Religion and survivorship bias

Biju Dominic of FinalMile Consulting has a piece in Mint about “what CEOs can learn from religion“. In that, he says,

Despite all the hype, the vast majority of these so-called highly successful, worthy of being emulated companies, do not survive even for few decades. On the other hand, religion, with all its inadequacies, continues to survive after thousands of years.

This is a fallacious comparison.

Firstly, comparing “religion” to a particular company isn’t dimensionally consistent. A better comparison would be to compare at the conceptual level – such as comparing “religion” to “joint stock company”. And like the former, the latter has done rather well for 300 years now, even if specific companies may fold up after a few years.

The other way to make an apples-to-apples comparison is to compare a particular company to a particular religion. And this is where survivorship bias comes in.

Most of the dominant religions of today are more than hundreds or thousands of years old. In the course of their journey to present-day strength, they have first established their own base and then fought off competition from other upstart religions.

In other words, when Dominic talks about “religion” he is only taking into account religions that have displayed memetic fitness over a really long period. What he fails to take account of are the thousands of startup religions that get started up once every few years and then fade into nothingness.

Historically, such religions haven’t been well documented, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. In contemporary times, one can only look at the thousands of “babas” with cults all around India – each is leading his/her own “startup religion”, and most of them are likely to sink without a trace.

Comparing the best in one class (religions that have survived and thrived over thousands of years) to the average of another class (the average corporation) just doesn’t make sense!


Firecrackers and the Hindu religion

There was massive controversy in India last month when the Supreme Court banned the sale of firecrackers in and around Delhi, in an ostensible Move to cut pollution.

As one might expect, the move drew heavy criticism on the grounds that the court was ruling against a fundamental tenet of Hindu religion. In return, other people pointed out that bursting firecrackers on the occasion of Deepavali is a rather recent tradition, and thus has nothing to do with the “fundamental tenets of Hinduism”.

As it happened, the ban continued to stay, though reports say that both noise and air pollution levels in Delhi were unaffected by the ban. Here’s my humble attempt to argue that why modern traditions such as bursting firecrackers is important to religion,

As I’ve mentioned several times on this blog, religion in general and festivals in particular are memes, in the traditional Richard Dawkins sense of the term.

Religion and festivals are basically ideas that compete in an ideas marketplace, and people propagate the ideas that they like the most. In one sense people like what they find useful – which is why imagined orders such as democracy or public limited companies continue to propagate and thrive.

At a more personal level, though, people will choose to associate with and propagate ideas that they simply like, and at a very basic level, enjoy. In other words, the more fun people find a concept, the more heavily they’ll adopt and propagate it.

Hence religions evolve, and (in what can be seen as parallels to mutation), pick up ideas from outside that can make them more fun. So the American Christians picked up and appropriated thanksgiving from the red Indians. Even further back Christianity picked up and amalgamated the idea of Christmas. Hare Krishna people picked up wild dancing. Bombay people picked up Ganesha processions. And so on.

By incorporating fun practices from outside, religions make themselves fitter, as they open up leeway’s for new recruits (such as kids). Short of coercion, without fun practices there’s little chance that religion can pick up new recruits.

Crackers on Deepavali, or colours on Holi, are aspects that have come into the hindu religion that have made it more fun. That theee aspects make the religion more fun mean that it’s easier to co-opt new recruits, especially the young kind. This makes the meme that is the hindu religion fitter.

So it doesn’t matter how ancient a practice is – as long as it’s fun, and increases the memetic fitness of a religion, it remains a fundamental part of the religion.

Without firecrackers the idea of Deepavali might lose its identity and people might stop celebrating it. And it being one of Hinduism’s most celebrated festivals, a weakening Deepavali meme leads to a weakening hindu meme.

So the banning of firecrackers in Delhi on the occasion of Deepavali was indeed injurious to the hindu religion.

Just keep in mind that culture (using memes) evolves much much faster than organisms (which use genes)!

Once upon a time

Thanks to gifts from various sources (including the National Health Service, where we’d gone for a checkup), Berry has a few books now. Most of them have lots of pictures (the only book we’ve bought for her is simply a collection of animal pictures). Some have text as well. And it is that that is rather underwhelming.

