Why Bharadwajs are so numerous

This morning I was at the faculty lounge at IIMB, drinking coffee and conversing with a few professors. Soon, the discussion moved to Bharadwaj gotra and related stuff. And something a professor (who is a Bharadwaj) said explained very well as to why the gotra is so prolific.

So he said that the Bharadwaj ashram was quite well known in its ancient times for the quality of its food. Another professor related an anecdote about how Rama, on his flight back from Lanka made a detour to eat at the Bharadwaj ashram, even as his subjects back in Ayodhya were waiting fervently for him. Food at the Bharadwaj ashram was so good, he said.

Now there are two ways in which this explains why Bharadwajs are so numerous. Firstly, the quality of the food in the ashram meant that Bharadwaj’s children and grandchildren and other descendants were all very well fed. Now, considering that these were times much before the industrial revolution and there was generally a shortage of food, this meant that infant and child mortality rates were generally high. But not in the Bharadwaj ashram, thanks to the food there!

So that meant that the Bharadwajs grew up fitter and healthier than descendants of other rishis, and thus lived longer and were able to procreate more. The bullwhip effect caused due to enhanced longevity and fitness of the early Bharadwajs has resulted in the proliferation of Bharadwajs today.

The other explanation is that the superior quality of food at the Bharadwaj ashram attracted more people into the ashram, and these people would yearn to become part of the “family” (I’ll spare you the gory details here). That meant that Bharadwaj and his immediate male descendants had much more access to furthering their lineage compared to competing gotras. And hence you have so many Bharadwajs today.

In fact we might have had several more Bharadwajs but for the fact that the gotra system is designed such that no one gotra ever gets to big. That two people from the same gotra are not allowed to marry each other naturally keeps the size of a particular gotra in check.

Let’s say for example that more than half the Brahmins were Bharadwajs. Considering that a Bharadwaj can only marry a non-Bharadwaj, that would leave a number of Bharadwajs being unable to marry, which means that the number of Bharadwajs in the next generation would be lower!

It is interesting, though, that everything can be explained through food!

Good things do happen to those who wait

So once again I’ve taken myself off Twitter and Facebook. After a three-month sabbatical which ended a month back, I was back on these two social networks in a “limited basis” – I had not installed the apps on my phone and would use them exclusively from my computer. But as days went by, I realised I was getting addicted once again, and losing plenty of time just checking if someone had replied to any of the wisecracks I had put on some of those. So I’ve taken myself off once again, this time for at least one month.

This post is about the last of my wisecracks on facebook before I left it. A facebook friend had put an update that said “good things do happen to those who wait”. I was in a particularly snarky mood, and decided to call out the fallacy and left the comment below.

Good things

In hindsight I’m not sure if it was a great decision – perhaps something good had happened to the poor guy after a really long time, and he had decided to celebrate it by means of putting this cryptic message. And I, in my finite wisdom, had decided to prick his balloon by spouting gyaan. Just before I logged out of facebook this morning, though, I checked and found that he had liked my comment, though I don’t know what to make of it.

Earlier this year I had met an old friend for dinner, and as we finished and were walking back to the mall parking lot, he asked for my views on religion. I took a while to answer, for I hadn’t given thought to the topic for a while. And then it hit me, and I told him, “once I started appreciating that correlation doesn’t imply causation, it’s very hard for me to believe in religion”. Thinking about it now, a lot of other common practices, which go beyond religion, are tied to mistaking correlation for causation.

Take, for example, the subject of the post. “Good things happen to those who wait”, they say. It is basically intended as encouragement for people who don’t succeed in the first few attempts. What it doesn’t take care of it that the failures in the first few attempts might be “random”, or that even success when it does happen is the result of a random process.

Say, for example, you are trying to get a head upon the toss of a coin. You expect half a chance of a head the first time. It disappoints. You assume the second time the chances should be better, since it didn’t work out the first time (you don’t realise the events are independent), and are disappointed again. A few more tails and disappointment turns to disillusionment, and you start wondering if the coin is fair at all. Finally, when you get a head, you think it is divine retribution for having waited, and say that “good things happen to those who wait”.

