Wednesday, March 11, 2009

In defense of Ram Sena

Two hypotheses for the recent Ram Sena attacks against women are discussed here:

  1. The political hypothesis
  2. The moral hypothesis
The two hypotheses are not exclusive, in the sense that only one of them is correct. Both of them may be applicable at the same time and on the same set of people.

The Political Hypothesis

An acceptable hypothesis is that Ram Sena and its leaders (and those opposing Ram Sena) and doing these acts to get political mileage and are misusing religion. The implication here is that if they did not have political reasons, they would not have done those acts. As regular human beings, they might have even condemned the attacks if it were not for the political context. So why would they do this in the political context? They would like to gain power and money through politics and the price to be paid in terms of beating up a few women is very small to them personally -- someone else might suffer but the price to them is negligible. One can relate this to the exploitation of natural resources by mankind. We would like to use tissue papers and plastic bags, but the price to be paid in terms of cutting down forests is very small to us -- someone else (maybe in some other part of the world or future generations) may suffer, but it is very small to us. Since the benefits outweigh the costs for the concerned individual, he or she does it.

So, it seems logical why someone would use attacks on women for political gains. It is not enough to stop at it. The main question to ask is why someone can feel there are political gains to be made by targeting the freedom of women. From the turn of events after the attack, it seems that Ram Sena and its leaders have indeed made political gains. Given that India is a democracy, it is the vote bank that drives most of our politics. So there must be a sizeable chunk of population that agrees with limiting the freedom of women and the broader philosophies implied (e.g. against the westernization of Indian culture, promotion of Hindutva) and they are going to vote the Ram Sena leaders to power. This is the worrying factor -- a sizable population supports Ram Sena. There, I've revealed which side I am on.

What about the folks who are against Ram Sena? In a democracy, they need to demonstrate that they are a much bigger size of the population by conducting rallies, media coverage, sending pink chaddis to Mutalik etc. If the perception that emerges after all this, is that the size of the population that supports freedom of women is larger than the size of the population against freedom of women, then the political strategies will change accordingly and the leaders of Ram Sena will not be able to make any political gains. However, like the strategies of giving free electricity to farmers or having reservations based on caste, if there is a sizeable chunk of the population that can vote people to power, politicians will experiment with it and if it works, they will use it without considering whether it is really a good thing for India long term.

So, the political dimension is fairly straightforward. In a democracy, if you can demonstrate that your views form the views of a sizeable chunk of the population, then those views will survive.

The Moral Hypothesis

The hypothesis here is that Ram Sena leaders and their opponents are doing these acts for moral reasons and not political ones. In this hypothesis, they feel that it is morally wrong for women to dress in certain manner and it is their moral duty to uphold the Dharma (according to Ram Sena's interpretation of what Dharma is).

In the moral hypothesis, the anti Ram Sena folks would feel that it is immoral to limit the freedom of women and it is the moral duty to oppose Ram Sena. They compare this to Taliban and are hence making references to Talibanization of India. If I were on the Ram Sena side, I would like to compare myself to the protagonists of Rang De Basanti -- in a corrupt world where all the morals are decaying, the only recourse left is to take the law in your hands. This is a deadlock. If both parties feel they are morally correct, there is no easy way out.

Morality is a very vague concept, very individual centric and usually based on faith. The person who feels that it is immoral for women to drink need not explain or convince anyone why it is immoral. By calling something immoral, people can absolve themselves of providing any explanation -- examples: immoral to have pre-marital sex, immoral to do stem cell research, immoral to beat up women. Even if questions are asked about why it is moral or immoral, very often the basis is religion/culture. According to this particular book, it follows that phenomenon X is immoral. According to our culture, phenomenon Y is moral. The danger of using a moral basis is that it gives 'immense sense of being right' and makes it possible to justify to ourself any action we take, like the protagonists of Rang De Basanti or the Jehadis of Taliban. Another danger of morality is that there might not be any common ground between both the parties -- complete obliteration of the other party might be acceptable under one party's morality.