I don’t know the target age group for most of these books, but the stories seem damn lame to Pinky and me. In my opinion, a good children’s book (or show) should not only be interesting for the child, but also for the parents – it is not often that the child uses the book or show alone. And from that perspective, a lot of these books Berry has got don’t pass the muster.

The books I had when I was a kid may not have been particularly optimised for a child. The illustrations weren’t great. The paper quality was underwhelming as well (one thing Berry can’t do with her books is to tear them! A useful quality for sure for children’s books). But the stories were fantastic. And things that I still remember.

Most of these stories came from the Panchatantra, which is a collection that “evolved” over time. This memetic evolution means that the stories that have come till today are “fit”, and fantastic. It’s similar with Aesop’s Fables – their age means that stories have evolved sufficiently to become damn interesting. And of course, this applies to the Ramayana and Mahabharata as well (and NOT to Christian myth, which didn’t get time to evolve and is thus rather boring).

Speaking of myth, I recently read Neil Gaiman’s book on Norse Mythology.  It’s a good book, and I’ll make Berry read it before she is five. But the stories themselves were all rather underwhelming and devoid of complexity. Considering it’s an ancient myth, which had sufficient time to evolve being written down, the simplicity of plots is rather surprising. Or maybe it’s the way Gaiman told the story.

I’m reminded of this “one Shloka Ramayana” that I’d been made to mug up as a kid (I still remember it “by heart”. Maybe Gaiman’s book is the Norse equivalent of this?

Poorvam Rama Thapovanadhi Gamanam
Hatva Mrigam Kanchanam
Vaidehi Haranam, Jataayu Maranam
Sugreeva Sambhashanam

Bali Nigrahanam, Samudra Tharanam
Lankapuri Dahanam,
Paschath Ravana Kumbhakarna Madanam
Ethat Ithi Ramayanam

In any case, considering the lack of plots in “modern” children’s books, we’re seriously exploring the idea of bringing back truckloads of Amar Chitra Katha when we visit India later this year.

Explaining the lack of dishwashers in India

For the last four weeks, after landing in Britain, we’ve been using the dishwasher fairly regularly. On an average, we run it once a day, and the vessels come out of it nice and shiny – to an extent that is nearly impossible when you wash them by hand. Last year when we were in Spain, too, we used the dishwasher fairly often.

Considering the convenience (all your dishes done in one go, and coming out nice and shiny), I’ve been wondering why the dishwasher hasn’t taken off in India. The requirement for water and electricity doesn’t explain it – the near-ubiquity of the washing machine in upper middle class households suggests that is not that much of a problem. It’s not a function of our using steel plates, either – if that were the only constraint, people would have switched plates to get the benefit of this convenience.

The real answer lies in the archaic concept of the enjil (saliva; known as jooTa in Hindi), and theories on how saliva can get transmitted and contaminate stuff. To be fair, it’s a useful concept in a way that it doesn’t allow anyone’s germ-bearing saliva to contaminate things around them, except for roads and sidewalks that is! Specifically, the enjil concept ensures that food doesn’t get remotely contaminated by someone’s saliva. But it takes things a bit too far.

For example, sharing plates, even when you’re using separate spoons (let’s saw when sharing dessert at a restaurant), is taboo. When you double-dip your spoon into the plate, germs from your saliva get transmitted there, and can potentially contaminate people you are sharing your food with. Or so the theory goes. The exceptions are in childhood, where a child is allowed to share plates with the mother, and after marriage, when couples are allowed to share plates! Go figure how that works.

Similarly, traditional Indians eschew the dining table, and the concept of keeping serving bowls on the same surface as plates. Again, the concept is that saliva can somehow “transmit” from the plates to the serving bowls and contaminate everyone’s food.

Next, there is an elaborate protocol to deal with used plates. They are not supposed to be washed in the same sink as other vessels. Yes, you read that right. When I was growing up, the protocol for used plates was to first rinse them in the bathroom (after throwing leftover food in the dustbin) before dropping them in the sink. It didn’t matter how well you rinsed the plate in the bathroom – that water had fallen on it after your usage would indicate that it was now purified, and fit to sit with all the other unwashed vessels.

