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.

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

Swami Vivekananda on why Hindus don’t say “My god is true and yours is not”

Swamiji starts by telling the history of the Middle East and the evolution of religion there. In the world of tribes, each tribe had its own god. If the tribes were allied with each other, they would have a common name like Baal or Moloch. When one tribe conquered another, their king would take over and claim that their god was superior as well. For the Babylonians, Baal-Merodach was superior. For Jews, Moloch-Yahveh was supreme over other Molochs. The supremacy of the gods was decided by humans through battle.

In India too, this issue was there. Here is where we differed because:

the great good fortune of this country and of the world was that there came out in the midst of the din and confusion a voice which declared एकं सद्विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति — “That which exists is One; sages call It by various names.” It is not that Shiva is superior to Vishnu, not that Vishnu is everything and Shiva is nothing, but it is the same one whom you call either Shiva, or Vishnu, or by a hundred other names. The names are different, but it is the same one. The whole history of India you may read in these few words. The whole history has been a repetition in massive language, with tremendous power, of that one central doctrine. It was repeated in the land till it had entered into the blood of the nation, till it began to tingle with every drop of blood that flowed in its veins, till it became one with the life, part and parcel of the material of which it was composed; and thus the land was transmuted into the most wonderful land of toleration, giving the right to welcome the various religions as well as all sects into the old mother-country.

(Lectures from Colombo to Almora – 1897)

Due to this concept of oneness is everyone and everything, apparently contradictory ideas can live in harmony. This is the one lesson that India has to offer to the world. This is a concept that missionaries will never understand. They will never understand what Ishta is. The intolerance that they exhibit and the religious persecution around the world are because they don’t have the concept of unity in everything. Swamiji says:

If you go to other countries and ask Mohammedans or people of other religions to build a temple for you, see how they will help. They will instead try to break down your temple and you too if they can. The one great lesson, therefore, that the world wants most, that the world has yet to learn from India, is the idea not only of toleration, but of sympathy.

(Lectures from Colombo to Almora – 1897)

We have examples of Kings building temples for Mohammedans and Christians and offering refuge to Jews and Zoroastrians. The differences in our way of worship did not matter.

It is impossible that all difference can cease; it must exist; without variation life must cease. It is this clash, the differentiation of thought that makes for light, for motion, for everything. Differentiation, infinitely contradictory, must remain, but it is not necessary that we should hate each other therefore; it is not necessary therefore that we should fight each other.

(Lectures from Colombo to Almora – 1897)

How Gandhi became a Congress Leader in Four Years

Photo by Ishant Mishra on Unsplash

In January 1915, a 46-year-old Mohandas Gandhi relocated to India after spending 20 years in South Africa. He wanted to be the leader of the Independence movement, but it was challenging, as Indians knew him as a foreigner. known for his unconventional social activism in South Africa. But in four years, he became a national leader of the Congress, surpassing leaders like Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Lokmanya Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai, Aurobindo Ghose, Abdul Kalam Azad, and Annie Besant, who had earned battle scars in India. What were Gandhi’s tactics? How did he win against constant opposition to his each and every move? How did he overcome his blunders? At the end who held the ladder so that he could ascend the throne?

The Initial Activities

Though Gandhi had fame from his activities in South Africa to the Indian leaders of that time, Gandhi looked “queer and quixotic, an eccentric specimen of England returned educated Indian.” He was not liked by many people. At that time there were two camps in Congress — the moderates and extremists. The moderates were an earlier generation of leaders like Gopalkrishna Gokhale and his followers who believed in a constitutional approach like appealing to the British Government. The extremists — Aurobindo, Tilak — believed in radical approached, like violent rebellion. Both of these groups did not like Gandhi.

A series of unfortunate events happened to some of the key players. Gokhale and Pherozha Mehta passed away in 1915. Tilak, who was released from prison was lying low. Lala Lajpat Rai was in exile. Aurobindo Ghose had moved to Pondicherry. The Khilafat supporters, Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali were imprisoned.