Given the vagueness of morality, maybe we should not even consider morality as legitimate ground for taking a stand. Taking stands should be based on some tangible things like benefits and losses. They should be based on theories that can be defined and challenged and modified. For example, the theory of maximizing aggregated happiness. Democracy is somewhat akin to maximizing aggregate happiness. Now, Democracy as a concept can be challenged and modified and we can acknowledge that it has faults and come up with alternate theories. Morality does not have this feature -- morality is not amenable to be challenged nor does it allow for accepting that it is flawed.

'Minimizing Violence/harm to life' can be another way of looking at things based on which we can take stands. For example, even if a sizeable population thinks that it is ok to kill animals for food, people can hold take a stand based on this principle. Also, they cannot go and beat up people who eat meat, because it will be a violation of the 'minimizing violence' principle.

Currently, it appears to me that 'Might is right' is the working principle. Maybe, there are better ones. For example, the founding fathers of US chose 'Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness as unalienable rights of every individual' as the working principles, which seems better than 'maximizing aggregate happiness'.

By removing morality from the equation, we can focus on different models and principles and evolve better ones.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bad Karma?

I read this shocking news in today's Hindu.

-- Begin Excerpt --
Nun was gang raped and priest brutally assaulted in Kandhamal
The brutalisation of the nun and the priest by a mob raising anti-Christian, Hindutva slogans took place around 1 p.m. at the site of the Divya Jyothi Pastor Centre. The church was burnt the previous day in reprisal against the murder of an RSS activist, Lakshmanananda Saraswathi, and four of his associates on August 23. The gang rape of the young nun, whose “virginity [was] grossly violated in public” (and whose identity is being withheld by this newspaper to protect her privacy) took place in front of a police outpost with 12 policemen from the Orissa State Armed Police present and watching, according to Father Thomas Chellan, the priest who was dragged out and badly beaten.
-- End Excerpt --

Read more at:

My first reaction consisted of disgust, anger, and hatred for these scoundrels. It is beyond my understanding how any sane person can accept these atrocities. Several questions came to my mind. Would the 12 policemen keep quiet if their sister was in that position?

What made the mob perpetrate that act and not stop it? It is probably reasonable to assume that the mob consisted of regular folks, during normal times. If some street Romeos tease a girl, the same mob and police would have probably beaten up the eve teasers. How did they convince themselves that they were doing the right thing? I presume they felt they were doing the right thing.

I can think of two theories – possibly there are more. The first theory is that they are soldiers of Hinduism and they are acting in the interest of God and are part of God’s plan of taking revenge on the Christians. It is not a crime they are committing but doing a service by carrying out the will of God.

The second theory is the Karma theory. Presumably, the Nun has done acquired a lot of bad karma in her previous lives and current life and she is reaping the fruits of her Karma. I wonder what people who believe in Karma have to say about the perpetrators?

Some simpler theories also are possible. For example, political elements are misdirecting the foolish masses for their personal/political gain – for example, Christians are the root cause for their misery and hence they should be hounded and massacred. Another related theory is that the perpetrators are miscreants who are exploiting the situation and getting away with crime in broad daylight.

Which theory do you subscribe to? If you picked one of the simpler theories, please note that that is it is difficult to reconcile this with the God’s plan theory or the Karma theory.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Selling Rational Thinking

Rational thinkers have been pointing out superstitions and irrational concepts since the beginning of recorded history, but superstitions still abound. Even as early as 570 BC, Xenophanes rejected the idea that the gods resembled humans in form. Xenophanes argued that if oxen were able to imagine gods, then those gods would be in the image of oxen. Two thousand five hundred years after Xenophanes, irrational thinking still rules the day. Why is humanity not able to get rid of irrational thinking? Why are superstitions and pseudo sciences still thriving, in spite of the boom in access to knowledge and the efforts of free thinkers?

