Archive for the ‘religion’ Category


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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Vivekananda, S. (1977). The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda – Volume 1. Calcutta:
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

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.



Language, framing, and its relation to religion and politics

July 27, 2008

Language, as commonly understood, is a primarily communicative device, despite views to the contrary in mainstream linguistics, where language is said to be an abstract manifestation of symbolic notation. This fact, coupled with its ubiquity, makes its study indispensable when attempting to understand almost any aspect of human nature.

It is through language that we are able to express intent, share what we feel, communicate facts and create art in various forms; this of course does not imply that language is the only means of doing so, but I give it precedence here because it is indeed the most widely used in the aforementioned arenas. Without language, our ability to conceptualise and categorise is severely compromised.

When we wish to convince someone of our viewpoint, we use language to do so. In so doing, we may choose to manipulate, lie, use words with specific connotations, designed to evoke a particular mind-set in the listener, etc. Win trying to win someone over to your side, so to speak (whether it’s a child trying to get his parents to buy toy for him, or a political party trying to convince you to vote for them), you may share certain selected facts with them, appeal to their emotions in various ways, and so on. These are some of the techniques used in spin and propaganda.

On this point, people like Steven Pinker try to minimize the influence language has on us because he is of the opinion that language is almost an epiphenomenon resulting from universal substratum, which is genetically based. In addition to this, he follows Jerry Fodor in postulating a “language of thought”, saying that language and thought are two separate things; an upshot of this position, as I said – and Pinker certainly agrees – is that language cannot influence thought in any substantial sense. He agrees that language can influence the way we think about certain things, but does not think that language can determine our thought patterns to the point that it frames an entire paradigm. I will not elaborate on his views here, but I would like to make it clear that I disagree with Pinker’s ideas almost in their entirety. His theory of language is seriously flawed, as is his conception of the human mind, and human nature.

The traditional approach to language use is based on ideas made popular during the Enlightenment period, otherwise known as The Age of Reason. This is a time which marks a dramatic shift in the Western philosophical tradition from fideism and mythology to the triumph of reason. The movement’s exponents, past and present, opine that logical thought should be the basis of all inquiry, ranging from academia to politics and everything in between. If something could not be justified rationally, then it is assumed that there is no rational or logical basis for it, and therefore no one is compelled to give it any serious thought. This modus operandi rests on the following assumptions:

– That all people think on a literally, such that there is a one-to-one correspondence between what we think and the thing we are thinking about,
– That thinking is a conscious process,
– That common sense is a particular way of thinking which is common (hence the name) to all members of the species, and following from this…
– That if the relevant facts are presented to a given number of people, they would all come to the same conclusions, because they are all assumed to be rational beings.

Whilst this may seem prima facie plausible, a closer look at each of these will show them to be problematic.

Firstly, the claim that we think ‘literally’ is actually meaningless, since most people cannot even tell us what is actually means to think literally; what I mean by this is simply that if we talk about this matter to a group of intelligent people, chances are that there would be variable understandings of what exactly ‘literal’ entails. The word is commonly used to imply the opposite of ‘symbolic’ or ‘figurative’, and this works fine when referring to sensory perception, as in I saw the car or I heard the music. But when we extend this notion to more abstract modes of thought, it gets tricky. For example, anything we say that has a spatial or temporal characteristic takes on a metaphorical raiment. In their book, Metaphors We Live by, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson go into detail on this matter, providing various examples of how we use metaphor in everyday speech to conceptualise the world. For example, when we say Time is running out, we somehow conceive of ‘time’ as an expendable entity, even though that is meaningless if we really think about it. We liken ‘warmth’ to ‘care’, when we speak of someone being a warm person, and the opposite when we say that someone is cold. We liken morality to direction, such that a low person is understood to be immoral. The examples are endless as we use hundreds upon hundreds of such metaphors on a daily basis.

Before I go on, I would just like to add here that even the idea that direct sensory perception, without any language intervening, is not ‘literal’, if by that word we mean a one-to-one correspondence between the subject and object. Ancient scriptures from the East, like the Vedas and the Upanishads tell us that the world is not really what it appears to be; the objects of perception are as unreal the ephemeral objects of the dream-state, if you assume the WYSIWYG principle. A snake sees the world as ultra-violet rays; a shark sees the world as a series of electrical impulses; a honey-bee sees the world as vertical and horizontal lines, which decussate. Humans see the world as such as a contingent upshot of their perceptual mechanisms. Modern quantum mechanics has us believe that the fundamental building blocks of nature are mass-less, sub-atomic particles, leaving a puzzle as to how the world as a solid body even exists. Physicists even contend that by merely looking at a particle we change its behaviour and possibly its structure. There are volumes of work on this topic, so I will not go into detail here.

Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, argues that we perceive and subsequently understand things in a way that is unique to humans by superimposing a spatio-temporal quality to it, and then conceptualizing the said percept according to the twelve categories, which he claims to have deduced in what he refers to as the “transcendental deduction of the categories”. The fact that we perceive everything in a unified manner is surprising, given the complexity of the task of perceiving, and is given the rather euphuistic label of “the transcendental unity of apperception”. Kant therefore concluded that the world consists of things-as-we-perceive-them and things-in-themselves, the latter being what the world really is. [Kant used the words phenomena and noumena (respectively) to describe these.] Schopenhauer pointed out that it is incorrect to refer to things-in-themselves as plural, since the underlying reality of the world needs necessarily to be a single, unified whole. This is in keeping with the Vedantic world-view alluded to earlier, which Schopenhauer was an avid advocate of, despite being both a pessimist and an atheist.

My point in referring to these philosophers is to emphasise the fact that even something as fundamental as basic perception is not to be taken for granted. When we give these matters serious thought, we notice that they are not only complex processes, but also largely unconscious.

This gets us back to the topic at hand. As mentioned, our predilection for metaphorical thought is something that is not only natural, but unconscious as well. A very young child who has only just acquired his language is said to have hundreds of metaphors available as part of his knowledge base. He does this by mapping source and target domains in various ways. For example, when a child’s mother holds him to her, he feels the sensation of warmth, and associates the feelings of love/protection/care with the sensation of warmth. Metaphors formed in this fashion are expected to be reflected universally in language. However, it would be equally plausible that some metaphors are unique in some way, perhaps to a particular culture, a given society, or may even be the idiosyncrasy of a family. Being clean may be deemed a good thing, and being dirty may be deemed a bad thing. Hence, by association of having a dirty mind would refer to the metaphor DIRTY IS BAD, and as such would refer to thinking something that is morally wrong. However, this is something that would have to be instilled in children by the parents; if not, the concomitant associations would be different. Even though metaphors of the latter kind are a result of conditioning, the conceptual metaphor itself is acquired unconsciously. We know this because children use and understand various metaphors without any problem, yet would not be able to explain it meta-linguistically.

