Ancient Bankruptcies

This post was written two weeks back, during one of those days when I didn’t have internet access at home. Posting now. 

In the course of a rather elaborate shower this morning, I started thinking about the global economic crisis. I thought of the crisis of 2008. I thought about the Arab countries where there is revolution. And I thought about Greece. And I began to wonder how such events had been handled in the past.

A long time ago, most parts of the world were ruled by kings. People assumed kings had divine right to rule, and they rather gladly parted with a big part of their income as taxes. These taxes would go into the treasury, and be used to finance, among other things the administration of the kingdom. Those were times of great wars and battles, and hence it was important to keep a ready army, and the treasury also financed that.

The best thing about being a king was that you weren’t really questioned about your spending, and thus kings could also spend a substantial amount from the taxes they collected on themselves. On living a life of opulence, keeping several wives or concubines while large parts of the population went without any, on building monuments to their fathers, their forefathers and to themselves. If Behen Mayawati were a queen, for example, nobody would’ve dared to question her expenses on erecting statues of herself.

This lack of accountability did have an up-shot, though. The large surpluses that were generated for the royal treasury by means of squeezing every last ounce of blood from the subjects (who willingly gave it, remember) meant that kings could invest on art and architecture. Thus, palaces funded artists and musicians. Grand buildings and mausoleums and temples were built, and intricately decorated, the results of which are being seen today in terms of increased revenues from tourism. Sometimes, though, the kings would over-reach and spend much more than their kingdoms could possibly finance. What would happen then?

At first, there would be an attempt to increase taxes. For a while, people, still in the belief that kings were gods, would give in. And then they would begin to protest. And refuse to pay further taxes. In effect, they would go on protests ‘against austerity measures’. In the light of these protests, the king would need greater use of his army in order to consolidate his power. But his treasury would be dwindling.

With the army over-worked, but the kingdom’s finances tight thanks to a depleting treasury, dissent would start to brew in the army. Getting wind of this, a neighbouring king would see an opportunity. Soldiers would be bribed, though one cannot really call it that, tempted with higher salaries backed by a stronger treasury in order to change allegiances. And the neighbouring king would declare war.

The beleaguered king would now come under pressure both internally and externally. He would not be able to keep up the fight for long. The war would soon be lost and the king would either be dead or captured. And the people would gladly accept the new king as their new god, and start paying taxes to him.

The unfortunate thing about this parallel now is that there is now no neighbouring country to Greece that could possibly pull off an audacious annexation. Even the US, the attacker of last resort, has its own set of trouble. Essentially, Greece has chosen a good time to get into trouble – at a time when everyone else is also in trouble. And this also means that the people of Greece will continue to have no respite from this politics. In the medium run (Hail Gebreselassie) they will have no choice but to accept austerity.

Vishnu and Shiva temples

This post may add to Aadisht’s contention of Shaivism being superior to Vaishnavism. Earlier this month I’d gone with family to this place called Avani, some 100 km east of Bangalore. The main centre of attraction there was this 10th century Shiva temple that had been built by the Gangas.

As we got off the car, I was pleased to see the signage of the Archaeological Society of India. I’m in general not a big fan of temples. I find them to be overwhelmed with “devotees”, and way too noisy, and more importantly for some reason I’m not allowed to use my camera inside temples. So I was pleased that this being an ASI temple there won’t be any worship in there and so I can take pictures peacefully.

As we entered, though, I saw a number of priestly figures standing around the entrance, and one of them shouted “no photo in temple, no photo in temple” (i was in bermudas and a t-shirt, and wearing a backpack and camera bag so looked foreign types). I just nodded and went on. And then another priest accompanied us, and performed the pooja to the idol.

The temple at Avani is that of Ramalingeshwara, a version of Shiva. Now, the studness with Shiva temples is that the idol is extremely simple. It’s just a penis. And it’s not hard to make, and more importantly it’s hard to break, since it’s monolithic, and usually without any portions that can easily break off. Contrast this with Vishnu temples, where the idols are of actual human figures, with arms and legs and ears and noses and fingers – all made of relatively thin pieces of stone, which makes it easier to break.

