More on religion

According to the Hindu calendar today is three years since my mother passed away. If I were religious, or if I were to bow to pressures from religious relatives, I would have performed a “shraadhha/tithi” today. Instead, I’m home, leading a rather normal life. In spite of it being a Sunday today, I’m actually working (I coordinate schedules with my wife, and for some reason she chose to take off this Friday and go to work on Sunday, so I followed). I’ve eaten breakfast and a very normal lunch.

Every year, twice a year (it’s remarkable that my parents’ death anniversaries have a phase difference of about six months), I begin to get requests from relatives – mostly uncles and aunts but also from the wife – that I need to “do my religious duties” and perform the shraadhhas. The last few occasions, I complied. However, as I’ve explained in this post, I’ve gotten disgusted with the general quality of priests around and decided that it’s not worth my while to enrich that community just because someone tells me it might help my parents attain salvation in their afterlives.

Since I flatly refused to do the shraadhha this time, the last few weeks have had more than their fair share of religious discussions compared to earlier. I’ve been asked how I know that priests mis-pronounce. When I say that my limited knowledge of Sanskrit is enough to identify the mispronunciations, they suggest that I try different priests. I then talk about the number of different priests I’ve encountered over various Shraadhhas over the last few years, and about how not one has really said the mantras well (except for the family priest who conducts weddings, etc. but shraadhhas are too small-time for him).

Then comes the clinching argument from my relatives – that even otherwise irreligious people like my father did their ancestors’ shraaddhas without fail. And it is at that time that I start questioning the whole purpose of the Shraadhha and trying to ascribe a believable reason for it. I argue that if the intention is to remember the deceased, I don’t need one day a year to do that since my parents come in my dreams practically every other day. The intention might have been to get all the descendants of the deceased together, but then I’m the only descendant of my parents and I’m “together with myself” all the time.

Then they try and convince me to perform what I can classify as “lesser evils” – such as giving raw rice and vegetables to a priest. I’ve done that once before and considered it to be such an unpleasant experience that I don’t want to do it again. And then I question how it will help. And the argument goes on.

So for today, finally I submitted that I’ll put food out for the crows before I eat, since in the Sanatana Dharma crows are supposed to represent your ancestors. After much haggling, this seemed like an acceptable compromise.

Later in the evening yesterday, my wife and I had a long conversation about what it is to be a Brahmin and why Brahmins are traditionally vegetarian.

Sometimes, when I don’t think enough I think it is ok to admit to the whims and fancies of other people just so that I don’t piss them off. But then when I do think about it, I find it ridiculous that saying a certain set of songs with certain pronunciation and intonation will have some bearing on my life. I find it incredible that feeding some random so-called Brahmins will help provide peace to my deceased parents.

Growing up with an ultra-religious mother and an atheist father, I never really “got” religion, I must say. In fact, the first time when I thought about religion was when I read about parts of America not believing in evolution (this was some 4 years back) – it was incredible that some people were so deluded that they didn’t accept something so fundamental. It was around the same time that I read The God Delusion (not a great book I must say – could’ve been written in < 20 pages), and the beliefs of the devout, as it described, shocked me.

It was around this time that I realized that some (nay, most) people actually take it seriously that if you pray for something it increases your chances of getting it. It shocked me to believe that some people believe that chanting a certain set of songs (mantras are just that, in Vedic language) will improve your life without any other effort on your part. It shocked me that people actually believe in afterlife and rebirth. By this time, my father had passed away, and this wasn’t a topic about which I could have a rational discussion with my mother, so I let it be.

Some temples (of various religions) make me feel calm and peaceful, and I love visiting them. There are temples which look so good I think they need to be preserved, and I make reasonably generous offerings there. There are festivals that I consider fun, and I celebrate them enthusiastically. We had a fairly large doll display at home this Navaratri. We burst fireworks and ate lots of sweets this Diwali. Last year we hosted a Christmas party. With some friends, I raided the kebap stalls in Fraser Town during Ramzan. We set up a little mandap at home for Ganesh Chaturthi, and displayed my collection of Ganesh idols.