Now consider the dishwasher. To achieve economies of scale at the household level, and to ensure vessels don’t pile up, you put all kinds of vessels in it at the same time – plates, spoons, forks, serving bowls and  cooking vessels! In other words, “saliva-bearing” dishes are put into the same contraption at the same time as “saliva-free” cooking dishes, and the “same water” is used to wash all of them together.

And that clearly violates all prudent practices of saliva management and contamination avoidance that we have all grown up with! And trust me, it takes time to get over such instinctive practices one has grown up with. And so I predict that it will at least be another generation (20 years or so) when there are sufficient households with adults who grew up without a strong concept of enjil, and who might be willing to give the dishwasher a try!

Hindu myth plots

This morning, on the occasion of Naraka Chaturdashi, I was telling my daughter the story of how Krishna killed Narakasura in an aerial battle. The story, for those who are interested, has been articulated extremely well by V Vinay here:

So while I was narrating the story, I realised how similar the plotlines of so many Hindu myth stories are. The plot goes like this:

  1. There’s this guy who does a lot of tapas (meditation, not Spanish small eats) and prayers, and manages to impress some gods
  2. The said gods, impressed with our guy, grant him some boon that he asks for
  3. Usually this boon offers some kind of immortality. Rather, it guarantees that certain methods of death won’t work on our anti-hero
  4. Now that he’s received the boon, he becomes arrogant, and soon starts misusing this boon
  5. The world comes to despair, and one set of gods take a delegation to another set of gods, asking for help
  6. The other set of gods (usually a subset of those that had granted our anti-hero the boon in the first place) realise their blunder, but a boon once granted can’t be taken away
  7. They figure that the only way to defeat the superpower they’ve already granted is to create a superior power, which will be granted to one of the gods themselves (just so that it won’t get misused. So our gods had trust issues it seems)
  8. And so this god takes this superior power, and then confronts the anti-hero with the superpower, and since the superior power defeats the superpower (like how paper covers rock, or rock breaks scissors), annihilates the hero. The hero usually dies in this process (the concept of “resignation” isn’t there in Hindu myth).
  9. In order to commemorate the occasion of the annihilation of evil, which was created by gods in the first place (by the grant of the boon), a festival is celebrated.

And so we have Naraka Chaturdashi on the day Narakasura was killed. Onam on the day Bali was sent to the netherlands (no, not Holland Netherlands). Dasara on the day Durgi outwitted Mahishasura, and so forth.

I’m usually a big fan of Hindu myth, and am proud of our heritage for having created such a rich set of stories. After having identified this pattern, though, I’m not so sure. The only creativity comes in the different powers that the anti-hero is granted, and the superior powers that are created to defeat this.

I wonder why we ended up creating so many stories that are so similar, or rather why so many similar stories (memes) survived while the other memes fell by the wayside in our cultural evolution.


Andhra Meals in Religious Rituals

A long time back I’d compared massage parlours in Bangkok to Andhra meals, where there is a “basic menu” (the core massage itself) which everyone orders, on top of which other add-ons (such as happy endings) can get tagged on.

Today, while performing a religious ritual (it’s 10 days since my daughter was born, so there was some ceremony I’d to perform), I realised that every religious ritual, happy or sad, also follows the “Andhra meals” principle.

So the “meals” part is the stuff they teach you to do as part of your daily “sandhyavandane” ritual immediately after your thread ceremony. Starting with the aachamana (keshavaaya swaaha, narayanaaya swaaha etc), going on to reciting the Gayatri mantra, repeating the aachamana several times in the middle, and then ending by apologising and atoning for all the mistakes in the course of the ritual (achutaayanamaha, anantaayanamaha, govindayanamaha, achutanantagovindebho namaha).

This is the basic sandhyaavandane you’re supposed to perform three times every day, and the interesting thing is that most other rituals are add-ons to this. Be it a wedding ceremony, worship of a particular god on a particular festival or even a death ceremony, all these parts remain and don’t go away. What changes from ritual to ritual are the add-ons, like the meats you might order during Andhra meals.

