Book Review: Calling Sehmat

Book: Calling Sehmat by Harinder S. Sikka

Calling Sehmet
Calling Sehmat

In 1971, as the tensions between India and Pakistan were rising, the college girl Sehmat Khan agrees to marry a Pakistani Army officer to spy for India. It was a career chosen out of necessity, but she ends up being so good at it that she saved INS Vikrant from destruction. This is not fiction, but the story of a real life patriotic Indian, whose life was so extraordinary, that you would think it’s all made up. As she goes through her journey from a simple college girl to a spy who lived with the sole purpose of safeguarding India, you will find yourself in awe. She was the most beautiful Indian spy who single-handedly ravaged Pakistan’s security system.

The best part of the book is that it gives a well rounded portrayal of Sehmat as she goes through various phases of her life. A quarter of the book is about her college life which shows initial glimpses of her determination and passion. She got selected for a dance competition in which she was to portray Meerabai. She had seen her mother pray to Meerabai and for being the character, she spent hours in the college library, reading all about her. She danced with such intensity and absorption that she did not notice that her legs were bleeding.

Her transformation from college girl to a spy was to honor the wishes of her dying father who had instilled patriotism in her. Her philosophy was “there is no greater reward than to live and die for your country”, a lesson she got from her father. He had told her that there is nothing more disgraceful than being disloyal to the motherland. As a businessman who traveled across the border, he was instrumental in setting up a spy network in Pakistan.

Then you see another Sehmat, who sacrifices her college lover and moves to Pakistan. Her down to earth demeanor and good intentions earn her the trust of her immediate family, her father-in-law and her husband. It was due to her cleverness that they got promoted in their jobs and had career advances. It was during one scan of her father-in-laws office that she found the files which suggested that Pakistani submarines were targeting INS Vikrant.

Living behind enemy lines is not easy. The intelligence gathering techniques of 1971 could not be done remotely; it required acts of courage. The intricacies of these techniques and dangers it entails are covered well. There were many times she could have been exposed and she triumphs over those circumstances with her quick thinking. She even miraculously escaped including a bomb attack. She was a person who planned two steps ahead all the time and that saved her.

Eventually when she settled back in India, the pictures on her house demonstrated her beliefs. Her house had pictures of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru, Ram Prasad Bismil and Khudiram Bose. In her private space she worshipped Allah, Ganesha, Krishna, Jesus and Wahe Guru. She was fascinated by Meerabai’s hymns.

I finished the book only because it’s inspiring to read about such unknown heroes. The book explores her fortitude and unwavering loyalty to India during a time of war. The initial part of the book about Sehmat’s simple life, her marriage and her activities in Pakistan are paced very well. The writing itself is really plain and starts meandering towards the end. It could have used multiple rewrites with a good editor.. I am not even sure why one chapter of a failed Indian navy attack was described. That would have been better in an appendix or could be the matter for another book.

Despite all the courageous self-assurance displayed by Sehmat during her mission, her life ends in tragedy. Well almost. Memories of the ruthless things she had to do haunt her. Since her life in Pakistan was messy, chaotic and non-formulaic, she ends up suffering from depression. The book describes her encounter with a fakir who gave her spiritual lessons from various scriptures including the Upanishads to get her out of her gloom. In turn she was attacked by Muslim fundamentalists in her area and it required an intervention from RAW.

Her life was about love; to her country, to her parents and to her college mate. There is also a movie based on the book, but it leaves out multiple dimensions of Sehmat. As always, the book is better.

Book Review: Breath by James Nestor

Breath

A long time back, in the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, some people had mastered the secrets of breathing, says James Nestor in his book Breath. The evidence is the meditating man seal or what we call the Shiva seal. It is from here that the wisdom spread to the world. The Indus-Sarasvati people discovered that breathing with different patterns — really fast, very slow, or holding breath — can cure diseases without medicines, influence body weight, and affect overall health. By influencing the nervous system and controlling the immune response, these breathing patterns can help a person live longer and healthier.

While the Yoga Sutras are well known, there are other ancient texts as well.

Thirteen hundred years ago, an ancient Tantric text, the Shiva Swarodaya, described how one nostril will open to let breath in as the other will softly close throughout the day. Some days, the right nostril yawns awake to greet the sun; other days, the left awakens to the fullness of the moon. According to the text, these rhythms are the same throughout every month, and they’re shared by all humanity. It’s a method our bodies use to stay balanced and grounded to the rhythms of the cosmos, and each other

This knowledge then surfaced worldwide, like Japan, Africa, Hawaii, and Native America. They developed breathing techniques and benefitted from the calming effects.

