Book Review: Breath by James Nestor


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.

Upanishad Notes: How Advaita refutes Samkhya

6 darshanas in sanatana dharma

Though the six darshanas in Hinduism disagreed with each other, no one was excommunicated, put in house arrest, or burned at the stake. Instead, proponents of these darshanas would fight virulently but verbally. They would study the opponent’s position, debate and refute it. Let’s look at an example when an Advaitin refuted Samkhya 1300 years back.

If you observe our world, you will see creation and destruction happening. From the seed appears a tree. At some point, the tree dies but creating new seeds before that. Animals are born from few cells, and they die, but they create new animals as well. Mountains are formed from the earth and later they become part of the earth. Observing this pattern of cause and effect, a few millennia back, Kapila proposed the system of Samkhya.

Samkhya is one of the oldest darshanas with its main premise being the concept of pre-existence and transformation. For example, a tree comes from a seed, and thus you can say that the tree pre-existed in the seed. The effect (tree) pre-existed in the cause( seed) in an unmanifest form. With the birth of the tree, the cause transformed into the effect with a new name and properties similar to curd manifesting from milk. All the colors that later appear on the plumes of a peacock, pre-existed in the egg of the peahen. Extrapolating this, we can say that the entire universe pre-existed in cause from which it manifested.

The tree or curd are not something new coming into existence, but a change in the seed or milk. In Samkhya, each one of us, the Purusha, came from Prakriti. Prakriti is eternal unborn and undying. The Purusha which was unmanifest manifests with separate pure consciousness with a difference.

Compared to Samkhya, the Advaita advocated by Gaudapada (Adi Shankara’s guru’s guru) is quite radical. According to him, the entire experience we have is a projection. Think of a movie screen showing Uri: A surgical strike. In the movie, there is cause and effect and karma, but the screen is unaffected by the movie. Today it could be Uri, tomorrow it could be Bahubali. Now think of your dream world. You manifest a brand new world during sleep and this world disappears when you wake up. Gaudapada argues that even your waking world is similar to the dream world – a projection of the ultimate reality — Brahman.

In this darshana, there is no unmanifest manifesting. It is not like Brahman is the cause and the universe is the effect. Instead, think of it this way. You see a snake on the road, but on closer examination, you find that it was a rope. You see some water in the desert, but on closer examination, you find that it was a mirage. The assumed reality is found to be an error. Similarly, the world is a projection that we take to be real.

If everything is a projection, then what is real? Think of a necklace and a ring which are two separate things, both made of gold. The gold does not disappear when the necklace appears like how the seed disappears when the tree appears. Instead, the necklace is just a name and form imposed on the gold. Nothing new is born.

To show the superiority of Advaita, Gaudapada uses two techniques to refute Samkhya. The first one is a logical argument and the second one, a technical one.

According to Samkhya, the cause is transformed into effect. Prakriti is eternal and is neither born nor destroyed. The effect, Purusha (think humans), is born and dies. If the effect is created from an unborn, immortal cause, then the effect should also be unborn and immortal. Instead, the final fate of every Purusha is a foregone conclusion. From planets to stars, solar systems to galaxies, black holes to swirling nebulae, amoeba to homo sapiens, nothing is everlasting. According to Gaudapada, the immortal Prakriti transforming into a mortal Purusha is illogical.

The second refutation is done using nyāya. In nyāya, the logic has to be illustrated with an example. According to Samkhya, there is a cause and an effect. Gaudapada argues that if Samkhyans say that Purusha came from Prakriti, one can ask where the Prakriti itself came from? If that Prakriti came from another cause, it can go backward endlessly (recursion without a terminating condition or anavastha dosha). Or if you argue that Prakriti is a causeless cause, he says that won’t work as well, as there is no udāhārana of a causeless cause. See this article for more details.

Even though these debates happened and victories were claimed, none of these darshanas disappeared. Samkhyans never were forced to accept Advaita as supreme. No committee met and decided what is kosher and what is not. No one was declared as a heretic and excommunicated. Just open the Gita and check the name of the second chapter.


