Posted in Books, India, History

Why is 2008 an Unforgettable Year for India?: ‘India at 70’ — An Excerpt

Penguin India Blog

Author Roshen Dalal in her new book, ‘India at 70’, explores the journey of India through its 70 years since Independence in the minutest details. The enthralling read is not just a dive into the rich history of the country, but also a celebration of the major milestones in every aspect and field of society.

In the following excerpt from the book, Roshen Dalal takes a deeper look into why the year 2008 will always be considered unforgettable in the history of modern India.

The year 2008 had some unforgettable moments.

Floods are not uncommon in the monsoon season, but in August that year, the floods in Bihar were exceptionally severe. River Kosi changed course, and over 2.3 million people were affected.

In October, the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement was signed and was considered a landmark treaty. According to this, the US would provide India with nuclear fuel and technology…

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Posted in death, Hinduism, India, Religion, Upanishads

Life after death

The Brahma Sutra, a Sanskrit text assigned to various dates between the 5th century BCE and the first Century CE, is one of the most complex texts, impossible to understand without a commentary. What, for instance, can the average reader understand from a one word sutra that says, ‘kampanat’, i.e, ‘trembles’. Only the commentators know what this refers to, and which passages in the Upanishads are connected with this.

After many passages explaining Brahman, the ultimate cause of the world and the only reality, the third chapter begins with  a discussion on reincarnation. Quoting various Upanishads as usual, the commentators explain the terse short statements. When the individual soul departs from the body, they say, it is accompanied by subtle elements, as well as prana, or the breath, and by the eleven indriyas or senses. After spending some time in a heavenly world or in hell, the soul returns to earth to a new body, based on its residual karma, that is those actions that still have not been exhausted by enjoyment or sorrow in heaven or hell.

This brief account is of course, a simplification of the text, but provides some indications on theories of reincarnation.

 

 

Posted in History, India

When the Journey Began: ‘India at 70’ — An Excerpt

Penguin India Blog

In 2017, India’s spacecraft Mangalyaan is orbiting Mars, satellites are regularly sent into space, the economy is growing rapidly and India’s diverse art and culture is appreciated globally. And, most importantly, India is the largest democracy in the world.

The story of India as an independent nation began seventy years ago, in 1947, when the country gained independence after almost 200 years of British rule. For the first time, India became a united political entity, a nation with clearly defined boundaries. What type of country would the new India be? Would it remain united and strong?

At this time, the territory known as India consisted of eleven British provinces and some additional areas directly under British rule as well as 565 Indian states (also called princely states) where the British had overall control. The Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, wanted a separate state of Pakistan, and finally it…

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Posted in History, India

India: 70 Years of Independence

Penguin India Blog

By Roshen Dalal

India celebrates 70 years of independence on 15 August, and we may wonder why this date is so important. A simple answer is that on this date in 1947, India gained freedom from almost 200 years of British rule. But further questions follow. What was wrong with British rule? How was it different from that of earlier invaders and settlers? Through the narrow passes and river valleys in the high mountains, India had seen many invasions from ancient times. Darius I (522-486 BCE)of Persia (Iran) included part of north-west India in his territories. Alexander, the Macedonian conquerer, too, came to the north-west in 336 BCE, but could not stay long. The Bactrian Greeks (from 200 BCE), the Parthians (1st century CE), Kushanas (1st to 3rd centuries CE), Indo-Sasanians (3rd -4th centuries CE), and Hunas (5th century CE), and were among other invaders. All of them set up…

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Posted in India, J Krishnamurti, president of India, Rukmini Devi Arundale, Theosophy

Rukmini Devi Arundale–the woman who could have been president of India

India’s presidential elections take place next month, with two main candidates, Ram Nath Kovind, who has been an MP and governor of Bihar, and Meira Kumar. It is more or less definite that Kovind, the BJP candidate will win, though Meira Kumar too has excellent credentials–a woman, a Dalit, who had a career in the foreign service before joining politics. She has been a union minister, a speaker of the Lok Sabha, and is the daughter of the late Babu Jagjivan Ram.

The only woman president so far has been Pratibha Devisingh Patil.

But Rukmini Devi Arundale was the one who could have been the first woman president of India. She was a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha in the 1950s. In 1977 she was invited by the then prime minister Morarji Desai, to become the president, or at  least to stand for election, but she refused. Perhaps there have been others who have refused over the years?

Rukmini Devi  (29 February 1904- 24 February 1986) was an extraordinary person. Her father, Neelakanta Sastri, an engineer and Sanskrit scholar, joined the Theosophical Society and moved to live near its headquarters at Adyar, Madras [now Chennai], after his retirement. Influenced by Theosophy, she was a beautiful young girl of 16, when she decided to marry George Arundale, an Englishman, a Theosophist, and a man who at 42, was much older than her. Her decision created a furore in the sedate circles of Madras, but she went ahead, and soon became even more closely involved with the world of Theosophy. At the same time she revived and made Indian dance respectable again, founded Kalakshetra, the dance institute in Madras [Chennai] and laid the foundations for  animal welfare in India. In the course of her life she received numerous awards, and wrote and lectured on several topics.