The reason is that superstition possesses several attributes that make it well-suited for natural selection. It has been sufficiently demonstrated (with very good evidence) that Religion/Superstition is a natural phenomenon, and can be explained in evolutionary terms. Daniel Dennet’s ‘Breaking the Spell’ is a very good book that deals with the evolutionary aspects of religion. Religion is very good at ‘surviving’ and ‘propagating’ well. Giving up religion and other superstitions is not an easy task. People have talked about ‘God-shaped holes’ in humanity’s psyche; and this needs to be filled with something else when people relinquish God. Several people I know are almost atheists, but are not taking that last step because they feel it will leave a void in their lives.

While rationalists have been very successful at logical arguments, the emotional aspects have not been addressed with the due importance (in my opinion). Most of the rationalists have been men of science and to them it has been sufficient to provide a logical sequence of steps to qualify the degree of truth of any matter.

Also, I feel that rationalists believe in ‘Truth shall prevail’. In the same manner that we have gone from ‘the world is flat’ to ‘the world is spherical’, we might believe that someday, we will go from a ‘superstitious world’ to a ‘rationalist world’. This belief is dangerous. “Truth” might not prevail, and we might go back to the Dark Ages (or worse).

Another aspect is people’s tendency of resisting change, even when they realize the benefits of changing. Take smoking (or exercising, for that matter). Nobody today denies that smoking is injurious to health. But because of the additive nature of smoking, it is not easy to give it up. It is all the more difficult with superstition, because the harm caused by superstition is not understood at the same level as the harm caused by smoking. Religion has become such an integral part of people’s lives that they cannot even think of giving it up. People don’t even want to think of a change.

That’s why I think there is a need to sell rational thinking. It is very commonly accepted among salespeople that people buy emotionally, not logically. That’s why we see several good products being unsuccessful in the market and several poor quality products being more successful. Selling is very important for success. And, we all know how much selling is done by religious organizations. And they have very good salespeople too. I met one myself. A brief detour here – I was travelling by train one day from Bangalore to Hyderabad – a journey of over 12 hours. It was around 4:30 in the afternoon and I was waiting at my seat for the train to leave. A volunteer from a very popular religious organization hopped on to my compartment and started selling religious books to my fellow travellers. He was doing a pretty good job – the books were very glossy, with nice pictures and at discounted prices. Some travellers bought it just to while away the time. He came to me and started his sales pitch. I bluntly told him that I was an atheist and was not interested. Without batting an eyelid, he asked me to buy the book and have fun at all the stupid things the book was saying. I did not expect this. I was expecting him to curse me and move on. But he was not dejected – he still tried to sell it to me. That’s a very good salesman – if he can sell the Gita to an atheist, he can sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo. Of course, I didn’t buy anything from him, but I want to highlight the kind of competition we are facing. What better place to look for how to sell ‘rational thinking’ than by looking at the ways of the competition, which have been successful at it for thousands of years.

Here are some initial thoughts on why their ‘selling’ is successful.

  • When they were originally founded, religions like Christianity and Islam did not say anything bad about the existing religions. On the contrary, they tried to include them in their mythology. For example, Islam gives the same prophet status to all the previous icons – from Adam, Noah, Moses to Jesus. They claimed that their religion was “newer and better” and used this to attract followers. My insight: it does not pay to find faults with the current state of things. Instead of debunking the current system, we need to demonstrate value in the “newer and better” system. We need to focus on the benefits rather than the ‘truth’.
  • Missionaries in India are very successful at converting people from the lower castes and those from poor backgrounds. We do not see many conversions in the economically well-to-do or higher classes. Why? Because the missionaries are able to point to their problems and relate them to the exploitation by the higher classes and the current system. Missionaries provide monetary support, schools, and hospitals to better the lives of the ‘victims’ of the current society. That’s why they are successful. My insight: we need to educate the ‘victims’ of superstition and focus on improving their lives. Targeting the well-off and those who benefit from the current system (for example, the conmen) might not be as effective as highlighting the sufferings of believers.