So far we have seen that perception and conceptual metaphor are not conscious processes. Once we appreciate the ubiquity of metaphor, it follows that the majority of our thinking is unconscious. The idea that unconscious wills and desires affect us was made popular by Sigmund Freud, but he was certainly not the first one to speak of the unconscious. Schopenhauer wrote about that very topic long before Freud, which the latter actually acknowledges; and once again various Eastern traditions have spoken about such things as well before anyone else.

Now, conceptual metaphors form the basis of the way in which we think. Once we understand this, many things which would otherwise not make sense now do. The metaphors that we acquire slot in to various cognitive schemas, which are continually evolving, though we may assume that there is a saturation point. We have what we can call deeply ingrained schemas, and superficial schemas. The latter evokes the former. George Lakoff uses the terms deep-framing and surface-framing to describe this. For example, when someone says You are such a pig, one would have to have some knowledge of the negative connotations associated with pig: they are unhygienic, seen as potential disease-carriers, pork is forbidden in many cultures for various reasons, including its association with lack magic and evil, etc. The frame that this word evokes would depend on your understanding of it, but generally such a statement would be meant as an insult. This statement is a surface frame, but depends on a deep frame, which requires you to understand that DIRT IS BAD/IMMORAL, and that things associated with the dirt must also be bad in some way; pigs like to roll in dirt, and would eat anything, even rubbish, and therefore they are dirty…

Now imagine someone who grew up on a farm in Bloemfontein. Imagine that the farmer was a maize farmer, who kept sheep and pigs as well. The sheep are shorn twice a year, and the wool is used for various things. The pigs are kept more as pets, and not slaughtered for meat. The child grows up watching his father care of the sheep and pigs very lovingly, and watches him playing with the little piglets like you would little puppies. Imagine also that this child attends a local school which caters for the children of farmers from the surrounding farms. If this child goes to Johannesburg on holiday for the first time at the age of six, decides to eat the food at the restaurant with his hands, making a bit of a mess, and he overhears the child at the next table saying Look, he’s such a pig. Because pig would evoke a different frame (cute little animals whom he probably has names for), he would not understand what the statement means, insofar as its intention is concerned. Our farm child may not even have the deep frame DIRT IS BAD on which to hang the surface frame, because working in the mud and dirtying himself by helping his father may be associated with a virtue. This child would understand that being dirty is not always bad, whereas a suburban child would, who was continually chided for playing in the mud, would associate it as such.

Note that this is just an example, and possibly not a very good one. The point is simply that we all have frames, which are represented in our minds. We have deep frames which surface frames draw upon. Due to the way we go about acquiring conceptual metaphors, the resultant frames are generally the same within a particular speech community, but there are important differences and these differences (or more importantly, the consequences of these differences) are what I would like the reader to take cognizance of.

John Gray’s bestseller, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, spoke of the different ways men and women speak, and the miscommunication that ensues when they speak to each other. He refers to a myth at the outset of the book, where men once inhabited Mars, and women inhabited Venus, and upon learning of each other’s existence, agreed to tryst upon earth. However, they had difficulty communicating with each other, and despite improvements over the years, there is still much to be desired. The book aims to bridge this gap. He points out various instances whereby both parties need to understand what is actually meant when something is said, instead of just taking what is said at face value. For example, when the wife says We never go anywhere anymore, she is usually confronted with the retort But we went out last week for dinner! Then the wife gets angry, and the husband gets confused.

Why does this happen? This seems to happen because women in general have the frame LANGUAGE AS EMOTIONAL EXPRESSION, whereas men have the frame LANGUAGE AS CONVEYING ESSENTIAL INFORMATION. In the former frame, expressing your emotions to the people you love is seen as a good thing, and in the context of a relationship, is the primary aim of communication; in the latter frame, emotional expression is seen as effeminate, a sign of weakness. In this context, what is expressed should not be counter-factual, and should be preceded by a kind of brain-storming session where you think about what you’re going to say before saying it. Once this is understood, many things make sense that otherwise just seem unintelligible. Instead of conceding that there’s something at play that we don’t understand, we villainize the other party, and attribute our lack of understanding to stupidity, callousness, etc.

We understand religion in metaphorical terms as well. If you ever hear a strict Hindu having a debate with a strict Christian, what would strike you is not so much the differences in particular beliefs, but the fundamental ideological disparity. The particular beliefs pertain to surface frames, but what really distinguishes these two religions is the deep frame, which links religion to family. We superimpose the metaphor of family to any other institution which resembles it, being our first experience of governance, with our parents the ultimate authority from whom to get authorization, and whose approval meant everything.

George Lakoff speaks of two kinds of families: the strict father family and the nurturant parent family. With the former, what the father says goes without any question, just because he says so, leaving no room for negotiation. If you violate these rules, you will be punished. The circumstances which preclude you from following these rules are generally deemed irrelevant, and often ignorance of the rules do not suffice as an excuse to evade punishment. This is tough love, so that you will soon grow to be a responsible, independent person. If they do not learn within the required time-frame, they are forced to go out and learn on their own. With the latter, rules are not rigid and may not even apply in some cases; punishment is tailored to suit the wrong-doing, and children are allowed to develop at their own pace. If children do not learn or develop as expected, they are given guidance and assistance as long as they need, without any pressure, but with the knowledge that the parents will not always be there. In reality, most families are a combination of the two family types, meaning that when it comes to one kind of issue, parents would be nurturant, and in another they would be strict and impose a different set of policies. The degree to which they vary is more accurately viewed as a continuum.
On a literal level, this explains the differences between Eastern and Western family life, together with it implications for child-rearing. The details would be interesting to go in to, but not relevant to the discussion at hand.

Christianity adopts the GOD AS STRICT FATHER metaphor. This explains its intolerance of other religions, with its rigid rules and regulations. Circumstances precluding the ‘children’ from following the rules are not taken into consideration: ALL Hindus (including saintly souls like Mahatma Gandhi), Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and other non-believers are going to hell to suffer for eternity. Some would say that this includes people who were born before Jesus started teaching, the people who were around when Jesus was around but had not heard of him, as well as people in remote parts of the world. They may all be good people, but the Bible says that we can only reach the Father through Jesus, by explicitly accepting him as your sole saviour, and that’s that. It is also not a coincidence that God within this frame is perceived as a male figure, who makes all the decisions and has all the authority.