The disappearance of these leaders did not give Gandhi an automatic path to leadership. Annie Besant and C. R. Das were still there. Also, Indians had not seen Gandhi’s skills in action in India. Naturally, Gandhi’s first course of action was to build on what he knew well – satyagrahas. He launched satyagrahas in Champaran, Ahmadabad, and Kaira — small scale ones at local level — to show his agitational capabilities. He was able to mobilize people who were considered politically irrelevant and enhance both his following and reputation. These were good activities but did not have enough importance to catapult him to the national level.

Then an opportunity came in 1917. Gandhi’s competitor Annie Beasant was interned and he wanted to launch an all India agitation to release her. This was scuttled by Gokhale’s protege, Srinivasa Sastri and Gandhi lost another chance.

In the next year, 1918, which marked the end of World War I, the Montague Chemsfold report was published. This was a package for the gradual development of self-governing institutions. These institutions would be part of the British Empire though. To get some support for this report, Annie Besant was released, but that did not help. The nationalists felt that the report was inadequate and unsatisfactory. Annie Besant thought it was unworthy of India to accept it. Tilak called it sunless dawn. But Gandhi felt this was perfectly acceptable. Gandhi was ignored.

Next came the Rowlatt Act bearing the gifts of summary trial and detention. Even Gandhi flipped and thought this was perfect for launching a national agitation. On 24th February 1919, he announced that he was going to launch a nationwide satyagraha. Annie Besant warned that any such act would release forces that cannot be controlled. Gandhi still went ahead and on April 6th, the whole country observed a hartal — a testimony to Gandhi’s leadership.

Soon violence erupted in Delhi, Bombay and Ahmadabad and the worst of all happened at Jalianwala Bagh. Gandhi realized the importance of Annie Besant’s warning. Calling it a Himalayan blunder, Gandhi suspended the satyagraha on 18th April 1919. It was yet another failure as a leader. Thus from his arrival in January 1915 to the events of 1919, he had no major national success to show. But Gandhi was not a person who would melt away like ice cream on a hot day.

Soon a cause arrived that helped him. He could promise an unattainable goal to a set of people, who overwhelmingly supported him. That was the Khilafat movement, triggered by the events following World War I.

The Khilafat Movement

The Last Caliph Halife Abdülmecid Efendi

During World War I, the countries of the world were all aligned with one Asuric force or the other. Turkey was a German Ally and fought against the British. Indian Muslim soldiers in the British Army were tasked against fighting the Germans and their allies. The problem was not fighting Germany, but Turkey, whose sultan was the Caliph. This was a problem for Indian Muslims who looked up at the Turkish Sultan as their Caliph (Tipu Sultan had appealed to the Turkish Sultan for recognition of his Mysore sovereignty).

Knowing the sensitivity of Indian Muslims, the British administration promised them that the Caliphate would be respected in the peace treaty at the end of the war. But this promise turned out to be like a line drawn in the sands of Arabia. Not only was Ottoman Turkey broken up, but as per the Treaty of Sèvres, Islamic holy places were ceded to the Arabs. Upset by this, Indian Muslims returned medals, declined appointments and boycotted government institutions. They also formed committees to petition and pressure the British Government.

Soon, the Khilafat issue was going out of control. Muslims decided to boycott peace celebrations, British goods and refuse cooperation with the British unless the issue of Caliphate was resolved. They even warned of boycotting the British Amy. At the same time, Gandhi persuaded Congress to support a program of a boycott. He was channeling the widespread anger over Jalianwala Bagh and now the Congress was willing to go with him.

Seeing the energy around the Khilafat movement, Gandhi argued that if Hindus and Muslims united and did satyagraha, then there would be a victory. Gandhi entered into a pact with one Abul Bari that Hindu politicians would support the Khilafat issue if Muslims stopped slaughtering the cow. Mohammad Ali , a Khilafat proponent, agreed to support Gandhi in return for Gandhi’s promise of Swaraj in a year. This was the same Mohammad Ali, who said that if the Amir of Afghanistan invaded India, it was the duty of Indian Muslims to join him and fight the Hindus if they refused to co-operate.

Gandhi’s promise to deliver the Khilafat was equivalent to saying that he had a bridge to sell. The Arabs or Egyptians did not want to be ruled by a Turkish Caliph. Come to think of it, even the Turks did not want a caliph. They were the ones who got rid of him and converted to a secular democracy. The Ottoman Empire was broken up and some of the lands were under French control. There was no way a few petitions would cause France and Britain to sit and undo the damage they did. None of this mattered to Gandhi. He went so far as to suggest that Indian swaraj activity could be postponed if Khilafat ask could be advanced. Thus from a Swaraj which meant self-rule for India, it got converted overnight to support for an imaginary Caliphate in faraway Turkey.

