Posted in India, Philosophy

Two philosophers of modern India–alternative narratives


India has a vast philosophical tradition that continued into the twenty-first  century, providing an alternative to formal religion. Among the twentieth-century philosophers who broke new ground,  were two Krishnamurtis, Jiddu Krishnamurti and U.G. Krishnamurti, both of whom had connections with the Theosophical Society. In their early years both were mentored by the controversial,  but brilliant Theosophist, Charles W. Leadbeater.

Jiddu Krishnamurti

Jiddu Krishnamurti  was born on 11th May 1895 at Madanapalle, a small town in present Andhra Pradesh. His mother died when he was young, and after retiring from government service, his father volunteered to work for the Theosophical Society and moved to its headquarters at Adyar, Chennai (Madras). At this time the Theosophists were searching for a ‘vehicle’ that is, a pure being, into which the Messiah would incarnate. Leadbeater noticed Krishnamurti,  around fourteen years old, who most considered somewhat vague and dull, standing on the beach. He saw a wonderful aura around him and identified  him as the coming Messiah, the World Teacher. Krishna and his younger brother Nitya were adopted by the Society, and  trained by Leadbeater and Annie Besant. Their father at first agreed to this, but later fought a case to get them back. However, he lost. Krishnamurti was declared the Messiah, replacing a boy who had been chosen earlier.

In 1911 the Order of the Star in the East was founded, with Krishnamurti at the head. In his private letters Krishnamurti indicated that he was not very happy with his role as Messiah, but gradually began to believe it. He led the Order of the Star for some time, and had some mystical experiences, but then grew disenchanted with Theosophy. The Theosophists believed in a mystical hierarchy of beings, at the head of which was the Mahachohan. These beings lived in the astral world, but Krishnamurti had been taught how to visit them, and believed in their reality. In 1929, Nitya, his younger brother was seriously ill. Krishna received this news when he was on a ship, and visited the Mahachohan in his astral body, who assured him that Nitya would recover. However, Nitya died a few days later. It was a turning point for Krishnamurti, who lost all faith in the mystical hierarchy.  Soon after this, on August 2, 1929, the opening day of the annual Order of the Star of the East meeting at Ommen, Holland, Krishnamurti dissolved the Order. Three thousand members of the Order were gathered them, but Krishnamurti told them he was no longer their guru. They would have to seek their own path.

On that day he said, ‘ I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect.’

Krishnamurti continued to develop his own philosophy over the years, gave talks all over the world, and developed a large following.  Krishnamurti Foundations were set up in England, USA, and India  to disseminate his teachings, and schools were opened to try to bring about a new type of human being. Krishnamurti spoke about the ‘religious mind’ that comes into being in silence, and of ‘freedom from the known’ when conditioned thought has ended.

In 1980, he summed up his own teaching beginning with  the following words, ‘The core of Krishnamurti’s teaching is contained in the statement he made in 1929 when he said: “Truth is a pathless land”. Man cannot come to it through any organization, through any creed, through any dogma, priest or ritual, not through any philosophic knowledge or psychological technique. He has to find it through the mirror of relationship, through the understanding of the contents of his own mind, through observation and not through intellectual analysis or introspective dissection.’

He ended by saying, ‘Total negation is the essence of the positive. When there is negation of all those things that thought has brought about psychologically, only then is there love, which is compassion and intelligence.’ Krishnamurti died on 17th February 1986, but the Foundations and schools still exist. The collected works of his talks and writings amount to hundreds of volumes. His non-sectarian philosophy  appeals mainly to the educated elite, and though the roots of his  philosophy have been traced to both  Vedanta and Buddhism, he had not read any traditional texts.