The GOD AS NURTURANT PARENT metaphor is adopted by Hindus. This explains its acceptance of all people, regardless of the faith they practice. Rules and regulations are perceived more as guidelines which ought to be adjusted according to circumstances. This is why there are even various scriptures to suite these various circumstances. The belief in karma ties in with the idea that the punishment should suit the crime, and that God has the power to forgive at His discretion. (With the above frame you are forgiven once and then expected to obey, or else…) The belief in reincarnation shows that you are given opportunities to better yourself, instead of going straight to hell after one lifetime. If you have managed to become a virtuous person, through whatever means available to you, you are welcomed into heaven with open arms. Hindus also believe that God has a female aspect, analogous to the Yin-Yang concept in Chinese philosophy. Just as God is seen as a single, male figure in the above frame, here God is seen as a complex, multi-faceted being, and his creation is governed by multiple laws which can only be understood systemically and hierarchically, not in a linear if … then fashion.

In light of this, when a Hindu is befuddled by the Christian who sees God being omnipresent with room for hell, and His absence from hell as logically CONSISTENT, the Christian sees no problem with this because what Father says goes no matter what. The fact that God can send you to hell to suffer for eternity whilst still being all-merciful is also not questioned for the same reason. Hindus are perplexed by the fact that God should be feared, and that religion should be based on blind obedience with dire consequences, without concern for anything else. These people would be consistently talking past each other all the time, without understanding either side unless they are willing to step out of their frame and at least understand the side’s frame, and vice versa. This is slightly more complicated than seeing things from another person’s point of view, or stepping into someone else’s shoes, though it’s pretty much the same thing in principle.

It is through repetition and propaganda (and fear of damnation) that many are converted, and this is nothing more than getting the potential proselyte to accept your frame. In my experience, conversion to fideism is based on fear (with solace taken in the belief that He cares for you and that it’s for your own good), and is deemed necessary for various reasons by current practitioners, whereas ‘conversion’ to deism is seen as unnecessary, since God loves all of his creation, and a personal choice which not really necessary.

In general, the Eastern religions (deistic) embrace the GOD AS NUTURANT PARENT frame, whereas the Western religions (fideistic) embrace the GOD AS STRICT FATHER frame.

In American politics, there are two main political parties, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. The republicans are labeled as conservatives, whereas the democrats are labeled progressives. The labels are self-explanatory, and we can understand their policies by seeing this too in terms of conceptual metaphor. Here we have a NATION AS FAMILY METAPHOR, with the republicans adopting the STRICT FATHER model, and the democrats adopting the NUTURANT PARENT model. (This spills over into their religious beliefs, with the democrats being more tolerant of other religions and cultures, and the republicans not.)

Let us consider the ‘war’ in Iraq:
The republicans believe they should use violence, and attack all opposition with a take no prisoners kind of attitude. Furthermore, they believe they know what is best for Iraq, and that they must obey or else… Notice, it is only within this frame that terms like ‘war’ and ‘surrender’ have any meaning. Here it must be known that the ‘father’ is tough, and if you mess with his ‘family’, he’s going to browbeat you. Democrats see this as an illegal occupation of sovereign territory, and that leaving is precisely that: leaving – withdrawing from a land they invaded under false pretences. When a republican accuses the democrat of being weak and wanting to surrender, the very phrase has no meaning within the nuturant parent frame. If a nuturant parent’s child gets beaten up, he would first ask the child what he did to instigate the fight. After ascertaining for sure whose fault it is, he would then talk to the parents of the other child. Likewise, a diplomatic understanding of the underlying causes which instigated 9/11 would help in finding a holistic solution, and a punishment which fits the crime, something like dealing with it as a criminal act. What the Bush administration did was tantamount to going and beating up the child accused of beating up your own child [Afghanistan] (no questions asked – you messed with a member of my family, now I will show you who’s boss), then beating up your child’s friend, since he has something your family could use and beating him up for this reason will give you an excuse to take what he has [Iraq and its oil resources]. For those who do not know, America is currently setting up a number oil companies in various parts of Iraq. A strict father would also, after all this, punish his child just to get the point across that he should steer clear of fights; America is punishing its own citizens with moves to allow random phone tapping and email hacking to try and catch the Judas. With the war powers Bush has given himself during this occupation, he has the right to detain without charge anyone accused of terrorism. Many have been detained, without even a doctored charge, and tortured in various ways in the notorious prison in Guantanamo Bay, deliberately set up there so it would be outside the world’s eye. Sami Al-Haj, a camera-man for Al-Jazeera is an example of this: he was held without charge for six years, and underwent extreme abuse and torture for no reason. Republicans would say that these are terrorists, and they do not deserve to be treated normally, or with dignity. Torture is necessary to gain ‘intelligence’ and to get them to admit what plans they are hatching, etc. Even if this were true, they would have to explain why they would torture someone who is arrested with NO charge, even after six years. If were told he’s accused of x, and that admitting x would stop the torture, he may have admitted it just to have some solace, but as I said in many cases there were NO charges! Indeed, many did ‘admit’ to crimes under torture, which the republican politicians are delighted with. This kind of policy seems inhumane and barbaric, and it makes us educated, civilised people wonder how things can happen under the auspices of such a developed nation. When you see the frame as a kick-ass ‘father’, like Rocky, going to some kid and saying Are you the one who’s messing around with my kid? He says no at first, until he pushed around a few times, followed by a slaps, etc.; then he comes around to see the light, apologise, and ‘admit’ guilt; this is their idea of victory.

In being steadfast, the republicans want to be perceived as being tough. However, they are not as resolute in their policies as they would like to be. For example, they do not speak to or work with terrorist organizations, and of course what counts as a terrorist organization is left to their discretion, and by the official definition, the USA falls under a terrorist state as well, in addition to actively supporting alleged dictators like Saddam Hussein. South Africa’s ANC was listed as a terrorist organization all along, until July 2008 (this was George Bush’s ‘gift’ to Mandela on his 90th birthday! ), yet the USA has always had good relations with South Africa ever since sanctions were lifted in the early 90’s.

There was a successful rescue mission conducted in the middle of 2008 by the Columbian army on the Farc rebels, who held many high profile hostages, including two US army officials and a former Columbian presidential candidate (she was campaigning when she was taken hostage) for many years. This was only made possible because they entered into negotiations with the rebels, and executed the rescue on that premise. Without this intervention, the hostages would still be captivity, including the US officials – this is further proof that conservative policy does not make much sense.

However, republicans are so successful because they own all the major media houses in the States, and they invest millions in setting up think-thanks, which churn out publications in non-peer-reviewed journals. Hence, they create their own frames, which are instilled in the minds of the people all over the world, and things that they hear outside this frame is either incorporated into this frame or not recognized as making any sense – you call them bigoted, or biased, or closed-minded, but really they are just trapped in a conservative frame. So when we talk of the ‘war’ in Iraq, we are already presupposing a republican frame: we immediately think of attack and defence, good guys and bad guys, state of emergency, and fear of espionage. When we talk of ‘occupation’, we frame the American troops as criminals! This is why the conservatives repeat over and over again WAR ON TERROR, so that this frame gets inculcated in your minds, not the liberals’ (more accurate) frame. If we talk of war, we are entering into a debate on republican turf. Liberals need to frame the debate in their terms, and like the republicans, repeat it and use surface frames that hinge on the deeper frame.