Two things make the book interesting. The first is when the author acts as a human guinea pig, trying out various techniques with breathing experts worldwide. These are not yogic techniques, but activities like Holotropic breathing or the Wim Hoff method or taking a carbon dioxide shot.

The other is when he explains what happens inside our body when you do these practices. Breathing is more than just the physical act. Medically it’s known that breath affects every single internal organ affecting heart rate, digestion, and moods. Deep breathing influences the parasympathetic nerves, which signals the organs to rest.

Often you see remarks like what’s there to learn about breathing, after all, it’s just inhaling and exhaling. The modern age has caused us to pay little attention to breathing. This has resulted in diseases like asthma, anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Another aspect is that as we age, the lung capacity decreases, leading to high blood pressure and immune disorders.

The book acknowledges India as the source of all this knowledge. All the techniques the author tried, he says, comes from ancient Indian texts. The ancients people who did these experiments with breathing and discovered the possible miracles knew that breathing was not just inhaling and exhaling. They knew how to manipulate body functions by controlling their breath. They obviously knew a lot more than what Western science knows, like how the prana can control the mind.

When Buddhist monks chant their most popular mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, each spoken phrase lasts six seconds, with six seconds to inhale before the chant starts again. The traditional chant of Om, the “sacred sound of the universe” used in Jainism and other traditions, takes six seconds to sing, with a pause of about six seconds to inhale. The sa ta na ma chant, one of the best-known techniques in Kundalini yoga, also takes six seconds to vocalize, followed by six seconds to inhale. Then there were the ancient Hindu hand and tongue poses called mudras. A technique called khechari, intended to help boost physical and spiritual health and overcome disease, involves placing the tongue above the soft palate so that it’s pointed toward the nasal cavity. The deep, slow breaths taken during this khechari each take six seconds.

There are a couple of issues with the book. While the book mentions Indus-Sarasvati civilization by that name, it also mentions the Aryan Invasion Theory. It has a fascinating twist – the Aryans came from Iran and not Russia. Second, the author gives credit to Indians for discovering the secrets of breathing, but to talk to a yogi, he goes to Brazil. Why not go to the land where it started and where it’s a living, breathing tradition.

If you were one of those skeptical about yoga and pranayama, this book would change the way you think about breathing. By combing ancient wisdom with scientific evidence and first-hand experience, the book distills the knowledge in an easy-to-read narrative. In the end, it advocates breathing slow and less through the nose as it sends the maximum amount of oxygen to the maximum amount of tissues.

Swami Vivekananda wrote that the breath is the fly-wheel of the body. In a big machine, the fly-wheel is set in motion first. That motion is conveyed to finer machinery until the delicate and finest machinery is in motion. “The yogi’s life is not measured by the number of his days, but the number of his breaths,” wrote B. K. S. Iyengar. The fact that a sick child would live to the age of 95 is proof of the book’s secrets.

Nehru’s Tibetan Blunder

Map of Tibet from FreeTibet.org (Fair Use)

(Cross posted at Dharma Dispatch)

On August 20, 1950 Chou En-Lai was of the opinion that the liberation of Tibet was a sacred Chinese duty, but that would be done only via negotiations. On October 7, 1950, the Chinese attack on Tibet started. As Chou En-Lai was filling sand in hourglass in which the Tibetans were trapped, on October 21, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to Chou En-Lai emphasizing the need for a peaceful settlement of the Sino-Tibetan problem. It was not because Nehru was concerned about Tibet but because it would be detrimental to China’s admission to the UN Security Council. The letter emphasized that the timing was bad:

“In Tibet there is not likely to be any serious military opposition, and any delay in settling the matter will, therefore, not affect Chinese interests or a suitable final settlement. The Government of India’s interest in the matter is only to see that the admission of the Peoples’ Government to the United Nations is not again postponed due to causes which could be avoided.”

This is from the great man who gave speeches like “It is not right for any country to talk about sovereignty or suzerainty over any area outside its own range… The last voice in regard to Tibet should be the voice of the people of Tibet and of nobody else.” Nehru’s pompousness as well as cowardice was known to Gandhi, who once observed, “Jawaharlal is extreme in the presentation of his methods, but he is sober in action. So far as I know, he will not precipitate a conflict.”

There were two reasons why Nehru should have recognized an independent Tibet. First, it was the morally right thing to do. Except for a short period in history, Tibet was never under Chinese rule. For the past two centuries it was under a vague relation and even then the Chinese did not have a viceroy at Lhasa. In 1912, the agent known as Amban was driven out and since then there was no Chinese control. The fact that there was nothing in common between Tibet and Hans — in culture, religion, language and script —- was known even to Nehru. Tibetans had their own coins and currency, their own postal system and army. From 1912, there was nothing resembling China in Tibet. Even the passports issued by Tibet in 1948 were recognized by other countries. In a book written by Nehru (Glimpses of World History), he showed an independent Tibet, lying outside the Chinese empire.

