Rice to coffee to programming

I just finished reading Sanjeev Sanyal’s Land of Seven Rivers, a book on the history of India’s geography. In most places it turns into a book on history rather than a book of geography, but has lots of interesting fundaes (using that word since I’m unable to find a perfect synonym in English). It is basically a retelling of Indian history with a focus on how what we currently know as India came to be, and the various expansions and contractions in the country over the years.

This is not a review of the book (unless you consider the preceding paragraph as a review). The purpose of this post is about one interesting concept I found in the book. Sanyal mentions that the traditional name for Java (the Indonesian island which houses Djakarta, among others) is “yavadwipa”. Now, while online dictionaries that I just consulted say that “yava” is the Sanskrit word for “barley” or “barleycorn”, the only other time I’ve come across the word has been while performing my parents’ death ceremonies – where the priest chants something to the effect of “offer yava” and then asks you to take some rice in your hand and wash it off with a spoonful of water. It is possible, though, that “yava” simply means “grain” and can refer to any kind of grain, including rice and barley.

Earlier in the book, Sanyal mentions that while wheat and barley originated in the fertile crescent (in and around modern Iraq), where they were first cultivated, rice has an eastern origin. Rice, he mentions, was probably first cultivated in South East Asia and came to India from the east. Taking this in conjunction with the fact that the Sanskrit name for Java is yavadwipa, can we posit that it meant “island of rice”? It may not be that rice originated in Java, but it is fully possible that Ancient and Medieval India imported rice from Java, thanks to which the island got its name.

So over the years “yavadwipa” became simply “yava” which I posit that the Dutch wrote as “Java” (considering that in most of continental Europe J is pronounced as Y), which gives the island its current name. What makes this nomenclature more interesting is that Java is now a major producer of coffee, and if you go by Wikipedia, some Americans refer to all coffee as “java”. It is interesting how the same island which was known for a particular kind of food in the ancient and middle ages is now known for another name of food!

Maybe I should start a brand called “rice coffee”.

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..

Tam Brahms and Nirvana

A Tam Brahm friend who got married recently used to claim back in college that Tam Brahms are the highest possible form of life, and that it is the last birth before one achieves Nirvana. Contrary to that, I argue here that Tam Brahms are are condemned to an eternal cycle of death and rebirth. It’s because they are #kogul.

I’ve talked about #kogulness several times before on this blog, including the first ever post (speaking of which, at the wedding last week they actually served “Gopi Fry”) . The sad thing is that back then Twitter wasn’t invented, and consequently the term “#kogul” wasn’t invented, so I wasn’t able to expound as much as I wanted to on this topic. Every blog post on the topic then had to spend half its length describing the phenomenon of kogulness. Thanks to twitter and hashtagging, that is no longer required.

Coming back to the point, Fritz Staal in his classic book Discovering the Vedas talks about mantras being similar to songs of birds, in the sense that pronunciation and intonation need to be exact. In order to argue this, Staal points out that for ages together, the learning of the Vedas simply involved learning them by rote, both the words and the intonation, and there was little emphasis on the actual meaning of the words. In fact, analyzing some of the Rig-Vedic texts now, it is understood that they have been composed in some form of proto-Sanskrit, and the meaning of several of the words used have been lost for ever. Now, if the “value” in the vedic mantras was about the meanings, and the words, these words wouldn’t have been allowed to be lost. Instead, this emphasis on learning by rote and intonation only seeks to affirm Staal’s hypothesis (btw the last time I spoke about Staal’s hypothesis on this blog, some right wing bloggers really blew up in the comments section).

Again returning from the digression, the point is that the whole point about Vedic mantras is about pronunciation and intonation. There is little in the words or in the meanings that will get you divine retribution, but if you can repeat the mantras the way they were composed it will put you on the path to nirvana (again, the assumption of this post is a belief in the Sanaatana Dharma). If you were to dismiss Staal as a “foreign imperialist” (which he was not, RIP), several Hindu Vedic scholars also talk about the importance of pronunciation, and the Gayatri mantra is known to improve one’s pronunciation and reduce stammer (I realized this why the other day when I was singing it rather loudly. The number of Mahapraana consonants in that mantra helps make your tongue more flexible. Ok don’t get dirty thoughts now. And that was around the same time I got material for this post).

So, if you have been born a Brahmin and seek to attain nirvana the vedic way, the way to proceed would be to learn the Vedas properly and sing them with accurate pronunciation and intonation. Where does that leave a Tamil Brahmin? I bet most of you would have heard of Tamilian Carnatic Singers singing “magaa gaNabathim.. “. Tams, having learnt their simplified alphabet, are incorrigible #koguls. For starters they just don’t get the concept of mahaapraaNa. All mahaapraaNa consonants are suitably suppressed in their speech and song. Do you imagine it being better when they were to sing the Vedas?

Tying all this together, the point is this. Tam Brahms are so #kogul that they can never get the pronunciation of the Vedic mantras right. Intonation they might, since several of them are excellent singers, but pronunciation they never can. For this reason, the Gods will never be pleased with their Vedic recitals, and they shall never attain Nirvana. They will instead be condemned to multiple births (likely all of them as #kogul Tam-Brahms) on this earth. And they will continue to fail to learn that it’s their #kogulness that’s holding them back from attaining salvation.

Tailpiece: Thengalai Iyengars seem to have figured out their problem. Having figured that they can never get their practitioners to sing the Vedas in a non-kogul way, they have done the next best thing. They have declared that the power of the Vedas are in the words, and in their meanings, and simply translated them into Tamil, thus preventing kogulness from being a hindrance. Of course, the assumption of power being in meanings is a huge one, so one doesn’t really know if this allows the Thengalais to attain salvation. However, they’ve at least tried.

Tailpiece 2: kogulness is not restricted to Tamil priests alone. The last few times I’ve organized my parents’ death ceremonies, I’ve noticed that the priests (most of them Gult) have been unfailingly #kogul, and being a believer in the power of the Vedic rituals being in pronunciation and intonation, I’m convinced that mantras uttered by these kogul priests have absolutely no impact on bringing upon salvation to my parents’ souls. In fact, given my sample size is rather large, I’ve given up all hopes of finding priests who will do the death ceremonies in the proper way, with proper pronunciation and intonation. For this reason, henceforth I’m not going to waste money on such priests, and will not try to observe my parents’ death ceremonies in a Vedic manner.