Posted in Philosophy, Religion

A philosopher or a guru?

What is the difference between a philosopher and a guru? There are many definitions online, but sometimes the boundaries are blurred. Many gurus do not have anything new to say. They expound a philosophy, but it is something already found in existing texts. Others think they are saying something new, but they too repeat what has been said before.

Philosophy comes through reason. I think no one is really concerned about a philosopher’s way of life…but for a guru, his followers jump to his or her defence. They don’t want to know the truth about his life. If it is revealed they claim it is untrue, and criticise the one who reveals it. In some cases they are ready to do worse. And yet the guru inspires a search for truth! How strange!

Posted in India, Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi : an extract from my book

Extracts from The Spirit will Survive, Chapter 11 of my book, The Puffin History of India, vol 2, 1947 to the Present)
“A glory has departed and the sun that warmed and brightened our lives has set and we shiver in the cold and dark”, said Jawaharlal Nehru on 2 February 1948, a few days after the death of Gandhi. “Let us be worthy of him”, he added. And truly Delhi was worthy of him, for his death stirred something in people’s hearts, all remaining violence ceased and peace was restored to the city.

A strange magic
What was the magic of this man, that he could bring peace in Calcutta and in Delhi both during his life and after his death? On his 78th birthday Sarojini Naidu in a radio broadcast tried to explain. She said , “Who is this Gandhi and why is it that today he represents the supreme moral force in the world?…(he is) a tiny man, a fragile man, a man of no worldly importance, of no earthly possessions, and yet a man greater than emperors….. This man, with his crooked bones, his toothless mouth, his square yard of clothing,… he overthrows emperors, he conquers death, but what is it in him that has given him this power, this magic, this authority, this prestige, this almost godlike quality of swaying the hearts of men?” She went on to say that it was the same quality as that of the great religious teachers of the world such as Christ, Buddha, Muhammad and others, and a great vision he had “that love and humanity would endure, grow and reach the stars”. In other words, perhaps it was his total honesty, his constant, unwavering search for truth and the pure love in his heart, that aroused love in others and brought out the goodness in people.

Born on 2 October 1869 at Porbandar in Gujarat, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi went to school in Rajkot and at the age of thirteen was married to Kasturba, a young girl. By the age of eighteen he had a son, and later three more. He went to England to study law, and after returning to India, he left for South Africa in 1893.
He stayed in South Africa till 1914 and during these years formulated his policy of satyagraha or non-violent resistance. He also developed his ideas on Truth, took a vow of brahmacharya or self-restraint and gave up all material possessions. His fame spread to India and by the time he returned in 1914 he was revered by the people and given the name ‘Mahatma’ or “great soul’.
In India, after some initial experiments in satyagraha, he took up the leadership of the Freedom Movement in 1920. That long story cannot be told here, but he brought the common person into the struggle for freedom and let India peacefully to independence. Simultaneously he did a number of other things, training his followers to work for the development of the villages and trying to get rid of untouchability.

Gandhi’s basic ideas focused around two things, Truth and ahimsa or non-violence. He said he was “ a passionate seeker after Truth, which is but another name for God. In the course of that search the discovery of non-violence came to me.” Gandhi used these ideals both in the struggle for freedom and in his personal and inner life.

Gandhi was religious, but to him religion was something personal, as each person had a different concept of God. He was a Hindu, but he believed in the goodness of all religions. His favourite texts were the Bhagavad Gita and the Sermon on the Mount from the New Testament. About the relationship with other religions he said, “If I am a Hindu… I may not make any distinction between my co-religionists and those who might belong to a different faith. I would seek opportunities to serve them.”

He believed that material prosperity or wealth and possessions, did not help people to live happily or peacefully. People should be content if their real needs were fulfilled and should acquire and use only what they really required. Thus all would have whatever was required, no one would have excessive wealth. There would be peace and safety, for thieves and robbers were created by inequalities, by some people having too much.

On his 78th birthday Gandhi received streams of visitors and birthday messages and congratulations from all parts of the world. But he felt condolences would be more appropriate because there was only agony in his heart. Once he had wished to live 125 years, but now in this atmosphere of hatred and killing, he had lost this desire. He said that if it was God’s will, he would live a little longer, but in his heart his cry was to “take me away from this ‘vale of tears’ rather than make me a helpless witness of the butchery by man become savage”. Gandhi felt that people no longer listened to him or followed him. Yet in his last fast and death the magic and mystery of his ability to touch people’s hearts, was seen once again.

Value today
Gandhi knew his life would end some day, and in his last days he even wished to depart from the world. At the same time he felt that his ideals were eternal. He said, “The spirit will survive the dissolution of the body and somehow speak through the millions”. Perhaps, some day, his vision will be fulfilled. With the spread of education and the internet, his concept of the ideal village could become a reality. There would then be few crowded cities and less pollution. The environment could be better protected. If people had fewer needs and less greed as well as honesty, there would be enough for all. And if everyone followed Truth and non-violence, had love in their hearts, and helped and served those of other religions, India would become an ideal land, a model for the whole world, as Gandhi had once dreamed.