Upanishad Notes: Difference between Greek logic and Nyāya

A simplified example of Greek logic is as follows

  • All men die
  • Socrates is a man
  • Socrates will die

Compared to this, Hindu Nyāya has some additional steps. The most common example used is that of the fire in the mountain. The steps are as follows

QuestionNyāya statementNyāya term
StatementThere is fire in the hillPratijñā
WhyThere is smokeHetu
So what?If there is smoke, there is fire, like in the kitchenUdāhārana
And?There is smoke in the hillUpanaya
So?Hence there is fire in the hillNigamana

One important step in Nyāya is udāhārana and just because one could not be provided an entire darshana can be refuted. An example of that would be Gaudapada (Adi Shankara’s teacher’s teacher) refuting Samkhya.

According to Samkya, the effect pre-exists in the cause, similar to how a tree pre-exists in the seed. Like how the tree is born from the seed, purusha manifests from prakriti. Gaudapada disagrees with this and among the many tactics he deploys to refute Samkhya, one of them is the lack of udāhārana.

He argues that if Samkhyans say that purusha came from prakriti, one can ask where the prakriti itself came from? If that prakriti came from another cause, it can go backward endlessly (recursion without a terminating condition or anavastha dosha). Or if you argue that prakriti is a causeless cause, he says that won’t work as well, as there is no udāhārana of a causeless cause.


अजाद्वै जायते यस्य दृष्टान्तस्तस्य नास्ति वै ।
जाताच्च जायामानस्य न व्यवस्था प्रसज्यते ॥ १३ ॥

There is no illustration to support the view of him who says that the effect is born from the unborn cause. Again, if it be said that the effect is produced from a cause which is itself born then it leads to a regressus ad infinitum.

Nehru’s Tibetan Blunder

Map of Tibet from (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)

Malegaon 1921 – a precursor to the Moplah Riots

Photo by Ishant Mishra on Unsplash

On March 15th, 1920, a Khilafat committee was formed in Malegaon to conduct lectures and religious sermons. Nine months later, one of the Khilafat leaders, Shaukat Ali, visited Malegaon and political activities got a religious boost. A month later, Khilafat proponents, who supported Gandhi’s non-violent, non-cooperation movement turned violent and the poor residents of Malegaon were the targets of their anger. This is an intriguing story of a Mahatma, who signed a pact with a bunch of pan-Islamists with disastrous consequences for the weavers of Malegaon and eventually the Hindus of Malabar.

Khilafat 101

There were two Muslim schools in Malegaon — Beitujullum and Anjuman — which received grants from the Government. The Khilafat members, who at that point in time were supporters of Gandhi’s non-violence and non-cooperation decided not to take the aid in reaction to the events in Turkey following World War I

The Last Caliph Halife Abdülmecid Efendi

At the end of World War I, Turkey ended up on the losing side and was carved by the victors. Some Muslims considered the Turkish Sultan as their Caliph and were distressed at his future as well as the future of the Muslim holy sites. Muslims living in Britain petitioned their government to let Turkey have only Turkish majority regions, but let the others like Armenians and Arabs have their freedom. Indian Muslims had a bigger ask. Though Turkey lost, they wanted it to be restored to pre-war status. According to them, the Armenians and Arabs could live under Turkish rule.

The supporters of this movement were Muslim League members Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali who argued for Muslim interests over Hindu interests. They were people who found issues in common with Muslims of Algeria and Tripoli instead of their own countrymen. After the Balkan wars, they changed their stance and aligned with the Hindus due to the hatred of the British government. To compound that, the brothers were arrested and jailed and that aggravated their hatred.

Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali were quite clear and unapologetic about their strategy. They told a judge that as per their religion, they were compelled to do certain acts and any law which prohibits them from doing those acts had no validity. By this, the Ali brothers were claiming that they only be judged by the Koran and nothing else. The goal of the brothers was definitely Swaraj, similar to Gandhi. But the second step of their plan was Mohammedan domination of India.

Gandhi supported this Khilafat dream of pre-war Turkey being restored. He seemed to ignore the fact that even the Turks did not want dominion over Arabia. But someone had to be more Islamic than the Caliph and that was Gandhi and his Khilafat supporters. The argument was that it was not just a Turkish question, but a question concerning all Mohammedans. So who the heck was the Caliph to make such unilateral decisions. Either Gandhi did not know this and just went along to get Muslim support for himself or he used this for channeling Mohammedan anger against the government.