In your happiness that you finally got a head, what you assume is that repeated failure on the first few counts actually push up your chance of getting your head, and that led to your success on the Nth attempt. What you fail to take into account is that there was an equal chance (assuming a fair coin) of getting a tail on the Nth attempt also (which you would have brushed off, since you were used to it).

In my comment above I’ve said “selection bias” but I’m not sure if that’s the right terminology – essentially when things go the way you want them to, you take notice and ascribe credit, but when things don’t go the way you want you don’t notice.

How many times have you heard people going through a happy experience saying they’re going through it “by God’s grace?”. How many times have you heard people curse God for not listening to their prayers when they’re going through a bad patch? Hardly? Instead, how many times have you heard people tell you that God is “testing them” when they’re going through a bad patch?

It’s the same concept of letting your priors (you see God as a good guy who will never harm you) affect the way you see a certain event. So in my friend’s case above, after a few “tails” he had convinced himself that “good things do happen to those who wait” and was waiting for a few more coin tosses until he finally sprang a head and announced it to the world!

Now I remember: I think it’s called confirmation bias.

Warming the house

Midway through my housewarming function on Sunday, I had a “Lawrence of Arabia” moment. In the movie, Lawrence, a reluctant soldier has to execute a guy named Gasim in the Arab army he is leading. Lawrence shoots Gasim, and then finds that he actually enjoys killing people. This is probably one of the pivotal moments in the story.

My day had begun badly, as the priests who were supposed to turn up by 5, did not make their appearance until a full hour later. What was interesting was that the photographer, who had been asked to turn up at 630 came in a full hour earlier. With the priests not coming in till it was close to 6, I was going bonkers, and declaring war on the priest community, and regretting that I had agreed for a religious ceremony at all.

They arrived soon, however, and off I went to change into a silk panche (not a great idea for summer). And I heard clapping and shouting outside. Three eunuchs had invaded the house and were refusing to leave until they had been paid Rs. 1100. I must mention this was the first time I had been so harassed. And these people were refusing to negotiate or bow to threats. Finally the demanded sum was paid and off they went. This transaction has been recorded in my housewarming ceremony income and expenses statement.

My official family priest, who was unable to make it thanks to an earlier booking, had mentioned that the complexities of handling a housewarming meant that we had to employ four priests. Any doubts of any value that multiple priests added were dispelled in the first few minutes of the ceremony beginning. One priest with a good voice chanting mantras can occasionally be pleasing to hear. But four priests singing in tandem, not all of them at the perfect pitch – which created a nice effect – and not all of them singing simultaneously, was phenomenal. Their chants reverberated off the walls of the empty house (not too many people want to turn up for a ceremony at 7 am on a Sunday, so we had spared most guests the moral agony and had invited them only for lunch), and when it was accompanied by the ringing of bells, as it was occasionally, it was absolutely mindblowing.

It was around this time that I had the Lawrence of Arabia moment. After all my protestations against religious ceremonies and suchlike, I discovered that I was actually enjoying the process. The sound was fantastic. With significant hand-holding from the priest what I had to do was also enjoyable – throw flowers into one area at irregular intervals. I could construct my own little games (not unlike Pee-ball) and it was a lot of fun.

After a short break for coffee and a longer one for breakfast (technically you are supposed to fast during such events but such rules have become flexible nowadays), it was time for the “homa” or throwing things into the ritual fire as an offering to the fire god Agni and his wife Swaha. I didn’t start the fire. It was initially lit using burning camphor by two aunts. It was fueled mostly by the priests (another time when multiple priests came in handy – two chanted the mantras while the other two kindled the fire).

My role here was to occasionally pour in ghee using the small wooden ladle, and then later put in “modaks” (fried momos filled with coconut and sugar) into the fire. Again I invented my own little games. How do you throw the modak such that it immediately catches fire? How do you ensure the modak doesn’t bounce outside of the fire pot? Can you create patterns with the burning modaks?

