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.

Book Review: The Devil and the Dark Water

The book, The Devil and the Dark Water, set in 1634, starts when a fleet of spice-laden ships sets sail from Batavia to Amsterdam. Long before the British started looting the world, the United East India Company was the world’s wealthiest trading company. Among their outposts, Batavia was the most profitable. Navigational techniques were iffy, and the 8-month voyage was at the mercy of pirates, storms, and disease.

The lead ship, Saardam, has a set of interesting characters. First, there is the Governor-General along with his wife, daughter, and mistress. Another passenger is Samuel Pipps— an investigator who has solved many cases— jailed in the ship for execution at Amsterdam.

Then there is Old Tom, a supernatural demon, who previously wreaked havoc in various provinces. It possessed various wealthy nobles causing them to commit large-scale violence. It announced itself, in the provinces and on the ship, with a mark that resembled an eye with a tail.

Soon after the ship sets sail, stranger things begin; people get murdered. The narrative is that Old Tom is back — evident from his symbol, which mysteriously appears in random places — taking revenge. Old Tom whispered to others to murder, and one of his accomplices, a leper, stalked the cargo hold freely.

Since Samuel Pipps is a prisoner, it falls on his bodyguard Arent Hayes to find the truth. Hayes is not as talented as Pipps in figuring out a story after it has happened from bits of paper left behind. As Hayes starts investigating, uncomfortable truths about the past of various people surface. This is a ship filled with sailors for whom profit comes before principle, pride, and people. It seems they are all connected and have incentives for murder.

Such books, which are historical murder mysteries, are hard to come by. The last ones I read were the Snake Stone and its sequels. In a world where historical fiction means writing yet another book about the Tudor world, this book is like smelling air freshener in a fish market. Another positive is that the book is about the Dutch East India trade, which I do not know much about. Finally, the book’s locale, a floating vessel of wood and nails, make it unique.

The book is well written, bringing out the ship’s ambiance enriched by bilgewater with dead rats. There is mutiny, storm, and shady sailors who can murder anyone for a coin.

“Everybody thinks sailing is about the wind and waves. It ain’t. Sailing’s about the crew, which means it’s about superstition and hate. The men you’re depending on to get you home are murderers, cutpurses, and malcontents, unfit for anything else. They’re only on this ship because they’d be hanged anywhere else. They’ve got short tempers and violent passions, and we’ve locked them all together in a space we’d feel bad keeping cattle in. Captain Crauwels sails this ship, and I keep the crew from mutiny. If either of us makes a mistake, we’re all dead.”

Hayes follows the dictum of Pipps.

“Whether this is a devil dressed as a man or a man dressed as a devil, our course of action remains the same. We must investigate each incident, then follow the clues back to the truth.”

The book is a tad too long. It gets slow towards the middle, and you have to force yourself to read through to find out how a mysterious light could show up in the sea or how a “demon” could roam around a ship.

The Thrissur Riot of 1921

Vadakkumnathan Shiva Temple at the center of Thrissur Town (Photo by author)

February 27, 1921, was a tense day in Thrissur town in Kerala. Around 3 PM, around 1500 Christians loyal to the British government, accompanied by the police superintendent, officers, and constables, started a ‘royal loyalty’ procession to publicly demonstrate support for the British Government. Starting near the East market, they moved to a mosque near the Southern gate of Vadakkumnathan temple.

This march was not benign. It would complicate the relations between the British, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. Within days mobs would be waiting for instructions to burn Thrissur to the ground like Lanka. Just a few months later, the relationship among the Hindus and Muslims would transform. Was this the starting point of the Mappila lahala of 1921? How did the Thrissur riot, which has mostly remained unheard, resolve eventually? Why did this event not become prominent? This article goes into the history of this unheard event.

To understand the events of Thrissur on that day in February, we have to go back a month. It all starts in Malabar in the north of Kerala.

Malabar, January – February 1921

From January 1921, Advocate K Madhavan Nair had an enormous responsibility. He had come back from Nagpur Congress of December 1920 where it was decided to combine the princely states of Malabar, Cochin, and Travancore to form a state called Kerala. As a follow-up, Congress expanded its activities and formed both Congress and Khilafat committees in Malabar. This was due to Gandhi’s strategy of elevating the Khilafat movement as a thank you note for the support he got in previously failed attempts to become a national leader. Following a Congress committee meeting in Kozhikode on January 1921, Madhavan Nair took on the challenge along with Advocate U. Gopala Menon, who had put a lot of effort in Khilafat activities.