It makes no sense to say that Bush is an idiot, the Americans are evil, etc. because they know very well what they are doing, and they are good at it – which means they’re not so stupid after all.

When Obama suggested talking unconditionally to Iranian leaders, he was merely referring to a willingness to understand things from their point of view, to understand their frame of reference before assuming anything, then making their frame clear to Iran, and then finding a way forward. This is at least better than unilaterally declaring that America will attack unless all alleged nuclear plants are blown up in public. The republicans will not speak to them as they are the enemy. Instead they will issue an ultimatum: do what we tell you or we will attack you. From Iran’s point of view, this is bullying. Just as Iraq had no “weapons of mass destruction”, they say they have none either, and that they have the right to develop nuclear technology, which they say is for peaceful purposes. America is seen as a fickle yet dangerous threat, who once supported Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein when it suited them, and now turned against them as show of strength and virility to show the American people that their ‘father’ is tough. Hence, the difference in policy regarding Iran.

There is a younger generation of neo-conservatives who understand the problems with the status quo, and are trying to make their policies more reasonable. Their critics say they are just taking some liberal policies and calling themselves neo-conservatives, but it remains to be seen what comes of this.

In American politics, the frames are fairly clear, and we can more often than not predict which policies will appeal to which party.

In applying this theory to the South African context, it gets a bit more complicated. In using the NATION AS FAMILY metaphor, we need to bear in mind that there are other family types, including:
“Single mother” families
“Abusive parent” families
“All are equal”, families
Surely there are other family structures, but these seem to be the most prominent. I’ll call these type 1, type 2 and type 3 for ease of reference. I would imagine a type 1 family to have a strong, sturdy, resolute yet caring mother – who strives not to show her love too blatantly; perhaps Margaret Thatcher’s government would have fallen into this category.

A type 2 parent would not care for his children, and intimidate them to make himself feel more important. He would tell them things to make them believe that he is a great man, even if he knows this to be counter-factual. He would like to control who children hang out with, and what information they receiving, for if they become too educated and street-wise, they may rebel. You can see this as strict father gone wrong. One obvious example of this kind of government is the ZANU-PF currently ruling Zimbabwe.

Imagine a type 2 parent who abuses one child, and favours the other. One could draw an analogy with this government and that of apartheid South Africa, where White people were the favoured ‘children’, and the others were treated badly for being different. Now when the abused child takes over, they decide that we must all now be equal, but decides to surreptitiously get those who benefited in the old days back [affirmative action] and so on. The parallels we can draw are endless, but now we have a type 3 parent, who decides that he needs to make things right by apologizing to the abused children, and declares that all are equal, and all should work together as a collective to make the nation a better one and serve the government who now sees them as all equal. This type 3 parent feels that if one child gets a sweet, the others must get a sweet as well. Hence, the communist ideology of equal distribution of wealth, as so often bandied about in the ANC.

Now, the National Party, the archetypal symbol of apartheid and the concomitant abuse that went with it, was the opposition party during the elections in 1994, when we had our first truly democratic elections. Though the leader at the time was a “courageous and honourable man, in Nelson Mandela’s own words and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, few forgot what they stood for during the apartheid days, and the horror and pain they inflicted on their ‘children’. The NP was soon to be deposed, but still had the stigma of being a type 2 abusive parent, and now they were to be relegated to the MAIN OPPOSITION PARTY, and therefore still a threat. The NP recognized this, and eventually changed their name to the NNP, the NEW National Party, one that has realized its mistakes, and was prepared to make amends for the ills of the past by becoming a nurturant parent under its new leadership. But this did not work, because the type 2 frame was too deeply embedded in the minds of the denizens, and it is nothing other than their failure to eradicate that type 2 frame that led to the downfall and dissolution of the party.

When the Democratic Alliance (or the then Democratic Party) won the second most seats in parliament, deposing the NP, they slotted right into that type 2 frame without even asking for it. To make matters worse, they also accepted the label OFFICIAL OPPOSITION PARTY, as if it were a good thing. Now, in addition to unknowingly fitting into a type 2 frame (remember that this is something unconscious yet indelibly burnt into people’s minds), they hang on that frame the surface frame of “opposition party”. Now, the ANC, being a type 3 family, is known to promote equality, justice, freedom and a better life for all. They are also the ones who fought the oppressors with the iconic Nelson Mandela at its helm. If you are the party opposing the ANC, followers of the ANC are seeing you as opposing freedom, justice, etc. This is a direct upshot of slotting into a type 2 frame, and then accepting the label ‘opposition party’. This is precisely why the current ANC youth league believes that the DA is the enemy and needs to be wiped out – what’s wrong with eradicating someone who stands in the way of all those things all South Africans hold so dear? This is just taking the vengeance condoned by his ‘parent’ one step further. With this also comes the stigma of being perceived as the party who would oppose everything the ANC says and does on principle. When Tony Leon (the then leader of the DA) visited my university just under 10 years back, some students were shouting at him, telling him that he’s the “devil incarnate”. Having listened to his talk, and listened to him answering (some very antagonistic) questions on policy very eloquently, and very reasonably, and having shook his hand afterwards, and observing him meet with students and chat with in a very friendly manner, I did not understand why the animosity was so rife. My brother cites Tony Leon’s father as being an apartheid judge as his reason for hating Tony Leon and the DA; this being said without any knowledge of the kind of judge he was, or the kind of person he was. But things like this make sense if we understand that his party fell into a trap, so to speak.

At the time of writing, the ANC has reason to be rather concerned, as their leader faces corruption charges. The DA’s criticisms are brushed off and seen as inciting hate, and feelings of retaliation are justified as they were the ones who condoned the oppression of black people during apartheid – this is not true, but it fits in with the frame that the DA has unknowingly embraced. In reality, the DA adopts a nurturant parent frame, and bases its philosophy on the principles of an open society, in the Popperian sense. This is reflected in their policies, they way they reason things through, and the things they say when given the opportunity. This is only evident when you listen to what is said with an open mind, without shackling yourself into a frame. However, this is not easy as we unconsciously create frames based on various conceptual metaphors, so the “facts” only make sense within a frame. If a fact does not suit a frame, it is seen negatively, as treason, reversion to oppression and so on. A type 3 family owes allegiance to the father, who is fighting for their equality; in return, they are prepared to wipe out, kill and die for that leader. This is part of the type 3 frame, and if it is not understood as such, this can be as confusing as it is distressing.