Midway through this ritual I started imagining doing a barbecue on this ritual fire (this thought was fueled by a particular modak, which on partial burning, started looking like a piece of grilled chicken). A couple of days earlier I had imagined what would happen if illegal weeds were to be procured and added to the ritual fire. The wife and I had then thought that the original intended purpose of such rituals was communal bakery.

We had planned to finish the ceremonies by 9:30, so that we could prepare to receive guests who would arrive around 11. The problem is that if you are the only person(s) who know certain guests, they can get lost and bored if you are stuck in rituals. Hence we had planned the rituals such that we could be ready to receive guests by the time they arrived. We had built in an hour an a half of slack (9:30 to 11), and it came of good use as the rituals ceased at 10:30 (the hour’s delay being a function of the delay in priests’ arrival).

Guests came, saw, ate and went. Around 5 in the evening the wife started cleaning the house. By 8, there were no traces of a ceremony having happened there. And we went out.

Tradition demands you spend a night in the new house even if you don’t intend to move in immediately. We went to bed at 12, after having opened the presents. Initially sleep was good. Then we got woken up at 430 by a pack of dogs that were prowling the streets and fighting. Then we tried to get back to sleep, but were again woken up by the nearby mosque’s azaan. I hope this isn’t a sign of things to come once we move.

 

The moving solstice

Today is “Makara Sankranti”. If the name doesn’t already strike you, “Makara” is the Sanskrit name for “Capricorn”. The Makara Sankranti is supposed to represent the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, or the day when the Sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn.

However, we know that the winter solstice falls on the 21st or 22nd of December every year. Then why is it that the Indian version of the Winter Solstice falls on 15th of January?

I’m not sure if you remember, but a few years back, Makara Sankranti would usually fall on the 14th of January. After some back-and-forth movements, it has now settled on the 15th of January. You might have already noticed that this is unlike other Indian festivals such as Deepavali or Ganesh Chaturthi, whose dates according to the Gregorian calendar move every year (typically in a -11, -11, +19 cycle) over three years). This is because unlike Deepavali or Ganesh Chaturthi, which are observed according to the Lunar calendar, Makara Sankranti follows the solar calendar!

I recently read a book called “Solstice at Panipat”, about the third battle of Panipat in 1761 (my review is here). The Marathas went to battle four days after celebrating the Winter Solstice. The battle was fought on the 14th of January 1761, which means the solstice was observed that year on the 10th of January. So you see that the solstice, which is supposed to be observed on the 21/22 of December, was observed on 10th of January in 1761, and on the 15th of January in 2014.

This shows that there is an error in the Indian solar calendar. This error amounts to about 20 minutes a year, which means that the rate at which we are going, about 10000 years from now the Makara Sankranti (“Winter Solstice”) will fall in June, the middle of the summer!

That we know that the error in the Hindu solar calendar is 20 minutes a year allows us to calculate the last time the calendar was calibrated – we can date it to around 285 AD. Back in 285 AD, the calendar was calculated accurately, with the Winter Solstice falling on the actual Winter Solstice. After that, the calendar has drifted, and one can say, so has Indian science.

I’m informed, however, that this 20 minute error in the Hindu solar calendar is deliberate, and that this has been put in place for astrological reasons. Apparently, astrology follows a 26400 year cycle, and for that to bear out accurately, our solar calendar needs to have a 20 minute per year error! So for the last 1700 or so years, we have been using a calendar that is accurate for astrological calculations but not to seasons! Thankfully, the lunar calendar, which has been calibrated to the movement of stars, captures seasons more accurately!

I’ll end this post with a twitter conversation (I’m off twitter now, btw) where I learnt about this inaccuracy :

Update: The link to the tweet doesn’t show the entire thread. See that here.

Update: Here is a piece by astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar on the Makara Sankranti. Basically due to a change in the earth’s axis, our divisions of the night sky into 12 constellations are not stationary, and hence the date when the sun moves from “Dhanur” to “Makara” is no longer the solstice date.

 

Silencing the temple

The temple across the road from my house has really started annoying me. The priest has one tape, of supposedly “devotional” songs and this morning he thought it appropriate to play it on the loudspeaker at 5:30, startling me and waking me up.