In this context, rationalists can focus on the victims of superstitions and educate them. For example, women are treated very badly in most religions. In Hinduism, widows are considered as bad omens for festive occasions and are not allowed to celebrate or enjoy along with the rest of the family. Women are not allowed into temples, during ‘that period of the month’. My guess is that it should be easier to make the women understand the benefits of rationalist thinking than men, because in most cases, men are the exploiters and women are the victims. This is just a hypothesis, but I feel it definitely deserves some thought.

So, what are the benefits of a rationalist way of life over a superstitious one? There are several obvious benefits. But to be effective, these benefits have to appeal to the individual. Collective benefits (such as reduced global terror) do not have the desired effect. A case in point is the use of the public transport system. Even though using the public transport system has global benefits, people still travel by cars and two-wheelers because the individual benefit aspect is not addressed.

Here are some benefits (at the individual level) of rationalist thinking that come to my mind now.

  1. A more positive outlook towards life. You are not sinners and lowly beings. You don’t have to go through life worrying about punishments from God.
  2. The promise of a healthier life. We don’t have to go through the travails of performing elaborate and tiring rituals involving restrictions on food and medicines. My mother-in-law is one example – even when she is ill, she undertakes fasts which can be harmful to her health. As another example, a mosque near my house urges devotees with diabetes to observe the day-long fast in the month of Ramzan, telling them that Allah will take care of them. These devotees clearly will have lesser suffering and a healthier life by letting go of their superstitions.
  3. More free time and money to pursue your interests. Imagine all the time that is freed up when you stop doing everyday Pujas, travelling hundreds of kilometres and standing several hours in serpentine queues for just one glimpse of a stone carving. Imagine all the money saved avoiding these time wasters. Think of how you can finally pursue the hobby that you have been postponing for so long with the new found free time.
  4. Experience and appreciate the wonders of nature. With an open mind, we will be able to explore our universe and unravel the mysteries much better than cooking up superstitions. For example, our current understanding that the Sun is a hot ball undergoing constant nuclear fusion reactions is not just more accurate, but more fascinating too, when compared to a demi-god who rides the sky on a seven-horsed chariot. As another example, the fact that life of such complexity and variety has evolved from tiny bacteria over billions of years is more awe-inspiring than the theory that God created everything 6000 years ago in one shot.

I plan to refine these benefits, add new ones, and focus more on selling rational thinking. Stay tuned. Also, I’d love to hear sales techniques that you feel could be effective in selling rational thinking. Please leave a comment and let me know.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Why are some smart/successful people superstitious?

I recently came across an article about a gentleman named Naresh, who lost both his legs in an accident at a very young age, and later studied at IIT and now works at Google. The article is available at “From banks of Godavari to Google on wheel chair:”. It is a very inspiring story of the triumph of human spirit against several odds. Hats off to Naresh.

One of the things that struck me as odd about Naresh is his superstitious nature. The fact that he has made it into IIT is proof of his capacity for rational thinking and scientific background. I have personally met several scientific minded people who are very smart, yet they are superstitious. I’ve read statistics which say that around 95% of the top scientists are atheists, where as 95% of the general public are believers. I have always been bewildered by how scientific minded people can be superstitious. I think I have figured out one possible reason and would like to describe it in this article.

Let’s start with Naresh first. Here is a clip from the article referred above:

God’s hand
I believe in God. I believe in destiny. I feel he plans everything for you. If not for the accident, we would not have moved from the village to Tanuku, a town. There I joined a missionary school, and my father built a house next to the school. Till the tenth standard, I studied in that school.
If I had continued in Teeparu, I may not have studied after the 10th. I may have started working as a farmer or someone like that after my studies. I am sure God had other plans for me.”

And then he continues about how several good people helped him in his life (including his sister, his teachers, professors, the Good Samaritan he met on a train who funded his education at IIT etc.) and he attributes all this to God.