Helen Zille, the current leader of the DA, has criticized the government’s Black Economic Empowerment policy (BEE), which is a way of giving preferential treatment to those who belong to previously disadvantaged communities. (It has more recently being upgraded to Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment, to include those who are not Black, but still belong a group that was once marginalized). Contrary to what we would expect, she does NOT criticize the fact that this policy is a kind of reverse discrimination, where a White person would not be considered for a job over a Black person, who actually might be less qualified. In fact, she points out that the policy is meant to assist the masses, who – before 1994 – have never had equal access to education and other resources. However, the in practice the policy is only being used to assist the middle-upper class Black population, and she thereby feels the term Black Elitist Enrichment would be a more appropriate label, which is a clever spin on the now hackneyed abbreviation, BEE. Her point here is that the poor Black people, who this policy is meant to help, and who it was designed for in the first place, are none the better as a result of this policy. Instead, already affluent Black businessmen are getting deals and tenders they would otherwise have to compete for in the free market.

Surely this point is not a criticism against the ANC per se, but a point made on behalf of the majority of the South African population. It is criticism which any member of the ANC should accept in principle, as it points to the failure of government implementation, and merely reminds them that their supporters are suffering as result of this.

However, common sense plays no role here, and the actual facts do not matter in the grander scheme of things. The fact is that Helen Zille represents the DA, who fits into a frame that on principle opposes everything that the ANC stands for, and therefore must oppose a better life for all. This fact cannot be over-emphasised, as the influence of cognitive frames are deeply embedded in our minds and unconscious. It takes thereby takes conscious effort to understand these frames, and then change them appropriately in a responsible manner.

This explains why people are not able to just look at the facts objectively, and use their common sense. Common sense does not exist, in that it is not common. We only have frames, and many of these are common, but many are not. If you talk about an issue that is embedded in a frame to another person who espouses another frame, your conversation will get nowhere; a DA supporter talking to an ANC supporter about Jacob Zuma’s trial will not get anywhere, just as the Hindu who argues with a Christian about the nature of God wouldn’t.

What the DA should have done, and should be doing still is not picking on particular issues. They should do what Barack Obama is doing in the States and work on changing the frames that are so indelibly burnt into the minds of the nation. It is only then that the people who count will listen, and of course I don’t just mean swaying voters in your favour. The stigma of being the NP’s replacement should be wiped out, and the DA should stop labeling itself the opposition party, because they do not oppose what the ANC stands for in THEORY. They stand up for what is right, and they stand up for the people whose tax money is being squandered unlawfully by the GOVERNMENT, of which the DA is a part. They should frame themselves as part of a whole, who are there to help care for the nation. If a member of the Independent Democrats does something wrong, it would be brought to the fore; if a member of their own party goes astray, it would be brought to the fore, and they would be dealt with.

This would be the first step in changing the negative frame that is in the minds of so many South Africans, people would listen more attentively, and they would earn the respect of their rivals. Without action based on an intelligent understanding of the situation, there is no communication, one party sees the other as being idiotic or rebellious, or whatever, when really what they are doing is quite consistent within their frame of reference.

Religious Doctrines and Dogmas

July 24, 2008


People often draw the distinction between being religious and spiritual, the trend being that people feel that there is a certain stigma attached to the label ‘religious’. Given that religion is more often than not founded on profound and lofty principles, why would there be such a need to do this?

In fact, many well-meaning intellectuals choose not only to distance themselves from religion altogether, but to actively speak out ‘against’ it. As an aside, I dare say these persons have not encountered the persons I have been so fortunate to both study and meet in person; no sceptic can remain one after having the experiences I have had, but I will not discuss these here.

Academics like the biologist Richard Dawkins, the psychologist Steven Pinker and the philosopher Daniel Dennet fall into this category. Dawkins sees himself as the modern day Charles Darwin, and a lot of his work has received critical acclaim for reviving the dying doctrine of evolution by natural selection. I call this a doctrine simply because classical Darwinism is certainly dead. The notorious missing link has never been found, and if it is it will be very difficult to preclude the researcher from superimposing his own bias on what was actually found, which can vary according to one’s theoretical assumptions at the outset – reconstructing bits of bone that is millions of years old requires a fallible person to do so, carbon dating is nothing close to accurate, etc.

Nevertheless, Dawkins has become a raving sceptic not only because he sees evolution as a complete explanation for life and all the mysteries that go along with it, but also because of the very sad and unfortunate history that just about every major religion in the world bears; some more than others, but all religions, mine included, have a cross to bear. Any honest adherent would have to face these facts and accept it graciously. We are all aware of the vicious and bloody Arab conquests done in the name of religion. Recently Islamic fundamentalists have shown what their interpretation of scriptural injunctions entail. There are passages in the Koran, for example, that quite explicitly advocate the brutal murder of “non-believers”, which is reiterated throughout the book. For example, the following verse from Surah Taubah is very often quoted by critics of Islam, to show that Islam promotes violence, bloodshed and brutality:

“Kill the mushriqeen (pagans, polytheists, kuffar) where ever you find them.”
[Al-Qur’an 9:5]

A former student of mine (and needless to say, a devout Muslim) tells me that
critics of Islam actually quote this verse out of context. In order to understand the context, we need to read from verse 1 of this surah. It says that there was a peace treaty between the Muslims and the Mushriqs (pagans) of Mecca. This treaty was violated by the Mushriqs of Mecca. A period of four months was given to the Mushriqs of Mecca to make amends. Otherwise war would be declared against them. He thereby pointed me to the following verse to prove this point; verse 5 of Surah Taubah says:

“But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them,
and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practise regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is oft-forgiving, Most merciful.”
[Al-Qur’an 9:5]

The idea of warfare and ultimatums seems somewhat out of place in a religious context. As an open-minded Hindu, this seems rather disturbing, to say the least. Describing God as a being that is “most merciful” and full of love, yet gets angry very easily, to the point where if you disobey you should not only be brutally killed here on earth, but will suffer in hell in the most hideous manner: you will be given a body to encapsulate your soul so that you are sentient, and you will have boiling oil poured over you by the “angel of death”, who will see to it that your body is replaced when it gets worn/burnt out. Such fear pervades the Islamic holy book, and in a place like Saudi Arabia people live in constant fear of being ‘caught’ for various things, like not praying during the mandatory prayer time, which happens five times a day. If you are found not praying, they check whether you are Muslim or not; if not, they take you to your place of residence, with a stern warning not to be seen during prayer time; if you are Muslim, you are given fourteen lashes and dismissed with a warning. If you look at woman, more specifically if you look into her eyes, you can be charged.

