brother”].

As I young child, I remember my uncle as one of the very few ‘grown-ups’ who took time out to laugh and joke with us children. Whenever he came over from Tongaat, where he lived, my siblings (together with my cousins, if they were there) and I would arrange the cushions from the lounge into a ‘puppet stage’, and we would don socks to create hand puppets, and would insist he stay for the puppet show we would put on – impromptu, and I guess rather boring. After a few hours of watching us, he would leave, always to our disappointment.
Another fond memory I have is him allowing my cousin Vishaan and I to pretend to be doctors – with him as the patient! He nicknamed us Dr Godi and Dr Munda. Don’t quite recall the etymology, but I think it had something to do with our culinary predilections. Once again, we would spend hours feigning operations, diagnoses, etc., and he would have no problem entertaining what would otherwise be quite irritating to other adults. Often our ‘medical interventions’ would culminate in administering some kind of ‘medicine’ [food, juice, etc.], which as a rule the poor ‘patient’ could never refuse.

From a very young age I remember him writing letters to me. I used to reply regularly as well. As the years wore on, my letters became more scarce, as I inevitably became ‘busier’.
Aside from my mother, he is the ONLY one who still bothered to write to me even though I am out of the country. He did not get my last reply, which I sent via express mail. Still seems to be en route.

He is also the only person who ever bothered to phone me regularly, wherever I was, even Saudi Arabia.

Him writing to me is a big thing not only because most people don’t bother, but also because he never had a car to even post the letters; he used to either walk to the post office or take a taxi.
Despite never being well off financially, he always used to give me money when he left after a visit. When I became a Queen fan shortly after Freddie Mercury’s death, he used to go around the shopping malls – via taxi! – searching for Queen CDs that I did not already have. He actually asked me for a list of ALL the CDs that I did not have, and went in search of them. The fact that I already had most of their albums did not deter him, and after about four years of doing this, he eventually found a CD I did not have: MADE IN HEAVEN. He posted it to me from Tongaat, and called every other week to inquire whether I received it or not. The only reason he stopped doing this is… the fact that Queen were no longer making new albums, and I was not half as passionate about anything else.

At the age of about 10, I fancied myself as a fledgling novelist, and since my father used to bring home the typewriter every now and then, which I LOVED to play with, I thought I’d type my first book on it. I wrote a story about a gang called THE LIZARDS, which became the title of the book. I still have the draft in a box somewhere. After showing it to my mother and father, who extolled me the way you would a child after he made some stupid sandcastle, I posted the draft to my uncle. He was delighted when he received it! He phoned and praised my efforts, and said how much he enjoyed reading the story.

Whether it was true or not, that meant a lot to me, and he was the only one who cared. Whenever I shared my dreams and ambitions with him, he never mocked me as one would expect, even when I told him that I wanted to grow up to be an astronaut – or a famous writer.
When my older brother was getting married [in December 2007], I went to visit him the day I arrived in Tongaat from Johannesburg. As soon as I walked into his flat, children came in asking for my autograph. Some brought pirated copies of the movies RUN FOR YOUR LIFE and BROKEN PROMISES, others just wanted to get my signature on a piece of paper. I jokingly reminded him: “Told you I’ll be famous one day!”

He smiled and nodded, and I smiled back knowing that he was the ONLY one who never made fun of me when I shared those very aspirations with him as a young child. He was equally proud hearing of my achievements in karate, wrestling, and academia – however small or large that success was did not matter. He was just proud of ME.

My uncle was a very intelligent student at school, and one of the best in his English class. He was also athletically gifted; I was told by another late uncle, Sunil, that watching him and my father spar in the karate club was something everyone looked forward to, since they were both so good. He wanted to be a lawyer when he finished school, but a mental illness precluded him from furthering his studies.

Nobody knows what exactly the problem was, save to say that he disappeared from home one day and his siblings did not know where he was. After a few days they found him sleeping in the park! (I must say that I got this anecdotal story from a not-so-reliable source – my mother.) Then the family realized that there was something wrong, but till his dying day nobody, including healthcare professionals, could diagnose the problem, even tentatively. If you ask me, I would say the only solution would have been to consult an expert in the field of the Aadhyaatmic Roga branch of Ayurveda, but nobody asked me, and nobody would listen anyway.