This is not the first time he has done so, either. He has been a consistent offender. Earlier, the tape would go on at around 7:30, after we had woken up so it didn’t really affect me so much – I’d put on my own music to drown the offending noise and all would be fine. Of late, though, the bugger seems to be getting to his temple early, and he considers it his sacred duty to wake up the locality with his noise.

Polite attempts (by the wife) to ask him to turn down the volume have had no impact. I’m told over ten years back my grandmother-in-law (known in her time to have been an extremely strong and clever woman) had tried her own methods to silence him, but had failed and given up (one of her rare failures, according to the wife). One of the things she had apparently tried was to threaten to call in the cops. It didn’t work.

As we lay tossing and turning in bed this morning having been rudely woken up by the temple noise, we thought of strategies. One was to write out a police complaint, get neighbours to weigh in with their support and go to the cops. Another was to get in touch with the local politicians (corporator, MLA, etc.) and see if they can do something about it.

One thing bothers me about either approach, though – no there is no risk per se, but I don’t think any of this will really work. The problem is the Indian definition of “secularism” – which is not “each citizen will practice his/her own religion in private and the state will not interfere” but instead is “each citizen can make a big loud show of practicing his/her religion and the state will not interfere”.

And so if I go to the cops or the politicians asking them to intervene, one question that will invariably come up is why the temple priest should shut up when there are no restrictions whatsoever on the muezzin’s call. And if you go to the muezzin and ask him to turn down the volume, he’ll agree on the condition that the loudspeakers at the Ganesh pandals be turned down. And thus we will set off on an infinite loop.

This is the sad story with religion in India. Anything goes in the name of religion. If you oppose something done in the name of religion itself, you are being anti-religion, and that is blasphemous.

Anyway, I still have the conundrum of how to deal with the hooligan priest in the temple across the road from my house!

Festivals and memes

We don’t normally celebrate festivals. We don’t particularly enjoy them. The only festival we celebrate to some degree is Dasara, when we set up dolls and invite people home to view the dolls. Of course, the last couple of years it’s been similar arrangements and there hasn’t been much innovation in what we do, but we enjoy it as a process and hence take forward the festival. Last year, we even got some fireworks during Deepavali and burst them. Again – it was a fun element. We aren’t too enthused by rituals and since most other festivals are little more than rituals we don’t celebrate them.

The wife, however, sometimes have existential doubts. “There must be a reason that our ancestors celebrated these festivals”, she pops up from time to time, “so it may not be correct on our part to simply stop celebrating. We should take forward the tradition”. This is question that comes up each time we don’t celebrate a festival (which you might guess is fairly often). Before today I hadn’t been able to give a convincing reply either way – whether it makes sense to follow our instinct or if it’s a cultural duty to take forward the tradition.

Towards the end of his classic book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins introduces the concept of the meme.  In fact it was Dawkins who “invented” the concept of the meme. It is meant to be a cultural analogy to the gene, and it’s a “cultural’ concept that propagates like biological concepts are taken forward through the generations via genes. Given the multitude of so-called memes that keep popping up every other day, I’m sure all of you know what meme means. I’m just providing the context here since my argument depends on the original Dawkinsian definition of the meme.

Let us say that there is a genetic attribute I inherited from my father, let’s say it’s my height (my father was 5 feet 10 inches, and I’m an inch taller than that). Now, it is not necessary that this particular gene is passed on to my progeny. It is not even necessary that the corresponding gene from my wife gets passed on – there might be a mutation there and despite the wife and I being fairly tall (by Indian standards) we cannot rule out producing a short child. The point I’m trying to make is that while genes propagate, not every trait needs to pass on from you to your offspring. Only a few traits (chosen more or less at random when your and your gene-propagating partner’s genes undergo meiosis) get passed on. Yet, through the network of you and your siblings and cousins and extended family, the family’s genetic code gets passed on.