There are dozens of examples like this, but I will not go into detail here as I think the general point has been made. The standard objections regarding these points include:

-The version of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia and other such countries is
not the ‘correct’ one.
-These are based on mistranslations from the original Arabic.

Going back to the objection raised by my former student: he claims that it was okay to slaughter the kuffar back then because they violated the ultimatum, which was either to convert to Islam or be killed. Now, leaving aside the fact that this is precisely why fundamentalists think it is okay to blow themselves up in public places (they get a two-fold benefit: they’re dying in a jihad, and they they’re killing non-believers – who, by the way, for many include apostates, not just non-Muslims), this objection is problematic for someone trying to justify it because the tenets of the Koran are meant to be eternal, rigid, and with a set meaning; there are even caveats which state that if you try and alter anything in the Koran in any way (that includes disobedience and misinterpretation, wilful or otherwise), you are no longer a Muslim. So by grounding it in history, saying that this instruction was only applicable then, you relegate the scripture to the status of a historical text, open to heuristic and therefore variable interpretation. Aside from this, someone with this objection would also be logically committed to admitting that all the Muslims in Saudi Arabia are not really Muslim.

The other option is just to be honest and admit that there are some inconsistencies inherent in the book, and that the some parts need to be looked at with a critical eye. This is actually what Muslims in more open societies do, but then there is always the issue of those who do not. An interesting, yet equally disturbing and shocking revelation, was brought to the fore in a recent production in the UK called Undercover Mosque, where they went into various mosques in the UK with a hidden camera and recorded the things that were said and advocated by their religious leaders. Given what you have read thus far, I’m sure you can imagine what the documentary revealed. By the way, the Islamic community there took the production company to court, saying that they misrepresent what was actually said in the mosques. After it went to court, and after the recordings were scrutinised by a judge in a court of law, it was concluded that the documentary was indeed accurate, which precluded the plaintiff from stopping the distribution of the documentary.

Regarding polygamy in Islam, I was referred to the following quotes:

“The righteous woman, if they enter Jannah, will accompany her husband,”

“…marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one or what your right hands possess; this is more proper, that you may not deviate from the right course.”
[Qur’an 4:3]

“Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is your ardent desire: But turn not away (from a woman) altogether, so as to leave her (as it were) hanging (in the air). If ye come to a friendly understanding, and practise self-restraint, God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.”
[Qur’an 4:129]

Many Muslims actually see this practice as wrong, and countries which accept religious freedom do not condone polygamy. Once again, this is seen as a historical anachronism by some, claiming that during the war, there were many widows, and the prophet instructed his followers to marry them so they won’t be alone. Putting the fact that these widows were widows because their husbands were killed by Muslim warlords aside, this poses the same problem regarding historical heuristic interpretation mentioned above.

Despite attempts to keep the religion homogenous, categorical and straight-forward, there is still a lot of infighting. Sufis, for example, are condemned as being non-Muslim, as they apparently violate God’s instructions.

Judaism and Christianity are obviously not without problems of this kind. They advocate division and hatred by proclaiming themselves in various ways to be the only ones going to heaven, since Jews are the ‘chosen ones’, and Christians quote various maxims from the Bible, like Jesus saying “I am the only begotten son of my father”, meaning that there was no other prophet; “You cannot reach my father in heaven but through me”, meaning that if you do not accept Jesus as your saviour, you’re going to hell, etc. This gives Christians a sense of superiority, and gives them a license to look down upon other religions. Whilst the New Testament is a bit more benign, the Old Testament advocates meting out the death sentence for things like homosexuality, adultery, blasphemy, idolatry, talking back to your parents, and picking up sticks on the Sabbath! This is partly why Noam Chomsky says that the Bible must be the most genocidal book in our entire canon.

Dawkins rightly describes the God of the Old Testament as blood-thirsty, possessive and misogynistic. Few need to be reminded of the history of the Catholic church, their notorious witch-hunt and concomitant (and ingenious) torture methods. The list is well nigh endless, and Dawkins spares no detail in his notorious book, The God Delusion. After pointing these out, Dawkins asks us to consider what is left to respect about religion? Why do people align themselves with a tradition that has wreaked so much of havoc on the world? How can this alleged God, who is apparently so full of love, allow things of this nature to happen?

His answer, as you may well imagine is that since we cannot properly prove the existence of God, we should be either agnostic or atheistic. He points out that all religions in their own way encourage you to be a good person, but virtue and morality could just as well be independent of any religion. Besides, if your morality is religiously based, which religion should you adhere to, given that there are not only different religions with different doctrines, but also countless sects within those? And strangely enough, there are actually branches of Hinduism and Buddhism which are quite literally atheistic!

In light of all this Dawkins thinks it makes more sense to simply accept life as a product of natural selection, and apply the scientific principles of reasoning and logic when it comes to making everyday decisions, including those that pertain to ethics.

Dawkins also misses the simple point that the jurisdiction of science has most certainly not been agreed on, and there is no consensus as to what even counts as ‘science’, or a ‘scientific endeavour’. For example, given that Darwinian evolution is not testable, is it science? There have been many articles published on the effects of meditation on the mind and body; is that science? Can religion actually be studied scientifically? Does a philosophical problem preclude, pre-date, presuppose or transcend a scientific view of the said problem? If science means the use of maths/equations, as some of my colleagues insist, does that mean something like microbiology is somehow not a science? Since some linguists use equations to describe phrase structure rules (like Noam Chomsky and Zellig Harris), does that mean the study of language is a scientific endeavour?

The role of intuition as intellectual revelation is also not appreciated by people who see science (whatever that means) as the be-all-and-end-all of intellectual practice. Dawkins merely dismisses Einstein when he attributed his most important insights to reverie, and even said that Einstein probably didn’t mean it when he said that he has great admiration for God – rather presumptuous claim! Philosophers like Sarvapali Radhakrishnan have written extensively on the role of intuition, and even tried to reconcile it with the rather parochial approach of Western philosophy.

Scientists cannot merely ignore phenomena that do not appeal to them. True science is about explaining facts. The ubiquity of religion, for example, is not something that can be ignored, or summarily dismissed as delusional. This aspect of the topic will be explored in more detail in other chapters.

As an aside, Dinesh de Souza passed a comment about Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, which I think is quite apt and deceptively insightful:
“This is what you get when you let biologist out of the lab.”

That being said, does this show that eastern religions are better? Well it is clear that religions like Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism do not condone violence in any form whatsoever, to the point where a true practitioner would not harm ANY living creature intentionally, and be a strict vegetarian. They do not seek to convert, and actually often advise against it, in the belief that anybody can be a good Christian/Jew/Muslim, etc., and that you are born into a particular set of circumstances for a reason; therefore converting is a form of escapism which defies your karmic path. I disagree with this, like most other practitioners, and believe that people should be free to choose.

