Polytheism, Pantheism, Idol Worship in Hinduism

This piece is for all those who wonder about the idol worship is Hinduism. Do Hindus practice polytheism and pantheism? Listen to part of the speech by Swami Vivekananda’s on his Paper on Hinduism, delivered at the World Parliament on Religions, Chicago, 1893. As ‘ramnirmal’, a YouTube user puts it, "Swami Vivekananda clarifies the misconceptions of Hinduism. He explains the reason behind Idol worship. According to Hinduism, Idol worship is for the beginners, and for the experienced it is not mandatory. [It] is the starting step of the search, to recognize that the God is omnipresent."

2006 – the year that was for me

First of all, a Merry Christmas to one and all! And a Happy New Year 2007!! For five years (1990 to 1994), Class VIII to XII in school, I maintained a daily diary. It was something I liked doing, and was a good habit I think. For some reason, it got discontinued once I came to Singapore, though there are a few odd days documented here and there. December end was a time when I used to sit for 2-3 days each year and send New Year cards to all my friends – that’s how one of it landed at Archana’s grandfather’s address one year (after our very first meeting in 1993), and created a furore as to who was the card from :) Since coming to Singapore, I started sending year-end emails/e-cards to all my friends and contacts – a way of saying that I haven’t forgotten you. Over the last 2-3 years, I haven’t done that. This year, I’ve decided I’ll send New Year greetings to all my friends. Before I do that, I’d also like to reflect on the year that is slipping down the hourglass. Below are some of the major events in my life this year:

  • Parents in Singapore: After 10 years in Singapore, my parents finally came to Singapore and spent about a month here. Last New Year, we watched the fireworks over Esplanade together.

  • Archana: She passed her USMLE Step 2 Clinical Knowledge Exam (91 percentile), went to Los Angeles and gave/passed her USMLE Step 2 Clinical Skills Exam, applied for US residency, went to the US island of Guam (a dot in the Pacific) and did a 1-month externship and travelled through US cities (Baltimore, Washington DC, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Tucson and New York) for her interviews. She also passed the MRCP-UK part 1 exam, did research at SNEC and was offered the position of Honorary Fellow in Emergency Medicine at NUH and temporary registration with the Singapore Medical Council. She made a large pencil sketch of roses.

  • Bond completed: I got the bond-relieving letter from Ministry of Education. All the talk about serving a 6-year bond working for a Singapore-registered company finally came to an end.

  • Modules done: Got A’s in both the Level 6000 modules I took this year, thus completing all required modules for PhD with a GPA of 5.0/5.0 (A+ in 5 modules, A in 3 modules)

  • PhD candidature: I passed the Qualifying Exam/Graduate Research Paper and was transferred from Graduate Program to PhD candidature.

  • Publications: Two top-ranked paper acceptances (a Rank-1 journal and a Rank-1 conference in Beijing, China in July 2007); acceptance of a 35-page chapter in a book; one Rank-2 conference paper acceptance (May 2007, Vancouver, Canada). Other included APSEC 2006, Bangalore, India and InSciT 2006, Merida, Spain.

  • Conferences: Attended the IEEE EDM Workshop (presented a paper) and the EDOC Conference in Hong Kong. Also presented a paper at the weeklong APRU (Asia Pacific Rim Universities) DSC (Doctoral Students’ Conference) at NUS.

  • Extra-curricular activities: Got elected as Director, Academic, Research and Cultural Affairs, NUS Graduate Students’ Society and as Board Member, APRU Doctoral Students’ Network – one of the two members elected from Singapore. Also reviewed a number of papers.

  • Art/Painting: I had my first Solo Exhibition (13 paintings), “Expressions in Watercolor & Oil”, at ArtsBuzz, the NUS Central Library. Made a watercolor of a Rajasthani flute player.

  • Acting/Modeling: Acted in True Files Season 4 for Singapore Television (Channel 5) and appeared on TV twice this year.

  • Public speaking: I won the first prize in the ‘Rang de Basanti’ movie critique competition.