This got Gandhi massive Muslim support — much more than the Hindu followers. Gandhi was invited to preside over the Khilafat Conference in Delhi in November 1919 and the annual session of the Muslim League in Amritsar in December 1919. He was able to get the Muslims to pass a resolution expressing gratitude to the King-Emperor and offering a hearty welcome to the Prince of Wales. The Khilafat committee also adopted his Non-Cooperation program. At the same time, Congress decided to postpone the adoption of the Non-Cooperation program. The resolution related to the emperor and prince of Wales also was met with considerable opposition.

Based on the resolution passed by the Muslim leaders, an ultimatum was sent to the Viceroy and the non-cooperation movement was started on August 1, 1920. Life came to a standstill on August 1 and it confirmed a mass approval for Gandhi. In the special session of the Congress that met on September 1920 in Calcutta, Muslims gave him the required majority to consolidate his leadership. Saifuddin Kitchlew, the Ali brothers, and the entire Muslim bloc supported Gandhi. Annie Besant, C. R. Das, Lala Lajpat Rai, and Madan Mohan Malavya opposed Gandhi. The resolution was passed by 1886 to 884 votes. Muslims seconded and defended the motion and voted for it en masse. 161 delegates from Madras voted for the resolution; 125 were Muslims.

At the annual session of the Congress in Nagpur in 1920, Gandhi consolidated his position. Muslims stood by Gandhi. They turned up in such large numbers that it looked like a Muslim session. The resolution passed at Calcutta was now ratified in Nagpur, making Gandhi an undisputed leader. While World War I removed the Turkish Sultan, it helped Gandhi become the Sultan of Congress.

Swaraj came back to the Congress agenda only in 1929. But in 1921, the Hindus of Malabar paid a price for this capitulation by Gandhi. Exactly, one year to the date — Aug 1, 1921 — at which Gandhi had promised Swaraj to the Ali brothers, the Muslim uprising started in Malabar.


  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.

Ishta – Swami Vivekananda on why Hindu sects don’t quarrel

Street Corner Missionaries

Wherever I go in the world, I see Jehovah’s Witnesses standing on the roadside with pamphlets in various languages. I have seen this both in United States and Europe. Every year the church sends crores of rupees to India to convert Hindus and Love Jihadis target Hindu girls. To Hindus, who are used to multiple sects living together, multiple darshanas accepted as scripture and being followers of various gurus with radically different styles, this intolerance is an alien concept. Swami Vivekananda, using the concept of Ishta, explains why various sects never quarreled in India.

In a speech given in Jaffna, following his address at the Parliament of Nations, Swamiji noted

“The Shaivite does not say that every Vaishnavite is going to be damned, nor the Vaishnavite that every Shaivite will be damned. The Shaivite says, this is my path, and you have yours; at the end we must come together. They all know that in India. This is the theory of Ishta. It has been recognised in the most ancient times that there are various forms of worshipping God. It is also recognised that different natures require different methods.”

According to Hindu tradition, based on various proportions of sattva, rajas and tamas, we all have different nature. Based on that nature, there are different method of worship and hence what works for you may not work for me. Most of us understand this innately, without understanding the yogic aspects behind this. Swamiji warns that the idea that there is only one way for everyone is “injurious, meaningless, and entirely to be avoided.”

Woe unto the world when everyone is of the same religious opinion and takes to the same path. Then all religions and all thought will be destroyed. Variety is the very soul of life. When it dies out entirely, creation will die.


Swamiji then introduces the Sanskrit word “Ishta”. He calls it my way. Now my way is good for me, but probably not for you. Similarly your way is good for you, but not for me. Missionaries hate this. For them, your way is the highway to hell and my way is the only way. Hence the Hindus have to be converted either by force, by incentives or through educational institutions. They talk of love, but the goal is the destruction of our way of live, because it is different.