District Collector E. F. Thomas sensed that this would not end well. He had extensive knowledge of Eranad taluk and knew the dynamics among the people. He warned that the Khilafat movement would cause the uneducated Mappilas turning not just against the British, but also against the Hindu landlords. This would cause disruption of peace, and also of the loss of life. Fear is typically more of a perception than an actual threat, but what raised his awareness was the association of a person named Variamkunnan Ahmad Haji, who was from a family known to be traditionally associated with such incidents. Another red flag for him was the association of lawyers, like K. Madhavan Nair, who had given up their profession to join this Congress-Khilafat movement.

Ernad Taluk where the 1921 Hindu genocide happened

Thomas decided: these meetings had to stop. K Madhavan Nair or Gopala Menon or Variamkunnan Ahmad Haji, should not be allowed to speak.

This edict surprised Madhavan Nair. He had never heard of this man called Variamkunnan Ahmad Haji. Also, though the Congress-Khilafat committees were active for a few months, there was no violence. This was also a time when the Maulvis were giving speeches exhorting Hindu-Muslim unity. Though these speeches would control violence, Madhavan Nair agreed with the fear expressed by Thomas about the Mappilas. He thought that the District Collector was influenced partially by truth and partially by rumors.

Thomas wanted to enforce curfew in the entire region. He asked for permission from the Madras Government, but they replied saying it suffices to ban specific meetings. Thomas decided that if that’s the case, he would do so.

Madhavan Nair felt that this high-handed approach was going to inflame the situation. He felt that if people did not have a channel to vent out, it would cause disaster. Harassing suspects and leaders and imprisoning and beating them up, was just going to trigger a bigger catastrophe. He took on the District Collector by organizing Khilafat meetings in Parappur on February 14th, Thanoor on the 15th, and Kozhikode on the 16th.

They also invited Yakub Hussain from Madras for the Kozhikode meeting. Yakub Hussain had been a member of the Madras Legislative Council and city corporation. He had also visited England in 1919 as a member of the All India Khilafat Conference and met some Bolsheviks. He came back with the opinion that Bolshevism was the last hope for India.

Since Yakkub Hussain was arriving on the 15th, which was one day earlier than the Kozhikode meeting, Madhavan Nair invited him to the meeting on the 15th too. He went with Gopala Menon and received Yakkub Hussain at Thirur station. On their way, they received information that the meeting scheduled for that day at Thanoor was banned by the Government. The organizers of the Thanoor meeting asked Madhavan Nair for guidance. Thousands were gathered there. They also had spent a lot of money to get people — around 20,000 —- from faraway places to come and attend.

Madhavan Nair was clear – the meeting cannot happen.

Since the Thanoor event was canceled, Madhavan Nair, Gopala Menon, and Yakub Hussain focused on the steps for the next day’s events at Kozhikode. They decided that Yakub Hussain should speak about maintaining peace even when the Government was preventing these meetings from happening. Madhavan Nair argued that if a leader disobeys the law, how can he then convince the followers from maintaining the law. It was then decided that Yakub Hussain alone would break the law and speak at the meeting, while others would comply with Thomas’ edict.

The Kozhikode meeting too did not happen. By noon the next day, Madhavan Nair, Yakub Hussain, Gopala Menon, and a Moitheen Koya were taken by the police to Collector E. F. Thomas, the head of Malabar police Mr. Hitchcock and the Government advocate Govinda Menon. All these people would play a major role in the events to happen later in the year. This was their stage entry.

Thomas looked troubled. Maybe he was upset by the idea that command by the powerful Collector was disregarded by an ordinary Indian. Mr. Thomas read the charges against them and asked if they were planning to disobey. Yakub Hussain told Thomas about this plan to speak about non-violence. He also mentioned that the others in the room would obey the rules. Thomas asked what was the guarantee that they would obey. Madhavan Nair replied that their word was the guarantee.

Thomas gave them one hour to re-think, but they did not change their stance. They were sentenced to 6 months in prison. Thus, instead of speaking to a large audience in Kozhikode, they spent the evening in Kozhikode jail and were sent to Kannoor the next day. This would then trigger a set of events that would result in a tense situation in Thrissur.