There was another dynamic at play as well. When Gandhi returned to India from South Africa, he quickly rose to prominence in the nation. Gandhi promised support for the Khilafat in exchange for the support of the Ali brothers and the Muslims of India for his non-cooperation movement. This Muslim support helped him be a national leader in just four years.

In 1921, the Khilafat Conference, with Ali brothers as the moving force, passed a resolution to declare Independence. In the speeches at the Conference it was declared that Islam was opposed to non-violence, but had to go along with it, so that they could get Swaraj. Gandhi had promised the Khilafat supporters Swaraj by 1921 and hence it was a temporary move just for a year.

Malegaon 1921

Coming back to Malegaon, the boycott of Government funds created a problem. If the schools had to survive without Government aid, then money had to be raised. The Khilafat committee proposed the idea of a “paisa” fund. Every person selling a sari — every weaver in Malegaon — was to pay quarter of an anna to the fund. Anyone who objected to this were persecuted.

The first step in persecution was commercial boycott. The paisa committee called a public meeting on 27th February, where this decision was announced. Matters did not end there; the commercial boycott was enforced by picketing their shops. Businesses which did not co-operate faced hostility and were halted. Seeing how this issue was going to get out of hand, the Sub-Divisional Officer called a meeting on March 13th to discuss the issue of enforced collection. One of the suggestions was to put collection boxes. The leaders of the fund collection were asked to issue statements supporting non-violence of Gandhi.

No agreement was reached and at the same time lectures and religious sermons, raised the feelings of hostility. This was aggravated by the fact that some of these Khilafat volunteers were roaming around carrying swords and cudgels. The District Magistrate, sensing a law and order disaster in the making banned the carrying of weapons on March 30th.

On April 1, the non-violence agreement was published. Just three days later, one of the signatories publicly apologized for having signed it and he was pardoned. The boycott of the shops continued as usual, but this time a case was registered against the violators. With the establishment cranking up the heat, more provocations started. On 24th April, a speech was given by a leading Mohammedan with the ominous words, “May god give the volunteers the strength to promote their religion”

The next day, the case came up before the magistrate. Six volunteers were fined Rs. 50 or 4 weeks in prison. Obviously the fines were not paid, but served as the the adhan for violence. The mob that had collected shouted “Allah-ho-Akbar”. They assaulted all the police found in Malegaon. They killed the Sub-Inspector of Police, burned a temple, and looted the houses of all the people who were opposed to the fund. The rest fled to save their lives. This was the non-violence of the Khilafat.

The disaster called Khilafat movement is downplayed in our history books. It did not turn out well for Gandhi. The Ali brothers, whom he supported, publicly humiliated him. Mohamed Ali even said that a Muslim thief was better than Gandhi, simply because of the thief’s faith in Islam. Originally intended to be a show case of Hindu Muslim unity, it turned out to be something else. It resulted in the massacre of Hindus all over India, especially in Kerala.


  1. Fazal, D. Abul. “THE LEADERSHIP CRISIS IN THE CONGRESS: MUSLIMS AND THE RISE OF GANDHI.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 62, 2001, pp. 456–462.,
  2. History of the Freedom movement in India, R. C. Majumdar
  3. Gandhi and Anarchy by Sir C. Sankaran Nair
  4. Gandhi, Khilafat and the Partition, N. S. Rajaram

The Origin of Onam

Boat Race for Onam via WikiCommons

The popular narrative of Onam goes like this. There used to be a king who ruled Kerala called Mahabali. During his time — according to a popular saying in Malayalam — there was unity among people, who were honest and all around prosperity. Consumed by jealousy, Indra approached Vishnu and requested him to remove Mahabali. Vishnu took the Vamana avatar and asked Mahabali for three feet of land.

The charitable king agreed and Vamana, who was a little boy, grew to a gigantic form. With his one feet, he measured the earth. With the next he measured the entire universe. Mahabali realized who he was dealing with and offered his head for the third foot of land. Vamana placed his foot on the king’s head and pushed him to paataal. Before leaving, the king asked for one boon, — to visit his people once a year — which was granted. Onam is the time when Mahabali visits Malayalis

By Raja Ravi Varma

If you hear this version, Mahabali is a martyr and Vishnu is a villain. Why on earth would Vishnu take an avatar to get rid of someone who had all the noble values? Now you can add the liberal, subaltern flavor to this. Vamana being the avatar of Vishnu was a savarna, who pushed a dalit down. This of course is a perfect example of brahminical patriarchy. There is even an Aryan Invasion version of Onam. Something seems to be incorrect here.