Many great Western thinkers admire Hinduism and eastern traditions for various reasons; these include none other than Albert Einstein, Arthur Schopenhauer, Alan Watts and William Blake. I will dispense with the details here, for the interested reader can follow it up if he so wishes. I wish merely to point out that despite the far reaching influence of Hinduism, most do not even understand its basic tenets – and by most I mean Hindus themselves. This serves to perpetuate all the misunderstandings and gross misrepresentations so rife amongst non-Hindus.

have yet to meet a Hindu who truly appreciates the various contradictions inherent in his religion. Aside from being open to proselytism, Hindus seem to embrace mutually exclusive doctrines. Unlike most Christians, Jews and Muslims, Hindus can never state with rational conviction what their stand point is on many issues. Adding to this problem is the fact that Hindus are brought up to tolerate and accept other religions, not in the mere democratic sense of allowing other people to believe what they want whilst disagreeing, but in a more fundamental sense as in, for example, proclaiming that prophets like Jesus and Mohammed were indeed authentic prophets as their followers claim them to be. Once admitting this, the Hindu is faced with either accepting or explaining statements like:

– I am the only begotten Son of my Father
– You cannot reach Heaven but through Me
– Those who do not accept Jesus Christ as the only Saviour is doomed to eternal

The dilemma comes in either not taking these statements too ‘literally’ (often a euphemism for I choose to reject that so I’ll pretend I can explain it away some other way; hence the inverted commas), or accepting what is apparently logical and converting. They do this in the hope that they will now be ‘saved’ and therefore go to Heaven, wherever or whatever that is; they are often frightened into the logically untenable option of rejecting to convert and going to hell, which is defined (in Christianity) as an eternal punishment for not accepting Jesus.

They face the very same dilemma when they meet Muslims. Hindus accept Mohammed and as the prophet of Islam, and accept that He must have been sent by God. However, the Muslim will then point out various facts, including:

– That Mohammed came here to ‘correct’ the corrupt practices that have become the
norm with the religious zealots, including the Jews and the Christians
– Mohammed is hailed as the LAST and DEFINITIVE prophet, while acknowledging and
endorsing the Jewish and Christian prophets, He certainly supersedes them;
hence, his word and teachings are to be given precedence
– The obvious upshot of this is also that there can be no other prophet succeeding
Mohammed, and the Koran is to be the final word on all matters religious
– Those who do not accept this decree will be, you’ve guessed it, condemned to hell – again defined as a logically untenable ETERNAL punishment, etc.

As before, the Hindu now has a choice to make…

Hindus are unable to ‘defend’ themselves when faced with situations like this simply because Christians, Jews and Muslims CAN say, more often than not, quite categorically what their religion is about, what their beliefs are, and what the goal of life is for a ‘true’ follower (ie. score enough brownie points to get in to heaven).

One problem is the fact that Hindus do not know when their religion originated. Without a founding prophet, there is no person to look to for answers regarding even basic questions.

In fact, Hindus see nothing wring in advocating Hinduism not as a religion at all, but as a “way of life”. Hence, there is no contradiction in being a Christian and a Hindu (a Christian would never agree that things could be so the other way around), for example. Hindus see this as a plus, implying open-mindedness, universalism, etc.; others see this as Hindus having no philosophy or authoritative beliefs of their own.

Another is the multiplicity of scriptures that Hindus have. Swami Vivekananda boldly said in one of his talks that there could not have been a man in history who has read all the Hindu scriptures – being a very learned scholar himself, he did not seem to exclude himself from this category. I had the great honour and privilege of knowing and learning from a great Hindu monk, who went by the name of Swami Shankarananda. He dedicated most of his life to the study and practice of yoga within the Hindu framework. Prior to being initiated, he spent twelve continuous years studying various aspects of Hinduism. This included six hours a day dedicated to scriptural study. One would think that this would be enough time to have mastered at least a basic overview of Hindu scriptures in its entirety. Yet, during one of my
Q & A sessions with him, I asked him the following question: What does the Sankhya say about the creation of the universe? His response: I don’t know; I’ll have to look through some information I’ve got and get back to you on that.

This was a very surprising answer, given his training and his background. I do not mean to denigrate his legacy; indeed, as you will see later, I revere this man as my guru and mentor. My point is simply that if there are things about Hinduism that HE did not know, what to talk of the rest who have NOT had that training?

It is no mean feat to undertake a serious study of Hinduism. Dabblers will certainly either get confused, or be misled into believing something that is not representative of the Hindu religion. The Hindu scriptures include the Vedas (there are four of them) and Upanishads (there are a hundred and eight of them left, with twelve being the “principle” Upanishads), the latter actually being the end portion of the Vedas, actually. It is said that they adequately summarise the Vedas such that a study of the Upanishads would make a study of the Vedas redundant. In addition to this, the book that speaks of Lord Krishna’s experiences on the battlefield, the Bhagavad Gita, is said to summarise the crux of all the Upanishads, making it unnecessary to study the latter. However, the Bhagavad Gita is largely allegorical and symbolic, and like all great works of literature (if it may be so-called without relegating its status as a scripture), it is open to multiple interpretations.

There are various other epic scriptures (in the form of story) in the Hindu religion. Second to the Gita is the Ramayana, which tells of the exploits of lord Rama, after his fourteen-year banishment into the forest. This too is richly allegorical, and open to interpretation.

Aside from the mainstream scriptures, there are the more controversial aspects of Hinduism. One of which would no doubt be offensive symbolism. For example, in the Mahabharata there is an episode famously known as the Rasa Lila. This is an episode where Lord Krishna dances rather seductively with the Gopis, charming them, flirting with them, and stroking them in a risqué manner. Their husbands were very worried about them, as the Rasa Lila took place over a few days, and these cow-herd girls did not care worry about their husbands, or the housework that they were busy with, etc. because they so captivated by the Lord.

In his book Lord Krishna: his lilas and teachings, Swami Sivananda, before his rather succinct commentary on it, spends a good few pages explaining why the Rasa Lila should not be given a sexual interpretation, and that those who do are simply of a base nature. As I said, when married women state that they are willing to leave their husbands for the all-attractive Krishna, that Lord Krishna teased them and played with them by stroking their thighs, etc., it is difficult not to, which is why this particular part of scripture is not given much attention. Of course the commentary points out that the Lord’s mind was pure, and that despite his indulgence, it was only to make the Gopis feel important for the time being, and to show them that their lechery will necessarily be ephemeral, and that they should look to transcend such feelings, etc. Other orthodox commentaries concur broadly on this point.