So think of yourself as an invader who for some reason wants to defile a temple by destroying its idols. The very nature of idols in a Vishnu temple makes your job simple. All you need is to give one strong hit which will break off a nose or a toe or a finger – not much damage, but enough to defile the temple and render it useless for the purpose of worship. But get to a Shiva temple, and you see one large penis-shaped stone in there, and you realize it’s not worth your patience to try break it down. So you just loot the vaults and go your way.

And hence, due to the nature of the idols in these temples, Shiva temples are more resilient to invasion and natural disaster compared to Vishnu temples. Aadisht, you can be happy.

Religion 1

I guess from my posts on religion you people know that I’m not the religious types. I don’t believe in rituals. I don’t believe that saying your prayers daily, or hourly, or monthly has any kind of impact on the orientation of the dice that life rolls out to you.

I believe in randomness. I believe that in every process there is a predictive component and a random component, and that you have no control over the latter. I believe that life can be approximated as a series of toin cosses, er. coin tosses, and some times the coins fall your way, and some times they don’t.

I was brought up in a strange household, in religious terms that is. My mother was crazily religious, spending an hour every day saying her prayers, and performing every conceivable ritual. My father was, for all practical purposes, atheist, and I never once saw him inside the prayer room in the house. I don’t ever remember having to make a conscious choice though, but I somehow ended up becoming like my father. Not believing in prayers or rituals (except for a brief period during my sophomore year at college), not believing that any actions of mine could bias the coin tosses of life.

A couple of years back I bought and read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I found the book extremely boring and hard to get through. And it really shocked me to read that people actually believe that praying can change the bias of the coins of life. Or that there exist people (most of Americal, shockingly) who think there was a “God” who created the earth, and that evolution doesn’t make sense.

Anyway the point now is that the missus thinks that I’m atheist because it’s the convenient thing to be, and because I haven’t made that extra effort in “finding God”. She things I’m not religious because I’m too lazy to say my prayers, and light incense, and all such. The irony here is that she herself isn’t the ritual types, instead choosing to introspect in quiet temples.

Just want to mention that you might find me write a lot more about religion over the next few days, or weeks, or months, as I try find my bearings and convince myself, and the missus, of my beliefs.

For starters, I’d say that if there exists a god, he does play dice.


So on Sunday we went to this temple on the outskirts of Bangalore where the in-laws performed Satyanarayana Pooja. There was a small number relatives there, and a large gang on unknown people (it was essentially a public function). It’s a nice temple, dedicated to Shiva, and built in the Kerala style. I think it’s still work-in-progress, and there’s stuff to be done in terms of carvings and stuff. And it’s in a nice secluded spot which adds to the peace of the place.

So the temple has this policy of “annadaana” (rice donation), where they serve lunch to everyone who visits them around lunch time. I’ve written about temple meals before, and you know I’m not a big fan of them. That aside, there was this little act of forced idealism in this temple around meal time, which I wasn’t too happy about.

So the temple doesn’t invest in professional cleaners to clean the plates (I don’t understand why temples insist on serving meals in steel plates – the same is the case in Sringeri and Horanadu also). Instead, you are supposed to wash your plate and tumbler after you’re done eating. In theory this is a fine idea – if we are giving you free food, you might as well do this small help in terms of cleaning up after you. But the problem is this creates huge incentive problems.

There is a reason that public loos are seldom clean – there is no incentive for a user to keep the loo clean for the person who uses it after them. The only way a public loo can be kept clean is by employing paid labour to clean it, where it isn’t hard to align incentives of the cleaners with cleanliness of the loo. Similarly, why would you want to make a special effort into cleaning your plate when some unknown person who you’ll probably never meet in life is going to eat out of it next?

I appreciate the idealism  but the economics simply don’t work. To put it simply – cleaner plates implies greater satisfaction among people who are there at the temple to eat, which encourages repeated visits, which results in greater donations. I’m sure the little investment in people to clean the plates can be recovered many times over in terms of increase in donation. Still, they insist on imposing ideals on people..