Thrissur, February 1921

In Thrissur, a meeting was held on the 16th to commend the bravery of the arrested Congress and Khilafat members. Hearing this, a group of Christians, who supported the British disrupted the meeting and burned down the benches and chairs. The procession by these royal supporters on the 27th was a continuation of this. The Congress and Khilafat committees observed 17 February as the day of protest. Shops were closed, students boycotted classes, and lawyers refused to attend court. In various public meetings, speakers denounced the authorities.

On 26th February, four Muslims of Eranad— Pottayil Kunjahammed, Pottayil Abubaker, V.V.Hassan Kutti Sahib, and Kallarakkal Ahmed — were arrested and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for refusing to abstain from political meetings and delivering speeches. This followed the same pattern as the case with Madhavan Nair and Yakub Hussain. Enraged Mappilas gathered in large numbers, armed with knives and sticks at a Calicut mosque. The mob dispersed only after a two-hour confrontation with the District Magistrate and police.

It was amid this tense situation that Christians took out the loyalty procession supporting the British on February 27th in Thrissur. Muslims stopped this loyalist procession, and a fight broke out. The marchers burned four Muslim houses and destroyed many houses and shops along their path. The police remained a mute spectator. By around 5:30 pm, the procession reached a hospital and to an audience comprising prominent citizens, a lawyer gave a speech on the need for devotion to the royals. Following this loyalty procession, the Muslims and Hindus formed one group against the Christian loyalists.

Dr. A. R. Menon of Thrissur realized that something had to be done to protect the Hindus. He gathered around 600 people to stay and protect Hindu homes. Christians did the same for their homes.

Dr. Menon watched the next day on how the situation would turn out the next day. He was pulling the load of an ox and walking on eggshells. Schools and shops remained closed. People converged at Thekkinkad Maidan and the situation started turning tense. The Diwan arrived and along with that, the police started firing blanks at people. People responded with stones. Seeing that the situation was going out of control, the Diwan started pacifying the people. Dr. Menon gave a speech on how women were insulted and after that people dispersed. A crisis was averted.

The loyalty people stuck again and decided that they would attack their countrymen to prove allegiance to a foreign ruler. The loyalty people had support from the Government and had to show this visibly. They attacked homes and shops. They destroyed bank records. They threw firecrackers filled with glass pieces and nails.

Soon people started leaving Thrissur town. Around 1500 women and children took available transportation to other parts of the state. With a shortage of food and other essential goods, this seemed like a better plan. Finally, the Hindus came up with a plan – get Mapillas from Malabar to deal with the issue.

It is not clear who sent the telegram. The Mapillas, who were incensed with the arrest of Khilafat members, soon arrived in the thousands from Malabar at Thrissur railway station. Most of them did not even buy tickets. They stayed at an inn near the Thiruvambady temple. On hearing this the Diwan and the Resident also reached the town in the morning. By noon around British reserve police also reached there. By then around 1800 Mapillas chanting Allahu Akbar took a procession around the town, drowning the town with their voice.

It was a tense situation. All that was left was to just light the match. The mob waited to hear instructions to destroy the town. Dr. A R Menon knew that his beloved town stood on the precipice of destruction. He along with Marayi Krishna Menon held these people back. The Resident and Diwan held a meeting with the concerned parties. The Mapillas were soon pacified and sent back. A huge disaster was averted. Before leaving, they took out a victory procession, chanting Allahu Akbar, and went to the railway station.


While reading accounts of the Mappila lahala, the Thrissur riot does not come up a lot. This is a critical missed story in almost all narratives because it raises many unpleasant questions. Three events were going on at the same time – revolts against landlords, the Khilafat movement, and the Non-Cooperation Movement. If for example, Mappila lahala was primarily a revolt against landlords according to Communist narratives why did the Mappilas come en masse to Thrissur based on the request of Hindu landlords? If the Congress-Khilafat movement unified the Hindus and Muslims, why was there a genocide and massive conversion of Hindus a few months later? That too in Malabar, from where these Mappilas came from? What was the differentiating factor?

One account written about this time by Gopalan Nair mentions this – “There was a feeling in Malabar that Yakub Hassan episode was the turning point in the Khilafat movement and it was from about that point that the attitude of the Khilafat became deadly hostile and aggressive”. Just see what happened at Malegaon a month later.