I must stress that upon meeting him, nobody would assume that he is a psychiatric patient, so he was normal in that regard. But because of his inability to work, he was never affluent, which made him an outcast, and forced him to become more and more reliant on his other half, which put a strain on his marriage. The details regarding this will remain confidential, as they were said to me in confidence.

Just to illustrate what I mean by the whole “black sheep” thing: About two years before his death, my parents and I went to his place for supper. When we arrived, my uncle said pointed out that the food was ready. My mother then retorted that we “came to eat”, so they can dish immediately. As soon as we completed the meal, my mother said that we had to leave, and that she “didn’t mean to be rude”. This would be a kick in the teeth to anyone, but it’s especially rude in Indian culture.

I pointed out that she WAS being rude, and that we should at least sit and talk for ten minutes, but she bluntly said that I wanted to stay, I can, and someone can fetch me later. Of course that wasn’t my point, but she wasn’t listening. My father had nothing to say, as usual.
Anyway, this is the way my uncle was treated by many in the family, with a few exceptions. He wistfully said to me on a number of occasions that the family (and his wife) seems to be very ‘unhappy’ with him, that nobody seems to care, and also pointed out that he didn’t quite know why.

A lot has been said about his alleged proselytism, in that it has been said that he has converted to Christianity. I will not go into the reasons as to why I think he was forced to say that to the family, except that it is not a coincidence that his wife boycotted ALL (his) family functions, and all family actually. I wish merely to point out here that he told me on many occasions that he only said what he said, and did what he did, to make “Kay Mamie happy”, because she “seems to be very unhappy” with him. He was referring to him being coerced into renewing his wedding vows – Christian style.
His wife said to me that he must realize that he can’t worship “two gods in one house”, and until he accepts that (and starts coming with her to church, etc), she will have nothing to do with his family. There were other reasons too, which I will not go into. I understood her point though, as my own (immediate) family is severely dysfunctional anyway. She only explained this to me because she had to explain why she would not come along to the pre-wedding get together being held at another uncle’s house, since I was the one (together with Natasha) who was offering to take them.

It was for this reason that just did what she said to keep the peace, which was still not enough anyway, but in his heart he renounced none of his former beliefs.
This is why nobody was REALLY sure whether he became Christian or not, but I hope this clarifies.

In sum, I would just like Atham Mama to be remembered for the person he was, not the person he was perceived by most to be. I wrote a little bit here on the Palestine issue, and not the Zimbabwean issue, for example. Why? Because there is a lot of disinformation happening RE: the former, but everyone pretty much knows not only what is happening RE: the latter, but also what the solution is. Like this, I did not write about my uncle Sunil, who was very dear to me, because everyone remembers him the way he should be remembered. The same is not true of my uncle Atham.

And on that note:
We all miss you dearly. Thank you so very much for all the good times, all the letters, all the phone calls. People never appreciate what they have, until they don’t have it anymore. I will always remember what you have done for me, and I will treasure all the letters I received from you over the years. I have no doubt that I will see you again soon, and listen to your silly jokes again!
Posted to me here in Saudi Arabia, with a letter, labeled: Taken at Sun City Casino in 1990s

My views on the NATURE-NURTURE debate – Part 9

January 3, 2009


Having looked at the key arguments put forth over the past forty years or so, and having duly criticised them in light of Popper’s meta-theoretical paradigm, we are now in a position to evaluate the status quo.

As Cowley puts it, if we value the facts over and above our theoretical biases, “Sampson’s argument holds”, and no “empirical grounds justify the hypothesis that we embody genetically encoded X-bars, traces, cases and other formal paraphernalia”. Their theories are “riddled with implausibility”, and their “flaws are all too obvious”.

Carr joins a growing number of academics in saying that the predecessors of the Minimalist Program have expired, and that “Minimalism may well meet the same fate”.

Despite the fact that Sampson’s case may not be watertight, he does indeed raise some questions which are worth serious consideration. What is certain is that the foundation upon which nativism stands is a lot more fragile than most of the linguistics world would like it to be. If we stop seeing the world through nativist glasses, and approach the study of language and mind in a more scientific manner, it would be much more conducive to the scientific search for truth.