What is the truth as per our scriptures though? In fact, Parikshit had the same question and he asked it to Shukracharya. To know the truth behind this literary conceit, you just need to read Bhagavatam.

Let’s look at the sequence of avatars. In the list Vamana comes after Parasurama. This may not be a well know fact outside Kerala, but Parasurama is credited with the creation of Kerala. It is said that when he threw his axe and land arose from the sea. So if the Mahabali event happened earlier with an earlier avatar, then he obviously was not in the land we call Kerala.

For the next point, we need to go into the details of devas and asuras. The devas and asuras are children born of the same father. Kashyapa Prajapati had children with his wife Aditi and Diti. Though they were born of the same father, the children had different natures. The children of Aditi had more sattva in them, while the the children of Diti turned out to be asuras.

We all know the story of Prahlad who was the son of the erasure king Hiranyakashipu. Prahlad had a son named Virochana and Mahabali was his son. During his youth, Bali went for a war with Indra and lost his life, but the Asura guru Shukracharya revived him back to life. Shukracharya wanted his disciples to vanquish the devas. Bali wanted his revenge.

Onam Feast By Rohan S on Flickr

This was a time when Vishnu stood back. He had noticed the arrogance of the devas and wanted to teach them a lesson. Shukracharya had noticed this as well. That was the opportune moment for him. When the forces of Shukracharya and Bali were combined, the asura strength increased. Bali attacked Indra and defeated him. Bali then following Shukracharya’s instructions, ruled the devaloka as well.

Even when he was without a throne and was wandering around, Indra did not approach Vishnu and ask for his help in making Bali disappear. Who approached Vishnu and triggered the Vamana avatar?

That was Aditi. Seeing the sad state of her son, she approached her husband Kashyapa, who advised her to perform a vrata. Pleased with her vrata, Vishnu appeared before her. Aditi explained the homelessness of her son and pleaded with him to do something. Seeing her hard austerities and heart felt plea, Vishnu promised to find a solution.

Thus on a shravan month, on the Abhijit muhurta, Vamana was born. Mahabali was performing a yaga on the banks of river Narmada (not in Kerala), when Vamana appeared there. On asking why the child came there, Vamana said that he came for a dana of three feet of land. Hearing this, Bali ridiculed him, but Vamana did not change his request. Shukracharya, immediately realized who the boy was and asked Bali to withdraw his pledge to fulfill the request. When Shukracharya told him who the boy was, Bali realized that he was the same person who protected his grand father Prahlad.

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. Prahlad had advised Bali to rule based on dharma, but with his typical arrogance he responded back that he was not afraid of anyone. Prahlad warned him that one day Maha Vishnu would kill him, but Bali told him that the rakshasas were powerful than Vishnu. Even a person like Prahlad could not take this mindless self-righteous posturing anymore. He cursed his grandson that he would lose his kingdom and all his prosperity. When Bali asked for forgiveness, Prahlad asked him to take refuge in Vishnu.

Snobbishness can sometimes be entertaining, other times, it can destroy your life. When Shukracharya found that Vamana was not listening to him, he cursed the king as well. This guru-sapam, sealed his fate. The king went and washed Vamana’s feet in preparation for his dana. Seeing this some of his soldiers tried to attack Vamana. Bali stopped them. He said, the same god, who caused the destruction of the devas and helped with our victory is now doing the opposite. Please be calm. Thus Bali himself did not have an issue with what was going to happen.

When Vishnu was about to keep his feet on Bali’s head for the third boon, Prahlada also appeared there. Seeing him, Vishnu was happy. Prahlada pleaded on behalf of Bali to Vishnu. Vishnu then promised to give Bali something which was impossible for devas to attain. He blessed Bali to live in a place called suthala (made by Vishwakarma) with all the pleasures of life. Vishnu also agreed to protect Bali’s family and the boon to see the Lord whenever he wanted.

“According to Vedic texts, there are 14 worlds in the universe – seven upper worlds and seven subterranean ones. Atalam, Vitalam, Sutalam, Tala-Talam, Rasa-Talam, Maha-Talam, and Pathalam are the seven lower worlds, all of which have been described in detail in the Puranas.