  1. Malabar Kalaapam – K Madhavan Nair
  2. Khilafat Smaranakal – M. Brahmadattan Namboothirippad
  3. Islam and Nationalism in India: South Indian contexts by M.T.Ansari
  4. The Mappilla Rebellion, 1921: Peasant Revolt in Malabar by Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr

Samskritam Notes: Understanding a sloka

(Even if you don’t understand, Samskritam, you can read through and understand the logic)

Take a look at this verse from Valmiki Ramayanam

इक्ष्वाकुवंशप्रभवो रामो नाम जनैश्श्रुत:
नियतात्मा महावीर्यो द्युतिमान्धृतिमान् वशी

When you first look at this verse, it appears incomprehensible with long words. Fortunately, there is a well-defined step by step process which will split the words apart and help us comprehend the meaning. The actual process followed by Samskritam students has more steps, but I am compressing it just to demonstrate the effectiveness of the process. What makes the verse look intimidating initially is the use of concepts like sandhi and samasa, which joins words to form compound words. This process reverses it, like running a film in reverse.

1. पदच्छेदः or splitting of the words.

This is the step where you break up joined words into their individual parts. In Chemistry, when you are given NaCl, you know that it is made up of Na and Cl. In Samskritam, words are joined using sandhi rules and in this process, you reverse that. To do this, you need to know the sandhi rules, but follow along and you will get it.

इक्ष्वाकुवंशप्रभवः रामः नाम जनैः श्रुतः
नियतात्मा  महावीर्यः द्युतिमान् धृतिमान् वशी

In the verse it was इक्ष्वाकुवंशप्रभवो रामो, but now it has become इक्ष्वाकुवंशप्रभवः रामः by reversing a visarga sandhi. Similar changes have been applied in other places as well.

2. आकाङ्क्षा or inquiry

In this process, you first find the verb in the sentence. Then you keep on asking questions till you cover all the words in the verse.

The verb in this verse is श्रुतः which means was known or was famous. You note it down


The next question would be, among whom?

Q: कैः श्रुतः

A: जनैः श्रुतः (he was known among the people)

Next question would be: what was known or famous among the people?

Q: जनैः किं श्रुतः जनैः

A: रामः नाम जनैः श्रुतः (the one by the name of Rama was known among the people)

Next question would be, what kind of person was this Rama, who was known among the people?

Q: जनैः कीदृश रामः नाम श्रुतः

A: जनैः इक्ष्वाकुवंशप्रभवः रामः नाम श्रुतः (the one born in Ikshvaku dynasty was the Rama known among people)

next question is: again, what kind of person was this Rama, who was known among the people?

answer: जनैः इक्ष्वाकुवंशप्रभवः नियतात्मा रामः नाम श्रुतः (the one born in Ikshvaku dynasty and one who has control of his aatma was the Rama known among people)

You keep on asking the above question again and again and finally you get this

इक्ष्वाकुवंशप्रभवः नियतात्मा महावीर्यः द्युतिमान् धृतिमान् वशी रामः नाम जनैः श्रुतः

Finally, we have poetry converted to prose by this process.

The final step is to find alternate words to the ones above so that the sentence can be simpler in meaning. It will be then in your own words.

Word in VerseDifferent Word in SamskritamMeaning
इक्ष्वाकुवंशप्रभवःइक्ष्वाकु-कुले प्रसूत:Born in Ikshvaku dynasty
नियतात्मास्ववश: आत्माself controlled
 महावीर्यःमहाशूरःvery powerful
वशीजितेन्द्रियःone who has conquered sense organs
रामः नामरामः इति नामby the name ‘Rama’
जनैःनरैःby common men

Now you can write in your own words the following sentence

इक्ष्वाकु-कुले प्रसूत: स्ववश: आत्मा महाशूरः कान्तियुक्त: स्थिरचेतसः जितेन्द्रियः रामः इति नाम नरैः ज्ञातः

There is one descended in the line of lksvaku and known by men by the name of Rama. He has fully controlled his mind, very powerful, radiant and resolute has brought his senses under control.

Simple, isn’t it?

Upanishad Notes: How Advaita refutes Buddhism

Photo by Ganesh Kumar B N on Unsplash

While there were debates among the astikas (who abides by Vedas), there were similar debates between astikas and nastikas (Buddhists, Jains).