Second, it was important for India’s security and many Indians recognized it. On March, 17, 1950, a member from Assam said in the Parliament said, “there should be no loose ends in our relations with the Tibetans…with the success of the Communists and also the likelihood of Tibet being swallowed up, there is great danger and apprehension of complications arising in the near future… something has to be done to strengthen our relations with the Tibetan authorities in this area”.

Buddhist Monk (Peter Hershey, Unsplash)
Buddhist Monk (Peter Hershey, Unsplash)

Even the British recognized the strategic significance. According to General Tucker from British Army, Tibetan plateau was a good airfield to cover eastern India and for the airborne assault and occupation of U.P, Bihar and Bengal. Thus it was in India’s strategic interest to prevent the military occupation of the Tibetan plateau.

This was not the first time Nehru messed up with Tibet. On October 16, 1947, the Tibetans sent a telegram to New Delhi asking for the return of certain territories. There was no response. At that time the Tibetan border with India, Nepal and Burma were not properly delineated. Nehru could have rejected this territorial claim and instead recognized Tibet as independent. If he had done that, Britain, USA and maybe even the USSR would have recognized it. Instead the great anti-imperialist kicked the can down the road.

Why did Nehru sacrifice Tibet? The simple answer was given by Gandhi. Another reason is that Nehru was scared of China. He was an admirer too. The First Asian Relations Conference was held in New Delhi in March 1947 and Tibet was one of the 28 delegates invited by Nehru. When the Chinese protested at the invitation, their status was reduced to that of a representative. The boundary line on the big map of Asia dividing Tibet from China was at the same time erased. During the conference Nehru declared that he was not going to offend China by recognizing Tibet. A few months after Indian independence, the Tibetans sent a delegation to persuade Nehru to recognize Tibetan independence. Nehru refused.

Potala Palace, Tibet

When China attacked Tibet in 1950, Nehru forgot about all his anti-imperialistic speeches. Krishna Menon too argued that there was no historical background for Tibet’s independence. When the Tibetan invasion took place, Prime Minister, Nehru, told the country that a backward feudal country like Tibet could not remain isolated from the world and that it was not an independent country. What was leadership, after all, but the blind choice of one route over another and the confident pretense that the decision was based on reason?

When Chinese troops advanced to Tibet, Lhasa wanted to appeal to the United Nations. Since it was not a member of the United Nations, it asked India for support. India did the typical panchayat officer maneuver and asked Lhasa to talk directly to the UN. Meanwhile Nehru’s sister had already declared that India would not change it’s attitude of neutrality, despite the invasion. The country which had the courage to sponsor Lhasa was El Salvador. India, meanwhile, influenced Britain and made sure that this issue did not pop up in the General Assembly. Like how Chamberlain sacrificed Czechoslovakia, Nehru sacrificed Tibet.

After messing up the Kashmir issue, Nehru was looking for a larger opportunity to mess up. The opportunity to be a better fiddler than Nero and a better windmill chaser than Don Quixote came up soon. The secular liberal god requires human sacrifice and the Tibetans were sacrificed in it’s altar. This vertiginous enigma of blunder and stupidity will baffle any sane person, but Nehru was not done yet. Sometimes it’s darkest before it’s … pitch black. In 1954 the Panchasheel was signed and India recognized the end of Tibet’s autonomy.

This crime was hidden with myths. The Tibetans have forgotten who looked away while they were being attacked. The one redeeming act in the whole episode was granting asylum to a young Dalai Lama. We should not let that one act whitewash the historical crime of letting a culture be purged.

(Adapted from Six Thousand Days: Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister by Amiya Rao and B.G. Rao)

Turmeric Gets Popular in the West

Peets ad for Turmeric Coffee
Peets ad for Turmeric Coffee

That was an Ad from Peet’s Coffee. Who would have thought about adding turmeric to coffee? But looks like that is a thing now.
Costco, a popular wholesale store, too is touting the benefits of turmeric in their magazine. After mentioning that it has been used in India for at least 6000 years as medicine, culinary aid, beauty aid and fabric dye, the article invokes the God of Science (as a friend says). Approval from this God is mandatory for the Western world. Science has reported that turmeric can assist in the treatment of cancer, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcertative colitis and renal conditions. There is mention of Ayurveda and the observation that golden milk (milk mixed with turmeric) is getting popular in United States.
Mention of Turmeric in Costco Connection
Mention of Turmeric in Costco Connection

A recent study also found that curcumin, found in turmeric, is anti-inflammatory with antioxidant properties. It has the ability to reduce brain inflammation, which has been linked to both Alzheimer’s disease and major depression. This is probably why senior citizens in India have lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease and better memory than their counterparts elsewhere.
Next time you order a latte, sprinkle some turmeric or you can buy the Feel Good Organic Turmeric Powder, 16 Ounces for a reasonable price from Costco.