I’m not really going to talk about the food. However, I want to briefly mention about the pooja itself, which went on for about double the time as a normal Satyanarayana Pooja (my wife and I performed one such the day after our wedding, so I know the “standard”). The pujari (who is responsible for building the temple) put in a lot of extra fittings, and a lot of the crowd (mostly people unknown to me – it was a public event) seemed to rather enjoy it. I think there is this misplaced notion somewhere that more rituals implies more good karma.

And on a related note, I fail to understand what people mean when they say “pooje is going on well” (I’ve heard this phrase too many times to not comment on it). Does it simply mean “there have been no disasters so far during the pooje” (I can’t think of any other meaning for it)?

Religion and culture

Normally I don’t consider myself to be too religious. Apart from wearing the sacred thread (janavaara / pooNal) there is nothing religious that I do on a day-to-day basis. I visit temples only to look at the architecture (and look at my offering to the temple as my support to maintenance of the temple), don’t do sandhyavandanam, hate rituals and all that. But then I figured today that irrespective of all the irreligious things that I do, a part of religion has been ingrained in my personal “culture”.

So my car had a freak accident today. I had parked it in the basement parking lot of my office and this electric powered golf cart that my office has recently bought smashed into it. Rear bumper is actually broken. A couple of dents around the sides. The corporate services people have promised to get it repaired for me and stuff, but I’m still mighty depressed about the damage (and I don’t normally take my car to work).

So initially when I saw it smashed, and was told that it would be repaired by next Tuesday, I didn’t think much. I mentally made plans to roam town by auto this weekend and reasoned that I could easily manage the weekdays in office cab. All way peace with the world.

Until I realized that Saturday is Ayudha Pooja, when you worship your tools, especially vehicles. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not the religious types but celebrating Ayudha Pooja is a done thing. I’ve been doing it every year and want to continue doing it. Probably because I think it’s fun, but also because it’s a “done thing”. Washing and cleaning the vehicle, applying turmeric and vermillion, putting flowers and (most fun of all) smashing lemons under the wheels of the vehicle!

I’ll still celebrate Ayudha Pooja this year. Worship my dabba bike, my computer, my violin, my guitar and other sundry implements. But it greatly saddens me that I won’t be able to worship the car. And again it’s nothing religious about it. But just wanted to mention how something that starts out as a religious thing becomes a “done thing” and becomes part of you.

Just like how I’m vegetarian!

Mysore trip – Table of contents post

I returned last night from a two day driving trip to mysore and surrounding areas. There are several things to blog about, but I felt too lazy to make notes in my mobile. Also, I was driving most of the time, so didn’t really have the time to make notes. I made a lot of mental notes, though, but I’m prone to losing those easily – I don’t have a very good short term memory.

I made two major stops on the way to Mysore – first at Kamat Lokaruchi near Ramanagara for breakfast, and then at Seringapatnam. At the latter place, I saw a couple of temples and a jail and a palace-cum-museum. The last named turned out to be pretty strong. Also, my car started making funny noises when I kept it parked in front of one of the temples. Turned out to be a problem with the A/C. This problem was going to become significant later on in the trip.

At Mysore, I stayed at the Ginger (subsidiary of Indian Hotels which runs the Taj chain) and was amazed at the kind of cost-cutting that they have put in compared to the extravagant 5*s. Then I went in search of the supposedly world-famous Mylari restaurants, found not one but two of them, both of which claimed to be the original, got put off by the amount of oil on the dosa and came out after having had just a coffee.

I walked around the palace area in the evening and was amazed by the respect pedestrians get in Mysore, at least in that area. Nice pavements, strictly enforced pedestrian crossings, etc. And there were millions of people walking around the area. And everywhere I saw boards that called Mysore a “JNNURM city”.

I also discovered that wearing shorts is a surefire way of announcing that you are a tourist. Hundreds of people started speaking to me in Hindi and seemed slightly startled when I replied in Kannada. I didn’t see a single other soul in shorts through my 2-day stay in the city.

Lunch and dinner on Tuesday was at the Dasaprakash, and yesterday’s breakfast and lunch at Siddharta. Got me thinking about pricing and delivery systems in sit-down restaurants (had done a series on pricing systems at darshinis in Bnagalore a few years back). Most intriguing is that “meals” are pre-paid while everything else is post-paid.