Now, festivals and other cultural practices can be described as memes. We in the Indian society have a set of memes, which are called “Ganesh Chaturthi”, “Deepavali”, etc. That these memes have survived through the generations shows their strength – who knows about festivals that had been invented but didn’t survive. Now, the fact that we have inherited this meme doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to propagate it. Unlike genetics, the choice here is not random combination – it is our personal choice (we can’t decide what genes our offspring inherits from either of us or through a mutation).

So, just like every genetic trait doesn’t need to be propagated from a parent to an offspring, not every cultural trait needs to be passed on. If I were to pass on every cultural trait I inherit irrespective of whether it is desirable, even when circumstances change, undesirable cultural traits continue to exist. This is not efficient. As a society, we have bandwidth only for a certain number of cultural traits, and if traits are passed on without much thought, the bad ones won’t die. And will crowd out the good ones.

So if you were to look at it in terms of responsibility to society, you need to propagate only those cultural traits that you deem to be relevant and important. “So what if everyone stops celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi?” you may ask. If that would happen that would simply mean a vote of no confidence for the festival and an indication that the festival needs to be phased out. If everyone were to propagate only those cultural traits they find useful, traits that a significant proportion of society finds significant will continue to survive and thrive. For Ganesh Chaturthi to exist 30 years hence, it isn’t necessary for ALL families that have inherited it to celebrate it now. As long as a critical mass of families celebrate it, the festival will survive. If not, it probably doesn’t need to exist.

(the choice of Ganesh Chaturthi for illustration is purely driven by the fact that the festival is today).

Ants and God

Two days back I had polished off a plateful of pancakes (made by the wife, of course) with maple syrup and left the plate in the sink. Unlike usual, I had not bothered to run water over the plate before I put it in the sink. I happened to return to the sink half an hour later (to deposit my coffee cup) and noticed a swarm of ants over my pancake plate, trying to feed on whatever maple syrup was still stuck to the plate.

The more compassionate among you might argue that I should have left them alone. After all, they were eating what I had not eaten, and who was I to grudge that? But I’m not one who tolerates arthropodes of any kind in my house, and I decided to wreak havoc on the ants. It is not often that you find so many ants in one place that you can destroy. So I (belatedly) ran water over the plate. Historically, this event might go down among one section of the ants as “the great flood”. Yes, a few ants managed to scurry away to tell the tale.

Now, these ants had no clue about my existence. All they knew was that there was the plate with maple syrup stuck to it, which they could feed on. And they were going about their business when an external entity who they were not aware of created a flood, drowning most of them. As far as the ants were concerned, I was like an external “greater power”. Someone who had the ability to destroy. And destroy I did.

Note for a moment that this was not a predator-prey relationship. If I were their predator (a spider perhaps) they would have been aware of me. However, here I was, of a species that doesn’t normally interact with ants, much much bigger than the world they know, destroying so many of them.

Like me to the ants, some people like to argue, there is a “greater unknown being” who controls all our lives. This greater unknown being (commonly nicknamed “God”) is in control of our lives, they say. And so, we need to pay obeisance to him and do things that keep him happy. We are all at the mercy of this greater being, they say, and hence we must pray. Pray that this greater being is kind to us. Pray that in the flood that he unleashes from time to time we are among the lucky few that manage to scurry away and live to tell the tale. Pray that he doesn’t cause the flood at all.

While the Ant:Man::Man:God analogy might make sense in terms of the larger creature being significantly superior than the smaller one who is not aware of him, it still does not explain why one needs to pray or do any rituals or even make any attempts to make the larger creature take pity on you.

Ants have no way of communicating with me. Maybe they think there exist creatures such as humans, who should be prayed to so that they are now flooded. I’m sure they might have tried, as they saw me stand over their plate of maple syrup with my hand on the tap. It didn’t make a difference to me. I opened the tap anyway, and unleashed the flood. By a similar analogy, that the “greater creature” will even bother to take cognizance of you and try and understand you and do as you please is a massive leap of faith.

Religion, yet again

I think religion is an exercise in finding loopholes. Religious people I think will make great tax consultants.

