To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child , a garden patch, or a redeemed condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The power of serendipity...

How many times has it happened to you that you're in a particular frame of mind and then, out of the blue, something that is in tune pops out of somewhere!

It struck me when I received the book 'The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma' by Gurcharan Das, from the postal library which I subscribe to.  Now, as it happens, this was just one of the books in my online 'queue' at the library, and not even among the top two (I receive two books a month).  As it also happens, lately I've taken to reading commentaries/fiction based on old texts - the last two I read, both fiction, were 'The Palace of Illusions' (Draupadi's narration of Mahabharata, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni) and 'The Vengeance of Ravana' (one in a series of 'retelling' of Ramayana, by Ashok Banker).

Takes me back to a cliched dialogue from a recent Hindi movie ('Om Shanti Om'?), something like "Jab tum kisi say pyar kartay ho toh saree kayenaat tumko us say milanay ki koshish karnay lagtee hai" - loosely translated as 'When you love someone, the entire universe conspires to bring you together'!  This was probably brought out more aptly in the English movie of the same name as the title of this post, 'Serendipity' starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale.  What we used to simply call 'coincidence' now has another, more chic sounding, name!

Some books like 'The Secret' and 'The Power' by Rhonda Byrne have also tried to make the same point - that if you think about something very strongly, you'll probably get it (eventually?).  But is it ever that easy, that you wish for something strongly and it comes to you?  Doesn't seem so.  What may seem more plausible is that when our mind is focused on a certain thing, we 'see' or catch on to other things in tune with the object of our current attention.  And this process of 'seeing' may happen mostly in our subconscious mind, so that while we may make the right connection, we may not be able to explain (or even understand ourselves) how exactly we did that!  This was the theme of the book 'Blink' by Malcolm Gladwell.

This, though, still doesn't explain how I got that book from my library!  Was it because my mind was focused 'on the subtle art of dharma', in whatever fashion?  A toss up...

Friday, June 24, 2011

Split personality?

Can someone have one type of personality (or behaviour style) at work and another, totally different one in personal life?

The question arose in my mind while doing as mundane a thing as watching an episode of a Hindi soap on TV called 'Baray Achchhay Lagtay Hain...' (loosely translated as 'we like it so much...' - actually from the opening stanza of a song from a Hindi movie of yore, 'Atithi' starring Sachin).  The soap supposedly deals with the life of a couple who get married 'late' (as per Indian standards) i.e. 40 for the man and 33 for the woman (though it seems to be taking excruciatingly long, in true TV soap style, getting to the point where they actually get married).

The main male character Ram (the name cleverly aluding to Lord Rama, thus building up a positive imagery from the beginning), supposedly a business tycoon, is introduced in a boardroom scene involving an acquisition, where his ruthless business sense is well displayed, though also tinged with pragmatism when, after having rejected the deal once, he goes back to the negotiating table and seals it only for the reason that he needs the plane that the company's owner has, to get back to base for his sister's wedding!  In another scene, he's shown working his executives even on a Sunday (though he relents when they start receiving calls from their families, one after the other!).

Regardless of such scenes interspersed, hinting at Ram's 'soft side', his 'alpha male' personality is further reinforced when he gets vengeful on the family of the main female character Priya for delaying him from reaching his late father's memorial service (when their cars scrape past each other).  The trait is again displayed when he deals aggressively with Priya's family when his sister slashes herself due to the unresponsiveness of Priya's brother with whom she's supposedly in love.

However, the guy is shown as 'super soft and sensitive' in scenes involving his family.  It seems he allows his step-mom to walk all over him, even while he realizes perhaps that she's sort of exploiting him (for instance, by deliberately blocking marriage proposals for him) while not according him the same status as her own son (who must be present for his sister's wedding, even as Ram makes all the arrangements!).  She even puts him down firmly when he hints that his late father's (and her late husband's) memorial ceremony is perhaps more important than attending an auction.  But Ram continues to go all mush and weak-in-the-knees on anything involving his family (including the little sis who seems total bonkers).