Posted in Books, India, Sri Aurobindo

‘I carry the sorrow of millions…’

Sri Aurobindo [1872-1950]wrote hundreds of thousands of words of verse and prose. As I go through all his works for my next book, I found these lines today.

‘ I look across the world and no horizon walls my gaze;

I see Paris and Tokyo and New York,

I see the bombs bursting on Barcelona and on Canton streets.

Man’s numberless misdeeds and rare good deeds take place within my single self.

I am the beast he slays, the bird he feeds and saves.

The thought of unknown minds exalt me with their thrill,

I carry the sorrow of millions in my lonely breast.’

Posted in Bhakti poets, India, Literature, Religion

Bhakti poets–1

Medieval regional literature is a vast storehouse of beautiful poetry. Here is a poem on Yashoda composed in Gujarati by Premananda [1636-1734] . His most popular Akhyanas are based on the Dasama Skandha of the Bhagavata.  In the Nagadamana episode he graphically depicts the fear of Yashoda, when the young Krishna jumps into the Yamuna to retrieve a ball.  Yashoda fears that he has lost his life. She says:

‘Why, my dark one, did you plunge into the river, leaving your poor mother behind?

The waters of the Yamuna are dark; the black Kaliya lives in it;

How can I hope to meet you again?

How will you come back to me?

My child was my life, fate has robbed me of it.

I did not know how to preserve my jewel,

And now he is gone.’

Of course Krishna emerged unharmed!

Posted in India, J Krishnamurti, Philosophy

J Krishnamurti: A Life of Compassion beyond Boundaries

Key questions on my biography

1. Do you think the life and teachings of J. Krishnamurti have become more relevant today? If so, why?

1A. Though J. Krishnamurti’s teachings have always been relevant, they are even more so today, in a world divided by race, religion and caste. His understanding was that all human beings are essentially the same, as they are motivated by the same emotions, fears, ambitions and desires. All divisions, therefore, are superficial. He spoke against identifying with any nation or religion, as such identity created a divided world. At the same time, he showed how through self-knowledge, one could gain a different understanding, going beyond these common perceptions.

2. Why have the depictions of Krishnamurti been so divergent till now? On the one hand we have a huge following of his views and ways in the public and on the other hand, biographies, like those of Radha Rajagopal Sloss which are considered seminal works on Krishnamurti have such criticism about his life and relationships. What is your view on this and how do you tackle these differences in your book?

2A. Krishnamurti did not see himself as a guru, and did not want followers. Yet, those who closely follow his teachings venerate him like a guru. They do not want to know or hear anything about him that in public perception may be considered negative. Some biographies of those who had been associated with him, thus present a sanitised version of his life. Radha Rajagopal Sloss’s book is also very personal, and not entirely negative, but she did provide a critique of certain aspects of his life. She wrote this book in defense of her parents, Rosalind and Rajagopal, with whom Krishnamurti was once very close, though he later rejected them totally.

In my book, I have attempted to present a balanced view of the different aspects of Krishnamurti, the person, while at the same time recognising his immense contribution to the world.

3. Why did you feel the need to write a biography of the philosopher and educator when there were many accounts available of his life and teachings? 

3A. There are indeed numerous biographies of Krishnamurti, and considerable analysis of his educational theories as well. But there is no other book that presents his life, his philosophy, and his educational theories in a single volume. In addition, a number of people associated with Krishnamurti have written their memoirs after his death, and for the first time aspects of these have been incorporated into a biography. As I am a historian, I went deeply into various sources to create an objective and historical view of his life and teachings, linking his early life and theosophical influence with his later philosophy. This is also something unique in this book, which thus transforms our views on him, presenting a composite picture of his life.

4. In the book we find interactions of J. Krishnamurti with a varied range of people from Theosophists, nationalists, writers, politicians and social reformers from pre-independent and independent India, and especially quantum physicists and psychologists. How do you think he negotiated such terrains and have meaningful conversations with people from such diverse fields?

Krishnamurti himself said he did not read much, and when he read, it was often detective fiction. But he did read articles in magazines on the latest theories and developments, and watched documentaries. His friends and associates also explained to him the finer points of topics he was interested in. But there was another dimension to his ability to have meaningful discussions with people from diverse fields, and that was his contact with some unknown source, a vast emptiness, through which he could grasp and understand the complexities of any subject.

5. How did your long association with J. Krishnamurti as a topic of research for a book emerge? What sustained your interest in him for so long?

5A . Ever since I read J Krishnamurti’s magical words, ‘Truth is a pathless land’, I never lost my fascination for him. Then, I came across many people associated with Krishnamurti and began to delve deeper into his philosophy, and also its application in practical terms. I met those who had changed through their association with Krishnamurti and his teachings, yet he himself said no one had completely understood or lived his teachings. There were also so many different and fascinating aspects of his life. What could it have been like to have been proclaimed a messiah at the young age of 14? In his case, truth seemed stranger than fiction, and that too held my attention.