So this evening I was at an uncle’s place where he had organized a Vedic recital. Some fifty or more people from the Vedic school he goes to (after having retired after an outstanding career as a space scientist) were there and they were chanting the Vedas. Now, today is a Saturday in the Hindu month of Shraavan (bastardized as Saavan), and the devout are supposed to keep fast (which I discovered only this evening) . However, given that it is not nice to not serve food to people whom you’ve invited home, my uncle had arranged for what people in Bombay term as an “upvaas feast”.

It absolutely beats me how rice is considered to be “food” while avalakki or “beaten rice” (which, as the name suggests, is made from rice), is not! No, I’m not joking. So this evening I learnt that as long as you don’t eat rice, your fast is still maintained! So you had the rather devout gurus of the Vedic school who were supposed to keep fast tonight gorging on Bisibelebhath and Kesari Bhath (among a rather long list of items) – just because the former wasn’t made out of rice, and the latter doesn’t contain rice anyway.

I’m reminded of the time some six years ago. My father had just died and (much against my will) I was being forced to perform a hundred post death ceremonies. Now, protocol for these death ceremonies is that you do it on an empty stomach. You only eat once that day, and that is a rather late lunch after you’ve offered the pinDa (cooked rice mixed with milk and curd and black sesame seed), first to your departed ancestors and then to crows and cows. However, during the course of time, people have made exceptions. Apparently you are now allowed to have coffee or milk in the morning before you perform the ceremony. And over the course of time that has come to be understood as “milk with additives”. And so I was fed cereal with milk (lest I revolt on an empty stomach) as I made my way every day for five days to one dirty “tithi hotel” to supposedly ensure my father’s soul went to heaven, and was tied to those of his ancestors.

Oh, and needless to say, that “only one meal in the day” rule for death ceremonies has been relaxed, too, in the course of time. Now you’re allowed to have dinner also, as long as (surprise, surprise!!) you don’t eat rice!

Then there is the concept of maDi or ritual cleanliness. This evening, my uncle took pains to announce to his guests that the food had been cooked under “strict maDi conditions”. Yet, when I happened to walk in to the kitchen, it was hard for me to walk any more as the floor was insanely sticky, with spilled food, I would guess. Ritual cleanliness I think doesn’t really imply real cleanliness. More significantly, maintaining the conditions or ritual cleanliness gives you an illusion of cleanliness and since you’ve followed the rituals you don’t see any need to keep your kitchen actually clean. It reminds me of what a friend maintains – that the religious are less likely to be moral than the irreligious.

And then I have mentioned on this blog earlier about how during religious functions hosts don’t really bother with serving lunch/dinner on time. For the record, this evening’s dinner was at 9:30, which I’m not sure is a particularly healthy practice (and which is probably I’m still awake).

So the net effect of this is that every time I attend a religious function I get further repulsed by religion. That people don’t answer my questions doesn’t help (I must mention that I’ve stopped asking questions, for I seldom get satisfactory answers. The only person who I still bombard with questions on religion is my mother-in-law who makes a patient and honest attempt at answering them more often than not). It is probably due to my upbringing (I might have mentioned here earlier that my father was atheist. I do one better than him in that I regularly wear my sacred thread, though I probably over-compensate for it by eating meat), but sometimes it actually amazes me that people believe in the kind of things they believe in.

I must consider myself lucky that my long-term gene-propagating partner is quite okay with my lack of religiosity (huge sigh of relief considering that on our first date she had demanded to examine my sacred thread), though occasionally she suddenly declares that we must resurrect our lives and we should “start praying”. Nothing concrete usually comes out of this.

Oh, and this evening my uncle castigated me for serving food while wearing jeans (as the wife remarked later, it was a good thing I was wearing jeans. Wearing a dhoti would have exposed the risk of my dhoti falling into people’s leaf plates). 

And I’m still amazed that despite the advent of writing and recordings, people still choose to expend their valuable mental bandwidth in rote learning the Vedas, rather than trying to understand the philosophy behind them.

PS: Here is a post on why I don’t do my parents’ death ceremonies any more

Want a nightlife? Build temples!