Of these, Pathalam is the lowest world inhabited by Nagas, the serpent people and is said to be a dreaded place. Sutalam, on the other hand, is considered by the asuras as equivalent to or even more desirable than ‘swargaloka’.

Revisiting the Onam myth

As Bali prepared to go to suthalam, he asked Vishnu to bless him with his feet. To satisfy Bali, Maha Vishnu kept his right feet on Bali’s head and blessed him. After Bali went to suthalam, the Indra was returned to power.

The part of Bali going to suthalam instead of paatalam has been lost. Even if Bali went to suthalam, he can still come to visit his subjects once a year.

Thrikkakarayappan by Ramesh NG on Flickr

But here is an interesting bit. With the false narrative that is going on, one would think that it is only Mahabali who is celebrated and Malayalis dislike Vamana. But there is a tradition where we keep two banana leaves and two seats and serve feast on them. This is for both Maha Vishnu and Mahabali. Also, one of the traditions followed now, is the creation of a floral decoration called the pookkalam. At the center of the the pookkalam, we keep a clay pyramid called Thrikkakarayappan. Thrikkakara is one of the few temples dedicated to Vamana and keeping Thrikkakarayappan, is honoring Vamana as well.

Finally, why is the festival called Onam? It comes from the name of the month of the birth of Vamana. Shravanam -> Savanam -> Avanam -> Onam. As the name of the month moved from Sanskrit to Malayalam, this change happened.

Bhagavatam, Vishnu Puranam, Vamana Puranam, Mahabharatam, Yoga Vasishtam, and Narayaneeyam reveal the special bond between Mahabali and Maha Vishnu. The name of the festival itself comes from the birth month of Vamana. The traditions followed now also reflect this divine relation. When there was no animosity between them, why is such a narrative prevalent today? Instead of propagating that version, it is better to remember that Onam is a time when both Maha Vishnu and Mahabali come together.


  1. Speech by Swami Chidananda Puri
  2. Thiruvonam – Aitheehyavum Yadharthyangalum
  3. Revisiting the Onam myth
  4. The origin of the name Onam comes from a comment Prof. S Guptan Nair wrote in (2)

Swami Vivekananda on the Ahistoricity of Hinduism

Once Rev. Dr. John Henry Barrows (1847–1902) told Swami Vivekananda, that Christianity is the only universal religion. Swamiji considered this and responded that Vedanta and Vedanta alone can become the universal religion of man. He made the case with few arguments. One of them was as follows.

Most religions in the world in the world are tied to a founder. The theories and teaching revolve around the founder’s life. The fabric of these religions revolve around the historicity of the founder’s life. Challenge this historicity and the whole edifice crumbles. Remember the ruckus caused by Da Vinci Code which challenged the established narrative about Yeshua. Ever heard of the Gnostic Gospels?

What about Hinduism then? Swamiji says (Lectures from Colombo to Almora)

There is no man or woman who can claim to have created the Vedas. They are the embodiment of eternal principles; sages discovered them; and now and then the names of these sages are mentioned — just their names; we do not even know who or what they were. In many cases we do not know who their fathers were, and almost in every case we do not know when and where they were born. But what cared they, these sages, for their names? They were the preachers of principles, and they themselves, so far as they went, tried to become illustrations of the principles they preached.

Lectures from Colombo to Almora

A religion based on the ahistoricity of it’s founders, but having every lasting (sanatana) principles has an advantage.

Therefore if any one or more of these persons in India’s religious history, any one or more of these Incarnations, and any one or more of our prophets proved not to have been historical, it does not injure our religion at all; even then it remains firm as ever, because it is based upon principles, and not upon persons.

Lectures from Colombo to Almora

Then what about the faith in various gods that we have? Swamiji again uses the concept of Ishta and explains

Yet as I have said, our religion has ample scope for the authority and influence of persons. There is that most wonderful theory of Ishta which gives you the fullest and the freest choice possible among these great religious personalities. You may take up any one of the prophets or teachers as your guide and the object of your special adoration; you are even allowed to think that he whom you have chosen is the greatest of the prophets, greatest of all the Avatâras; there is no harm in that, but you must keep to a firm background of eternally true principles. The strange fact here is that the power of our Incarnations has been holding good with us only so far as they are illustrations of the principles in the Vedas.