Naresh lost both his feet – somehow he does not blame God for this. In fact, he doesn’t blame anyone for it. But for the good people who helped him, he attributes them to God. Isn’t Naresh aware that there are thousands (if not millions) of people who do not have legs, who lead miserable lives begging on railway stations, traffic signals till their death? Of course, he is. Can’t Naresh figure out that it follows from elementary probability that given the number of physically challenged people in India, the chances are reasonably high that there will be stories like Naresh’s? Of course, Naresh can figure this out. He probably solved much more complicated equations involving probabilities in his quantum mechanics courses at IIT. Then, why does he feel that “God had other plans for me”? By extension, what plans did God have for those unfortunate ones who begged on railway platforms throughout their miserable lives?

What was God’s plan for Naresh? Why snatch both the legs and then plan for Naresh to get into IIT? I would imagine that having legs is much more valuable than getting into IIT. If someone had asked you to trade your legs for a seat into IIT, would you have done it? I wouldn’t. Well, maybe God wanted to teach humanity something through the life and struggles of Naresh. We’ve heard this one several times. Well, why can’t God teach humanity the same thing without having Naresh go through the suffering?

No. Rational thinking does not apply here. Human beings, even when they have been trained in the scientific methods, do not apply it on themselves. What is it about human nature that is at work here?

To understand this, I revisited the book – ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ by Dale Carnegie. This book was written eighty years ago and still continues to be a bestseller. Dale’s insights into human nature have been validated several times over these years – rock-solid and time-tested, as they say. And indeed, I found an insight which can explain why even smart people can be superstitious. In the second chapter of the book, titled “The Big Secret of Dealing with People”, Dale talks about the “desire to be important”. In fact, he asks the reader to remember that phrase because “you are going to hear a lot about it in this book”.

I would like to quote a few sentences from this chapter:

“Almost all these wants are usually gratified – all except one. But there is one longing – almost as deep, almost as imperious, as the desire for food or sleep, which is seldom gratified. It is what Freud calls ‘the desire to be great’. It is what Dewey calls ‘the desire to be important’.”

“Many people who go insane find in insanity a feeling of importance that they were unable to achieve in the world of reality.”

That is the power of the ‘desire to be important’. In extreme cases, it can even drive people insane.

So how does the sense of importance lead to superstition? People who helped Naresh presumably derived a sense of importance by being able to make a difference in the life of a physically challenged boy. Naresh probably felt a sense of importance because of the attention and encouragement he was getting from people he met. This might have prompted him to achieve some more, which in turn lead to more appreciation fueling his sense of importance further, thus becoming a positive feedback loop. At some point, the sense of importance becomes so powerful, that he starts beginning to feel that he is better than others, but he doesn’t know why. He comes to believe that he is extra-ordinary – he is ‘chosen by God’. The others are not so important – millions like him are suffering, but he is better off than them, so he must be special. God has other plans for him.

I guess the process might have been similar for the kings of olden times who felt they were in-fact direct descendants of God. Maybe that’s why Bin Laden thinks he was chosen by God to rid the earth of infidels, and Bush thought he was implementing God’s will when he attacked Iraq. As you can see, when the sense of importance reaches such high levels, it can be very dangerous.

Once people believe they are chosen by God, their confidence increases and they can take bigger risks in life, which they might not have taken if they had only used reasoning. Since they take bigger risks, the rewards they potentially reap are also bigger. And these rewards are attributed to God’s grace. This might be the reason why people like Amitabh Bachchan, the Ambanis, feel God has a special place for them and rush to Tirupati ever so often. Also, we only notice those who took bigger risks and succeeded. But what about the people who take bigger risks and fail? The folks who fail don’t attribute their failure to God. They attribute it to bad Karma or their sins in past lives. Why not to God? Because it will hurt their sense of importance. It is not acceptable to believe that God did not listen to our fervent prayers, because that means we are not important to God. It is acceptable that God gives us importance, but his hands are tied because of our bad Karma. Isn’t the poor beggar at the traffic signal suffering due to his bad karma?