However, there is a branch of Hinduism called Tantra, which is actually documented as amongst the oldest of Hindu scriptures. One of these scriptures has been bastardised by the movie of the same title: Kama Sutra, which means something like “love precepts”. A word on this matter before going on. In Hinduism, we believe that there are four stages of ‘life’:

– Brahmacharya
– Grihasta
– Varnaprasta
– Sannyas

The first pertains to student life, the second to married life, the third to retired life, and the last to a life of renunciation. 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 (expained 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 in Swami Sivananda’s book, Sthree Dharma), 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 Vedas and the Upanishads 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.

Now getting back to my point on tantra. The tantric scriptures 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, but my point is simply that it is there! 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, 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. He is careful not to go into detail though, pointing out only that this practice is secret, and based on the belief that everything has a dual nature, often represented by Siva and Shakti (or the Yin and Yang in Chinese philosophy), mind and matter, good and evil, etc. The idea here being that one can be used as a ladder to reach the other, instead of pretending that it does not exist, or that it ought to be completely shunned. The Upanishads, for example, states that the world does not exist, and that God is only thing that is real. People never question this when a swami says it during his speech in an ashram, but when they’re on the road and a car is speeding towards them, they would very quickly jump out the way, instead of questioning the reality of the incident. Hence, we have to accept at least the relative reality of the world, together with its dual qualities.

Swami Sivananda agrees on these points in his book Tantra, Nada and Kriya Yoga, but also pays it only lip service. Towards the end of the book he also concedes that Hindu icons were meant to embody this fact in its symbolism. The most oft-writ about example of this is the “Shivalinga”, meaning symbol of Shiva.

The Nationmaster Encyclopaedia has to following to say about the Linga; please note that I am QUOTING:

Lingam is usually found with Yoni, the pedestal. As such, Lingam represented the male entity of the universe, while Yoni represented the female; it was natural togetherness of the male (Shiva) and female (Shakti) (Lingam and Yoni) as the point of energy, point of creation, and point of enlightenment. Such revelation was later enriched by many philosophies and theologies as man’s knowledge of God widened with civilization. The word is first attested in the Brahmanas, both with general meanings of “sign, mark, characteristic” and of “gender mark, genital”.

Various interpretations on the origin and symbolism of the Shiva lingam obtain. While the Tantras and Puranas deem the Shiva lingam a phallic symbol representing the regenerative aspect of the material universe, the Agamas and Shastras do not elaborate on this interpretation, and the Vedas fail altogether to mention the Lingam.

Some Tantras consider the lingam to be a phallic symbol and to be the representation of Shiva’s phallus, in its spiritual form. Accordingly, the lingam contains the soul-seed containing within it the essence of the entire cosmos. The lingam arises out of the base (Yoni) which represents Parvati according to some or Vishnu, Brahma in female and neuter form according to others. Tantra (Sanskrit: weave), tantric yoga or tantrism is any of several esoteric traditions rooted in the religions of India. Shiva is a form of Ishvara or God in the later Vedic scriptures of Hinduism. The word yoni is the Sanskrit word for the female reproductive organ.

The puranas, especially the Vamana purana, Shiva purana, Linga purana, Skanda Purana, Matsya Purana, along with the Visva Sara Prakasha, have narratives of the origin and symbolism of the Shiva lingam. Many puranas attribute the origin to the curse of sages leading to the separation of and installation of the phallus of Lord Shiva on earth; many also refer to the endlessness of the lingam, linked to the egos of Lord Vishnu and Lord Bramha. The Puranas are part of Hindu Smriti; these religious scriptures discuss devotion and mythology.

In simple terms, it is the phallus / penis being worshipped while it is in deep trouble inside the yonic/ vagina and we are proud to worship this eternal symbol of glory under the moon.

Say what you will, but there it is. Granted, there is what you would call orthodox Hinduism, and unorthodox Hinduism (astika and nastika in Sanskrit), the former accepting the authority of the Vedas as taking precedence over all other scriptures. But there are problems even with this. Most Hindus consider the Hare Krishna movement to be unorthodox, yet they subscribe to the Vedas and take it as having precedence over all other scriptures; they see the Gita merely as a summary of and commentary on the Vedas. Also, since most Hindus claim to follow orthodox Hinduism, why is it that the Lingam is almost universally used, despite having not been mentioned in the Vedas. As I said, scriptures that do mention it do so in the said context. Why do they not just use a murti of Shiva, as is common practice with the other deities?

It also known that some Hindus so appalling things like practice black magic and slaughter animals (and the two are actually not mutually exclusive). There are so-called scriptures like the Indarjal dedicated entirely to this end! How many Hindus are aware of this? Once again, we can easily say that this is not really a scripture, or that this forms part of the UNORTHODOX wing of Hinduism. But then how would you explain the fact that the Atharva-Veda also has black magic spells? Granted, there are other benign and even beneficial spells in it, but this does not account for the darker part. In addition to this, there are instructions on how to perform ritual slaughter! It speaks of how to use the animal’s energy to clear your own path for success, etc. This explains why the practice of ritual slaughter is so rife. As the point is now made, I will not elaborate with further details.

Suffice to say that as a result of this, there are various sects, factions and schools of thought, and it is no exaggeration to believe anything and virtually do anything, and still be correct in calling yourself a Hindu. It is in this sense that we can say that Hinduism is a way of life, not really a religion. My point here is not to berate my religion, but to point out that we have an extremely rich and profound tradition. However, it is not good enough to merely proclaim this, as it sounds quite clichéd and therefore vacuous. When confronted with the facts regarding animal slaughter, sex rituals, the eating of meat, the charge of polytheism and idol worship, etc. it simply makes us sound ignorant and ineffectual to say:

– Well, TRUE Hindus do not slaughter
– Well, TRUE Hindus know there’s only like one God
– Well, ja pigs are like worse then other animals so IF we eat meat we
mustn’t eat pigs, oh ja and cows too
– We don’t believe in black magic
… etc.

As Hindus, we need to be ambassadors of our religion, and not live in ignorance of the religion we practise. In pretending that our scriptures do NOT say what they actually DO, we sound as foolish as those Muslims who fail to understand that taking certain tenets of Islam at face value lead some people to do terrible things, and denying it, or declaring all Saudis as heretics simply commits you to a logical position which you would not be comfortable with.

Let us accept that there are aspects of our religion, inherent in our scriptures, which we choose not to accept because we are open-minded, free thinking rational beings. The latter quality is something which Hinduism encourages, unlike other religions. But in order to do this with any conviction, we need to be clear of what actually is out there, and why we choose not to adhere to that particular aspect of Hinduism. Otherwise, we sound like fumbling fools when confronted with the facts.