The Self-Validating, Self-Sustaining Transcendental System

The best way of knowing something is through direct experience. You watch a beautiful sunrise and you feel joy. There is nothing here that deludes the senses. Another way is through inference. Observing that there is a distortion caused by some invisible object in space, astronomers infer that there is a black hole nearby. Though this is not direct perception, this seems like a perfectly rational way.
There is another way of knowing which is experiential. For example, yogis perceive certain truths by going beyond the mind. They profoundly alter their consciousness and experience heightened levels of insights. They experience knowledge beyond the senses and we consider them sacred. Raja Yoga has detailed descriptions of these experiences. The biographies of Sri M (See Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master) or Paramahamsa Yogananda contain experiences which would be considered blasphemy in dogmatic traditions.
This also gives an opportunity for charlatans to claim the same experience. Since it is the experience of one person, how can one validate it? Usually, when two of our perceptions do not contradict, that is proof enough, but here are talking about experiences beyond ordinary perceptions.
Rather than depending on a central authority, these systems are self-validating. There are few simple rules which can help to figure out if the person is making up things or if this is really a sacred experience. These are simple rules which long living civilizations can hold in their memory.
They are

  1. It should not contradict past knowledge in that tradition
  2. It must be true knowledge by someone who has transcended the senses.
  3. It depends on the character of the man
  4. This experience must be verifiable.
  5. He should not be selling this knowledge

In science, if a mass murderer like Stalin, makes a discovery, it is acceptable. That is not acceptable in dharmic traditions. The person has to be sattvic, following a well-established path (See No one does yoga anymore)
If someone says, this is an experience that only I can have and that the rest of us have to trust that, it has to be rejected. In scientific traditions, anyone should be able to have those experiences, provided they follow the right path.
Once we understand this, it is easy to figure out why there is so much hatred towards a decentralized, self-validating and self-sustaining tradition which has sustained for millennia. The fact that anyone can be divine goes against the only-one-divine-person-and-trust-him dogma. Belief in this dogma causes them to destroy anyone who does not believe so. (All in the name of “religious freedom”). Once you become a dogmatic prisoner of science too, you shut yourself from these possibilities by restricting yourself to what is directly perceived and inferred. Our mind and body are capable of much more.
Reference: Patanjali Yoga-Sutra by Swami Vivekananda (Kindle Edition – India, US)

Neuroplasticity of Vedic Pandits

Panjal athirathram by Asokan. R Raman (flickr)
Panjal athirathram by Asokan. R Raman (flickr)

It is not easy to be a Vedic Pandit.

Professional Vedic Pandits undergo rigorous training in exact pronunciation and invariant content of these oral texts for 7 or more years, with 8–10 h of daily practice (totaling ~10,080 h over the course of the initial training), starting in their childhood, and mastering multiple 40,000 to 100,000 word oral texts (compared to ~ 38,000 in the book of Genesis). The training methods strongly emphasize traditional face- to-face oral learning, and the Yajurveda recitation practice includes right hand and arm gestures to mark prosodic elements.

There are special exercises to ensure that the Vedas are chanted without mistakes. Now a new study shows that such intensive study changes the brain both in the white matter and gray matter. Extensive memorization and verbal recital practice resulted in the following changes

We found massive gray matter density and cortical thickness increases in Pandit brains in language, memory and visual systems, including i) bilateral lateral temporal cortices and ii) the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus, regions associated with long and short-term memory. Differences in hippocampal morphometry matched those previously documented for expert spatial navigators and individuals with good verbal working memory. The findings provide unique insight into the brain organization implementing formalized oral knowledge systems.

There are few other interesting points from the paper

  1. The Pandits were highly competent in Sanskrit. They memorized large volumes of Sanskrit text and understood its complex morphology. They were multi-lingual as well. That was a contributing factor for the increased gray matter density.
  2. Another reason was the way of learning, using gestures and articulation. The result of using hand and arm movement could be seen in the brain. Indian classical  music students too use that extensively, especially hand movements.

Sharon Begley has written about the effect mindfulness has on the brain. The brain has the ability to grow new neurons and rewire itself. Now for those who wonder if learning a “dead” or communal language like Sanskrit is worth it, read the paper.
Reference:

  1. Hartzell, J.F., et al., Brains of verbal memory specialists show anatomical differences in language, memory and visual systems, NeuroImage (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.07.027