  • Spirituality/religion: Completed the 9th volume of Swami Vivekananda’s works. Attended and greatly enjoyed a weeklong Srimad Bhagwatam (Bhaagavat) discourse by Girishanandji of Vrindavan. I’m currently reading the first chapter of the Bhagvat Gita – a verse each day.

  • Personalities: Attended the talk by Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, the President of India and a lecture by Claude Nicollier, Switzerland’s first and only astronaut in Space. The 82-year old Basant Kumar Birla (BK Birla, grandfather of Kumar Mangalam Birla) and his wife Sarla Birla attended the last 2-3 days of the Bhaagavat in Singapore.

  • Friends: Sanjog and Leona got married; Prateek became a father. Pavneet got married yesterday

  • Visits: Shekhar bhaiya, bhabhi and Ishaan visited from Bahrain. Sharad Gurung from TNA was also here. Met Naresh Subba as well.

  • Deaths: Mahabir dadaji died in Gangtok. Dadi in Patna passed away too. With the two went the last of my great-grandfather’s sons and their wives. The husband of Bidya Mousi (she’s the sixth among eight sisters) died in Jalpaiguri. Mr Manas of TNA also passed away.

  • Health: The lumps on eyelids returned on both eyelids, had to be operated upon (twice), but haven’t gone completely. Acne appeared on the face as well, but is almost gone now.

  • This New Year’s: I plan to spend a quiet New Year’s eve this year- probably sit at home and watch TV or work. Archana will be in New York or may have to travel to Pittsburgh by 31st or 1st. I was interviewed for and offered the position of Teaching Assistant (Research assistantship coming to an end). I begin from January.
  • Tere Bin त??‡र??‡ िबन?€?(Without you)

    दम दारा दम दारा म्स्त म्स्त Dum dara dum dara mast mast दारा दम दारा दम दारा म्स्त म्स्त Dara dum dara dum dara mast mast दारा दम दारा दम दम Dara dum dara dum dum ??” हमदम िबन त??‡र??‡ ??•्या ??œ??€ना (२) Oh humdum bin tere kya jeena (2) Oh my love, what’s living without you Its one piece of music one hears and gets instantly mesmerized by. This piece by AR Rehman is, as a blogger wrote somewhere, ‘divine’. Listen to the song below:

    Watch a short video version below:The lyrics (by Gulzar), can be found here Rehman is said to have been inspired by a rendition by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan ‘सान??‚ ??‡??• पल ??š??ˆन न ??†व??‡, स??œणा त??‡र??‡ िबना’ (I’m not at ease even for a moment without you my love) when composing this song. The inspiration here is not in the sense of copying. The final version is a masterpiece in its own right. The NFAK piece is simple and beautiful. I used to love the Tabla piece in the beginning. Listen to स??œणा त??‡र??‡ िबना below:

    Handling criticism

    Heard some good words on TV that I really liked, so am writing this piece. Many of us have difficulty handling criticism. We all like hearing good things said about ourselves. Common wisdom says that we should criticise (constructively) in private, and praise (lavishly) in public. Yet, there are times when we hear ourselves or our near or dear ones criticized or gossiped about, which leaves us or the person pained and hurt. There are two kinds of criticism – one in front of us (on our face), one behind your back. Critisism or talk that makes fun of us done in our absence is called gossip. Why do we gossip? Some of us consider it a good past-time, some of us are compelled by habit to take on the role of BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), while most of us (I’d like to believe) do it unintentionally. I am intolerant to criticism or gossip behind my back. I guess most of us are. I’d much rather somebody comes and tells me directly what he/she has to, and I’ll try to improve (or find out what is bothering the person and sort things out). Many of us learn to take and learn from constructive criticism. But can we always take it? How about if somebody is to come and hurl abuses at us right on our face? Heard a guy on TV (an Engineer turned Hindu religious figure) tell what Kabir (a fifteenth century Indian religious reformer who reached out to the hearts of Hindus and Muslims alike) had to say about criticism. He quoted Kabir as preaching that we should be thankful of our critics. The message can be interpreted as follows.