So, to return to the original question, can a person have such 'split personality'?  Some would say: ideally, yes.  There is a saying "Don't bring your office home".  But in today's world, is this really achievable, or more of a utopia?  Can a hard-driving executive really just 'switch off' when s/he leaves office and assume another, perhaps 'softer'/more benevolent avatar before s/he reaches home?  That could also mean, especially in these BlackBerry times when one is supposed to be 'online' 24x7, that the person would've to 'switch-on/switch-off' rapidly in a matter of minutes between his/her 'office personality' and 'home personality'!  Is that doable?  The answer seems more like a tentative "Maybe", even for putative supermen/women!

Which brings us round to the other side of the equation: does one's 'home personality' (see above) affect one's 'office personality'?  Again, ideally it is not meant to.  One is supposed to assume a more 'professional' attitude/behavior (whatever that means, in the specific context) once s/he enters office, leaving behind personal issues.  However, this also seems more ideal than realistic.  Just as (to be PC!) 'behind every successful (wo)man there is an ideal spouse'(i), can we perhaps say that 'behind every grumpy boss there is a quarrelsome spouse', or even that 'behind every confidence-deficient executive there is a domineering spouse'?! (:-).

Begs the question.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Action or contemplation - which is better?

It's not unknown for many of us, engaged in the daily hustle-bustle of life's responsibilities, to get hassled beyond a point, every once in a while.  At such moments is it alright, for a conscientious believer in the value of relentless work and discharge of responsibilities (we're not counting the conscientious shirkers here!), to drop whatever they're doing and rush to the comforting arms of whatever be their inner sanctuary (whether reading or meditation or whatever)?  That's a question which has probably plagued a lot of people since long.

The guidance provided by the usual sources seems equivocal at such times (but is not: read on...).  For instance, Bhagvad Gita, the great Indian holy book, seems to place equal importance, among others, on Karma Yoga (the value of work, of the nishkama karma or 'work without demanding returns' variety) and Bhakti Yoga (devotion).

Say, you're engaged in some mundane work (maybe signing a few cheques, or cooking dinner), but something which is bound to be of some benefit to someone (maybe settlement of dues to a former employee? or providing nourishment to the family), when suddenly you feel like you're at the end of your tether.  You long to stop the 'productive' work and have a few minutes (hours?) of quiet contemplation, probably with some reading of/listening to your favourite peace-inducing material.  But here's the dilemma: at what point does it become justifiable (quite apart from the disciplinary and 'paying your dues' aspect, if the mood hits you while at office!) to 'take a break', and for how long?

In this respect, probably a better source of guidance could be the life experiences of our past masters.  Swami Vivekananda, of the World Congress of Religions fame (and the foremost disciple of Ramakrishna Paramhansa, the 19th century sage of Bengal), is believed to have said something to the effect that 'if you can't do anything, steal, for work is above everything' (now, now, don't try this at home...!).  Many seekers have found the value of work through their personal experiences with both a 'no-work' and 'happily engaged in work' situations.

On balance, it seems that the value of work in our life is paramount.  After all, you could say that we were probably put on this earth to be of some use!  The least we could do is to 'pay our dues' to mother Earth and rightfully 'earn our living' (beyond the usual material sense).  Even in this, the best kind of work could be the one carried out without any longing for the fruits thereof (I know, I know, easy to preach...) - now we are back to the core teaching of Bhagvad Gita!.  This kind of work/service seems to have the potential to free us of the cycle of desire, fulfillment (including ego fulfillment) and more desire (as someone rightly said, our needs are limited but our wants are unlimited).  But of course this is an inner journey which each one of us has to travel in our own way...

The title of a movie made on the life of Ramakrishna Paramhansa was 'Joto Mot Toto Path', loosely translated as 'That many paths, as many views/faiths'.  So as long as our chosen path leads us to the ultimate objective of selflessness...

