Posted in Books, J Krishnamurti, Philosophy

J Krishnamurti : A new biography

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Jiddu Krishnamurti [1895-1986] is very relevant today, as he spoke about how the world could be transformed, through the transformation of each individual. It is when one looks deep into oneself, without self-praise or condemnation, when one sees oneself clearly, one’s motives, ambitions and desires, that a change takes place, through that very act of seeing.

Everyone wants to live in peace and harmony, but Krishnamurti points out that this cannot be achieved through social activism, but through a transformation of each person.

This biography presents his strange story, from his early life to his adoption at the age of 14 by Theosophists, who proclaimed this backward, Telugu speaking boy to be the new messiah, the coming world teacher, and further through the many difficulties he faced, as he became a teacher of a new philosophy, a philosophy that he travelled across the world to present to anyone who was interested in peace and transformation.

But was Krishnamurti himself transformed? What was Krishnamurti, the man like, was he different from Krishnamurti, the philosopher? This book looks at these and other questions, and also at the essentials of his philosophy, his educational theories, and some of the educational experiments in schools following his ideas.

Read more in this book.

 

 

 

Posted in Books, History, world history

Who is Claudette Colvin?

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With the killing of George Floyd in the USA the Civil Rights Movement is back in focus. It seems unbelievable that the act for voting rights for African Americans was passed only in 1965, and that even in the 1950s they were strictly segregated in schools, buses and elsewhere. In buses, they had to sit at the back. Many who have a basic knowledge of the movement have heard about Rosa Parks, the young woman who refused to give up her seat to a white person in a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on 1 December 1955, and who sparked a movement to end segregation. Rosa Parks became a symbol of the movement, but there were many others who remained unknown. Claudette Colvin was perhaps the first of these to be arrested and imprisoned and this happened  in the same city,  nine months before the Rosa Parks incident when Claudette was only 15. On her refusal to give her seat to a white person, she was arrested in the bus, her schoolbooks went flying, she was handcuffed and imprisoned. She was locked in a cell in an adult jail, and not allowed to make a phone call. Fellow students in the bus told her mother, who reached the jail along with her pastor, Reverend H. H. Johnson. Johnson managed to get her released on bail. But Rosa Parks, middle-class and in her forties, seemed a more acceptable symbol of the movement, and she remains famous in history. The bus boycott, and the move to end segregation, started because of her. To know more about Claudette, the true founder of the movement, read Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice  by Phil Hoose.

Posted in book review., Books, India, Religion, Spirituality

Sri M, Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master

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Sri M is a teacher and guide, a spiritual person , who has set up the Satsang  Foundation in Madanapalle, Andhra Pradesh. His fame has grown over the years, and recently he was awarded the Padma Bhushan. Born Mumtaz Ali, he is non-sectarian, one of those who belongs to no religion, or all religions, though he also delves deep into Hindu texts such as the Upanishads. Recently I read one of his books, Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master.

I had been wanting to read it as I knew him when he was Mumtaz Ali and headed the Neelbagh School, a school for rural children started by the brilliant educator David Horsburgh. Even in those days, in the 1990s, I was intrigued by his stories of his spiritual quest, and urged him to write them down.  He also had a prodigious memory, and I recollect he could recite the entire Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit.

At some point he moved away from Neelbagh, and became Sri M, starting his ashram in Madanapalle. Along with a small group, he once led a peace march from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, has opened other educational institutions and given talks across the world.

This book, his autobiography, is not for sceptics as it contains some fantastic material, difficult to believe. Are there really Nagas who can descend from some other world? His many experiences with his teacher, his different names, and his life in the Himalayas are all narrated here. For me, however, the book was more interesting for its cultural portrayal , beginning with his early childhood, how as a Muslim boy he was allowed to enter a temple, and his family’s harmonious relationships with their Hindu neighbours. The book also has a wealth of information on other historical spiritual people, and is valuable for  this, not only for the insights it provides. Sri M believes in the truths of ancient Hindu texts, but at the same time has not denied his roots in his birth religion of Islam, or lost his empathy for people of all religions.