But the concept of before-lives and after-lives and rebirth? That of prayers sans effort making a difference? That you need to feed some so-called Brahmins who can’t recite mantras for nuts just so that your parents attain peace in the afterlife? I find it all absolutely ridiculous.

I didn’t put food out for crows – I find no reason to believe that my mother has transformed into one of them, and that that particular crow will come looking for food today. I haven’t worn back my sacred thread as promised yesterday. I think my cook had put onion and garlic in my lunch today. And life goes on..

Lazy post: Search Phrases: March 2009

I think I’ll make this a monthly feature: collecting the whackiest search terms that people use to land up on my blog, and posting them here. I had published one such list for February. Here goes the list for March:

  • describe my job
  • apprentics for carpenter in gurgaon
  • can north indians survive in the south
  • carnatic music pakistan
  • dry fish market in orisa & madrass contact numbers
  • examples of bastardization in a sentence
  • how can death be postponed by chanting mantras?
  • kodhi is a cheap guy
  • competition
  • verb phrases of the behavior of atticus
  • what are some other versions of dashavatar -film -songs -jobs -dvd -movie

Fighter Batsmen and Stud Bowlers

Insight of the day: Batting is inherently fighter and bowling is inherently stud. Of course there are severral stud batsmen (eg. Sehwag) and fighter bowlers (eg. Giles) but if you look at it broadly – a batsman needs to get it right every ball, while a bowler needs only one ball to succeed.

The fundamental idea is that bowling success can be more lumpy than batting success – for example the maximum that a batsman can do if he has one great over is to score 36 runs – whcih in the context of the average game won’t amount to much. However, if a bowler has one great over and picks up six wickets, the impact is tremendous.

The bowler can afford to be much more inconsistent than the batsman. He might get a few balls wrong, but he can suddenly make an impact on the game. For a batsman to have a significant impact, however, he should be able to carry it on for a significant amount of time. An “impulse”  (a large force acting for a small time period) will do the batting team no good, while it can be a tremendous boost for the bowling team. On the other hand, steady unimaginative play by the batsman is good enough, while a bowler needs to necessarily show patches of spectacularity to have an impact.

Hence, batting is fighter and bowling is stud.

However, what the advent of one day cricket has done is to invert this. By limiting the number of overs, and creating conditions where a team need not be bowled out, it has turned things upside down. Of course, a stud performance by a bowler (say a hat-trick) can have a significant impact on the game, but inconsistent and wayward bowling is likely to cost the bowling team significantly more than it does in Test cricket.

Similarly, with the game getting shorter, an impulse by the batsman (say a quick 40 by Sehwag) has a much larger impact on the game than it does in Test cricket. And on the other hand, dour batting  – which is so useful in Tests – may actually be a liability in ODIs. Similarly the mantra for bowlers has become containment, and thus fighterness in bowlers has a greater impact – and so people now do respect bowlers who can bowl long spells without taking wickets, but just containing.

Remember that even now, to succeed in Test cricket, you need to have the correct characteristic – Sehwag’s batting might appear stud and risky, but he has the ability to play really long innings which is why he is a really good Test batsman. If he didn’t have the “longevity gene”, he would’ve still remained a one-day wonder. Yes – now teams do pick a fourth bowler to do the “holding role” – keeping one end tight while others attack. Still, the holding guy needs to have some ability to pick up wickets by himself.

Preliminary reading on studs and fighters theory:

Studs and Fighters

Extending the studs and fighters theory

Mantras: Songs Fooled By Randomness?

A couple of weeks back, I happened to read Frits Staal’s Discovering the Vedas. I was initially skeptical of the book since it has been blurbed by Romila Thapar, thinking it might be some commie propaganda, but those fears were laid to rest after I read Staal’s interpretation of the so-called “Aryan Invasion Theory” and found it quite logical. I enjoyed the first half of the book, and then lost him. I couldn’t understand anything at all in the second half of the book.

The precise moment where I lost interest in the book was when Staal gave his theory as to why mantras and rituals have no meaning. I found his reasoning of the same quite weak, and since he kept referring back to that later in the book, it became tough to follow. Staal states the following three reasons to claim that mantras precede language, and they are more like bird calls.