First of all, I’m serious. Second of all, this is not the first time I’m writing on Bangalore’s nightlife (or the lack of it). The last time I wrote about this topic, I had argued that most people in Bangalore are fundamentally illiberal and opposed to extended night life, and official response was just an embodiment of this sentiment. This post is more positive.

I think I have hit upon a solution to create a night life in Bangalore. This is based on my experiences at Amritsar and Ajmer. Both of them were extremely spiritual experiences (no, not that spirit. Alcohol is banned in the vicinity of the main shrines in both  these places). Both places offered fantastic food (again, vegetarian food only in the vicinity of the Golden Temple – but bloody brilliant; and brilliant mutton biryani near the Dargah of HKGN in Ajmer). And most importantly, both towns had a vibrant night life.

I’m not sure if I’ve touched upon this topic earlier, but the fundamental problem with Bangalore not having a night life is that it has never had one. Half of it was a traditional Indian city, and the other half was a rather sleepy cantonment town – which had its share of bars and discotheques, but most of which closed at eight in the evening (even twenty years ago, most of MG Road and Brigade Road would close at eight in the evening). Consequently, the city never did have a lifestyle. Even if you argue that the cantonment side had one, that the “city” side became more dominant after independence meant that whatever night life was there never really developed.

Fundamentally, a town gets a night life if people have some business being outdoors at night. Bombay had its textile mills that ran round the clock. New York was a busy trading port. Pick any city with a reasonable night life and you will find that sometime in its history there would have been a solid reason for people to remain outdoors late in the night. And yes, I’m talking about a solid business reason, not just partying.

The simple fact of the matter is that Bangalore has never had one (for reasons explained above). The situation is slowly changing of course, with many of Bangalore’s BPO and IT shops open through the night to service customers in the new world. Unfortunately, most such companies have insulated themselves from the rest of the city and built their own facilities for food, transportation, etc. Thanks to this, workers in such establishment (no doubt there are several) do not really contribute to the general nocturnal economy of the city. And so the administration can get away with downing shutters at bars and restaurants at 11 pm.

So what needs to be done? As the title of the post suggests, we need to build temples. We need “udbhava murtis” (idols that have sprung up from the ground) to magically spring up in several places in the city (not in the middle of roads of course). Then we need our religious leaders to declare that such murtis are the greatest to have ever existed, and to create a discourse that visiting one such murti will cure one of all past sins (or any such thing that will bring in crowds in large numbers). This needs to be a concerted effort, such that the demand for “darshan” at these murtis become humongous. The demand to see the murtis will be so humongous that the temples that are likely to spring up around them will need to be open round the clock!

And so we will have people visiting these temples late in the night, in the wee hours of the morning. Lots of people at the temple means an  enterprising chaat wallah will find it profitable to set up shop outside these temples. They will be followed by a chai wallah, and then dosa carts will begin to appear. Police will want to read the rule book to these businessmen, but their removal will lead to incurring the wrath of thousands of hungry pilgrims. The police will quietly extract their commissions and let the establishments stay. Then, people will need to get to the temples at wee hours of the morning, so we will have buses running through the night. More people moving around will mean greater “liquidity” in the auto rickshaw market and they will become more affordable at these times.

It will take a while (no good things come easily). But soon the bustling economies around these 24-hour temples will mean that the city will be alive through the night. Laws will have to change, and soon shops will be open through the night. As will be restaurants, and in the course of time bars (no promise on that one; Till very recently even in London bars had to shut at 11pm). And the city will have a night life!

Of course, the road to this liberal utopia is through a religious process. But then, don’t ends sometimes justify the means? And who is to say that an all-powerful deity does not add value to society at large? It will take concerted effort though (these idols need to magically appear in strategic locations, and we need the support of religious leaders to bless such idols – this is easier said than done), but it can be done.

PS: After writing this I realize that I’d written something similar on the Broad Mind a few months ago. Apologies for re-hashing the same idea. But don’t tell me this is not more positive.