Lectures from Colombo to Almora

This is a unique feature of Hinduism and in general about Indian historiography. While comparing Indian and Western history, we find that the lack of personal details. For example, we have a good idea about Plato’s lineage, how he got his name and who his siblings were while we have scarce information on where Aryabhata was born, who his parents were or who his teachers were. The Indian attitude always has been to preserve the principles as that guides us along the path. In that sense, it does not matter who said it or when they said it. If the principle is important, it will survive and will be passed down generations.

The stories in हितोपदेश (Hitopadesha – good advice), the पंचतन्त्र (Panchatantra – five principles) or the philosophical observations made in poetic form in the सुभाषित (subhashitas – “well said” ideas) – are abstracted observations with pseudonymous characters, that were likely to have been inspired from real events. The names or the specifics in the stories are far less relevant than the lessons themselves.

The Aryabhata Number System

Photo by Alex Chambers on Unsplash

In Computer Science, there are computations using binary or hexadecimal system, but for most people, the common system is the decimal system. Indian mathematicians did not restrict themselves to one system for computation. During the time of Aryabhatta, there were at least three methods of writing numbers. The most popular way of writing was using the Samskritam number system. Mathematicians like Varahamihira and Bhaskaracharya used a different system called the bhooth sankhya. Aryabhatta, though, invented his own system which was a new contribution.

In the Aryabhatta number system, the Samskritam letters from क to म carry values from 1 to 25. Letters from य to ह carry values 30, 40, 50… 80. Whenever an इ-kaara is used, the value is multiplied by 100. When an उ-kaara is used, the multiplier is 10,000, ऋ-kaara multiplies it by 1,000,000. To illustrate with example

  • च = 6
  • चि = 600
  • चु = 60,000
  • च्र = 6,000,000
  • कुचि = कु + चि = 10,000 + 600 = 10, 600

Reference: Aryabhateeya by Aryabhata (by Prof K S Sukla & Prof. K V Sarma. Commentary by Dr. N. Gopalakrishnan), Published by Indian Institute of Scientific Heritage, Thiruvananthapuram

Sanskrit Notes: Order of Words

Rudraksha by Kinshuk Sunil (flickr
Rudraksha by Kinshuk Sunil (flickr)

One of the interesting features of Sanskrit is that, in a sentence, the order of the words don’t matter. You can switch them around and the meaning remains the same.
Take for example a sentence like, Rama is going to the forest. You can’t say, “Rama going forest.” You need the “is” and “to the” to make sense of the sentence. The “is going” indicates that it is one person who is doing the action. Now, “to the forest” indicates that the forest is the object of the action.
In simple Sanskrit, you would write it like this
रामः वानमं गाच्छति
It reads, “Ramah vanam gachati”,  When you say “Ramah”, it indicates one Rama. A forest is “vana”, but in the sentence, we wrote it as “vanam”. That indicates, it is the object of Rama’s destination. The “ti” at the end of “gacchati” indicates that it is one Rama who is going (not two)”. If there were many Ramas, it would have become “gacchanti”. Thus the “is going” and “to the” are built into the words themselves.
This makes it interesting. Now you can write

  • गाच्छति रामः वानमं
  • गाच्छति वानमं रामः
  • वानमं गाच्छति रामः

All these sentences mean the same even though the order of words are switched around. Since each word has the part which maintains its relationship to the verb, the order does not matter. Due to this, in poetry, you can switch words around to fit the meter. In Hindu tradition, almost everything is written in poetry form and this made it easier for an oral society to remember anything forever.
Here is a complicated sentence
भारत ! यदा यदा धर्मस्य ग्लानिः अधर्मस्य अब्युधानं च भवति तदा अहम् आत्मानं सृजामि
Take those words and resequence them and apply the sandhi rules, and you get the following verse from chapter 4 of Gita

यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भवति भारत ।
अभ्युत्थानमधर्मस्य तदात्मानं सृजाम्यहम् ॥४-७॥

Here is an exercise. Try the “Rama is going to the forest” in your mother tongue and see how it behaves. Does it work the same in Dravidian languages and Indo-European languages? In Malayalam, it behaves exactly the same as in Sanskrit. In Hindi, it does not.