  • Mantras are language independent: Anything in language can be translated whereas mantras remain the same in all languages.
  • Mantras, even though they seem to be in a language like Sanskrit, are not used for their meaning.
  • Mantras follow patterns, like refrain, which is not seen in language.

While I find the hypothesis interesting, the proof that Staal gives is hopelessly inadequate. The Beatles might have translated their songs into German, but songs are normally not translated, right? You don’t translate songs, and sing  them into the same tune, unless you are doing some MTV Fully Faltoo or some such thing. On the other hand, what if the songs are in a language that is completely alien to you? There is no way you can translate them, but since you like them you sing them anyway. Without bothering to know their meaning. And songs can definitely have refrain, right? It clearly seems like Staal is trying to force-fit something here. Hopefully he is force-fitting this here so as to prove some other theory of his. But you can never say.

As I had expected, Staal’s theory has caught the attention of the right-wing blogosphere. JK at Varnam writes

This athirathram, which was extensively covered in Malayalam newspapers, was highly respectful and the words I heard were not “playful” or “pleasurable.” I can understand singing for pleasure, but am yet to meet a priest who said, “it’s a weekend and raining outside, let’s do a ganapati homam for pleasure.”

Sandeep at sandeepweb goes one step further, and says:

Even a Hindu not well-versed with the nuances of Mantra intuitively senses that something “divine” or “other-worldly” is associated with every Mantra. In a very crude sense, a Mantra is to some people, a cost-benefit equation: you chant the Gayatri Mantra for spiritual upliftment, the Maha Mrityunajaya to ward off the fear of death, the Surya Mantras for health, and so on. Why, you chant just the “primordial sound(sic),” “OM” to get yet another benefit. Whether these benefits really accrue or or not is not the point. What is immediately discernible is that every mantra is associated with some God or principle. In other words, it has a very specific meaning.

I think mantras are simply songs, in an ancient language, fooled by randomness. As I had explained before I quoted JK and Sandeep, going by Staal’s hypothesis, and the precise reasons that he gives, it is not inconceivable that mantras were composed as songs, in a language that hasn’t survived. In fact, Staal’s “proof” can better explain the song hypothesis rather than a no-language hypothesis. I don’t know why those songs were composed, and I definitely won’t rule out the possibility that they were meant to be devotional (after all, a large amount of later Indian music (including all of Carnatic music) is fundamentally devotional). Anyways the exact reasons for composition may not matter.

So what might have happened is this. I suppose chanting of mantras and conducting rituals was a fairly common event in the Vedic age. I believe that we started off with a much larger repository of mantras and rituals compared to what survive today. And the ones that survive are the ones that were lucky enough to have been associated with certain good events. A chieftan happened to do a certain ritual before going to battle, which he happened to win. And this ritual came to become the “pre-war” ritual. Of course it wouldn’t have been one single event that would have established this as “the” pre-war ritual, but after a couple of “successive trials”, this would have become the definitive pre-war ritual.

Once a particular ritual or mantra got associated with a particular event, then reinforcement bias kicked in. Since it was now “established”, any adverse results were seen as being “in spite of”. Suppose a king dutifully did the pre-war ritual before he got thrashed in battle, people would say “poor guy. in spite of religiously doing his rituals he has lost”. The establishment meant that no one would question the supposed effectiveness of the ritual. And so forth for other mantras and rituals.

To summarize, we started off with a significantly larger number of mantras than we have today. Association of certain mantras with certain “good events” meant two things. One, they got instantly associated with such good events, and two, they got preference in propagation – limited bandwidth of oral tradition meant only a certain number could be passed on sustainably, and these “lucky mantras” (notice the pun – they brought luck, and they survived) became the “chosen ones”.

The sad part in the whole deal is that mantras were taught without explaining the meaning (similarly wiht rituals). Maybe the oral tradition didn’t permit too much bandwidth, and in their quest to learn the maximum number of mantras possible, people gave short shrift to the meanings. And by the time writing was established, the language had changed and the meaning of the mantras lost forever. In fact, this practice of mugging up mantras also gets reflected in the way education happens in India today, with an emphasis on knowledge rather than understanding. I suppose I’ll cover that in a separate blog post.