U.G Krishnamurti

Uppaluri Gopala Krishnamurti, popularly known as ‘UG’, was born on 9 July 1918 in the town of Masulipatnam in present Andhra Pradesh. His early years were spent in the nearby town of Gudivade. UG’s mother died when he was only seven days old, and he came under the care of his grandfather, T.G. Krishnamurti, who was a Theosophist, though he also retained his orthodox Brahmana culture. Between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one, UG tried several spiritual techniques, and  engaged in self-enquiry, rejecting traditional beliefs. He joined the Theosophical Society, and In 1941 he even worked for some time in C.W. Leadbeater’s library at Adyar, but was disappointed that Leadbeater did not sufficiently recognise his  potential. UG  began lecturing for the Theosophical Society, and his talks were well received. Like J. Krishnamurti, he left the Society after a few years. Despite the similarities, he seemed in constant rivalry with J. Krishnamurti, whom he met frequently in early days. UG married in 1943, and had three children, though his marriage later broke up.  In 1967, he had a transformatory experience, in which he felt he died, and was reborn a different person.

UG did not give formal lectures or write books, but has a number of disciples, some of whom have recorded their conversations and dialogues. He said  that each person should be their own teacher, and that no guru is required. His biographer, Mahesh Bhatt says of him: ‘UG shuns religious persons, ridicules social reformers, condemns saints, speaks with disgust about sadhakas (spiritual aspirants), detests the chanting of the Vedas or the recitation of the Upanishads and is full of rage when one speaks of Shankara or the Buddha’.

U.G. died in March 2007.Though he did not acknowledge it, such rejection is similar to the Buddhist concept of negation. Through the rejection of all tradition, the mind drops its conditioning, and reaches a state of freedom.

In today’s India, these and other philosophers deserve to be better known. They differ from traditional gurus who often reformulate old statements, and instead provide fresh and different ways of looking at the world.


Posted in Healthcare, India

The small tragedies of life in India

In a village in Hazaribagh, Jharkhand, there is a woman who is ill, paralyzed and blind. My guess is that she is not very old, perhaps around 60, though she could be more, or less. Her eyesight had been failing for some time, and perhaps she had a stroke, the details are not clear, as I heard this story secondhand.  I thought of recording this sad story here, while searching for a possible solution.

After her paralysis, she was in hospital for a long time, then her family was asked to take her home. This they did, and as she lies in bed, unable to move or see, but able to eat, the family members have decided to feed her a small amount, only once a day. Why? They don’t know how to keep her clean. How to wash the sheets and clothes, so many times a day. Adult diapers must be out of the question because of the expense involved.

Is there no possible treatment? No place she can go? No home where she would be cared for? The family, at least, does not know of any. Nor have they received any advice on her care.

So there she lies…fed one small meal a day. Until she dies.

[The woman died on 1 May. I confirmed that she was just around 60 years old.]

Posted in Books, History, India, stories

The Peshawar Express

Rereading a book of Partition stories, I began to wonder whether there were any happy stories? Every story is this volume seems depressing. And once again one begins to ask that unanswerable question, why did it take place? Could it have been avoided? One million deaths would have been averted. Ten million would not have lost their homes. And India and Pakistan would not be constantly in a state of hostility. The book, Stories about the Partition of India, ed by Alok Bhalla, is one I have had for many years. It includes Manto’s famous story, Toba Tek Singh, and many more.

The Peshawar Express by Krishan Chander [translated from Urdu by Jai Ratan] is perhaps one of the lesser known stories, yet it is extremely poignant, a typical story of one of the many refugee trains. Here it is the train, the Peshawar Express, which tells its story, as it sets out from Peshawar loaded with refugees bound for India. The Hindu passengers looked like Pathans, says the train, fair and hefty, speaking Pushto or rugged Punjabi. Each coach was guarded by Baluchi guards. The passengers ‘ were bidding goodbye to their homeland with heavy hearts…I felt so weighed down under their cataclysmic grief that it slowed my speed.’

The first station was Hasan Abdal, where a number of Sikhs got on the train. But by the next station, Taxila, the carnage started. Taxila, once a great centre of learning, with a wonderful museum, where the Buddha preached….