Religion and Probability

If only people were better at mathematics in general and probability in particular, we may not have had religion

Last month I was showing my mother-in-law the video of the meteor that fell in Russia causing much havoc, and soon the conversation drifted to why the meteor fell where it did. “It is simple mathematics that the meteor fell in Russia”, I declared, trying to show off my knowledge of geography and probability, arguing that Russia’s large landmass made it the most probable country for the meteor to fall in. My mother-in-law, however, wasn’t convinced. “It’s all god’s choice”, she said.

Recently I realized the fallacy in my argument. While it was probabilistically most likely that the meteor would fall in Russia than in any other country, there was no good scientific reason to explain why it fell at the exact place it did. It could have just as likely fallen in any other place. It was just a matter of chance that it fell where it did.

Falling meteors are not the only events in life that happen with a certain degree of randomness. There are way too many things that are beyond our control which happen when they happen and the way they happen for no good reason. And the kicker is that it all just doesn’t average out. Think about the meteor itself for example. A meteor falling is such a rare event that it is unlikely to happen (at least with this kind of impact) again in most people’s lifetimes. This can be quite confounding for most people.

Every time I’ve studied probability (be it in school or engineering college or business school), I’ve noticed that most people have much trouble understanding it. I might be generalizing based on my cohort but I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that probability is not the easiest of subjects to grasp for most people. Which is a real tragedy given the amount of randomness that is a fixture in everyone’s lives.

Because of the randomness inherent in everyone’s lives, and because most of these random events don’t really average out in people’s lifetimes, people find the need to call upon an external entity to explain these events. And once the existence of one such entity is established, it is only natural to attribute every random event to the actions of this entity.

And then there is the oldest mistake in statistics – assuming that if two events happen simultaneously or one after another, one of the events is the cause for the other. (I’m writing this post while watching football) Back in 2008-09, the last time Liverpool FC presented a good challenge for the English Premier League, I noticed a pattern over a month where Liverpool won all the games that I happened to watch live (on TV) and either drew or lost the others. Being rather superstitious, I immediately came to the conclusion that my watching a game actually led to a Liverpool victory. And every time that didn’t happen (that 2-2 draw at Hull comes to mind) I would try to rationalize that by attributing it to a factor I had hitherto left out of “my model” (like I was seated on the wrong chair or that my phone was ringing when a goal went in or something).

So you have a number of events which happen the way they happen randomly, and for no particular reason. Then, you have pairs of events that for random reasons happen in conjunction with one another, and the human mind that doesn’t like un-explainable events quickly draws a conclusion that one led to the other. And then when the pattern breaks, the model gets extended in random directions.

Randomness leads you to believe in an external entity who is possibly choreographing the world. When enough of you believe in one such entity, you come up with a name for the entity, for example “God”. Then people come up with their own ways of appeasing this “God”, in the hope that it will lead to “God” choreographing events in their favour. Certain ways of appeasement happen simultaneously with events favourable to the people who appeased. These ways of appeasement are then recognized as legitimate methods to appease “God”. And everyone starts following them.

Of course, the experiment is not repeatable – for the results were purely random. So people carry out activities to appease “God” and yet experience events that are unfavourable to them. This is where model extension kicks in. Over time, certain ways of model extension have proved to be more convincing than others, the most common one (at least in India) being ‘”God” is doing this to me because he/she wants to test me”. Sometimes these model extensions also fail to convince. However, the person has so much faith in the model (it has after all been handed over to him/her by his/her ancestors, and a wrong model could definitely not have propagated?) that he/she is not willing to question the model, and tries instead to further extend it in another random direction.

In different parts of the world, different methods of appeasement to “God” happened in conjunction with events favourable to the appeasers, and so this led to different religions. Some people whose appeasements were correlated with favourable events had greater political power (or negotiation skills) than others, so the methods of appeasement favoured by the former grew dominant in that particular society. Over time, mostly due to political and military superiority, some of these methods of appeasement grew disproportionately, and others lost their way. And we had what are now known as “major religions”. I don’t need to continue this story.

So going back, it all once again boils down to the median man’s poor understanding of concepts of probability and randomness, and the desire to explain all possible events. Had human understanding of probability and randomness been superior, it is possible that religion didn’t exist at all!