This explanation probably holds good for the popularity of Sadhus, spiritual and religious leaders. They appeal to the individual’s sense of importance. They preach that you have in you a divine spark – you are special and your life has a grand purpose.

In summary, I believe that ‘the desire to be important’ is a more powerful force than the desire to see the world in an unbiased manner. We see the world as we desire to see it, not as it really is. I hope that eventually, truth shall prevail over human nature.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Growing up with Indian Mythology

My two school going daughters are now learning more about Indian mythology -- in their schools, comic books, TV shows and cartoon movies. The fresh perspective they bring in when they are learning Indian mythology is very interesting. I’d like to share some examples here. Let me first set the context about what they are learning at school and what I tell them at home. As expected of most schools in India, their school teachers are teaching them the usual stuff about the all-powerful omniscient God, prayers, “God will punish you”, hell, heaven etc. They are doing a pretty good job of indoctrinating the fear of God. Don’t get me wrong, it is a very good school and I’m very happy with it and strongly recommend the school. I have not seen any non-believing school in India – so I’m living with what we’ve got now. I’m hoping to see secular schools becoming prevalent during my lifetime. When my children talk to me about God, I tell them what I really think and that once they grow up and learn more, they will have a better picture.

Anyway, back to the topic. So we are watching the cartoon movie on Ganesha. Both my daughters are thoroughly enjoying it. Being children, they are very inquisitive and ask tons of questions. We are watching the part where Parvati asks Ganesha to guard the door while she is taking her bath. Shiva returns, doesn’t know who Ganesha is, and asks Ganesha to let him go inside. First question: How come Shiva, being a God who knows everything, does not know that Ganesha is his son? My answer: it’s just a story, don’t take it seriously. Just watch and have fun.

By the way, I’m very happy to introduce religion and God to my children. Religion is an important part of our culture – like movies, music, alcohol, cigarettes etc. I believe that exposing them to all aspects of life at the appropriate age will help them lead a happier and enriched life. Clearly, they are too young for topics like sex, models of economy (capitalism, free market, socialism, communism etc), but they are old enough to appreciate that tooth fairies do not exist, and our mythological stories are stories like Cinderalla or Snow white and not real.

Back to the movie. They watch the fight between Ganesha and Shiva’s hordes, Nandi and other gods. They are very pleased that Ganesha single-handedly thrashes them all. Eventually, Shiva fights with Ganesha and chops his head off. My younger one is shocked! She can’t understand what just happened? Question: How can Shiva kill his own son? Why is he such a mean god?

The movie goes on and we are the point where Shiva’s hordes have gone in search of an animal to bring its head to Shiva. They find a baby elephant and chop it head. My younger one cannot stop her tears. She is very upset about the death of the cute baby elephant. Question: Why did they have to kill the poor baby elephant? Why can’t the all powerful God Shiva just bring Ganesha back to life?

This was a very disturbing movie for my kids, though it was a cartoon movie supposedly designed for kids. The other examples I’m going to share are not so depressing. Some are even funny. So read on. We are members of a good library here and the kids get to read Amar Chitra Katha story books. They enjoy the stories and I enjoy reading with them. They’ve read stories about various Rakshasas like Mahishasura, Bhasmasura, Hiranyakashyapa etc. The plot in these stories usually follows a very simple formula. A Rakshasa does a severe penance for several thousand years and impresses the hell out of Lord Brahma and gets a deadly boon from him. Using the power of this boon, he unleashes his fury on all mankind and godkind. Eventually, some major god like Vishnu, Shiva or Durga finds a loophole in the boon and kills the Rakshasa. Very imaginative and thoroughly enjoyable stories. But what my children cannot digest is how Brahma can be such a dumb God. Clearly, he should learn that giving boons to Rakshasas is the root cause of all these problems. Then why does still keep granting boons to them? Valid question. I agree with them that Brahma may not be the smartest of Gods.