The tracks were covered in blood and ‘I feared I would derail…’. Corpses piled up along the way, till finally the express reached Amritsar. ‘When I arrived at Amritsar, the joyous cries of the Hindus and Sikhs  shook the earth. Corpses of the Muslims were  piled high.’ Killings continued as the train crossed through Punjab. Even a young girl college student, reading ‘Socialism, Theory and Practice’ was not spared.

Finally the train returns to its shed in Bombay… ‘I have been given a thorough wash….I would never go on such a horrible journey again. … I want to pass through a land studded with barns of golden wheat, and swaying mustard fields on both sides of the track. I want to hear the Hindu and Muslim peasants sing the love legends of Punjab, while they sow their fields, while their hearts brim with love for each other and they are even full of reverence for women. I am a lifeless train—But even I hate to carry a cargo of blood and flesh dripping with hatred. I will haul food grain to famine stricken areas. I will carry coal, oil and iron ore…I will carry groups of prosperous peasants and happy workers….Then there will be no Hindus and no Muslims. There will only be workers and human beings.’

Posted in History, India

Narendra Modi and Indira Gandhi

I wrote this post on 29 December 2016 on another blog. Reposting here in the light of the election results in five states, particularly in UP.

Today, while working on a new book, I reread accounts of the 1971 elections, and began to see parallels between Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi. In that year, Indira coined the slogan ‘Garibi Hatao’, or ‘remove poverty’. The combined opposition’s main programme was to get rid of Indira. They failed, and she returned with 352 seats in the Lok Sabha. Yes, a few years later there was JP’s movement, the emergency, and her temporary downfall, but there is something to be learnt from this.
Catchy slogans have a great impact. Negative campaigns often do not.
In retrospect her policies did not remove poverty. Was bank nationalization a good thing? It could be questioned. What about the other economic policies? Those need more analysis.
Is demonetization a good thing? I may be wrong, but as far as I can see, it hasn’t served its purpose, and has caused a lot of misery. Even bankers are beginning an agitation against it. But if opposition parties want to win elections, they need to focus on some positive programmes. Merely condemning demonetization will not work. Narendra Modi’s policies may or may not bring results, but he is putting forward hope for the future. The opposition must do the same.
That is the lesson one can draw from the past. Rahul Gandhi, the Congress, Mamata Banerjee, Lalu Yadav, and others should learn from history.

Posted in book review., Books, India

Book review: A good book on wrestling!

I was looking up details on the food wrestlers eat [in India], and came across a fascinating book, The Wrestlers Body, by Joseph Alter.

This was published in 1992, so it doesn’t include the female wrestlers, and the recent movies, Sultan or Dangal, but it explores all aspects of a wrestler’s life in an akhara.

What do they eat? Most are vegetarian. Ghee, almonds, and milk are essential along with normal vegetarian food. No alcohol or tobacco, no drugs. No sex, they are supposed to be celibate. There are a lot of guidelines on how they should maintain this.

Their daily routine, worship of Hanuman, celebration of Nag Panchami, and a lot more is part of this book.

‘This is a study of wrestling as a system of meaning, and it must be made clear at the outset that I have not undertaken to study the technical aspects of the sport.’ says the author in his preface.

There are chapters on the akhara, the guru-chela system, patrons, and the discipline a wrestler requires.

The book is well-researched. I am not interested in wrestling or outdoor sports, nevertheless I really appreciated the book, and its insights into the philosophy and spirituality behind a sport, and how it transforms the individual.

Alter, Joseph S. The Wrestler’s Body: Identity and Ideology in North India. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.



Posted in History, India

Polish children in India–1942

Little Poland in India

Writing about Poland in an earlier post, I was reminded of Poland’s links with India.During the Second World War, 5000 Polish children came as refugees to India. A documentary on this, Little Poland in India,was released on 7 November 2013, and can be watched on youtube. The 52 minute documentary is based on records and on the memories of the now grown-up children.. The children were orphans, evacuated from Poland to Siberia during the war. They reached India in 1942 and lived in special camps, returning to Poland later.One such camp was set up by K S Digvijaysinhji, the maharaja of Jamnagar in Gujarat. He looked after the children as a father would. There were other camps in Gujarat and Maharashtra.