I have not written about the details of his life here, as these are easily available on the internet.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Books, Chekhov, Literature, Sri Aurobindo

Living in solitude

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A man lives in a room for 15 years, without contact with the outside world. He gets his food, and he  can ask for other items, and he stocks up on books. This is part of a story written by Anton Chekhov [1860-1904], the noted Russian writer. The story is called The Bet, and it begins with a discussion on the death penalty, an argument between a lawyer and a banker. The banker feels it is better to die then live a life in prison, but the lawyer disagrees. Next the bet takes place–the banker offers him 2 million rubles if he will endure a life alone in one room for fifteen years. The lawyer takes up the challenge. Initially, as he settles into the room, he is unhappy, but then he begins to read. As he reads, he starts to understand the futility of money, and gets a glimpse of the true meaning of life. The fifteen years has almost come to an end, the banker meanwhile has lost all his money. He thinks of killing the lawyer, and creeps into his room, where he finds the lawyer asleep, with a note written to him, stating that he has understood life, and does not want the money. The banker silently leaves the room, and the lawyer escapes from there before the fifteen years have quite ended, thus freeing the banker from his pledge.

I read this powerful story long ago as a teenager, and the memory of it remained with me. I loved the idea of spending fifteen years in a room, with everything taken care of, reading and reading. I think the story is just a device, used to indicate the power of words, and of the true meaning of life.

And there was one person, who actually lived like this through his own choice, and that was Sri Aurobindo. More on him later.

Posted in Books, History, world history

Books on North Korea

This week  I have read a number of books on North Korea. For those who are interested, here is a brief summary.

  1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. This is a work of fiction, with a historical background. The story covers about eight decades, set in both Korea and Japan, and its aim is really to depict the complexities of the lives of ordinary Koreans, first under Japanese occupation, and then after the division into North and South Korea. The negative Japanese attitude to Koreans is clearly brought out.
  2. Dear Leader by Jang Jin-Sung. An incredible book by someone high up in the hierarchy of North Korea, who then escaped to the South. The predictive reality of Orwell’s 1984 is clear in this book, as while working for the government the author had to take on a fake South Korean name, and write in praise of the North as if he was writing from the South.
  3. A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa. An apt title for a really dark book about the poor conditions in North Korea, a life of deprivation and starvation. The author finally escapes, but it is not exactly a happy ending. Being half-Japanese, he was accepted neither in Korean nor in Japanese society.
  4. The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee. Another harrowing escape story from North Korea. However, life in North Korea was much better for a Korean, rather than a half-Japanese. She writes of a close knit society, good neighbours, and prosperity during the 1960s and 1970s when the North was well-funded by China and the USSR.
  5. In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park. Another escape story, and a description of life in North Korea.

All these books also provide descriptions of the typical way of life in North Korea.

 

 

Posted in Books, Writers, Writing

When I met Alan Sillitoe

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Apart from Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and a few others, one of my favourite writers, though very different from them, is Alan Sillitoe [1928-2010]. It was after I read his brilliant short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, that I began reading his other books, among which my favourite is The Storyteller. A working class boy, Sillitoe started work at the age of 14 in a bicycle factory, but went on to become a world famous writer.

I thought of him today because of a question posed on social media, have you ever met a famous writer and what effect did this have on your writing? Of course, I have met many well-known Indian writers, my mother being one of them! But among international writers, the one I remember is Alan Sillitoe.

It was 1979 or 80 perhaps. He came to India, and then to JNU in New Delhi. I don’t remember if he gave any public talks, but he spoke specifically to a small group at the history centre. He was simple and informal, and during the interactive talk, he said that he loved maps. Those were pre-digital days, and after the talk I took him to see our collection of 1 inch to 1 mile Survey of India maps. They were not easily available and could not be accessed by the public. Acquired for a special project, a form had to be filled and signed every year stating that the maps were safe and secure.

Sillitoe spent some time looking at them and seemed fascinated. We discussed his books, he was surprised that I had read them all and was such a fan. What effect did the meeting have on me as a writer? None, as I wasn’t a writer then, and had no idea I would become one. But his books, and the simplicity of his writing, certainly influenced me.