    We should be thankful when we have critics and if someone criticises us because they serve as ‘free washing machines or a free dry cleaner’ (he used the term ‘dhobi’, which means a man who washes clothes). Just as a dhobi (or a washing machine) cleanses our clothes of dirt, a critic helps cleanse our hearts and soul. He/she prevents us from getting too proud, and helps keep us grounded. Kabir, apparently, even said that if he had an empty house opposite his own, he would get his biggest critic, perhaps even pay him, to come and stay opposite his house. Then, each time, as he would leave and enter his house, the critic would help cleanse his soul and prevent false pride from seeping in.

    Something to ponder about! Not advocating that we go and start criticising today, thinking that we are doing a favour. In fact, it is said in Hindi "Vaani se kabhi kisi ko kasht na pahunchao" (never hurt someone with your words, at least try not to). The message from Kabir is how to view and handle people/the situation if and when somebody criticizes us.

    Rang De Basanti Critique Competition

    On Sep 22, the Society for South Asian Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore organized a movie screening of "Rang De Basanti" at LT29. I was one of the participants who had to provide a critique based on the theme, "Do you support the actions taken by the lead actors?". The theme was given out before the movie started. The audio quality in the LT (Lecture Theatre) was excellent. Apart from the obvious young Indian crowd, a couple of local Chinese and Caucasian faces were also to be seen. Though watching it for the second time, I loved every moment of the movie, as I made my notes on what to speak. It was an excellent audience too, with a palpable vibrancy in the air that suggested each person watching was really proud of the movie (as if having a personal stake) and was enjoying every moment of it – something one rarely gets to see in a movie theatre. There were bits of verbal interaction as well. When a dejected DJ (with a stress on D..DDDDJ..Aamir Khan) says he doesn’t know what to do, I heard a voice behind me say "NUS mein aa kar research kar le" (come to NUS and pursue research). I laughed and cried with the movie. When DJ lights the funeral pyre of his pilot friend, I imagined my cousin Sanjay doing the same in Jalpaiguri that day, who lost his father (my mousaji – Bidya mousi’s husband) a day before. When the movie ended, it witnessed a standing ovation from all present. The organizers announced that refreshments would be served outside, but only after the critique competition was over. The students (mostly) sat back and watched. Each speaker was to be given 3 minutes to present the critique, followed by 2 minutes of Q&A. Two out of the first three speakers presented arguments saying they did not support the actions taken by the lead actors. One girl said when DJ and his friends reach the radio station, they should not have pointed guns against innocent people. On being questioned if they’d have been allowed to go and disrupt a large radio station without using guns, she said, perhaps they could have pointed guns to the security guard but not to the people inside. The response from the audience was lukewarm. One speaker said he was confused as to whether they did the right thing or not. Then came a fourth speaker, who went forth and declared, "I totally support the actions taken by the lead actors. I am no Gandhi fan…and this is the only way which actually works". He went on to say how non-violence didn’t work in the recent protests by medical students against reservations at premier Indian educational institutions. The audience clapped and cheered. I was the last speaker. Following is a gist of what I said:

    My name is Naresh Kumar Agarwal and I am a Research Assistant and a 2nd year PhD Candidate at the Dept. of Information Systems, School of Computing. To answer whether I support the actions taken by the lead actors, I’d say that I totally support the actions taken by the lead actors in the movie, but to say whether you or I should do the same, I’d say "No". When I first watched the movie, and having been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi all along, I went through a dilemma whether the method advocated in the movie was correct. Mahatma Gandhi has said, "Be the change you want to see in the world". After much thought, I concluded that Rang de Basanti does not advocate the method, but rather, the courage to take on the responsibility for bringing about change, to take responsibility for the state of things in your country rather than simply blaming the other, to question and resist injustice, to follow the truth. Mahatma Gandhi has said that there are three possible responses to oppression and injustice: First is the coward’s way – to accept the wrong or to run away from it. Second possible response is to stand and fight by force of arms. Gandhi said this was better than acceptance or running away. So in the movie, given the option of not doing anything against injustice versus seeking redemption through the violent way, I’d say the violent way is preferable. But the third and the best method of all, and one which requires the most courage, is to stand and fight solely by non-violent means. In this non-violent method, violence is present, but it is not directed against the other person, only to yourself. The actors in RDB also went on a candle-light vigil to India Gate in a non-violent manner. Only when it didn’t work did they adopt violence. The lesson to imbibe from the movie is not voilence, but rather the responsibility to bring about change (instead of cowardly accepting or running away from the state of things). The following is inscribed on a tomb in Westminister Abbey "When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits, I dreamt of changing the world. As I grew older and wiser, I discovered the world would not change, so I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country. But it, too, seemed immovable. As I grew into my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I settled for changing my family, those closest to me, but alas, they would have none of it. And now, as I lie on my deathbed, I suddenly realize: If I had only changed myself first, then by example I would have changed my family. From their inspiration and encouragement, I would then have been able to better my country, and who knows, I may have even changed the world." The biggest message of RDB is to be able to change youself. And for this, you don’t really require violence, but rather, compassion for those around you. HH the Dalai Lama has said, "To experience genuine compassion is to develop a feeling of closeness to others combined with a sense of responsibility for their welfare. This develops when we accept that other people are just like ourselves in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering." (I didn’t say the Dalai Lama quote in the actual speech). A previous speaker mentioned that the actors used a personal loss as pretext to rise up against injustice, which she said is not correct. I disagree. One spark is enough to bring about change in a person – "Aag hai mujhmein kahin". That spark could be anything, if a personal loss helps you bring out the fire in you, so be it. If watching this movie helps spark the fire within, why not! So while we go out and do what we do – pursue research, strive to rise in our jobs, whether we are in our country or outside it, when we spend lifetimes wanting to go and buy the next car, that condo out there, and worrying about me, myself, my spouse and my children, let us strive to do something worthwhile for our country. "Ab bhi jiska khoon na khoula, wo khoon nahin hai paani hai. Jo bhi desh ke kaam na aaye, wo bekar jawaani hai"! (Translation, not mentioned in speech: even now if someone’s blood does not boil, that is not blood but water. Anybody who does nothing for his/her country, that is a wasted youth).

    During the Q&A session, somebody asked me, "So do you believe in Mahatma Gandhi or in Rang de Basanti". I replied,

    "I believe in Mahatma Gandhi and I believe in Rang de Basanti. And I see no contradiction."

    The first four consolation prizes announced didn’t include my name. I was declared the Winner.

    Time to mourn – my hope for India on death-bed

    I am angry. No, I am very angry. I don’t get angry easily. But this time, I really am. For the first time in my 11 years outside India, I question whether I am indeed fortunate to be outside? Whether it is at all worthwhile to go back to the muck and dirt? I am not referring to the dirt on the roads – which can be cleansed. I am talking about the dirty minds of power hungry leaders who are collaborating the sunset of all things good in India. With ALL political parties unopposed to reservations, with our economist prime minister silent/supportive of the issue, with our scientist president appealing Medical students to call off their strike – it appears to be death bed of all hope of India rising, of India actually shining. If such qualified people were not at the helm of affairs in our Parliament, there would have been a potential to blame. It is precisely the inability of good, qualified people to fight the murkiness of vote-bank politics that is seeing the death of meritocracy in India. The implementation of 50% reservation for the elite "OBC – other backward classes" section of Indian students in India’s premier educational institutions, while leaving deserving students from other sections to scramble for seats has the danger of: – Bringing down the quality of education and hence the name of these instituitions – Furthering the caste divide in India – Power hungry politicians dividing and ruling the masses – … Mourn…its time for condolences…for hope for a better India lies in the death-bed, betrayed by its best "Et tu Manmohan, then fall India"!

    On reservation

    Even since there has been renewed talk of increased reservation for other backward classes in premier Indian educational institutions, there has been an intense debate going on. In my view, it is hardly a matter of debate – just a matter of populist measures trying to cure the symptoms rather than the disease, and garner more votes in the process. On the one hand, India is slowly but surely finding its rightful place in top league, with its economy doing well and people in general being able to afford more. This should be a catalyst for the political spectrum to try and change old mindsets – to make people take more responsibility for their lives and their country – and get away with the ‘chalta hai’ attitude. But no, the very man who has inititated economic reforms in India heads an executive that now wants to turn our educational institutions into symbols of mediocrity where you are judged not based on your merit but the surname that goes behind your name. If affirmative action is required to pull people along, provide them free training/coaching – help them to compete, instead of turning them into second-class citizens with a carrot of special privileges. Continue reading for a counter-argument as to why reservation should be supported (expressed by somebody in a Rediff message board):