And so in the wedding ceremony, there is the wedding itself. In a death ceremony, there’s all the part where you wear the sacred thread the wrong way round (praacheenaavEti) and build rice-til balls (piNDa – have you noticed how similar they are to sushi?). While worshipping a particular god, you perform the worship in the middle of the regular sandhyaavandane ritual. And so forth.

I must say I’m fairly impressed with our ancestors who devised this “modular form” of performing rituals. What rocks about this practice is that pretty much everyone who wants to perform these rituals will know these rituals (the “basic Andhra meals”) bit, which makes it that much easier to “consume” the “extra fittings” appropriate to the occasion.

Varamahalakshmi and Organic Chemistry

Today is Varamahalakshmi Vrata, a minor festival for South Indian Hindus. It is major enough, however, for a sufficiently large/influential proportion of the population, that schools declare a holiday on this day. It is not major enough, however, for the day to be declared a public holiday.

Mine is one of those families where this festival is not major enough to be celebrated. “It’s not an important festival for people of our caste”, my mother told me, though this now confounds me since this is a rather major festival in my wife’s family, and she belongs to the same caste as me.

The fact that this festival has been rather minor has meant that I don’t have much memories of past occurrences of this festival. There is one exception, though, which is what I want to talk about in this post. Varamahalakshmi Vrata of 1999 played an important part in shaping my performance in the IIT-JEE ten months hence.

In 1999, I was in class 12, and had spent the holidays between classes 11 and 12 attending the International Maths Olympiad Training Camp (IMOTC) in Mumbai. While I didn’t ultimately get selected to represent India, I had an overall great time at the camp, and learnt a lot of maths.

By the time I returned to Bangalore, though, class 12 had already started in school, and classes were also underway at my JEE factory, which I had joined just prior to my travel to Mumbai.

With the school teachers intending to finish the entire academic year’s portions by November, classes had been scheduled for Saturdays as well. This, combined with my JEE factory having classes on Friday and Saturday evenings and all day on Sunday, this left me little time to do pretty much anything.

It wasn’t that I wanted to do too many things – my focus that academic year had been to simply focus on the IIT-JEE and (to a much lesser extent) my class 12 board exams. Yet the near non-stop schedule at both school and factory had meant that I was constantly “running” to catch up, with little time for independent study outside of school, factory and their assignments. I desperately needed a holiday to slow down, grab my breath and catch up.

It is a quirk of the Indian festival calendar that there are few holidays between May Day and Independence Day (August 15). If one of the Muslim festivals (which move around the year) doesn’t occur in this time period, it is possible to not have any holidays at all. 1999 was one such year. And this is where Varamahalakshmi Vrata came to the rescue.

I don’t remember the exact date it occurred on in 1999, but it was a Friday (it always is). I had been especially struggling with organic chemistry in the past month, totally unable to grasp the concepts.

Now, the thing with class 12 organic chemistry is that there are lots of patterns, which you need to learn to recognise. Simply mugging is an option, of course (and I suppose a lot of people take that path), but the syllabus is so voluminous that you rather take a more scalable approach. Learning to recognise patterns, however, means that you be able to spend a sufficient amount of time on the concept without distractions. It takes a special kind of focus to be able to do that.

And so I sat down on the morning of Varamahalakshmi Vrata 1999 with “Tata McGraw Hill guide to IIT JEE Chemistry” (forget precise name), and started doing problems. I didn’t intend to discover patterns that day – simply to solve lots of problems so that I’d somehow get a hang. The fact that the festival wasn’t celebrated in my family meant there was no disturbance (of bells and prayers).

So it happened sometime around noon, or a bit later. I had started the morning mostly struggling with the problems, and having to put major fight to be able to solve them. Over time I had gotten better steadily, but slowly. Now, suddenly I found myself being able to solve most problems rather easily. I had to only look at a problem before I could recognise the pattern and apply the appropriate framework. Organic chemistry would be a breeze for the rest of that academic year.

It’s funny how learning happens sometimes. There is usually a moment, which usually comes after you’ve spent sufficient time on the problem, when there is a flash of inspiration and it all falls into place. It has happened to me several times hence. So much so that I fundamentally believe this is how all learning happens!

Or at least so I believed back in 2004 when I had to give a lecture on “Quality takes time” (this was part of a communications course at IIMB). Watch the video: