December 31, 2006

Virtual Universe : The Need for Open Standards

2006 is the year when the idea of Virtual Universes went mainstream. Massively Multiuser Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) like Everquest has been around for about three years and three dimensional virtual reality, whether with physical devices or with technology like VRML, has been around even longer, but it had always been a niche market -- at best adopted in the gaming community. However with the advent of Linden Labs and the release of their SecondLife platform, the concept of a virtual universe has now become the defacto platform of the future. What the World Wide Web was in 1996 is what Second Life is in 2006 ... and this time, the rate of penetration and adoption is even faster.

Describing SecondLife is an exercise of (a) redundancy and (b) futility. It is redundant because almost every magazine and journal has now described it in great detail and Reuters has a full time bureau chief reporting regularly from SecondLife. It is also futile because Second Life is an experience .. that one has to go through to understand and appreciate the concept. Trying to explain Second Life to someone who has not been there is like to trying to describe the beauty of a sunset to a person who has been born blind. I will not even try that ... and assume that whoever is reading this has the wherewithal to go out and find out more about this technology on his own.

While SecondLife may be the most successful implementation of a virtual universe, it suffers from the inherent drawback of being a proprietory product. SecondLife is to virtual universe what America Online was to the world wide web. Conceptually similar but fundamentally different. AOL ( and to an extent the old MSN) were closed worlds -- of proprietory servers and proprietory clients, that were initially quite exciting but were quickly swept away by the flood of open source. Once the HTTP protocol became public domain, anyone could make an HTTP server or an HTTP client and this paved the way for what became the universal client ( or web browser ) that allowed total interoperability across the digital community.

The sheer "open"ness of the internet / web as a platform led to its proliferation and ultimate dominance over all other competing technologies.

Compared to this openness, the MMORPG / Virtual Universe community is still operating in the erstwhile Soviet Gulags or behind the Great Chinese Firewall. There are many very nice MMORPG platforms but each operates with its own proprietory client that connects to its own server. While this may be percieved as a good tool for client retention it certainly restricts choice. The sheer pain of downloading a heavy client for each MMORPG is a strong enough disincentive for many users to check out and join various MMORPG games. Personally, I have participated only in Planeshift and of course now I am a resident of SecondLife.

Had it been possibly for me to use either the browser or any one MMORPG client to access the other MMORPG servers, I am sure I would have tried out many more platforms and might have decided to focus somewhere else.

SecondLife is of course different because it allows the actual creation of objects and artefacts by residents (or players, if you wish) and then allows them to retain the intellectual property. This free market approach has injected a huge amount of commercial dynamism and has made it the cynosure of all eyes. But from an underlying technology perspective, both MMORGs in general and SecondLife in particular are an implementation of the same concept of Virtual Universe or the as some people prefer to say, the 3D-Internet. ... and this is where the proprietory nature of both is acting as significant handicap in the growth and proliferation of the Virtual Universe.

So what is that needs to happen ?

First we need open definition of what is a Virtual Universe. This is where organisations like The Internet Engineering Task Force or the World Wide Web Consortium can (or should ) take a lead to define a set of open standards that will allow any VU-browser to connect to a VU-server. Should the IETF or the W3C be too slow to act, an industry body like the Intenational Game Developers Association should take up the initiative to develop these standards. Like the HTTP protocol, we should develop and standardise on a VUTTP protocol.

Second, all future MMORPG builders should actively seek to port their products to a platform that is compliant with VUTTP. There is no doubt that there will be severe politics, lobbying and one-upmanship here as each organisation will seek to ensure that their own protocols and standards be accepted. Big organisations will try to ignore the emerging consensus and stick to their own standards .. but eventually everyone will fall in line. The final protocol may not be the best and most efficient, but will have the benefit of being universal.

In parallel, we will see the growth of (a) VUTTP servers and (b) VUTTP clients. Some of these clients and servers will be commercial software and some will be opensource. If we draw a parallel from the normal internet, the open source versions might eventually win out or they may not. Apache is the dominant HTTP server but Firefox has still not overtaken IE ... but that is a different story and they way that story pans out will depend on a host of factors.

What is important will be the public availability of VUTTP servers and VUTTP clients ... and using these two products, developers will have the freedom to develop diverse and interoperable virtual universes.

Interoperability is important. If we had to use a different web browser for each website that you visit -- one for Yahoo, one for Amazon, one for (my) HSBC bank, one for Indiatimes, one for the JetAirways e-Ticketing service, one for the BBC and one for my favourite Slashdot ... would I have had the energy and enthusiasm to visit anyone of these websites ? But since I can use Firefox to visit and operate EACH of these and thousand other websites, I -- and countless others -- have adopted the web as an integral part of my Real Life.

For Second Life / Virtual Universes to become as integral a part of our existence, we need a genuine open VUTTP client. Who will create this ?

Will it be Linden Labs ? or will it be a (not so) dark horse called Google ?

Google has the Google Earth product where they are creating a virtual version of the Real World and they have free 3D modelling tools that allow individuals to create their own structures. In parallel, Google Earth data has been freed from the confines of their proprietory client and is now available through a browser and the wikimapia.org website. If you take these two initiatives together, we have the potential of 3D Models being built and being made available through an open client.

Is this the first step of what we are looking for ? The answer lies in the womb of futurity.

December 26, 2006

2006 : A watershed year for Virtual Worlds

As the year 2006 draws to a close, it is interesting to take stock of things that happened and speculate on how these will impact the year ahead .. and in this exercise the one single thing that stands out is SecondLife - The Emergence of Virtual Worlds.

Milestones and signposts are seldom recognised when we whiz past them on the highway .. it is only when you have traversed some significant distance, do you realise how important that fork in the road was ... both for those who have taken the right fork and for those who were left behind on the wrong one.

To appreciate, the enormous significance of this tectonic movement, one must go back to the year 1995-96 when Netscape went public and the Internet, for all practical purposes was born.

The world had not been wired up as comprehensively as yet and we in India got wind of this techTsunami in 1996 when the first few intrepid cybernauts in India set sail on a voyage of discovery.

It was voyage of discovery as well as a voyage of faith. VSNL connections were flaky and brittle and 64 kbps leased line cost more than Rs 10 lakhs per annum. [ Today, a 115kpbs datacard from a CDMA service provider costs Rs 500/month ]. Pages used to load slowly and most computers did not have enough horsepower to run the bloated java applets.

Many of us surfed through the few foreign websites and tried to create our own amateur stuff on the free servers provided by Tripod, Lycos, Geocities and finally the grand daddy of them all Yahoo. The world of brick and mortar laughed and finally when our bubble of enthusiasm burst in 2000 ... everyone wisely nodded their heads and said we told you so ...

Only they were wrong, and so utterly and comprehensively wrong that it is not even worth talking about when web based eCommerce and eBusiness has taken off so well .. whether for retail or air tickets or eBanking ... you name a business and it is there on the web, even if the original business model has been turned on its head.

History repeats itself (though fortunately, not always as a tragedy or a farce ) and where we are today, with Virtual Worlds ( or 3D internet, as some say), is exactly the original classic Internet/Web was ten years ago.

Powered by the enthusiasm for Massively MultiUser Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) Virtual Worlds have taken the Real World by storm ... or at least the first few intrepid 3DCybernauts. What Netscape was to the Internet, SecondLife is for Virtual Worlds ... the catalyst, the fuse ... that has set off the rocket that will lead us to the stars.

There are no dearth of naysayers -- who believe that all this is a game, a child's play with no potential for anything substantial. Fortunately, their tribe is shrinking as more and more people move towards a seamless integration of their Real Life and Second Life, their real world and virtual world, the immense potential is visible to all those who have the eyes to see beyond the next email.

How has Second Life catalysed all this ? Through a simple techno-legal trick - by defining and enforcing the concept of Property Rights in Virtual Worlds. Property right, whether on virtual real estate and, more importantly, on Intellectual Property created in the virtual world is the real oxygen that is fuelling the growth -- and that is the real significance of Second Life.

Going forward, SecondLife and their creator Linden Labs, may be overcome by economic forces ( though I sincerely wish them all the best), just as Netscape was, but the benevolent genie that they have uncorked will never go back into the bottle.

Actually, America Online is perhaps a better model for Linden Labs because AOL with its proprietory client software and AOL stores was the pre-cursor to the world wide web. Second Life currently runs on a proprietory client that connects to a proprietory server .. and it is a matter of time before we have equivalent functionality being delivered through a open source virtual world client (Mozilla like) that can connect to any open source server ( somewhat like Apache) .. and then the world will not be the same anymore.

Many of us were not around the connected world in 1993 when AOL started but some of us might just remember the Netscape IPO in 1995. Today the world is different .. information flows faster than light !!! and it would be nice to remember that 2006 is the year when thanks to Linden Labs and Second Life, the Virtual World has finally met the Real world and the borders between the two are becoming increasingly blurred.

p.s. how many of you can survive today without an email ID ? None ... especially if you are reading this on the web. going forward, it is my humble prediction that NONE of you will be able to survive without an avatar in SecondLife or equivalent virtual world.

December 20, 2006

MMORPG / Second Life in 3D display

MMORPGs in general and SecondLife in general has now become a hot favourite with relatively large parts of the population. As a concept and technology it has few peers and there is no doubt it is at the vanguard of a new wave that leads to the 3D Internet.

What next ?

The clue lies in the word 3D ! SL is essentially a 3D world that avatars live in, but the limitations of the computer console / video display unit means that 3D has to be represented as 2D grid of pixels.

But today, we have technology that can display artefacts in a real 3D format. You can look up the following websites ..

http://www.sharp3d.com/products/





or this website ...

http://www.research.philips.com/newscenter/archive/2004/3d-display-cebit.html



there are other technologies that support such technology .. for example see this
http://www.seereal.com/en/index.php

These are monitor based 3D technology which can enhance the SecondLife experience signficantly. Moving forward, laser based technology like the one from AIST http://www.aist.go.jp/aist_e/latest_research/2006/20060210/20060210.html



Net-net with all these 3D technologies appearing over the horizon, the entire world of MMORPG and SecondLife should soon change beyond recognition.

December 18, 2006

Brand IIT or Brand IITJEE

PANIIT2006 - the mega IIT Alumni meet that is scheduled for next week in Mumbai has raised a lot of decibels in the media. There are a lots of articles and discussions on the IIT - the hype, the mystique and myth associated with India's best known educational instititutions.

As an IIT-ian ( genuine B.Tech product - Mechanical, Azad Hall, Kharagpur) it is my misfortune that I would not be able to attend this megaMeet ... so let me share some of my thoughts on these unique institutions.

At the risk of being politically incorrect, let me state upfront, that even though anybody who has enrolled in IIT is a dejure IITian, many of us believe that the defacto IITian is one who has qualified through the JEE Examination and has gone through the undergraduate ragging program -- does not matter if you were Mech or Chem or Agri or Electronics or Physics. The motley crew of M.Techs and Research Scholars do not qualify as genuine IITians .. despite their pretensions to the contrary. This may sound rather arrogant and I apologise in advance to those who may feel agrieved .. but unfortunately I have to call a spade a spade.

Which brings me to the next topic. IIT-ians are famous and known across the world for their B.Tech students ..

The coursework that is taught in IIT -- whether at the B.Tech or M.Tech level -- is the same that is taught at any other engineering college in India. It is the same Shames and Timoshenko and Popov and Thereja ... whereever you go. No different.

The teachers at IIT, no offence meant to anyone, are no better than anywhere else ( except is the newfangled private donation schools .. which are awful). Professors at RECs or at B E College, or Jadavpur university or as good or as bad as their counterparts in IIT. 5% are good whereever you go. The rest do not matter. My only regret is that only if IIT professors where selected through a process one-tenth as rigorous as the IIT-JEE ... it would have been a world of difference.

And the mediocre professors reflect in the pathetic nature of research that happens in these IITs. Despite all the hype about Sponsored Research, look closely and you will see that things of monumental insignifance dominate the research agenda -- I believe that IIT KGP hs come out with (a) new male contraceptive and (b) new ways of growing tea in semi-arid areas. If that is the cutting edge of technology, then I would rather stay at the blunt edges.

So the course is identical, the teachers are average and the research is pathetic ... then how does IITs dare to compare themselves with MIT and the Ivy League colleges ? They can because they have something that no one else has ... the IIT JEE entrance test.

When I sat for this in 1979 there were 40,000 of us competing and just about 2000 got in. Today I believe that this number is 4000 out of 400,000 or something equally obscene .. and believe me when you have a selection process as rigorous as this and it does not matter what you course you teach, who teaches and how they teach. The folks that can overcome this barrier can overcome any barrier anywhere in the world .. and that is exactly what they have done.

No surprises then to know that Brand IIT is so well known and respected all over the world. But is it Brand IIT that deserves this adulation or Brand IITJEE ... that is the real brand ?

I think the answer is very clear ... Brand IITJEE is the real one.

But strangely enough, like true descendents of Kalidas, who got busy in cutting off the branch that he was sitting on ... we want to kill this IITJEE brand ..

And how ? Through our Quota system.

Honourable Parliament has just passed the law that makes nearly 50% reservation mandatory in IIT .. what this means is that the sanctity of the IITJEE is undermined. It does not matter if we increase the number of seats from 4000 to 8000. What matters is that when the 8000 people pass out .. they will carry the IIT Brand on their shoulder but will they carry the IITJEE Brand as well ?

And if they carry that IITJEE Brand, is that brand still half as valuable as the IITJEE brand that I ( and countless others ) carry proudly on our chest.

Sorry, there is no point in asking you for an answer ... because the answer is NO.

Google Education - Distance Learning

Google has a habit of coming out with extremely user-friendly and innovative products and I wonder if they could do something for distance learning.

In the explosive growth of the knowledge economy, nothing -- bar nothing -- is more important than new and innovative ways of imparting knowledge. Google would do a significant service to humanity ( and perhaps to their shareholders as well ) if they could design a hosted, web-based tool to further this activity.

The broad functionalities of my proposed system is as follows ..

a] A hosted presentation server, that would allow a teacher to broadcast a set of educational slides over the internet. Streaming video is good, but we would need far higher broadband penetration before that can happen

b] A white board ( or screen sharing ) application for the teacher to communicate to the students

c] A way for students to join a particular session and a way to manage the interaction with students. A way for a student to "raise your hand" to ask a question and for the instructor to choose which student to respond to. Many distributed presenations like Centra have this feature

d] Principal interaction would be through a low bandwidth text chat screen with VoIP voice chat available for those with higher bandwidth.

e] A secure and integrated payment system ( like PayPal ) to allow teachers to make money from the system, if they choose to.

f] An overall course registration system similar to YahooGroups or GoogleGroups so that the education is available only for those who have signed up or joined the class

g] An integrated wordprocessor / drawing tool for handling assignments that students can do offline and upload ... and a way for managing assignments. Built in mathematics and chemistry symbols are needed.

h] An online ( or offline ) testing strategy with the possibility of handling (1) multiple choice questions (2) subjective questions with paragrapy long answers.
................................................................

None of this rocket science, and all these solutions can be built individually. What we need is an integrated package that will run this off the web in a manner that makes economic sense to (a) Google - or any other hosting company (b) the teachers who will offer such tele-tuition and (c) the students who are the ultimate customers or consumers for this.

Advertisement on the web-pages that are targeted towards each individual students profile would help pay for this service to some extent.

Is someone at Google or some other organisation listening ?

Given the huge amount of money that students in India spend on tuitions, this could turn out to be significant value proposition for some enterprising Indians ... and perhaps the service if and when launched could be named after Ekalavya - the pioneer of distance learning in India - remember he was not accepted by Dronacharya as a student and yet by observing from a distance he acquired the skill to shoot better than the pampered Arjun.

December 03, 2006

Second Life as a Movie Making Platform

Movie making lends it rather neatly in SecondLife. Here is a platform where you can create sets any which way you like and then you can populate the sets with actors and actresses who can be tailored to look just as the situation demands. So the same set of human 'actors' or manipulators can work with avatars who can take on any shape and size , including fantastic ones.

The behaviour of the avatar-actors have to be defined in terms of animation scripts and this calls for signicant programming, but the best thing is that these animation scripts can be both reusable and incrementally improved. What this means is that while the first movie can have an avatar-actor who delivers a jerky slap that lands on someone's shoulder, the next version of the script can create a smooth slap that hits the intended victim right on the cheek ! And what can be done for a simple slap can of course be extended to any other action ... depending on the directors imagination.

The 3D sets are of course any set-designers delight ... not to talk of the treasurer since everything is done virtually using 3D modelling tools that can be uploaded and imported into Second Life.

Finally the photography ... the crude way of doing all this is to (a) shoot your desktop display or (b) project on the wall and shoot the image. But if you are a pro, then you can easily rig up some basic apparatus to pipe the display from one machine into another which is configured to recieve the same and convert it into an mpeg file.

As an example of what can be done, please see our movie "Are YOU Real ?"

[ this movie may initially take some time to load, and the first pass may be jerky, but if you are patient, then from the second replay onwards, it is quite smooth ]



and remember, there are no copyright issues in using Second Life as a platform since one of the cardinal principles of this world is that you own the IP of anything that you create here.

Cheers and happy movie making.

Are Your Real ?


A short movie set across three 'worlds', namely Planeshift, Real life in Calcutta, and Second Life that explores the boundaries of real and the illusory. Based on the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, as articulated by Sankar, the 8th century Hindu philosopher, this movie seeks to explore the boundaries between the worlds that are thought to be real and those that are believed to be illusory.

[ this movie may initially take some time to load, and the first pass may be jerky, but if you are patient, then from the second replay onwards, it is quite smooth ]

November 29, 2006

How would Second Life Evolve ?

Now that SecondLife has taken on a life of its own ( pun intended ..) and does not need an army of enthusiasts to explain why it is so important to the world in the 21st century .. it is time to speculate on how it will evolve in the future.

The parallel that I would like to draw at the moment is that SL is today where AOL was in 1993-94. There was a proprietory AOL client software that would connect over dialup lines ( low bandwidth SLIP/PPP protocols ) to the AOL servers and these servers would provide the 'space' for merchants and service providers to set up their commerce or 'fun' applications.

What happened next ? The AOL servers were replaced by http based webservers and anyone could set up a website, not just AOL. Secondly the browser ( the universal client ) could connect to any web server and then it became a matter individual transactions between the server owner ( the www website ) and the client software through which it was accessed. AOL dropped out of the picture completely.

Today, the situation is identical with Second Life.

Linden Labs has set up a set of proprietory servers -- referred to as regions or islands -- on which merchants and other service providers can set up their applications. Proprietory client software ( the SL client ) has to be used to access these LL servers ( regions/islands ) to access these services.

Going forward, it is very likely that open-source, or otherwise non-proprietory, servers would be developed that are functionally equivalent to the Linden Lab servers. And access to these servers would be through open-source or commercial ( but non Linden Lab provided) client software. Moreover these non LL clients would have the ability to access any LL-equivalent server set up and managed by any commercial entity.

Does this mean that LindenLabs and SecondLife will go the way that AOL did ? An important, but now irrelevent milestone, in mankinds quest for connectivity ?

I am sure that I am not the first person to think about this ... and in fact I am pretty sure that Linden Labs themselves must thinking about it ... but can they do anything about it ? After all creating such software -- either for the server or for the client -- is hardly rocket science. Linden Labs idea is of course revolutionary, but so was AOL's idea. But once an idea is out of the bag, there is no way one can keep it bottled up. There will always be someone who can build a better mousetrap ... and the world will beat a path to his door.

At best one can delay the inevitable by throwing in legal and IPR related issues ... and is that why Linden Labs has updated its terms of service particularly the section that deals with how non LL software connects to SL servers ?

November 18, 2006

Trouble in ShangriLa - More Rural protests in China

China lovers in India, who can see no wrong with what the Chinese leadership does - whether brutal suppression in Tibet or staking claim to Indian territory in NE -- should please take note of the kind of repression that the Chinese government has unleashed on its own population.

Grabbing land from villagers for a song and reselling it to urban realtors and industrialists is big business in India, but the Indian scams pale into insignificance compared to what is happening in China. Follow this link to get the latest update.

What makes it even more easy in China is the complete lack of political and press freedom. While Indian politicians -- given that they do have to wear the figleaf of the Indian constitution -- have to allow a motley crowd led by Mamata Banerjee or Medha Patkar to have their say and the media has the right to talk about, no such luxuries is allowed in China.

If you dare to protest, first you are shot and then that news is wiped off the face of the earth ... except that there are blogs like this others that report it ..

And of course the immoral hypocrites in the Indian political firmament would still lobby for Chinese companies in India and support the Chinese ambassador when he stakes claim to Arunachal Pradesh !!

After all what else can you expect from people who idolise Saddam Hussein - the butcher of Baghdad/Kurdistan -- to get minority votes in the country.

November 11, 2006

Singur being mirrored in China

The communist government in Bengal is facing intense resistance from farmers in their attempt to convert prime agricultural land for industrial use. Allegations of scams and an unholy nexus between party activists and unscrupulous realtors are being flung around every day.

Such conflicts however are very common in China but news of such conflicts are generally suppressed by the media there.

One such incident has happened recently in Guandong province and has been reported by the BBC

October 04, 2006

Tagore-free Shantiniketan

An oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines two normally contradictory terms, which generally make semantic and syntactic sense but sometimes could add up to what is truly impossible -- like the "horns of the hare" or the "child of a barren woman". Looking at the title of this post, the reader, may be led to believe that the the author is exploring oxymorons of the latter variety. But nothing could be further from the truth. Having spent a week in Birbhum, where Santiniketan happens to be, I have come to the conclusion that a Tagore-free Shantiniketan is not only possible but perhaps could be very desirable as well.

But before I begin let me admit upfront that I do know very well that unsolicitated advice is extremely irritating and it becomes even more intolerable when the advice is (a) unequivocally correct and -- this is worse -- (b) is directed towards individuals ( or groups) who steadfastly claim to be know-alls and hence by extrapolation do not need advice of any kind. For the author, me, the source of this advice, this is hardly important. Thanks to this blog, I have a medium to broadcast my thoughts to the world ... so let me make full use of the same.

Enough of beating about the bush, let us come to the point.

Anyone who has been to Bolpur, Prantik and all that lies in between, that is Shantiniketan, should be getting of sick of Tagore and Tagoreana. Tagore songs are derigeur on each and every occasion and everyone lives, breathes the spirit of Tagore ( or at least pretends to do so). This is rather claustrophobic, to say the least. Not that I have anything against Tagore -- I have no hesitation in stating that Tagore is one of the most outstanding intellectuals (scholar, sage, litterateur and what not) that India has had the privilege to give birth .. but the operative phrase is "one of the .." not the "ONLY" one ... and when we tend to forget this little distinction, we sow the seeds of a cultural disaster. In fact, this disaster in Shantiniketan is far deeper and more profound.

When Tagore created Vishwabharati at Shantiniketan it was unique, a one of a kind institution that had no parallels in the world .. but that was then, this is now. Has this university lived up to its pretentions of leading the world in thought ? Certainly not. Today it is just another obscure, me-too institution, perpetually harking back to its glorious past ( and until recently funded largely by Tagore's copyright income). What is new ? What is bold ? What is daring ? Where are the new frontiers that it seeks to explore ? Nothing, a big zilch.

What is even worse is the incestuos vortex into which it revels to splash around. Most of the faculty are alumnus of the Vishwabharati university. Most of the students of the university are residents of Shantiniketan and most likely to be children of either the faculty or at least the alumni of Vishwabharati. Even the school system that feeds students into Vishwabharati is specific to the locality, not the usual State school board or the national boards like ICSE or CBSE. And the teachers who teach in the schools are once again products of the same school system and the same university. [ Obviously there are some exceptions to this very sweeping statement, but then these exceptions plus a few Chinese looking girls in Ratanpalli, rarely prove the rule.]

What this means that there is no likelihood of any breath of fresh air, or a new idea to make it past the thought sentries at the portal and into the claustrophobic cloisters of this particular thoughtshop. To mix metaphors, the winds of change get stopped by the dreary sands dunes of long dead habit [ see, variations are indeed possible !]

There have been outsiders who have tried to change things but the system will, and actually does, get them. Either they too are converted into the same sloth and swept downward into the vicious vortex or they are pushed out, either politely, or even with some degree of (shantiniketanesque) hostility. Obviously the system is too well fortified against external ideas and action so any attempt to do a DesertStorm ( however correct that may be) will land us in the equivalent of the quicksands of the Tigris !

Any change that can happen, can only happen from inside, like the glasnost and perestroika of Gorbachov, that brought down the mighty Soviet Union. So what would a Gorbachov have done under the Chatimtala of Vishwabharati ? I am no Gorbachov but let me suggest one approach ...

Why not ban Tagore ( and all Tagoreana) for three years in Shantiniketan ? No program, no event shall use anything created by Tagore nor will any speech refer to that saint. Let the Ashramites learn to live with the fact that there can be world beyond Tagore ... and that world can be as rich as they want it to be. The first year will be painful, the withdrawal symptoms will be tremendous ... how can there be an event in Shantiniketan without Tagore .. but the year will pass and the world will not come to an end. From the second year onward, new streams of thought, new and creative well springs will emerge and in the third year great strides into new frontiers will become highly probable.

Having discovered a whole new world that had so far been hidden from them by the cloudscapes of Tagoreana, people of Shantiniketan will revel at their new found freedom ... and at that point, we should introduce Tagore back into the system ( as he is found in any other university or town in the country ) making him an option ( and a very good option, at that ) but not a necessity for the survival of this society.

Is there a Gorbachov in Vishwbharati who can make this happen ? I bow my head to him in anticipation.

September 22, 2006

Mahalaya, Navaratri & The Message of the Chandi

based on an article by Devdatta Kali


The Adoration of the Durga is the biggest and most popular festival in Bengal and coincides with Sharad Navaratri that is celebrated in the rest of Hindu India. The celebrations kick off from Mahalaya, the last day of the first dark fortnight of Ashvin, when Hindus recall and honour their ancestors. Mahalaya is associated in the popular Bengali psyche with a radio program produced by Birendra Krishna Bhadra for All India Radio, where the the Devi is symbolically invoked. This program is a combination of devotional songs and readings from the Chandi - a text that is revered by those who believe in the Divine Feminine or Shakti. For many of us, the radio program serves as a nostalgic reminder of a long vanished youth but very few of us have explored the mystical message of the Chandi. This article is an attempt in this direction.

According to legend, Durga sat on the tip of a needle for nine days, doing a severe penance to destroy the evil Asura Mahisha. On the first three days, she meditated as Herself, the next three days as Mahalakshmi and the last three days as Sarasvati. This signifies progression from tamsik, to rajasik to satvik and eventually obtaining liberation. The tenth day during Sharada Navaratri is called VijayaDashami to signify the victory on the day of Dashami, the tenth day of the bright lunar fortnight that follows Mahalaya.

It is a tradition that one reads the Devi-Bhagavat or the Devi Mahatmya (DM) during this period and in Bengal, Days 6 through 10 are celebrated -- devotionally and boisterously -- as Durga Puja.

The reading of Devi Mahatmya during the nine days of Navaraatri is to be done follows:

Day 1 : Chapter 1 > Madhu kaitabha samhaara
Day 2 : Chapters 2,3,4 > Mahishhasura samhaara
Day 3 : Chapters 5,6 > Dhuumralochana vadha
Day 4 : Chapter 7 > Chanda Munda vadha
Day 5 : Chapter 8 > Rakta biija samhaara
Day 6 : Chapters 9,10 > Shumbha Nishumbha vadha
Day 7 : Chapter 11 > Praise of Narayani
Day 8 : Chapter 12 > Phalastuti
Day 9 : Chapter 13 > Blessings to Suratha and the Merchant


The Chandi declares that the Mother is the supreme reality and that she herself has become this universe. We do not know who composed the Chandi, only that its author or authors created the most widely known and most sacred of all Shakta texts about sixteen hundred years ago. Some of the traditions preserved in the Chandi are inconceivably older.

The Chandi goes by two other names. The most common and widely recognized is Devimahatmya [The Glory of the Goddess]. The other is Sri Durga Saptashati [Seven Hundred Verses to Sri Durga]. In reality the Chandi contains fewer than 700 verses, and the number 700 is arrived at only through creative means, such as counting a half verse as full or a full verse as three.

There must be a good reason for this, and indeed there is.

The author or authors of the Chandi were Shaktas, devotees of the Mother, and they wanted their work to be recognized as comparable to the Vaishnavas’ great scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, which consists of 700 verses. They wanted to show that their view of God as Mother was as valid as the Vaishnava view of Krishna as the supreme God. Of course, both texts represent ancient traditions, and even the oldest Hindu scripture, the Rig Veda, proclaims: ekam sat vipra bahuda vadanti—“Truth is One, the wise call it by various names.”

In drawing comparison to the Bhagavad Gita, the authors of the Chandi wanted specifically to emphasize the Divine Mother’s role, like Krishna’s, in upholding the moral order of the universe and in leading humankind to liberation through the highest knowledge of the Self. The Chandi and the Gita have much else in common. Each is an independent text embedded in a larger work. The Gita belongs to the Mahabharata; the Chandi is an interpolation in the Markandeya Purana. Each is a synthesis of spiritual and philosophical knowledge drawn from diverse sources. Each begins with the story of one or more human beings in crisis, who will learn from a teacher in human form the way beyond all suffering. And each involves the battlefield as a metaphor for the field of human consciousness.

The Bhagavad Gita begins on the battlefield, with Arjuna surveying the armies of his kinsmen on both sides, arrayed for battle. Plunged into despair at the thought of killing his friends and relatives, he turns to his charioteer, Krishna, who is none other than God in human form. Krishna then delivers one of the world’s great spiritual messages. The Chandi begins with
King Suratha, likewise plunged into an existential crisis after losing his kingdom in battle.

A wise and just ruler, Suratha discovers that even his trusted ministers have turned against him, and on the pretext of going hunting, he mounts his horse and flees for his life. After riding for some time into a dense forest, he comes to the ashram of a holy man named Medhas. This forest retreat is a place of great calm and natural beauty, where even the ordinarily ferocious tiger abides peacefully with the gentle deer. Yet Suratha knows no peace. His mind churns in agony at the thought of everything he has lost: his kingdom with its riches and privilege, the loyalty of his subjects, the glory of power. These thoughts torment him ceaselessly.

One day another visitor arrives. His name is Samadhi, and he is every bit as despondent as the king. Once a prosperous merchant, he has been cast out by his wife and sons, who seized his wealth out of greed. He is deeply hurt by their betrayal and cannot understand it, being himself a man of good character. Most of all, he cannot understand why he still feels love for those who caused his deep humiliation and pain. And so, the king and the merchant approach Medhas the seer and ask why they are so miserable. Surely, as men of knowledge they ought to know better, but they are deeply perplexed.

“You say you are men of knowledge,” Medhas remarks. “Do you know what knowledge is?” He explains that what the king means by knowledge is only the experience of the objective world. Through the senses, men, birds and beasts alike share such a knowledge, each species according to its own capacity. Such knowledge is relative. In every way, the knowledge gained through the senses is conditioned by time and space, and we are constantly deceived. Medhas explains further that animals act out of instinct; but humans have the added capacity to reason and make choices, although such choices are most often driven by self-interest and the expectation of results.

If even our simple sense perceptions are so misleading, how much more confounded are we by the added factors of reason, will, memory, emotion and expectation? The operative principle here is that nothing in this world is as it seems to be. Not only are the king and the merchant perplexed, Medhas explains, everyone is, because even the wise are thrown into the whirlpool of delusion by the blessed goddess Mahamaya. “Who is this Mahamaya?” the king asks. “Whatever there is to know about her, all that I wish to learn.”

And so we arrive at the heart of the Chandi. The story of the king, the merchant and the seer acts as a frame that encloses three additional stories which Medhas relates to instruct his two disciples. Each story is a mythical account of the Divine Mother’s fierce, bloody battles with demons. Now, we must not dismiss a myth as a piece of fiction merely because it does not describe a historical event or the world as we know it. Instead, a myth takes us beyond the realm of fact and into the realm of meaning. Through symbols, it plumbs our deeper levels of understanding and brings to light elusive truths that are difficult to convey by ordinary means.

The Chandi is an allegory. Its battlegrounds represent our own human consciousness, and its events symbolize our own experiences. The demons represent all the evils in the world and all that is wrong within our minds and hearts. The Divine Mother is our own true being, and her clashes with the demons symbolize the outward and inward struggles we face daily.

Because there are three myths, the Chandi naturally falls into three parts, and they can be related to the three gunas, the basic universal energies or qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas.

The first part tells about the Divine Mother in her dark, deluding aspect that ensnares humankind in the bonds of ignorance and attachment. It teaches us about the nature of reality and asks us to question: what are divinity, the universe and humankind?

The second part presents the Mother as the fiery and active power that vanquishes evil and upholds the moral order of the universe. It teaches us how to live in this world, where we are torn between good and evil, right and wrong, enjoyment and suffering.

The third part reveals the luminous, benevolent form through which the Mother grants enlightenment and liberation. It shows us how to transcend the world through the higher knowledge of the spirit.

Side by side with grisly narratives of bloodshed and slaughter, the Chandi integrates four hymns that are rich in philosophical and theological content. Of surpassing beauty, these hymns are sublime outpourings of devotion. The variety of material in the Chandi is a convenient reminder that overall this text can be approached in more than one way. Its stories can be taken as allegories relating to our own behavior and circumstances. Its hymns inspire us to devotion for the personal forms of God as Mother; and its deeper, philosophical and esoteric interpretation leads us to the realization of God as the impersonal supreme reality.

Medhas’s first myth is short and to the point. During a period of cosmic dissolution, Vishnu lies sleeping on the thousand- headed serpent Shesha, who drifts on the waters of the undifferentiated ocean. Sitting on a lotus that grows from Vishnu’s navel, Brahma, the Lord of Creation, surveys the four directions. Suddenly two demons, named Madhu and Kaitabha, spring forth from the wax in Vishnu’s ears and attempt to kill Brahma. Frantically he tries to awaken Vishnu, but the god is held in the power of Mahamaya, who is settled over his eyes as his blessed sleep.

And so Brahma praises Mahamaya with a hymn [ Hymn #1 - BrahmaStuti]. She allows Vishnu to awaken, and he battles with the demons for 5000 years, but without victory. At this point Mahamaya intervenes again. She confounds Madhu and Kaitabha with delusions of their own might and grandeur. Look at us, the demons think. Not even Vishnu, the Supreme Lord, can conquer us. Because he has fought so well, let us offer him a boon. These big, lumbering demons are comical in their stupidity, and at this point we can almost hear them gasp, “Oops! Did we make a mistake?”

Of course they did, because Vishnu replies, “There is only one boon to ask: that I destroy the two of you here and now.” In a last-ditch effort to save themselves, Madhu and Kaitabha look around and see only the endless cosmic ocean. “Very well,” they say, “but on one condition: slay us where water does not cover the earth.” The outcome of this story hinges on a pun, because
the Sanskrit words for “earth” and “thigh” are almost the same. And so, Vishnu lifts the two demons to his thighs and cuts off their heads. It is said that a pun is the lowest form of humor, and this is fitting, because Madhu and Kaitabha represent the lowest form of human awareness, densely shrouded in ignorance. Their unprovoked attack on Brahma reminds us of the senseless violence in our own world, where members of one religious or political or ethnic group attack people of other groups only because they are different.

Madhu and Kaitabha, in their near-bestial state, recognize no higher reality; they are violent, ugly creatures intent on gratifying their base instincts, often expressed through the thrill of intimidation or brute force. In their physical strength they grow exceedingly vainglorious. But of course pride goes before a fall, and their own arrogance becomes their undoing. Through the hymn that Brahma addresses to Mahamaya, the universal deluder, we learn much about the universe we inhabit. This hymn, the Brahmastuti, is composed in highly symbolic language that is often difficult to interpret, but it reveals profound insight into the nature of the cosmos. Although the ideas are expressed in devotional terms, the concepts are scientific even by today’s standards.

The Brahmastuti tells us that creation is a process of manifestation that flows from the One to the many. The Divine Mother is the infinite, nondual consciousness as well as its dynamic creative power; and she is ever present throughout all of creation. Before manifestation, she is the bindu, the dimensionless, nonlocalized point of concentrated shakti that contains within itself all possibilities. This sounds very much like the Big Bang theory and especially like a recent refinement of it, known as the Cosmic Inflation theory. This proposes that the entire universe popped out of a dimensionless, contentless point and immediately expanded to cosmic size in a miraculous way, suggesting the agency of a higher power.

Let us not forget that the Sanskrit word for “power” is shakti. According to Brahma’s hymn, the Divine Mother gives birth to the universe, supports it and draws it back into herself in an ever-repeating cycle, because creation is without an absolute beginning or an absolute end. In this process, she who is nondual consciousness veils her radiant boundlessness with the limitations of time and space, name and form, cause and effect. Through these limitations she projects the finite world of our experience—a world that is both dark and dazzling, terrifying and enchanting.

The Divine Mother is the all-encompassing source of good and evil alike, who expresses herself in every form. Yet beyond this apparent multiplicity, everything—be it spirit, mind or matter—is ultimately one. To a Vedantin, who believes in Sankara's Advaita, “The world seems real as long as we experience it, but once we attain knowledge of Brahman, the phenomenal world vanishes. We think we see a snake in the semi-darkness, but when the light reveals it to be a rope, the perception of the snake vanishes.”

According to the Vedantin, the world is no more real than the misperceived snake. This position is called vivartavada, the doctrine of appearance, because the phenomenal world is thought to be a mere appearance superimposed upon the transcendental unity of Brahman. The Shakta philosophy takes a different position. When thread is woven into cloth, it undergoes a change of
form but not of substance. In becoming cloth, thread takes on the additional qualities of cloth, but in substance it is still thread. In the same way, the Divine Mother, who is pure energy and consciousness, assumes all the names and forms and characteristics of the creation, even while remaining the pure energy and consciousness that is her true nature. This view is called parinamavada, the doctrine of transformation.

We find it in the Chandi, where Medhas says of the Divine Mother: “She is eternal, having the world as her form (DM 1.64).” And also in Sri Ramakrishna’s reply to M.: “The Divine Mother revealed to me in the Kali temple that it was She who had become everything (M., 345).” There is one more point: whichever way we choose to view the world, we still have to live in it. And that is what the second part of the Chandi is all about.

Medhas’s second story is intended especially for the king. Suratha, like Arjuna in the Gita, belongs to the ruling and warrior caste, whose duty is to uphold the moral order of the world. In the story that Medhas relates, an ill-tempered buffalo demon, named Mahishasura, wages war against heaven, casts out the gods, and usurps Indra’s throne. When the dispossessed gods seek Vishnu’s and Shiva’s help, the Divine Mother herself comes to the rescue.

First from Vishnu’s brow, then from the bodies of all the other gods, a great radiance shines forth and coalesces into the beautiful form of Durga. The gods bow to her, recognizing that their own individual powers are only aspects of her supreme power. After Durga has slain Mahishasura’s forces, she stands on the blood-soaked battleground facing the buffalo demon himself. Mahishasura, bellowing in confrontation, represents willfulness and monumental rage. Under his frenzied wheeling, the trampled earth breaks apart, his blasting breath tosses mountains into the air, his lashing tail causes the oceans to overflow, and overhead his mighty horns tear the gently floating clouds to shreds.

Consider the symbolism: the power of human anger and greed threatens to destroy everything it touches: the goodness of the nurturing earth, the stability of the mountains, the expansive beauty of the oceans, the innocence of the gentle clouds.

Under Durga’s attacks Mahisha changes form—from buffalo to lion to man to elephant, every time eluding her deathblows. But she resolves to slay him, and when Mahisha returns to his mighty buffalo form, she pins him beneath her foot and thrusts her spear into his side. Instantly Mahisha reveals his true demon form, and Durga beheads him with her great sword.

Like Mahisha, we go through life dissatisfied, often agitated, sometimes full of rage; and the causes of our misery change over time. One day it’s this, the next day it’s something else, and so it goes. Until we can pin down the root cause, our discontent cannot be overcome, and like Mahishasura that cause is loath to reveal itself. Mahisha represents more than monumental rage. His anger is one of six passions that afflict our human awareness. The others are lust, greed, pride, jealousy and delusion. Let’s analyze them. Lust, or desire in general, is a longing for gratification. We want something.

Why? Because we feel something is lacking. We feel deficient, limited or separated in some way. When we fail to satisfy a desire, a common response is anger. Or when a desire is satisfied, a common response is greed: we want more. And so we’re caught in an ongoing cycle. To make matters worse, we can add pride and jealousy to the mix.

Let’s define pride as a false sense of superiority designed to convince us we’re not deficient after all, but in fact better than anyone else. And so we think—until someone else comes along whom we see as richer, more powerful, more attractive or happier than we are. Then we fall prey to jealousy—an apprehensive resentment of someone else’s better condition in life. All this adds up to delusion: we are caught up in a misreading of who and what we really are. The Sanskrit word for delusion, moha, comes from a root meaning “to lose consciousness,” and herein lies the key to understanding.

The Divine Mother is infinite consciousness. When she projects herself as the universe of name and form, that consciousness appears divided among all beings. This apparent fragmentation creates the sense of individuality. Each individual self experiences its existence in terms of “I, me and mine,” as well as “not-I, not-me and not-mine.” And so the trouble begins.

The root cause of our inner existential discontent and our outward conflicts is the feeling deep down inside that we are limited, separated and incomplete. We mistakenly identify with the limited ego, when in fact we are the limitless atman. That atman, abiding in every person, is the true Self—the one, undivided reality whose essence is pure being-consciousness-bliss.

Just as Mahishasura is about to be beheaded by Durga’s sword of knowledge, his glance meets hers, and he gets a fleeting glimpse of that truth—that his true identity lies dispassionate and blissful beyond the raging whirlpool of his passions.

After he is slain, the gods celebrate Durga’s triumph over Mahishasura in the longest and most eloquent of the Chandi’s four hymns. Known as the Shakradistuti [Hymn # 2 - Praise by Indra and the host of gods], it invites us to reflect on the themes of good and evil, fate and free will, karma and divine grace.

The hymn praises Durga as “good fortune in the dwellings of the virtuous and misfortune in the abodes of the wicked (DM 4.5).” On the surface, this verse implies reward and punishment by a personal deity. The deeper, philosophical meaning points to an impersonal balancing principle at work in the universe, the law of karma. Either way the message is the same: our deeds have consequences. A central theme of the hymn is the question of good and evil. A working definition might go like this: good is that which takes us toward the Divine—toward harmony, love and unity; evil is that which distances us from the Divine and creates hatred, injury and disunity in our lives.

Additionally, referring to the fierce battle that has just taken place, the hymn asks how Mahisha, even though enraged, could be moved to strike the Mother’s gently smiling face. From this we can add another dimension to our definition of evil: that it is intentionally profaning. In the world around us we witness continual assaults on all we hold sacred. War, terrorism, genocide, the corruption of the innocent, the logging of irreplaceable forests, and the remorseless pollution of the air, water and earth that support our very existence—what evil moves humans to commit such terrible acts?

Whether we are talking about destructive actions, hate-filled speech, malevolent thoughts or even uncaring passivity, let these be a sobering reminder that our collective and individual evil is the human face of Mahishasura’s rage. Yet the hymn proclaims that even toward evildoers the Mother’s intentions are most gracious. Her nature is to subdue the misconduct of the wicked. Through her inconceivable grace, even wrongdoers who have committed enough evil to keep them long in torment are purified in battle by the touch of her weapons and are brought to beatitude.

We are reminded once again of the Bhagavadgita. Sri Krishna declares that whenever righteousness declines and evil spreads, he is born into the world to protect the good, to destroy wickedness, and to re-establish virtue (BG 4.6-8). On the theme of unconditional grace, he says: “I am alike to all beings; to me none are hateful or dear. … If even an evil-doer worships me with utter devotion, he should be regarded as good, for he is rightly resolved. Quickly he becomes righteous and attains eternal peace (BG 9.29-31).”

The story of Madhu and Kaitabha was concerned with the power of tamas: how in our ordinary state of being, we all walk around dazed and confused. In the story of Durga and Mahishasura, the power of rajas predominates. Mahishasura’s rajasic energy controls him and impels him to destructive acts, but Durga controls her own fiery splendor. Her rajas is protective of her devotees and intent on destroying evil. Through this story Medhas teaches that through active struggle, we can overcome enslavement to our passions and live virtuously, in harmony with the world.

According to Hindu teaching, life has four legitimate aims. These are dharma, artha, kama and moksha—virtuous conduct, material comfort, enjoyment and liberation. The first three form a category called bhukti, concerned with life in the world.

Bhukti is the king’s immediate concern. Having fled to the forest after his defeat, he has failed to fulfill his moral responsibility, and he still feels attraction for the privileges of kingship. In other words, he has unfinished business in the world.

How different is the merchant Samadhi. World-weary and ready to renounce the pursuits of dharma, artha and kama, he is ready for moksha, spiritual liberation. For his sake, Medhas tells his third and final story, one that points toward realizing our inner perfection beyond the world. The story has a familiar beginning. Two demons, named Shumbha and Nishumbha, have dispossessed the gods, stripped them of their powers and appropriated their wealth and privilege. This time the cast of characters is much larger, and the demons seem more like us than the ones we’ve met previously.

The complex scenario passes through three phases as we move progressively inward. The Mother’s successive victories over a colorful cast of demons symbolize our own efforts at purifying our consciousness of every imperfection and misconceived notion. First the myth turns the mirror on our behavior and motivations. Next we are drawn in deeper to observe the mind and its workings, and finally we face the fundamental question of who or what we are.