  • Based on the lectures of Varun Khanna at Chinmaya International Foundation
  • Gitapravesha by Samskrita Bharati

Lessons from Panchatantra – Artha

The evil jackal Damanaka meets the innocent bull Sañjīvaka. Indian painting, 1610.
The evil jackal Damanaka meets the innocent bull Sañjīvaka. Indian painting, 1610.

In the first book of Panchatantra, the merchant Vardhamana sets off from the city of Mahilaropya and has to abandon his bull, Sañjīvaka in the forest. This triggers a set of events involving a lion, Pingalaka, and two jackals, Karataka and Damanaka. Vardhamana considered various career paths and settled on inter-regional trade. In Panchatantra, Vardhamana is a role model, a man who had achieved great wealth due to his karma. A dharmic trader has to offer charity, donations, and construction of religious and civic amenities.
Besides becoming rich, a dharmic person has to generate additional wealth as well.

What has not been obtained should be obtained. What has been obtained, should be kept secure. What is kept secure, should be augmented and expended on the deserving. Even wealth that is protected according to the practices of the world can be suddenly lost due to various calamities. If wealth cannot be used when the occasion for it arises, then it is just as good as not having earned it. Therefore, protection, increase and use of the earned wealth should be done (Natural Enmity: Reflections on the Niti and Rasa of the Pancatantra [Book 1])

This is illustrated using the example of collyrium (anjanam or kohl) and an ant hill. When you have a dabba of collyrium, a small quantity is used daily.  Soon, the dabba becomes empty. Contrast that with the ant hill. Every day, the ant contributes a little, but over time, it becomes – well, an ant hill. The niti shastra, advocates saving money and building capital. At the same time, it advocates against hoarding because all it takes is a natural calamity to destroy it.
Natural Enmity: Reflections on the Niti and Rasa of the Pancatantra [Book 1] by Ashay Naik quotes
upārjitānām arthānāṃ tyāga eva hi rakṣaṇaṃ|
taḍāgodarasaṃsthānāṃ parīvāha ivāṃbhasāma||
[3.1] In order to protect the wealth that has been gained, one must let go of it like the outflow of water that is stagnant in a tank. Hoarded money is comparable to stagnant water – it becomes the harbinger of dregs and diseases. Like water, money should be constantly in circulation.
arthair arthā nibadhyante gajair iva mahāgajāḥ|
na hi anarthavatā śakyaṃ vāṇijyaṃ kartuṃ īhayā||
[3.2] Wealth attaches itself to wealth just as giant elephants to each other. Without outlay of capital, it is not feasible to practice commerce assiduously. Use money to make money. Wealth attracts wealth as – we have a nice ancient metaphor here – elephants attach to other elephants.
Panchatantra adds two more aspects of money management to the existing thought. Till those times, it was considered that one should acquire and protect wealth. But Panchatantra argues that one should consider the application and augmentation of wealth as well. Vanijya, cannot happen without capital investment.
In socialist India, before the economy was opened up in the early 90s, being wealthy had a bad connotation. Popular culture showcased the wealthy as people surrounded by henchmen and molls, roaring with laughter without any purpose who took special fascination to poor blind mothers. In Kerala, we took it one step further. These villains built their houses next to a pool housing hungry crocodiles, into which the hero would be dunked.
Gaining wealth is not bad. As per our tradition, it is part of one of the four purusharthas, along with dharma, kama, and moksha. The testimony to that is the graph below

The global contribution to world's GDP by major economies from 1 CE to 2003 CE according to Angus Maddison's estimates.[65] Up until the early 18th century, China and India were the two largest economies by GDP output.
The global contribution to world’s GDP by major economies from 1 CE to 2003 CE according to Angus Maddison’s estimates. Up until the early 18th century, China and India were the two largest economies by GDP output.

The graph shows the global contribution to world’s GDP by major economies from 1 CE to 2003 CE according to Angus Maddison’s estimates. Up until the early 18th century, China and India were the two largest economies by GDP output.
Once the enlightened Europeans took over, it was a disaster. This disaster was prolonged in 1947 by a family, who had no grounding in dharma. Vishnu Sharma wrote the Panchatantra to educate the foolish sons of a king. If only the fools, who crashed the country into a ditch had read any of this.