Just as Jiddu Krishnamurti was put forward by the Theosophists as the messiah and world teacher, Rukmini Devi was named the ‘world mother’. [see earlier post: Two Philosophers of Modern India, for more on J Krishnamurti]. In 1925, at the Order of the Star meeting at Ommen, Annie Besant announced: ‘Rukmini of glorious past will be Rishi Agastya’s messenger to the women and young ones In India….Young in body, yet she is old in wisdom and power…’. Rukmini did not openly repudiate her, but gradually moved away from the role.

Was her marriage a happy one? Initially it would seem so, but as George Arundale grew older, he became rather odd.

These are just some snippets of the extraordinary life of Rukmini Devi.

Posted in Hinduism, India, Philosophy, Upanishads

The Upanishads–1

The Upanishads are a series of Sanskrit texts that form part of Vedic literature. As I am writing a book on the Upanishads, a sequel to that on the Vedas, I have been posting a few snippets from them. Here I have put together some of those snippets, with a few additions.

There are 108 classic Upanishads with different themes and varied contents. The main aim of every Upanishad, is however, the realization of Brahman, the ultimate source of all, which some schools of philosophy consider identical with the atman, the soul in each person.

The Brahma Sutra is a text that recognises this central theme, and puts together the main ideas on Brahman from the Upanishads.

The first sutra in this text is ‘athato brahmajijnasa’, ‘now therefore the inquiry into Brahman’. This small word ‘atha’ has been so extensively analyzed by commentators, that the commentaries amount to over a hundred pages. ‘Now’ , implies that there are some prerequisites before one can start such an inquiry, into that immutable and undefinable concept of Brahman. These prerequisites are extensively described, though commentators don’t agree on what they are. Without the commentators it is impossible to understand a sutra, which is a short, terse, minimalist statement.

The Upanishads are of different types. Some form a link between the earlier Vedic  texts and the philosophy of these.
The most important are termed major Upanishads, They have commentaries of the great philosopher Shankara of the 9th century [Adi Shankaracharya].

Studying the Upanishads enables one to understand the identity of the atman with Brahman. One cannot realise this when one is totally immersed in activities in the world.

The Upanishads write about ‘guha’ the cave in the body. This is often qualified as the ‘inner cave’ or ‘the cave within the heart’. It is there that the eternal light of the atman or soul, is to be sought. This special place is called a cave because of its hidden and secret nature.

How does one reach this ‘cave within the heart’, where the eternal light shines? An ethical life and control over the mind and senses, are the first step, according to the Upanishads.

‘This atman, resplendent and pure, whom the sinless sannyasis behold, residing within the body, is attained by unceasing practice of truthfulness, austerity, right knowledge, and continence.’ Mundaka Upanishad, III.1.7.

 

 

Posted in India, Religion

The story of Nandanar

‘Caste did not exist in early India’, many today like to affirm. Then I remember the story of Nandanar, who is known because of his devotion to the god Shiva. There were  many others who lived along with him, unknown, and unsung.

Nandanar’s  exact date is not known, but he probably lived in the seventh or eighth century. The story of Nandanar and his devotion appears in the Periya Puranam of Sekkilar [12th century],  which is the Tamil account of the sixty-three Nayanar [Shaivite] saints. Nandanar’s story  was made famous by Gopalakrishna Bharati in his Nandanar-Charitra. In the nineteenth century this was sung in every village in Tamil Nadu.  Gopalakrishna’s version, which  added a few details to that of Sekkilar, is given below.

Nandanar was born in village Merkattadhanur (now Melanallur) in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu in  a low caste (Dalit) family.  He worked as a bonded labourer for a land owner of the Vedhiyar caste. As an untouchable,  Nandanar was not permitted to enter the village temple, but yearned to visit it, and used to play the yazh (an instrument) and sing devotional songs from some distance away.  He desired to go to Tiruppungur to worship the deity Shivaloganathaswami in the temple there, and one day managed to reach  there.  He stood outside the temple and attempted to look at the linga within, but a large image of Nandi blocked his view. It is said that at Shiva’s command, the Nandi moved a few feet to the right, so that Nandanar could view the linga.  Returning to his village, filled with joy,  Nandanar was determined to go to Tillai (Chidambaram). Everyday he would say, ‘I will go tomorrow’, and thus he earned the name Tiru Nalai Povar, ‘one who will go tomorrow’, and is still known by that name.  Finally he approached his Vedhiyar landlord for permission, who told him to worship the gods of his own caste. His own community members too, told him to leave the high caste gods alone. Nandanar did not give up. Once again he asked the landlord, who said he would permit him if he transplanted  paddy in 40 velis of land (250 acres) in one day, an impossible task. By the grace of Shiva this was done, and Nandanar set off for Chidambaram. Here too he could not enter the temple, but it is said that the Lord appeared to him and to the temple dikshitars (priests) in a dream and said that after purification by a ‘fire bath” he would be permitted to enter. The dikshitars built a Vedic fire which he entered, and is said to have emerged from it with a tuft of hair and sacred thread, like a brahmana. He then entered the temple and merged with Lord Nataraja.

Historians believe that Nandanar was actually burnt to death and never entered Tillai, but today his image is in leading Shaivite temples along with those of the other Nayanars.  He has been praised by Ramalinga Swami, Narayana guru, Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Sivananda, and several others, and is perhaps the most well-known of the Nayanars. In 1910 Swami Sahajananda established the Nandanar School and Nandanar Matha  at Chidambaram in his memory.

 

 

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.

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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.’