 

Posted in Books, Hermann Hesse, Magic Mountain, The Glass Bead Game, Thomas Mann

Favourite books–a random list

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Over the years I have made different lists of favourite books, though the first two would be in every list. Re-posting a list from 2015

1.The Glass Bead Game by HermannHesse.
2. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.
3. Most other books by Hesse and Mann [but not Siddhartha].
4. The Morning and the Evening by Joan Williams.
5. A Multitude of Sins by J A Cuddon.
6. Dibs—in Search of Self by Virginia Axline.
7. Place Mill by Barbara Softly [a children’s book]
8. The Synthesis of Yoga by Sri Aurobindo.
9. Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
10. Europe: A History, by Norman Davies.
11. Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; also The First Circle, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by the same author.
12. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig.
13. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.
14. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.
15. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.
16. All the plays of Henrik Ibsen.
17. The Mahabharata.
18. The Ramayana of Tulasidasa.
19. Manimekhalai
2o. The Golden Treasury [F.T. Palgrave]

Posted in Books, History, Writing

My first published book

I had written this post below four years ago, and thought of re-posting it, as this morning I remembered an incident related to the book. I had read a book called Small Miracles, and this was something that could be categorised as one. Of course, a critique of the book said they were just coincidences, so this is a coincidence I still remember. It was probably 1996, mid summer in Delhi, temperatures around 44 centigrade. There were no mobile phones in those days. Finally, I had been allotted an editor for the book, and as she had a small baby she was working from home. I had her address and set out to visit her in Chittaranjan Park. But once there I could not locate the house. I walked in circles, asked everyone, received directions, but still could not find it. The heat was unbearable. I stopped to breathe, and thought I had better go home. At that moment a sannyasi in orange robes passed me. I hardly noticed him, but suddenly I felt a gust of cold air. In that blazing dry heat, it was cool and moist. Refreshed, I walked on a few steps, and there I was at the gate of the house I had been searching for . A very small incident–only if one had actually experienced the heat and exhaustion, and then that cold air, could one know why I still recollect it.


The earlier post

The Puffin History of India
The Puffin History of India

Perhaps because my mother was a writer, and because the house was always full of books, and I spent most of my time reading, I always believed I was a writer. Somehow, though, I became one only late in life, and almost by chance. After a stint in academics, a PhD, spending years doing research in a musty library, I moved on to become an editor. Then an interest in the philosophy of J Krishnamurti took me to teach in a school in south India run on his philosophy. After a few years there, teaching history and geography to youngsters, I realised there were no books in history that they wanted to read on their own. Teaching there I had begun to understand the kind of books young people required. I approached Penguin India with an idea for several small books on different dynasties, but instead they suggested a single book on Indian history. After sending them a synopsis and sample chapters, I had a contract. I wrote the book in longhand, got it typed, revised it, and got it retyped–I think it was probably the only book for which I kept to the deadline! Meanwhile, Puffin, the children’s division of Penguin, had its own problems, and closed down for some time. Submitted in 1993, the book was finally published in 1997! I had almost given up on it by then, had left the school, and was back to editing. This book, now called The Puffin History of India vol 1, is in its 3rd edition, and continues to have steady sales. A few years later I was pushed by my editor to write its sequel, on India after independence, which is now The Puffin History of India vol 2. After that I went on to write more books.

Posted in Books, Hinduism, Philosophy, Spirituality, Upanishads

The 108 Upanishads

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The deep and extraordinary philosophy of Hinduism is often ignored and among the great philosophical texts are the Upanishads. This article was written in response to a question on why I wrote the book.

The main concept in the Upanishads is that of Brahman, which is both the ultimate goal of all existence, and the common aspect of all life forms. Brahman can be defined as the substratum of the world. The Upanishads agree that everything originates from Brahman, which is uncreated and always existed. It is eternal, infinite, and has no form or shape. It is beyond time and space. Its nature is sat-chit-ananda, that is ‘truth or true being, consciousness and bliss’. Even though  Brahman is responsible for the creation of the world, and is identical with or part of the soul in every living being, Brahman retains its original, unchangeable, eternal, nature. Brahman is beyond thought and words, which is why no description can ever reveal it. Only  through a knowledge of it, would one know its reality. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad the rishi Yajnavalkya explains Brahman in many ways. He says that just as different types of smoke come from  fire, in the same way everything including the Vedas comes from a limitless reality  which can be equated with Brahman. And everything merges with it, just as all sorts of water merge in the sea, as all sounds merge in the ear, all thoughts in the mind,  and as salt in water pervades all of it. He also explained  that when everything is Brahman, there can be no duality. Brahman is best explained in the Upanishads, though this idea is also known in other religions where different terms are used. A true understanding of this concept would remove all divisions and inequalities in society and would lead to respect and compassion, for if every person is of the same essence, there could be no awareness of differences based on religion, caste or even on economic status. Further, this same essence exists in every living being, which would lead to the protection of trees, plants, insects and animals.