Then I went to the Chamundi hills, Nanjangud (beautiful temple), Somnathpur (again extremely strong ruined temples, but lousy roads) and the Jaganmohan Palace. Time constraints meant that we skipped going to the main Mysore palace.

On the way back, we stopped at a Sathya Sai Baba ashram in Seringapatnam after which the rain came with us. We would see dry roads ahead, and would hope that there would be no more rain. And soon, there would be rain. Heavy rain. Cupped a/c meant that the windshield kept fogging, and I could hardly see the road as I drove.

I think the rain got confused when we stopped for an hour for dinner at Kamat Lokaruchi, and decided not to accompany us all the way to Bangalore.

I took lots of pics using my phone camera. While at Somnathpur I was thinking about Aadisht’s 50mm low-light lens. I need to find my data cable now and then I’ll post pics. In the course of the next one week, I’ll also write half a dozen more detailed posts.

Bangalore trip update

The recent inactivity on this blog was mainly due to my inability to log on to wordpress from my phone and write a post.  I had gone home to Bangalore for an extended weekend (taking Friday and Monday off) and the only source of net access there was my phone, and for some reason I wasn’t able to log on to NED from that. During the trip I had several brilliant insights and brilliant ideas and wanted to blog them and finally such NED happened that I didn’t even twitter them. Deathmax.

The main reason I went to Bangalore was to attend Pradeep (Paddy)’s reception. I think this is an appropriate time to share the funda of his nickname with the world. Before he joined our school in 9th standard, there was this guy two years senior called Pradeep, and for some reason not known to me he was nicknamed Paddy. I vaguely knew him since I used to play basketball with him, and after he graduated there were no more Paddys in school. So when this new guy came from the Gelf, it presented a good opportunity to get back a Paddy into school. It turned out to be such a sticky nickname that not even IIT could change it.

Friday was Ugadi – yet another reason to be home in Bangalore – and was mostly spent visiting relatives. When they heard about my impending market entry, all of them brought up stories of not-so-successful marriages of people they knew well, and put fundaes to me about avoiding certain pitfalls. These fundaes were liberally peppered with stories. Mostly sad ones. Mostly of people who have chosen to continue in their marriages despite them clearly failing. It is amazing about the kind of stuff people I know have gone through, and yet they choose to not run away.

Saturday morning was rexerved for my first ever “market visit”. I was taken to this bureau in Malleswaram and asked to inspect profiles. “There are profiles of hundreds of girls there”, my uncle had told me “so let us go there before ten o’clock so that you have enough time”. The profiles were mostly homogeneous. The number of engineering seats available in Karnataka amazes me. Every single profile I checked out over there had studied a BE, and was working in some IT company. Things were so homogeneous that (I hate to admit this) the only differentiator was looks. Unfortunately I ended up shortlisting none of them.

One of the guys I met during my Bangalore trip is a sales guy who lives in a small temple town without any access to good cinema. So he forced me to accompany him to watch Slumdog (in PVR Gold Class – such an irony) and Dev D. I agree that Slumdog shows India in poor light, but filter that out and it’s a really nice movie. We need to keep in mind that it was a story and not a documentary, and even if it were the latter, I think documentaries are allowed to have narratives and need not be objective. Dev D was simply mindblowing, apart from the end which is a little bit messed up. Somehow I thought that Kashyap wanted to do a little dedic to his unreleased Paanch.

There is this meet-up at Benjarong which is likely to contribute enough material to last six arranged scissors posts. I’ll probably elaborate about the discussions in forthcoming posts but I must mention here that several arranged marriage frameworks were discussed during the dinner. The discussions and frameworks were enough to make both Monkee and I, who are in the market process, and Kodhi who will enter the market shortly to completely give up in life.

One takeaway from Paddy’s reception is that if you can help it, try not to have a “split wedding” (and try not to have a split webbing also) – where different events are held at diferent venues, on disjoint dates. In that case you won’t have people lingering around, and you will lose out on the opportunity to interact with people. Note that there is zero scope for interation during the ceremonies, and the only time you get to talk to people is before, and after, and during. And it is important that there is enough before or after or during time to allow these interactions. In split weddings guests are likely to arrive and leave in the middle of an event and so you’ll hardly get to talk to them.