The prerequisite of these debates was that you would understand the opponent’s position well enough to state it and then debate. Let’s understand the process better — let’s look at a refutation that happened 1300 years back. Here, it was Gaudapada (Adi Shankara’s guru’s guru) refuting four schools of Buddhism.

Different schools of Buddhism

These were the Srautrantika, Vaibhashika, Yogachara Vijñānavāda, and the Shunyavada. All of them explored the question: is there an external world apart from us and came up with different points of view. We are a species that delight in metaphysical observations and can come up with darshanas that captivate and startle. In a dharmic venture, there is no monotheistic understanding. Instead, in trying to understand the world, these ambitious mind explorers came up with different explanations of reality.

The srautrantikas believed that when you perceive something it exists out there. For example, if you see a flower, it means that there is a flower right there in front of you. We also have unique experiences based on the object; the experience you have when you eat a mango differs from the experience you have when you eat roasted cashew.

This is what we experience daily, and it is natural to wonder how could anyone even have a position other than this? That’s where the Vaibhashika person comes and says hold on. We don’t see the flower just because it is out there, but because of the process that happens because of it. When you look at a flower, the eyes process that, and the mind creates an image of the flower. This is like the modern position that light waves hit our retina, resulting in some electrical activity in the brain creating the perception of the flower. The biological software processes signals from the biological hardware.

On hearing this, you can accept that it is a detailed and refined view than the srautrantika position. Now that we are here, what could be a position that could be a refinement of this?

The Vijñānavādin, brings a radical perspective — there is no external object. It is not like saying 2+2 = 5. The Vijñānavādin is saying there is no 2 or 5. Everything you perceive is just in your mind and what you feel as real is just an illusion. For example, in your dream, you will see new worlds and old friends, but the moment you wake up, all of that disappears. Vijñānavādin says the actual world too is similar, an illusion. If you thought that was rad, just see what the Shunyavadin has to say. The Shunyavadin takes it up a notch further and says that nothing exists. There is no external world, no mind. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. Everything is shunya.

If your mind goes into DEFCON 2,  no one will blame you. We have ninety billion neurons entangled in a network of one hundred trillion synaptic connections. Only rishis with neurons which have seen the flashes of light between the extremities of darkness can come up with such darshanas.

To summarize, the Srautrantikas and Vaibhashikas, called the realists, agree that there is an external object, while the Vijñānavādins and Shunyavadins (the idealists) don’t. From now we will use this terminology.

Advaita is similar to Vijñānavāda. Gaudapada also argues that your waking world is like the dream world – a projection of the ultimate reality — Brahman. All of us, all the surrounding things are all are just names, forms, and behavior of Brahman. Now that the positions are clear, it’s time for Advaita to refute them.For that, Gaudapada uses a simple technique. Since the various Buddhist schools have been debating each other, he piggybacks on those arguments.

And so it starts.

The realist poses this question to the idealist. If you say that there is no external object, but just awareness, it seems odd. I can touch flowers, fruits, and feel happy seeing the Ram Mandir getting built. Each of these is a different perception inside me. If you say that there is one consciousness, then that conciseness is homogeneous. If consciousness is homogeneous, then the experience should also be homogeneous. Instead, our daily experience shows that diverse objects give us diverse perceptions. This means that there is a secondary object apart from this consciousness thing.

The idealist refutes it. The idealist rejects this from the standpoint of absolute reality. Look at a pot. If you have an external view, it will look like an object which exists. Now consider the same pot from the point of view of clay. There is nothing called pot, it is just a name, form, and behavior. Take a piece of cloth. It cannot exist without the thread, and you can say that the thread is the reality. The cloth is just a name and form imposed on the thread. Does the thread exist though? It is made of fibers and the thread is a name/form superimposition on the thread. Take it deep and deep and you end up with consciousness as the substratum on which everything else is a name and form. Hence, when you stand at the point of consciousness and look around, there is nothing else that differs from it.

The idealist continues: Hey, you realist, you had mentioned that it is diverse external objects which cause diverse experiences for you. In your dream world, you can eat an apple, drink lemon-soda, and experience happiness of the bhumi puja of Ram Mandir. In your sleep, all your sense organs have shut down. Your eyes are not seeing, your tongue is not tasting, and yet you have such diverse experiences such as all these. So saying that an external world causes diverse experiences is not true.