You see extreme versions of this even now. A missionary was killed in Andaman on an adventure to convert the natives. They are found in crossfire in war zones. They have served as spies. They show up in hostile countries with the Bible speaking of love. Mother Theresa fooled an entire generation with her story of compassion. Swamiji counters:

Their love does not count for much. How can they preach of love who cannot bean another man to follow a different path from their own? If that is love, what is hatred? We have no quarrel with any religion in the world, whether it teaches men to worship Christ, Buddha, or Mohammed, or any other prophet. “Welcome, my brother,” the Hindu says, “I am going to help you; but you must allow me to follow my way too. That is my Ishta. Your way is very good, no doubt; but it may be dangerous for me. My own experience tells me what food is good for me, and no army of doctors can tell me that.

In India, we have the freedom to worship the formless or a thousand forms., go to temples or perform pujas, do kriya or yoga. But “the moment you quarrel, you are not going Godward, you are going backward, towards the brutes.”


After death

Photo by Pascal Meier on Unsplash

Discover Magazine writes on an interesting phenomena, that happens after we die. Usually, we expect the body to stop working. But instead,

Noble and colleagues at the University of Washington were testing a technique for measuring gene activity. As a control, they analyzed tissues from recently-dead zebrafish, expecting to see a steady decrease in new copies of genes as cellular activity tapered off. And that’s what they found — with some notable exceptions. After the zebrafish were dead, around one percent of their genes sprang to life, as though the cells were preparing to build something.

The idea that genes would activate after an organism’s death was unheard of, so the researchers wrote it off as a mistake with their instrumentation. But repeated tests, in fish and then in mice, continued to bear out the impossible: genes activating hours, or even days, after an organism died.[ After You Die, These Genes Come to Life ]

This reminded me of a recent lecture on the various pranas in our body and what they do. Out of all the pranas, one of them is activated after we die.

Speaking of pranas, there are five that requires mention. The prana above the throat is called prana. The one below the belly button is called apanan and is responsible for the excretion function. Samanan stays between these two — below the throat and above the belly button — and is responsible for digestion. Imagine our stomach as an engine generating energy by burning fuel. Like how the fire burns strongly in our traditional hearth, when air is blown, samanan helps with digestion. Vyanan is a prana which is spread all over the body, across all our naadis. The last — Udana — sits in the sushumna. At the time of death, it gathers all your accumulated karmas and leaves. Sometimes this prana gets attached to the body and will refuse to leave. That’s why Hindus cremate quickly. [ Why pranayama can control the mind ]

Why pranayama can control the mind

Pranayama Photo by Indian Yogi (Yogi Madhav) on Unsplash

Once a man went on a safari with his pet poodle. During the tour, the poodle got separated from the owner and wandered off into the forest. As it was searching for the path back, it reached a lake. In the stillness of the forest, the poodle heard a rustling sound in the bushes and through the corner of it’s eye, saw a leopard sneaking in. This is probably the end of my life, thought the poodle. Quickly, he came up with a plan. He found some bones lying around and started licking it. Then at the top of his voice, he said, “This leopard is so tasty. Hope I find some more.” The leopard, worried for his life, ran away.

A monkey, who was sitting on the tree, saw what was happening. He ran behind the leopard and told how the poodle had tricked him. The angry leopard decided to return and finish off the poodle. Sitting on the back of the leopard, the monkey also decided to go and see the fun. The poodle meanwhile saw both of them coming and sat with his back facing them. He had guessed what the monkey had done. When the pair were close, the poodle, yelled at the top of his voice, “Where’s that damn monkey. I told him to fetch me a leopard”

The mind, like the poodle, is always scheming, planning and thinking. When the mind is angry and agitated, you can notice that your breath is rapid and shallow. At the same time when you are happy, the breath is deeper and relaxed. Once your observe this, you need to wonder if the reverse is true. Can altering your breath, change your mood?

Anyone who does pranayama knows that it can be done. To understand the yogic explanation for this phenomena, we have to understand the relation between breath, prana and the mind.

Prana is the life-force that sustains the functions of the body and it supplies energy to all parts of our body. It is present all over the universe and it pervades our body as well. The breath and prana are closely related and inter-dependent; through breath, you can control prana. By controlling the act of breathing you can efficiently control all the various motions in the body and the different pranas that are running through the body.