Posted in History, India

Brexit and country divisions


Brexit has been in the news lately and gave rise to some thoughts. All EU states have a right to withdraw from the European Union, and Article 50 lays down the procedure.Two years is provided for the withdrawal and the UK can control the starting date for this. It seems a fair procedure, much better than the way in which individual countries were divided in the past.

So many countries have been divided over the centuries. I am not sure how the details were worked out in each case, though it would be interesting to study them. What happened in Israel and Palestine in 1948? How was the break up of Yugoslavia handled?  We know how Sir Cyril Radcliffe and his assistants sat in an office and divided the Punjab on a map. No time was given to the countries to work out the details.  W. H. Auden even wrote a poem on this.

‘Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on this land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
‘Time,’ they had briefed him in London, ‘is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.’

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.’

We generally read about wars, riots and migration, but very little about the details of dividing assets.Below are some aspects of the administrative division of India and Pakistan, based on my book, The Puffin History of India, vol 2.

When the Partition of India and Pakistan took place in 1947, the entire administrative machinery and all assets had to be divided. A Partition Council with representatives from both sides were responsible for this. In general, it was agreed that 80 per cent of the assets would go to India and 20 per cent to Pakistan.There was gold in the Reserve Bank and cash in other banks.There was also a national debt. Pakistan was to get  17 per cent of cash and sterling assets, amounting to 75 crore rupees,  out of which 20 crore was paid before independence. Pakistan would take on 17 per cent of the national debt and pay this over 50 years. Money notes too were  divided, but the notes had the name of India on them and Pakistan stamped all the notes with a rubber stamp, with their new country’s name. Pakistan also had to print new postage stamps.

In all the government offices in the country, tables, chairs, paper,pens, pencils, were counted and divided. Then there were typewriters, hat-pegs, mirrors, sofas, ink-stands, clocks, fans, water jugs, pin cushions, official portraits and photographs, and even chamber pots.A lot of arguing and quarrelling went on, about whom should get what. There were cars and bicycles, lathis and guns, and official uniforms and clothes. Musical instruments from the official

bands were divided, and books from the libraries. When books were divided, there was no attempt to keep volumes of encyclopaedias or similar book series together–some went to Pakistan, some to India.

Out of approximately 65,000 km of railways 11,379 would go to Pakistan, and out of 5,50,000 km

of roads, about 1,50,000 would fall in Pakistan. Since Pakistan was getting 27 per cent of roads and 17 per cent railway tracks, should it still get 20 per cent of railway wagons, engines, bulldozers and other equipment? These were some of the major questions raised. There was the long gold and white train, which the viceroy used to travel in. There were luxury cars and there were twelve horsedrawn carriages, six decorated with gold and six with silver, used in the viceroy’s house.The royal train stayed with India, while some cars went to Pakistan. As for the coaches, their fate was decided by a toss of the coin—the gold ones stayed in India and the silver went to Pakistan.

Stocks of wheat, rice, and food grains were divided. Boundary lines sometimes divided fields of crops. In Bengal, the division left jute mills in one country and jute crops in the other.

It was not just money and material goods that had to be divided, but also the government officials, police and army. From Pakistan, most of the Hindu and Sikh officials moved to India, while in India, Muslim officials had a choice about whether to stay back or to go. As for the police, there were some 7000 Muslims in East Punjab, and in the process of their transfer, the region was left without law and order.

For the armed forces, a reconstitution committee was set up, under the Partition Council. Before partition, the army had 5,00,000 men. After partition,2,80,000 were left in India.The Navy and the Air Force, as well as stores and equipment, vehicles and guns, were also divided.

Posted in India, Natural History Museum, New Delhi

Memories and the Natural History Museum

A few days ago a major fire almost totally destroyed the Natural History Museum in New Delhi. I have fond memories of that museum and began thinking back to the days and hours spent there.