    "I think we should have job reservations in all the fields. I completely support the PM and all the politicians for promoting this. Let’s start the reservation with our cricket team. We should have 10 percent reservation for Muslims. 30 percent for OBC, SC/ST like that. Cricket rules should be modified accordingly. The boundary circle should be reduced for an SC/ST player. The four hit by an OBC player should be considered as a six and a six hit by a OBC player should be counted as 8 runs. An OBC player scoring 60 runs should be declared as a century. We should influence ICC and make rules so that the pace bowlers like Shoaib Akhtar should not bowl fast balls to our OBC player. Bowlers should bowl maximum speed of 80 kilometer per hour to an OBC player. Any delivery above this speed should be made illegal. Also we should have reservation in Olympics. In the 100 meters race, an OBC player should be given a gold medal if he runs 80 meters."

    I’m sure most of us would agree on these recommendations for reservations ;-) The only ‘reservation’ I have is that the list could have been longer!

    Mahabir dadaji?€™s passing

    Mahabir dadaji, my grandfather’s brother died last night – 12 Mar 2006. He was perhaps nearing 90. I remember sometime after Ajay daju’s wedding when he was quite serious and we had gone to meet him. That was in 2001. He lived a full 5 years after that. My own grandfather had died 24 years ago when I was in L.K.G. in TNA and incidently, Mahabir dadaji’s youngest son came to pick us from school, telling us that we were to go for a movie or picnic. On another March evening in 1986, 20 years ago, I had lost my grandmother. Mahabir dadaji was the last among the 4 sons of my great-grandfather Brijlal Kandoi to go. When I called to express my condolences, I was told, "Haan, shareer pooro ho gayo" (which was a strange sentence to hear, but which implied something like his body had reached its limit). He had apparently fallen down and was unable to sleep well, and not keeping too well for a while. He was there for my wedding as well. The last interaction I had with him was during my trip to India in Dec 2005 when he was sitting in front of our house and Ma had asked me to pass a glass of tea to him. When I was part of a discussion in his house a couple of years ago, I’d realised that he knew a lot about my family history, and how my great-grandfather and his brothers arrived and settled in Sikkim sometime around 1902. I had thought it would be great to document his thoughts and knowledge. Another episode I remember was when his wife, and my father’s aunt died. That was many years ago too, perhaps late 1980s. There was a big crowd of onlookers gathered near the stairs leading to his house (as normally happens in a small town like Gangtok whenever something happens anywhere). I was somewhere in that crowd. Incidently, Mahabir dadaji was around there too. Then, some passer by remarked, "Ko maryo ho?" (an off-the hand remark in Nepali, meaning "Who died?"). Mahabir dadaji replied, "Mero jaan theyo" ("she was my wife" – the Nepali word ‘jaan’ is a perhaps a slang for wife, but which literally means ‘life’ – so the meaning can be construed as ‘she was my life’). This brings me to another issue – the life of old people when they lose a spouse. The sons and daughters are married by then and busy with their careers and families. Two people who have gotten old are in-sync with each other and often out-of-sync with the ways of the changing world (of which their children are a part). I remember how Archana’s grandfather cried before us when we visited them in Darjeeling, saying he’s scared for his wife (who is bed-ridden after a stroke), if something were to happen to him. He said its alright if she (his wife) goes first, but he’s scared of he being the first one to leave. When Singapore’s first foreign minister and one of its founding father, Mr. S. Rajarathnam died last month, Singapore President S.R. Nathan was quoted as saying how Raja never quite recovered since he lost his wife in 1989. A newspaper report said how when his memory started failing, he used to put notes on his wife’s photo to remind himself of undying love. Strange, scary, insecure…a lot of people go through all kinds of thoughts and phases…valiantly dealing with life to the best of their abilities…and as Reza said to me on the phone, after he was back burying his grandmother, who died last December, "Everybody goes bhaai! Everybody has to go one day!"