6. While your biography also goes beyond the partisan views to depict him in a more humane way, what do you think was special about Krishnamurti ?

6A. Krishnamurti spoke about eternal truths in simple terms, without quoting other texts and without any jargon. Yet even while travelling around the world and speaking incessantly to disseminate his teachings, there were different and human aspects to him. Despite this, I feel Krishnamurti was a messenger of truth, urging people to change their consciousness, and providing a new way to do so.

7.  What are the major contributions of a visionary like Krishnamurti to society and humanity? How can we understand his legacy better?

7 A. Krishnamurti wanted to bring about a new world, through the transformation of individual consciousness. Self-knowledge was the key to change. In every part of the world there are people who pray and meditate, yet act without any empathy or compassion. Krishnamurti saw the root of the problem, he pointed out how individuals constantly escape from themselves, through entertainment, ambition, and a desire to become something one is not. Could one look within and understand oneself? This is one of the key aspects of his philosophy, and if every person who desires a better world, could do this, the world would indeed be transformed. Even an attempt in this direction would help one to understand his legacy.

Posted in Hinduism, India, Vedas

Vedic Literature—18

The Vedic Samhitas were difficult to understand, and much learning was required to comprehend them. Before approaching the Samhitas, the Vedangas were to be studied. The Vedangas were a group of texts on six topics, shiksha or phonetics; vyakarana or grammar; chhandas or metre; nirukta or etymology, alternatively glossary; jyotisha or astronomy and astrology; and kalpa or ritual.

Most of these various Vedanga texts were written in sutras, a sutra being a short statement providing information in a compressed way. These sutras too, could only be understood by a learned person.

Did this ensure that only the elite could ever understand the Vedas?

Posted in Hinduism, India, Vedas

Vedic Literature–17

Another category of secondary Vedic literature are the Anukramanis.  Anukramani can be translated as a catalogue or index, but it is actually an additional explanatory text, providing details about various aspects of the Vedic samhitas. Anukramanis are assigned to various authors, and several Rig Veda anukramanis are said to be written by Shaunaka, a rishi known from other sources too. These provide the names of deities, metres, rishi authors, and other details of the Rig Veda suktas [hymns]. Anukramanis are also commented on by other authors. For the Sama Veda, some of the Sama Veda Brahmanas have characteristics of Anukramanis, while the there are other Anukramanis too for this, as well as for the Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda.

Posted in Uncategorized

Vedic Literature–16


As seen earlier, the main texts of Vedic literature are the Vedic Samhitas, followed by the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads. But there are numerous other texts, used to memorize or explain aspects of these texts. Among these are the Padapathas or ‘word texts’. Those who know Sanskrit are aware that words are joined together in the  language [sandhi], according to certain rules. This joining is often done by adding a consonant or changing a vowel. Vedic texts use sandhi, but Padapatha texts break up, join, and repeat the words in different ways. If words are represented by a b c d, some Padapathas have ab, bc, cd, etc. Others have ab, ba, ab, bc, cb, bc etc, or even ab, ba, abc, cba, and different variations. These texts were thus used to memorise and preserve the texts exactly.

Posted in Hinduism, Upanishads, Vedas

Vedic Literature–15

Upanishads –3 The Brahma Sutra

Vedanta is a system of philosophy based on the Upanishads. Its main principles were summarized by Badarayana, who probably lived between 500 BCE – CE 100. Badarayana wrote the Brahma Sutra, also known as the Vedanta Sutra. To the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutra, the Bhagavad Gita is added, in order to understand Vedanta. Numerous commentators wrote extensive commentaries on every aspect of Vedantic texts. They interpreted these texts in different ways, giving rise to different schools of Vedanta. Among these are Advaita, Dvaita, Dvaitadvaita, Vishishtadvaita, Shuddhadvaita and Shivadvaita. These and other philosophies will be explained in a different group of posts.

Posted in Books, Hinduism, Upanishads, Vedas

Vedic Literature –14



As seen earlier, the focus of all the Upanishads is the realization of Brahman. But this concept of Brahman is difficult to understand. Two descriptions of this are given below. According to the Kena Upanishad, it is through Brahman that everything is known. Yet Brahman is neither the known or the unknown.

The Katha Upanishad says: ‘Brahman, the immortal, contains all worlds in it, and no one goes beyond it.’

Some Upanishads state Brahman has two forms, both mortal and immortal. The mortal form must refer to the gods, who, though a part of Brahman, are not eternal.

Brahman, in its true sense, has never been created and can never be destroyed.

Some of the later Upanishads focus on gods, others on rituals. There are yoga Upanishads and sannyasi Upanishads. But the aim of all is the same, to transcend the world and realize Brahman. For this one must first understand the bliss of true realization, for only then will one focus on it. And only when the mind is fully focused on  Brahman and on nothing else, will such realization be possible.

For more on the Upanishads, read The 108 Upanishads depicted above.