That works for the dream world, but what about the real world? Are we living in a Matrix to say that this is an illusion? Is this consensual hallucination? Gaudapada says, yes. Your waking world does not differ from the dream world. There is nothing apart from Brahman and whatever you see, feel and perceive is just Brahman with name, form, and behavior. This difference between the external and internal is all in the mind.

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Now that the realists have been taken care of, Gaudapada turns towards the Vijñānavādins. So far he used the arguments by Vijñānavādins to refute the realists, but now it is time to take care of them. It might seem that Vijñānavādins and Advaitins were twins lost at the Kumbh Mela. Both of them claim that the world is illusory.

While that looks similar, there is one major difference. While Advaita says that Brahman is unborn, unchanging, and deathless, Vijñānavādins say that consciousness is momentary. If Advaitins think of Brahman as sunlight, always present and always shining, Vijñānavādins think of it as a strobe light, which flashes on and off. Reality is nothing but a stream of this consciousness hitting you at a fast rate creating an illusion of reality.

The problem here is that Vijñānavādins do not distinguish between consciousness and mind. They use the same word (Chittam) for both. When you experience a flower, a vritti is formed in your Chitta. When you smell the flower, you get another vritti. This happens at such a fast rate that it seems continuous. It is like a packet with awareness and context hitting you constantly. With meditation, you can slow down your awareness and see this happen in slow motion.

The Advaitin then asks, if consciousness is constantly born and dies, what leads to its birth again? Is it born from something which exists or something non-existing? Also, if what we perceive are flashes of consciousness, then how do you perceive the gap between two events? Is it blank? This does not sound right. The Advaita position is that just the vritti dies, but the consciousness never dies. Those who say that consciousness dies are looking for footprints of flying birds.

With all the three gone, the remaining one is the Shunyavadin. Gaudapada does not refute Shunyavada explicitly. Shankara in his commentary just mentions that they are like people who are trying to grasp the sky with their hands. A later debater says that if everything is empty, then you, Shunyavadin are also empty and hence there is no need to debate you.

These back-and-forth arguments illustrate the rigor of arguments among the various darshanas. Going through this process helps us understand each of the darshanas clearly. The people who discovered these darshanas because of their tapas are no longer with us, but these discoveries are still being talked about and they still captivate and startle.


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)

Sanskrit Notes: Why Siddhanta Kaumudi?

(This article requires basic understanding of Samskritam grammar)

Siddhanta Kaumudi

When it comes to Samskritam grammar, the definitive books are Panini’s Ashtadhyayi and Dhatupaatah. Then why do we have so many other books like vartikas, bhashyas and kaumudis. What gap do they address? Specifically, what does a book like Siddhanta Kaumudi adress? To understand that we need to start with the basics and go down in a systematic way.

Let’s start with a simple sentence

गृहतः कार्यालयं गच्छति

When you see this sentence and have no clue about Sanskrit, you will know that, this sentence is made up of three words.

It can split once again by separating the प्रकृति: and प्रत्यय as follows. In each section, the first word is the प्रकृति: and the second, the प्रत्यय

Can this be split even further, like how we can split NaCl into Sodium and Chlorine and then into atoms and other sub-atomic particles? How far can we split the words in Samskritam and what is the end beyond which we cannot split further? In Samskritam, that root is called a धातु. There are approximately around 2000 धातु and 480 प्रत्यय. All the known words are formed by a combination of these.

Samskritam grammar is essentially a reverse engineering of the rules of the spoken language. The language came first and then the grammar. If you are a grammarian, and want to construct the rules of the language, there are two ways of doing it.

  • List the rule for each word. This obviously does not scale. The real world example would like calling the name of each student in the school and asking them to come into the class.
  • Come up with generalized rules which apply to a broad category. Come up with exceptions to those rules. The general rule could be, everyone enter the class and the exception could be – except Rahul. This makes the encoding of the rules simpler and easier to remember.

Samskritam grammar is essentially a reverse engineering of the rules of the spoken language. The language came first and then the grammar. If you are a grammarian, and want to construct the rules of the language, there are two ways of doing it.

  • List the rule for each word. This obviously does not scale. The real world example would like calling the name of each student in the school and asking them to come into the class.
  • Come up with generalized rules which apply to a broad category. Come up with exceptions to those rules. The general rule could be, everyone enter the class and the exception could be – except Rahul. This makes the encoding of the rules simpler and easier to remember.