One policy decision I took was to not have breakfast at home during the length of my stay. I broke this on my last day there since I wouldn’t be having any other meal at home that day, but before that visited Adigas (ashoka pillar), SN (JP nagar) and UD (3rd block). The middle one was fantastic, the first reasonably good except for bad chutney and the last not good at all. Going back from Gurgaon it was amazing that I could have a full breakfast (2 idlis-vada-masala dosa-coffee) for less than 50 bucks. Delhi sorely lacks those kind of “middle class” places – you either eat on the roadside or in fine dining here.

Regular service on this blog should resume soon. My mom has stayed back in Bangalore for the summer so I’m alone here  and so have additoinal responsibilities such as cooking and cleaning. However, I think I should be having more time so might be writing more. I can’t promise anything since blog posts are generated by spur-of-the-moment thoughts and I never know when they occur. Speaking of which I should mention that I put elaborate fundaes on studs and fighters theory in my self-appraisal review form last week.


This is regarding the Avatars of Vishnu.  It is quite fascinating how Buddha managed to enter the list (he is number 9 on the list). Apparently a number of communities give that spot to Balarama (Krishna’s brother), notably Iyengars and other Vaishnavite communities. I have also seen this in a few temples (don’t know which “denomination” (if such a thing exists in Hinduism) these temples belong to) which have Balarama as #9.

The most popular explanation (which I have no reason to disagree with) about the Buddha’s entry into the list is that it was a clever ploy to prevent the spread of Buddhism, which threatened to become the largest religion in the subcontinent in the few centuries before and after christ. By including Buddha in the Hindu Pantheon, and by declaring him to be an avatar of Vishnu, an attempt was made to describe Buddhism as just a branch of Hinduism. Looking at the way Buddhism has developed after that in the subcontinent, I have reason to believe that the ploy was successful.

Regarding the construction of the list, there are again two possibilities. One view says that it was constructed not more than two millenia ago, and it was constructed only as a response to Buddhism. That it was something like “Ok here is the Buddha. He threatens us. So let’s make him one of ours. Let us declare him to be an Avatar of Vishnu. But then, we need more avatars to make this look credible. Let us include evolution into this and put in a few animals, etc. and have a nice list. But we have only 9, and there is no logical person who can finish this list. So let’s assume that he will happen sometime in the future, when the world ends. So here is The List”.

The other possibility is that one such list already existed, and the Buddha was included in the list. Though 8 is not an inauspicious number, it is unlikley that there were originally 8 avatars. Which means that there were originally 10, including possibly Kalki, and the Buddha replaced one of these 10. Looking at the other popular version of the Dashavatara, it is likely that the Buddha replaced Balarama in the list.

This raises a couple of interesting questions:

  • What avatarish thing did Balarama achieve in order to be an avatar? Which demon did he kill? I only recall him being mentioned fleetingly in the early stages of the Mahabharata, and he walked away from the war later on. So what message did he carry?
  • Balarama being an avatar, and his being a brother of another avatar Krishna, means that two avatars coexisted. In fact, someone on the list pointed out that Parashurama is a Chiranjeevi, so he has coexisted with all avatars following him. So we need to dissociate the avatar concept from the concept of rebirth and reincarnation. In any case, fascinating stuff
  • It is remarkable that Hinduism was flexible and nimble enough to turn the Buddha into an avatar when they saw him threaten them. The presence of mind of the people who thought of this workaround is commendable. I wonder where Hinduism lost its flexibility after that.
  • I also wonder how this was implemented. Hinduism has no supreme leader. And in the days when the Buddha was included into the list, there wasn’t even a Postal system, leave alone conference call facilities. How did this idea spread and gain enough credence to become the norm, then? Where did this idea of making the Buddha an avatar originate? How did t hey disseminate it? Who was the powerful set of people who were instrumental in the design, development and distribution of this idea?

It’s all fascinating stuff. And if any of you have any theories regarding the points I’ve raised here, please leave a comment.