And, they are unable to understand Indra too. How can he be the king of Gods, if every Tom, Dick and Harry Rakshasa can defeat him easily and make him run for his life? Fortunately, they have still not encountered the baser elements of Indra where he violates chaste married women. Maybe Indra is the inspiration for our current day religious leaders who in the news for sexual assault cases on women and children. If Indra can do these activities and get away with it, they sure can too.

The other cartoon movie I’d like to talk about is ‘Return of Hanuman’. It’s a very nicely made movie with high quality graphics, very good production, and very good dialogues (some very funny ones too). I recommend watching it. The villain in the movie is ‘pollution’/‘global warming’ which is going to destroy mankind unless we start taking steps towards protecting the environment. Very thoughtful of the movie makers to include a social message. They have taken several liberties with the Gods, I guess under the protection of ‘poetic license’, to make the movie funny. I’ll mention some of them here. Watch the movie for several more!

Hanuman needs to take an avatar on earth to protect the world. He is in heaven and is trying to figure out a good place for his avatar to be born. So how does he do it? He uses an application similar to Google maps on something similar to Microsoft Surface. He clicks using his finger to zoom in and zoom out of India and identify the location!

I couldn’t help notice that all of our mythological stories have included technology of their times (in addition to the imaginative magical powers too, which is common throughout various mythologies). That’s why all the battles are fought using bows and arrows, spears, swords etc and they wear dresses like the dhoti and Sari, not jeans.

In ‘Return of Hanuman’, there are battles between Gods and Rakshasas that are fought using the older weapons. However, there was one funny twist. In almost every mythological movie, there has to be at least one ‘astra’ fight. The Rakshasa will hurl an ‘Agni’ astra and it will go towards the god spitting fire. The God would then hurl the ‘Water’ astra (I forget its name – is it Varuna Astra?) which will annihilate the fire. So I was not surprised when a Rakshasa hurls an Agni astra at Vishnu. What surprised me was Vishnu hurling his ‘Fire Extinguisher’ astra which sprays carbon dioxide and extinguishes the fire.

Another technology that is slipped into this movie is the watch. The scene: the gods are having a council on how to solve a problem on earth. Vishnu looks at his watch and says that there is not enough time to take an avatar, so we must find someone who has already taken an avatar and commission him for this task. Of course, this happens to be Hanuman.

Another innovative change is Garuda. Garuda is not an eagle, but a single seater aeroplane!

I guess this is how the different versions of our epics might have evolved. Valmiki might have written a version of Ramayana and then others such as Tulsidas, Kamba must have used their poetic licenses to come up with their own modified versions. And now we have fights over which is the authentic one. If ‘Return of Hanuman’ becomes successful and survives for a long period, I can imagine religious zealots of the future protesting vehemently when the future artist uses his poetic license and modifies ‘Return of Hanuman’ to adapt to the social conditions of those times. I do hope mankind would have advanced enough not have any religious zealots in the future.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Did Rama build the Rama Sethu?

I don’t understand why this has to be a controversial question. There is a very simple test prove that it was Rama’s army who built . If you believe that Rama (the God, 7th incarnation of Vishnu – not just some great ordinary human being who lived a long time ago) existed; the same Rama who killed the rakshasa in the form of a golden deer, the same Rama whose bhakt Hanuman jumped from Sri Lanka to Himalayas and transported a mountain back, then there is a very simple proof. When they were building the bridge, the stones kept sinking (naturally!). But if you wrote ‘Rama’ on the stone, then they wouldn’t sink. So here's the proof. Take a rock, write ‘Rama’ on it and drop in the sea. It won’t sink. Concrete proof. No more controversy.

Arguments based on damage to the local ecosystem, displacement of the local fishermen are understandable and should be debated. But something that can be settled in a minute by throwing a rock in the sea is beyond debate. I don’t understand why Rama’s devotees are not taking this approach.

For those interested to know more about the project, visit the official site at

Building a shipping channel in the Palk straits has been talked about for the past 147 years.