My views on the NATURE-NURTURE debate – Part 8

January 3, 2009



One criticism one may levy against Sampson is that of reductionism. Popper says that we cannot dispense with certain postulates simply because it seems prima facie viable to do so. Popper uses the rather well-known example of behaviourism which tried to dispense with mental states. We first need a behaviourally based theory, then a theory of cognitive states, and then we need to see what unifying principles can be found between them. Likewise, with the acquisition of language, we should not at the outset try and reduce all learning to general cognitive structures without seeing what merit postulating modularity of mind has. Regarding language, we need an accurate description of the nature and properties of languages or language in general, before we are in a position to begin arguing whether that kind of system could or could not be acquired by the general learning mechanisms through which we learn other things, particularly culturally-specific things that are unlikely to be innate.

Sampson actually does not disagree with this, and does not think that this fact undermines the crux of his claim as outlined in his book. Sampson did not state that we need not describe languages accurately; he assumed that people were striving to do this, yet nothing they came up with gave us reasons for believing in Chomsky’s theory of innate knowledge of language.

Mind-body dualism

Sampson claims that we learn language because we are creative, and this creativity is what acts as a spring-board to grammatical innovation. Cowley thinks this raises certain questions which need to be answered.

Due to Sampson’s faith in human creativity, he does not ask how machines might be able to simulate the emergence of grammar, or how “primate interactions might have come to be mediated by structured vocalisations”. Otherwise, what precludes a machine from exhibiting creative behaviour? Turner has already explained how this could be the case, as I mentioned earlier, therefore providing the aforementioned explanation which Cowley asks for.

Cowley also has a more general problem though, with the implication that Sampson’s thesis seems to put the notion of mind beyond the reach of theory, and Cowley has a problem with being asked to “abandon the idea that the mental is reducible to matter”. Language is now not conceptualised as an organ, but taken to be part of behaviour. Hence, as a behavioural construct, language is to have arisen from the evolutionary interaction of genotype and phenotype. This implies that biology cannot be reduced to physics. I personally do not see any problem with the latter, but since Cowley considers it as one of the limitations of Sampson’s framework, I will address it accordingly. This leads to what is referred to as mind-body dualism (or the “mind-body problem”)[1]. Carr, it may be worth noting, also seems to have a problem with Sampson’s version of empiricism because it “embraces Cartesian dualism, a doctrine which is simply untenable”, even though he does not give any reasons as to why it is “simply untenable”. Cowley then continues to state that “even open-minded readers will find themselves hard-pressed to accept its ontological implications”.

Sampson does not make the claim that understanding the mind, and subsequently human creativity, is something beyond science, but more specifically something which is beyond the reach of hypothetico-deductive science, which is certainly not the same as being out of the realms of science. Einstein is reported to have said that his pencil is cleverer then he is, pointing to the fact that intuitive inspiration is something beyond the reach of the intellect. In fact, creativity and intuition are natural gifts which some are simply born with, and are faculties which are distinct from the mind. Note, however, that there has been some confusion about the meaning of the word CREATIVE, since Chomsky has decided to reinvent the term; I use the term in its conventional sense, referring to creativity as something revolutionary, like Picasso’s paintings, and Einstein’s ground-breaking theories, instead of the everyday creativity you and I are involved in on a daily basis, like finding a new method of cleaning the house, and it is actually the latter sense of “creative” that Sampson (and Popper) are referring to as well. Actually, the notion that intuition, intellect, and knowledge are distinct entities which are ‘mediated’ by the mind is certainly neither surprising nor new. Authors like Sivananda (cf. his 1965 book, The Mind – its mysteries and control) and Deepak Chopra (in his admittedly new age, yet scientifically based genre of works) explain the human mind in exactly this manner from a quantum mechanical perspective, which, as any educated reader would know, challenges some of our most basic scientific tenets; even a very rudimentary understanding of quantum mechanics requires nothing short of a paradigm shift in thinking. Chopra clearly states in his book Quantum Healing: “The obvious nonsense of putting mind into a box was one of the chief reasons why science separated mind and matter to begin with, since all matter can be put into a box.” One of the foremost thinkers in this field, Paul Davies, has the following to say on this matter:
The lesson of quantum mechanics is this: Something that ‘just happens’ need not
actually violate the laws of physics. The abrupt and uncaused appearance of
something can occur within the scope of scientific law, once quantum laws have
been taken into account. Nature apparently has the capacity for genuine spontaneity.
Hence, no-one could plausibly state that this phenomenon falls outside the realm of science. In light of this, I also fail to see the import of Carr’s claim that “there is no properly scientific answer to the question”.