The five pranas

Speaking of pranas, there are five that requires mention. The prana above the throat is called prana. The one below the belly button is called apanan and is responsible for the excretion function. Samanan stays between these two — below the throat and above the belly button — and is responsible for digestion. Imagine our stomach as an engine generating energy by burning fuel. Like how the fire burns strongly in our traditional hearth, when air is blown, samanan helps with digestion. Vyanan is a prana which is spread all over the body, across all our naadis. The last — Udana — sits in the sushumna. At the time of death, it gathers all your accumulated karmas and leaves. Sometimes this prana gets attached to the body and will refuse to leave. That’s why Hindus cremate quickly.

Next we need to understand the relation between prana and the mind and how they are connected. At one level, they look different. The mind is an instrument of thought and perception. It has bodha shakti. The prana, meanwhile, is connected with action with constant movement. Prana has kriya shakti. But both mind and prana originate in the pancha bhootas. The mind, which is a jnana indriya, is formed from the sattvik aspects of the panchabootas. The prana, which is a karma indriya, is formed from the rajasik aspects of the pancha bhootams. Thus the source of these two are the same. They are expressions of the same base. If you imagine two branches coming out of a trunk, the mind and prana are two branches coming out of the pancha bhootas. Since they are coming from the same trunk, influencing one, affects the other.


Going from sthula to sukshma

silhouette of man meditating on rock cliff during golden hour

Photo by Indian Yogi (Yogi Madhav) on Unsplash

There are such varied types of religious practices, but not all may suit you. Based on the level of sattva, rajas, and tamas, your affinity towards a practice may vary. I like to think of each of us as

α * sattva + β * rajas + γ * tamas

Based on the values of α, β and γ, you may like going to temples, but may not like sitting for meditation. You may like reading the Upanishads, but you may not like chanting. Whatever be the practice, the goal is to increase the value of α and lower β and γ.

Unfortunately you cannot increase the value of α by swiping right on your screen. It is a journey with many intermediary states, starting with focus on the gross and going subtle. At all times, our indriyas are showing attractive sights and triggering thoughts on what’s next. The goal of practices in Sanatata Dharma is to take you from the sthula to the sukshma. Let’s take a look at two concrete examples from the field of meditation and japa.

In Raja Yoga, the goal is to awaken the coiled up energy dormant in your body and make it rise from the base of the spine to the crown of the head along the sushumna nadi, which can be imagined as running parallel to the spinal cord.

Yogic anatomy defines seven chakras — whirlpools of energy, whirling constantly and exhibitng myriard colors — at different parts of the sushumna nadi. The seven chakras are the muladhara, at the end of the spine, swadishtana, just above the reproductive organs, manipura at the navel, anahata at the center of the chest, visudha at the throat and sahasra at the crown of the head. There are different colors, symbols and sounds assigned to each of these chakras.

What’s interesting is the symbol assigned to each of these chakras and what it represents. The muladhara is represented by a square and means gross matter. The swadhistana, represented as a crescent, means liquid state. The next three are triangle (fire), a star, like the one on Israeli flag (vayu) and oval (akasha). The last two are of a different league. Thus as the Kudalini rises, it goes from gross to subtle.

Some people cannot meditate and find japa more conducive to their nature. While Kundalini goes from gross to the subtle, in a practice like japa too there are variations. Ideally you want to do a silent japa, because only one indriya is involved. Some people who start doing silent japa are usually seen snoring or lost in deep thoughts after a while. This usually means that the person has not developed enough concentration to do silent japa. Such people are asked to do the japa a bit louder so that multiple indriyas are now involved. For people who cannot focus on one single mantra like “Om Namah Sivaya“, they are asked to do chant something more involved like the sahasranama. For whom even that is hard, they are asked to do bhajans with musical instruments so that the jnana and karmendriyas are all involved and the chances of mind moving away to other thoughts are less.

Attention is beginning of the spiritual journey. As the practice becomes perfect, you go into higher planes where realization is possible. This one-pointedness comes through regular and incessant practice: as Patanjali has said, ‘Nairantarya abhyase. There are no shortcuts. As the influence of indriyas are diminished, deep mental states are achieved. Finally, from a state which language cannot describe, realization is achieved.