Friday, June 10, 2011

The culture of 'Jugaarh'

A recent article in New York Times described how entrepreneurs in the city of Gurgaon, near the Indian capital city of Delhi, had risen to the challenges faced due to the utter lack of basic infrastructural facilities.

While presenting a balanced and realistic picture, one interesting aspect in the article was that it seemed to eulogize and romanticize, in tune with the growing tendency across India and the World, something called jugaarh, the ability of people in India to rise above their circumstances using any means available. This is lately becoming a subject of case studies across campuses, here and abroad! 

What this romanticization may be doing (among other effects) is: (
a) Absolve/let off the Government of its primary duty to provide and maintain essential services like roads, water, power, minimum nutrition and law & order; and (more damagingly perhaps) (b) encourage an unhealthy lack of respect for law, the manifestations of which we can see in everyday life in the form of traffic mess (nobody seems to minds the traffic policemen, many of them prone to bribes), infractions of laws & regulations (see the massive 2G telecom spectrum scam still unraveling), people taking the law in their own hands (look at the 'khaap panchayats' - village-level kangaroo courts), and myriad other things. 

Publicly, we all like to criticize these things.  But at pesonal level, we indulge in the same unhealthy practices whenever faced with the slightest bit of discomfort - paying bribes when required, throwing our garbage outside in the open, taking a 'wrong side short cut' (against oncoming traffic!) when faced with traffic jams. 

As a first step, for India to reach the 'tipping point' of graduating into a 'wholesome' democracy, it first has to put in order its delivery of the minimum basic infrastructure and services to all citizens.  Without this, the differences between the haves and have-nots (both in terms of facilities & wealth, and the means to break the law with impunity!) may only get accentuated, reflecting in the rising tide of more of the types of 'class clashes' and individual crimes we're witnessing today.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Geeta, 'bhakti' & psalms

A dear friend shared some psalms she listened to at a Sunday sermon (Scientology church?).  As she rightly remarked, it's amazing how all religions lead to the same theology and God.  Read on...

There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter.  All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is All-in-all.  Spirit is immortal Truth; matter is mortal error.  Spirit is the real and eternal; matter is unreal and temporary.  Spirit is God, and man is His image and likeness.  Therefore man is not material, he is spiritual.
- Shades of the essence of Bhagvad Gita, and of the ancient Indian concept that this world is but a dream (Maya) of God.

Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.  Fear thou not, for I am with thee; be not dismayed, for I am thy God; yea, I will help thee.

And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not; for I came not to judge the world, but to save the World.
- Striking resonance with the chapter in Geeta where Arjun asks about the fate of those who, having started on the spiritual journey, 'fall' from their belief and are not able to carry on; and Krishna replies that even they are not 'doomed', since anyone who has an iota of spiritual yearning will 'get there', sooner or later.  This view of the cyclical interplay of good and evil resonates throughout Indian epics, like Ramayana and Mahabharata.

I have glorified thee on earth: I have finished the work thou gavest me to do.
- The ultimate purpose of our life.  There may be quite a few different approaches to this purpose of the soul than traditionally thought.  While on the road towards this objective, improving one's 'soul characteristics' (for want of a better term) may be one of the 'purposes', possibly by exposure (serendipiteously or intentionally) to hardships - physical, mental and emotional.

It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not.  They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.

Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the name of the Lord our God.  They are brought down and fallen; but we are risen, and stand upright.
- Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.  Also resonates with the 'bhakti' (devotion) tradition, which holds that everything moves as per His desires, and man is only an instrument of His will.

The temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.  And be not conformed to his world; but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is good, and acceptable, and pefect, will of God.
- Obviously the 'temple' referred to here is the human mind-body, as frequently talked of in spiritual literature all across including Jesus's life episodes.

He shall cover thee with His feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust; His truth shall be thy shield and buckler.  For He shall give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.
- The idea of guardian angels is quite common among various readings.

Just goes to show the essential spiritual unity among different faiths.