What the project envisages is a continuous navigational channel from the east coast to the west coast of India, which the nation currently lacks. Presently ships coming from the east coast of India to the west coast have to navigate around Sri Lanka and thus have to go an additional 424 nautical miles or 780 kilometres, which takes an additional 30 hours.

With the opening of the proposed channel, this distance and time will be lessened not just for the ships coming in from the west coast of India but also for trade ships coming in from other western countries. For any country looking to emerge as an economic superpower, the importance of faster and cheaper trade routes cannot be denied. While studying this project six routes were examined, here it is important to know that the areas near the coast is rich in marine life like coral ridges etc. and any path cutting through this area would mean a tragic loss of ecosystems. The other path suggested by the opposition parties goes through this area and could also result in loss of livelihood of many small fisherme, whose primary source of income would be affected. So the only viable option left is to dredge through the shallow area known as Adam’s Bridge or to Indians as the Ram Sethu.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Might is Right

Where does our sense of right or wrong come from? A popular theory is that there are universal laws of ethics/morality and those are used to deduce if a particular instance is right or wrong. Like the concept of God, this is very appealing and from evolutionary biologists’ point of view, this has a lot of survival value.

There a few problems with this theory of universal laws. They are not clearly documented and agree upon in specifics. People believe in the general principle that killing is bad. But in specific situations, it becomes difficult to apply. Killing cows is fine, because we eat them. If a person kills my child, killing the killer by sentencing him to death is fine. If a pack of stray dogs kills my child, killing the stray dogs is unacceptable. Killing mosquitoes, rats and cockroaches is fine. Killing people in the name of religion or country or ‘war on terror’ is fine.

Here’s an analogy. Like different religions, people might believe in the general concept of God, but when it comes down to specifics, the general rule is that “we are the chosen people” and those who don’t believe in my God are all going to hell. People tend to ignore the possibility that there is no God. Similarly, it might be possible that there are no universal ethics or morality.

However, a look around the world we live throws plenty of evidence that ‘might is right’ could be a better theory that explains how we accept what is right and what is wrong. Here, ‘might’ does not refer to a single living entity. ‘Might’ can be an invisible force such as fear of backlash. A few examples will clarify this. When stray dogs kill my child, I cannot kill the stray dogs because there is the ‘might’ of animal rights people. When a person kills my child, the ‘might’ of the government gives the right to sentence the killer to death. Since there is no ‘might’ to protect cockroaches, it is right to exterminate them.

Is it right to have reservations for backward communities in educational institutions? How is it right that a maid servant slogs it out seven days a week and earns what Aishwarya Rai earns in one second?

One answer is that we have got models of what seems to be acceptable to the majority of the people. Notice that ‘acceptable to majority of the people’ is another ‘might’. So we have models like capitalism and communism. A capitalist model can explain the discrepancy between the earnings of Aishwarya Rai and my maid servant. A communist model might aim to avoid this discrepancy in the first place. But, the point is, does it answer the question of right or wrong?

Here’s another example. There is propaganda all over the world on how we are depleting the earth’s resources and hence we need to conserve energy, recycle etc. Clearly, the major reason for this is that there is too much human population and it is growing. Somehow, I’ve not seen a single propaganda that shows that population reduction is one way to avoid resource depletion. The message is usually, ‘protect the world, so our children might enjoy it’ – not ‘don’t have children, so we may protect the world’. Mankind’s might versus rest of the species.

Capitalism accepted that human beings are essentially selfish and greedy and hence capitalism is thriving. Communism failed because it assumed that people will work for the community and put the community ahead of the individual. Is Capitalism right and communism wrong? Is democracy right and monarchy wrong? For a long time, monarchy was mightier so it was right. Now democracy is mightier, so monarchy and dictatorship are wrong.

So what’s my message? Let’s be scientific and accept the realities and then design systems that serve us well. It’s not about right or wrong. It’s coming up with theories such as: it is OK to exterminate cockroaches because it maximizes mankind’s happiness. It is not OK to kill each other in the name of country because of the grave danger of reducing our happiness drastically. So what are the measures we can take to abolish armies?