Panini demonstrated that with just less than 4000 sutras, he could come up with all the rules for all the words in Samskritam. This was possible only because the approach he took was the second one.

Panini’s two books cover this

  • Dhatupatah – covers all the dhatu and their meaning
  • Ashtadhyayi – covers all the प्रत्यय, (Chapters 3, 4, and 5)

The Ashtadhyayi consists of 8 chapters and they cover the following topics

  • 1, 2 – संज्ञा, परिभाषा, समासः, कारकं
  • 3,4,5 – प्रत्ययाः
  • 6, 7, 8 – संधिः, प्रत्ययानां योजनम्

Among the Sanskrit grammarians, the most famous are Panini, Katyayana and Patanjali. Katyayana wrote vartikas (explanatory texts) and Patanjali wrote mahabhashyam (great commentary). The books they wrote are succinct and does not contain examples of the rules. This makes it hard for a student who try to study the grammar.

Then came a second set of books called व्रित्तिग्रन्धा: These books have more details about the sutra, like how to split it, the meaning of these words, examples, clarification of doubts, etc. Among these the famous are काशिकवृत्तिः and प्रथमावृत्तिः These texts follow the same order as the sutras in Ashtadhyayi.

This becomes a problem if you are interested in one topic like समासः. The sutras for these are not together and hence a student following the original texts or the व्रित्तिग्रन्धा: will have to collate the related sutras and figure it out.

To address this issues, there came a type of text called the प्रक्रियाग्रन्धा: These are organized according to topics with everything related to संधिः in one place and everything related to समासः in one place. Famous in this category are रूपावतारः, प्रक्रियाकौमुदि. But these books had some issues and caused confusion. Then Bhattoji Dikshit wrote सिद्धान्तकौमुदि fixing all the issues among the previous books. He explained all the sutras, in the style of प्रक्रियाग्रन्धा:and corrected the issues with the previous books.

(Based on the lecture by Tilak Rao. If you are interested in learning Siddhanta Kaumudi, here is the playlist)

Book Review: River of Doubt by Candice Millard

River of Doubt by Candice Millard (442 pages)

After leaving the American presidency in 1909, Teddy Roosevelt, led “scientific” expeditions in Africa. During his African trip, “Roosevelt and his companions killed or trapped approximately 11,400 animals, from insects and moles to hippopotamuses and elephants.” Probably the bored with this, he decided to run once again for presidency, but lost the nomination.

Looking for a new adventure, he decided to do a cruise on the Amazon river.

Stupidity follows. The expedition was planned by a priest who outsourced it to a store clerk, who had led a disastrous expedition to the North Pole. The clerk had never been to the Amazon. On reaching Brazil, Roosevelt is influenced to go down the uncharted River of Doubt.

The reason? Roosevelt writes: “No civilized man, no white man, had ever gone down or up this river, or seen the country through which we were passing.” Of course, many indigenous tribes lived there, but it did not matter. The statement accurately reflects the views of a man who once believed that the white race was superior to others.

What could go wrong here? At this time there were many known cases of people attempting this adventure and never returning back. “They have simply disappeared in the forest like stones in water. The jungle is jealous and voracious”

The expedition was launched without the right supplies, boats and knowledge. At this point, it is obvious that the expedition is doomed for failure. First, the river was uncharted. Second, there were deadly poisonous animals — snakes, insects, piranhas — which could wipe them out. Third, they could contract deadly diseases like malaria. Fourth, they were passing through the home of indigenous tribes, who could end them with poisonous arrows. But with arrogance, ignorance, and naïveté, the expedition plunged into the river.

Along the expedition, whatever can go wrong does. Roosevelt contracted malaria and faced death. The trip shortened his life. One of the Brazilians in the expedition killed another and fled into the forest. Another drowned. The survivors, almost starved to death. They also had to face infections, malaria and dysentery. They were shadowed by native tribes who could have easily killed them. Col. Rondon — the Brazilian leader — put peace offerings wherever possible. This could be why they did not end up as protein on a cannibal’s diet.

Teddy is an American darling. His face is on Mount Rushmore. He was an unapologetic imperialist, who also setup National Parks. It is hard to like him, especially regarding this trip. What makes the book interesting to read though is the wonderful writing of the author. You learn a lot about the animals, humans, diseases of the rain forest and the history of the region. It makes up an exciting outdoor adventure and a survival tale.