India is a vast storehouse of sacred texts, belonging to many different religions, and ranging in date from the ancient to the modern and contemporary, and the Upanishads can be considered among the most interesting and valuable of these. This group of Sanskrit texts form part of Vedic literature, the most sacred texts of Hinduism. Veda comes from the Sanskrit root ‘vid’ to know, and the word Veda implies ‘divine knowledge’.  The main texts of Vedic literature are the four Vedic Samhitas,  that is,  the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda, along with the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads. All these texts are said to be ‘shruti’ or ‘ heard’, and are believed to be directly revealed from a divine source. The Upanishads, attached to one or the other  of the Vedic Samhitas are the definitive texts expounding the wisdom of the Vedas.

Though a number of people are aware of the Upanishads, there are many more who are not. Even those who know about them are familiar with one or two, while there are actually almost 300 Upanishads, some very ancient, and others more recent. Out of these, a group of 108 Upanishads, listed in the 17th century Muktika Upanishad, are considered  the most important. These  Upanishads are of different types, including early and late Upanishads, Upanishads focusing on a deity, or on the paths of sannyasa or yoga. These Upanishads include  numerous topics, such as  the source of all creation, the atman or soul, the jiva, or individual soul, the nature of consciousness, the different worlds, reincarnation, the body, the chakras and inner power centres, as well as meditations on deities, and a lot more, but the concept of Brahman can be said to be the most important aspect of these texts, and the main theme, that of ultimate realization and transcendence. Long ago, this common and main aspect was recognised and compressed into a single text, the Brahma Sutra, composed before the first century CE.

There are very few books dealing with all 108 Upanishads. Signe Cohen’s recent book looks at several of them, but is meant for academicians. T.M.P. Mahadevan’s book on the 108 Upanishads, does list them all, and provides a brief introduction and a translation of one or two verses of each, but my aim in this book is to go beyond this and  present a comprehensive overview of all 108 and of the Brahma Sutra, while at the same time  situating these texts in the context of Indian philosophy. As all 108 are described, each person can focus on the one that suits them. It is not necessary to alter one’s way of worship or of devotion to a particular deity, but only to recognise, that at the highest level, every deity is Brahman.

The 108 Upanishads, thus provides an introduction to the texts, a starting point to delve deeper into the profound philosophy contained in them. It is an attempt to make the Upanishads along with the concept of Brahman, better known. The book is also a sequel to my book on the Vedic Samhitas (The Vedas, An Introduction to Hinduism’s Sacred Texts), which places the Vedas in a historical context, and examines questions regarding their date and origin..

 

 

 

 

Posted in book review., Books, India, J Krishnamurti, Sri Aurobindo, Theosophy

Letters of Wisdom by B. Sanjiva Rao

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While writing one book, one comes across a thousand others. This is one of the books only peripherally related to J Krishnamurti. B Sanjiva Rao  was employed in the Indian Education Service [retired 1938] and was married to Padma, who shared his world view of working for others rather than oneself. A close associate of Annie Besant, he was entrusted with the task of buying 400 acres of land around the Ganga river near Varanasi. Krishnamurti asked him to do this, but provided neither funds nor support. Having promised Mrs Besant to help, support and follow Krishnamurti, Sanjiva Rao set out to do this, not matter how daunting the task. But this book only touches on the problems he faced, and how Rabindranath Tagore helped out, providing his own architect, Surendranath Kar, and coming himself for the inauguration of the Montessori section of the Rajghat Besant School in 1934.

The book actually is a series of letters written to a young friend and relative, Vasanti Rao, who at the age of 17 settled in Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry [Puducherry], having renounced the world. On a visit there Sanjiva met her and found in her a spiritual friend. His letters to her, from 1958 to the time of his death in 1965, are part spiritual musings and part autobiography. They reveal the endless conflicts among Theosophists, and also among Krishnamurti supporters. How does one reach and understand the true Self?  Sanjiva Rao continuously tried to understand himself and the world around him, while working incessantly on the tasks given to him.

We don’t have Vasanti’s replies to him, so the book is one-sided. Nevertheless, it makes interesting reading, with some beautiful passages.