It must have been 1981 or 1982. I had completed the first draft of my thesis on the Historical Geography of the Ganga-Yamuna doab and needed to reorganize and finalize it. The data had been put together mainly from the vast resources of the Archaeological Survey of India library, a few other libraries, and field trips.

At that time I was living on the second floor of a building in a glass room. And I mean that literally! There was a small inner room, but the main room, 15 x 17 feet, large enough to house all my books, had three walls made of green glass. In the summer it was so hot that standing in it for even half a minute in the day time was unbearable. I had to find a convenient and peaceful place in which to rewrite my thesis.

I decided on the Sapru House [ICWA] library. The Archaeological Survey library despite its wonderful resources was definitely not the right place. [I have depicted it in my story The Library, which some have thought was fantasy or magical realism! Only the end is imagined in that]. My university [JNU] bus used to pass my house three times a day, on its way to Sapru House. I just had to descend the stairs, cross the road and catch the bus at 9 or 9.15 in the morning.

Reaching Sapru House one entered that vast and peaceful air-conditioned library,  a great relief from the heat at a time when there were not many places with air-conditioning. I sat at the same desk every day in the book-lined main hall. When I wanted a break I picked up a book from the nearest shelf. That shelf consisted of books on the Rosenbergs, and I got to know all about them. Of course I had heard of them but now I obtained an in-depth knowledge! I was sure they were innocent.

I’d have lunch in the canteen. A meal of rice or roti, veg and dal cost one rupee fifty paise. If one was feeling rich, there was Triveni across the road.

The main problem with the Sapru House library was that it was freezing cold, the air-conditioning lowered to the level that my finger-nails used to start turning blue.  It seemed too odd to bring along a shawl or something warm as it was burning hot outside. So I took breaks in the Natural History Museum next door. Wandered through the planetarium and other rooms, and watched short wild-life films, which were showed every day at 11.30am and 3.30 in the afternoon. There was never much of an audience, maybe some passing children, or others looking for an escape from the heat.

The last JNU bus left Sapru house at 6.45, and I would be back home by 7.30, and open all the windows and doors, so that the glass room was finally comfortable.

A few years later, when I joined a publishing company as an editor, I spent at least a month in the Natural History Museum’s library, rewriting the book of an artist and  wildlife enthusiast. Unfortunately the book was never published as it was later stolen by a disgruntled employee. There seemed to be no copies, in those pre-computer days.

My best memories of the Natural History Museum though are of those earlier days, and the half-hour films on wildlife.

IMG_20160428_0001Terrace door of my glass room.

Posted in History, India, Siachen

Siachen–where no roses grow

Siachen means ‘rose garden’, in the Balti language, though no roses could ever grow here.
A glacier in the eastern Karakoram range, it has a height of 6000 metres, an area of over 1000 sq km and is frozen throughout the year. It is located northeast of the LOC [Line of Control] between India and Pakistan, and Indian and Pakistani soldiers man this inhospitable terrain throughout the year. The area is disputed, as here, north of the map point NJ9842, the boundary was not clearly demarcated. In 1984 Pakistan thought of seizing the glacier, but the Indian Army learnt about it and got there first. There are 150 manned outposts in this hostile region, and India has a helipad at the height of 6400 metres, to ferry supplies. Since 1984 there have been numerous minor conflicts in the region, but the tragedy is that the conflict has not taken many lives–most of the soldiers who die here do so because of the climate and terrain. One day ago an avalanche buried 10 Indian army men, who are so far untraceable. In 2012 an avalanche hit Pakistani soldiers, with 149 killed. Indians too lost their lives in an avalanche the same year. According to available records, Pakistan has lost 3000 men and India 5000 since 1984, due to the climate and weather. From time to time India and Pakistan try to come to an agreement to withdraw from the region, but so far it hasn’t worked.
Much has been written on Siachen–there is a comic book depicting the conflict from the Indian side. And among the books on it are: Myra MacDonald, Heights of Madness:One Woman’s Journey in Pursuit of a Secret War; Harish Kapadia, Siachen, A Battle of Roses, and several others. I’ll write reviews when I manage to read these.