Admittedly, Sivananda bases his teachings on the ancient Hindu school of Vedanta, which some may deem religious, and therefore not scientific, but I argued (cf. the entry here entitled Science and Vedanta) that the purports of the Vedanta school of thought is nothing other than scientific; the same point is made in numerous other works, like Fritjof Capra’s THE TAO OF PHYSICS. To flesh out the details would not be viable here; nevertheless, the details are not central to the debate at hand. The point is simply that seeing the mind and body as distinct entities is not problematic, and the above-mentioned authors are only three amongst dozens of others who have dealt with this. Likewise, the fact that the human mind is beyond the grasp of conventional science is not something that would make someone familiar with the relevant literature uncomfortable.

Cowley also makes the surprising claim that Sampson “fails to confront… Pinker’s belief that the mind and brain are a single information-processing system”, and that we need to “drop Sampson and Pinker’s assumptions about linguistic autonomy”, and that only if we do so, would we be able to make “more plausible approaches to behavioural, cognitive and evolutionary aspects of language.”

Regarding the assumption that the mind and brain are a single information-processing system, Cowley is being contradictory. His main problem with Sampson is that his thesis leads to mind-body dualism. So stating at the outset that he joins Pinker in assuming that the mind and brain are conflated does not make sense. Regarding the latter claim, Cowley says that Sampson joins Pinker in assuming linguistic autonomy, yet goes on in the rest of his paper to show that Pinker (and Chomsky, of course) does this, and why this is wrong, without showing what leads him to assume that Sampson does as well. In fact, Sampson’s entire theory is centred around the claim that language is not a modularised organ, that it is part and parcel of other cognitive systems, in agreement with theorists Turner and Lakoff, and therefore cannot be an autonomous construct.

Hence, I do not see the force of Cowley’s claim that even an “open-minded” reader would be hard-pressed to accept these “ontological implications”.

Is Sampson accurate in his representation of Popper?

It is evident that Sampson is not accurate in his representation of Popper’s philosophy.
Sampson wants to extend Popper’s own account of knowledge acquisition to language acquisition. Sampson himself argues that it is legitimate to do so, given that Popper was at times inconsistent in his paradigm. Even though Sampson wants to argue against Chomsky’s notion of innateness using Popper’s account, it is somewhat ironic that Popper unambiguously states that the “disposition to learn some human language – is an inborn characteristic of the human species alone”. And later on in that very same book he says that “there is an innate ability and keen-ness to learn a language in every human being”. Elsewhere, Popper says:

As children we learn to decode the chaotic messages which meet us from the
environment. Learning to decode the messages which reach us is extremely
complicated. It is based on innate dispositions…

And a few pages later:

… to every man who has any feeling for biology it must be clear that most
of our dispositions are inborn, either in a sense that we are born with them…
or in a sense that in the process of maturation, the development of the disposition
is elicited by the environment (for example, the disposition to learn a language).

Admittedly, Popper’s view is not quite as extreme as Chomsky’s. His view on the innateness of language is analogous to that of a child’s expectation to be fed. For example, I once saw a two-week old baby being fed with a bottle, and the child kept putting his hands around the bottle without touching it. I found this quite intriguing, so I asked the paediatrician why the baby kept doing that. He explained that new-born babies who are put on the bottle (not breast-fed) tended to ‘look’ for the mother’s breast by feeling. Of course, a two-week old baby does not have much chance to learn this behaviour, so this behaviour is best explained by appealing to an innate expectation. Likewise, Popper says that we must also have an innate predilection to learn a language. The child has to know to pay attention to words, as opposed to the continual rustling of leaves, etc. This is not the same as Chomsky’s claim. With regards to our “baby being fed” example, a more viable analogue would be to claim that babies have a device in their minds, along with a “feeding gene”, which naturally unfolds as part of the human genetic blueprint, in the same way as our genes dictate how the teeth grow, when the milk teeth will fall out, etc.

Nevertheless, Sampson does not endorse even this ‘weaker’ version of nativism. As mentioned earlier, the dispute of whether we have certain innate mechanisms is not the contention. What is disputed is exactly how much is innate. For Sampson, all he postulates by way innate endowment is the ability to postulate hypotheses and update them in light of subsequent experience. As we have seen, for Popper this alone would not suffice. It is a necessary condition for knowledge acquisition, linguistic or otherwise, but it certainly is not sufficient. For example, we also need to “learn to decode the chaotic messages which meet us from the environment”.