We first meet Shumbha sitting in his palace amid his glittering hoard of stolen treasure. The sickening excess of it all reminds us of our own materialism run amok. Soon the two fawning servants, Chanda and Munda, enter with news that they’ve seen a young woman of captivating beauty dwelling in the Himalayas, to whom the God's are paying their homage [ Hymn #3 ]

Playing upon Shumbha’s vanity, they suggest that he who is all-wealthy and all-powerful surely must also possess this jewel among women. Little do they know that she is the Devi, the Divine Mother herself, in her sattvic aspect. In the same way, we are drawn to the world’s enchantments but forget that they are expressions of the Divine. Shumbha, his lust aroused, wants to claim her as his own, just as we want to possess all that we find attractive and desirable. And just like us, if one way fails, Shumbha will try another, and another, with growing frustration.

When his smooth-talking messenger, Sugriva, delivers a marriage proposal, we recognize in him our own lack of complete truthfulness. At first the Devi plays along with delicious irony, but after she refuses the marriage proposal, Sugriva’s honeyed words turn threatening. If cajoling and deceit don’t work, how about force? Next, Shumbha sends a dim-witted thug named Dhumralochana to fetch the Devi, kicking and screaming if need be. In other words, when we set our mind to something, how it affects others is not necessarily our concern.

When Dhumralochana’s brute force fails, Shumbha loses all reason and sends Chanda and Munda with a huge army to bring back “that vile woman” in any way or in any condition whatever. Notice how in Shumbha’s agitated mind “the jewel among women” is now “that vile woman.” What was once so desirable is now the cause of his misery, and his desire now is only for the triumph of his own will. Don’t we also overreact irrationally when circumstances frustrate our intentions? The struggle escalates, and the gently smiling Devi Durga calls forth the terrifying, emaciated form of Kali and eight other fierce goddesses to combat the demon hordes. Each one of these shaktis is an aspect of her own immense power. Each represents a higher function of our own consciousness.

When Chanda and Munda lie dead, a demon named Raktabija strides onto the battlefield. He possesses a unique power. Whenever a drop of his blood falls to earth, another demon of identical size and strength springs up. In the fighting, demons proliferate from his spilled blood, and utter terror seizes the gods, until Durga merely smiles and tells Kali to roam the battlefield and lap up the drops of blood as they fall. The demons arising from it soon perish between her gnashing teeth; and Raktabija, drained of blood, falls dead.

This scene bridges two levels of reality. On one level the glistening red drops of Raktabija’s blood represent the overwhelming power of desire. Like a seed, every desire that falls on the fertile soil of our mind grows to maturity and bursts with seeds for the next planting. Every desire produces the seeds of many more, and we find we are never satisfied.

The ghastly image of Kali, in her red-eyed, emaciated form known as Chamunda, avidly licking up the drops of blood, tells us that desires are best conquered when nipped in the bud.

Another interpretation of the Raktabija episode takes us deeper into the mind. Patanjali, whose Yoga Sutra systematized the science of meditation more than two thousand years ago, wrote, “Yoga is the control of the thought-waves in the mind.” Anyone who has ever sat to meditate knows how difficult this is. No matter how hard we try to concentrate, the mind wanders from here to there. One thought gives rise to another. Raktabija symbolizes this normal, unruly state of human consciousness, where mental energy is scattered and unfocused. Chamunda Kali is the power of concentrated awareness that subdues the thought-waves and takes us to a calmer, purer state of consciousness.

Finally, only two demons remain, the brothers Shumbha and Nishumbha. They are almost inseparable, and the Chandi calls Nishumbha the younger brother who is dearer to Shumbha than life itself. Shumbha represents the ego, and Nishumbha is the sense of attachment, the tag-along sibling that accompanies him everywhere. Earlier we spoke about the ego as a sense of separate selfhood. What we call ego is a limiting function of consciousness that in Sanskrit is called ahamkara, literally the “I- maker.” It is both a process of consciousness and the product of that process. Along with the sense of its own individuality, this I-making principle has the power of self- appropriation that claims things as its own.

Here is where Nishumbha comes in. The attachment he represents is called mamatva, literally, “my-ness.” In a sense it is the glue that holds our identity together. We consciously attach our sense of self to things that are not the Self. We identify with our bodily characteristics, such as sex, size, shape, color. We define ourselves by our likes and dislikes, by the people in our lives and our relationships to them, by our professions, leisure activities, religious or political affiliations and countless other factors that combine in ways to make each one of us unique. We use our life’s experiences— what we do and what happens to us—to shape and reshape our identity. And so, our sense of self is constantly shifting.

When we allow our happiness and misery to be dictated by things outside of and foreign to our true nature, we lose our autonomy. Let’s consider the third meaning of upadhi: a substitute, anything that may be taken for something else, an appearance mistaken for reality. Our defining upadhis are components of a false sense of our own identity. In the end, they are no more than worthless tokens of our separation from the infinite Self. But how we hold on to them! When the Divine Mother finally slays Nishumbha, we get a graphic image of the ferocity of the struggle. Just when she has the demon cornered, he sprouts ten thousand arms with ten thousand grasping hands. This picture of ugly desperation illustrates just how desperate we are not to let go.

Even with Nishumbha out of the way, there remains the ego-sense itself, denuded of all borrowed attributes. Now Shumbha, alone, stands face to face with the Mother. He points to her companion goddesses and chides her for relying on the strength of others in the fight. She answers, “I am alone here in the world. … These are but projections of my own power… (DM 10.5). ”

To prove her point, the Shaktis vanish into her, and she then slays Shumbha. This final victory represents the realization of the true Self.

There is no way to describe this immediate, unmediated knowledge of the atman; but that has not stopped mystics of every religious tradition throughout history from trying to express the inexpressible experience of the Divine. In the Svetasvatara Upanishad, a text certainly known to whoever composed the Chandi, the enlightened seer proclaims, “I have known the unchanging, primeval One, the indwelling Self of all, everywhere present and all-pervading, whom the wise declare to be free from birth and eternal (SU 3.21).”

Medhas then relates how the gods again praised the Divine Mother in a fourth and final hymn. [Hymn # 4] Three of its verses (DM 11.10-12) are well known in Vedanta circles. They are sung every evening around the world in temples of the Ramakrishna Order as the arati hymn “Om Sarva Mangala Mangalye.” Then, Medhas sends his two disciples to the bank of a river, where they meditate and worship the Mother devotedly. After three years she appears to them and offers each a boon. Suratha, who we remember has unfinished business, asks for the return of his earthly kingdom, followed by an imperishable kingdom in the next life. The merchant Samadhi, on the other hand, has grown wise and dispassionate. He asks for the knowledge that will dissolve the bondage of worldly existence.


Credits :

Devadatta Kali has been closely associated with the Vedanta Society since 1966. A regular contributor to Vedanta journals throughout the world. He has authored a translation of the Devi Mahatyam in "Chandi, In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning"


This translation of the texts has been assembled by Prithwis Mukerjee from originals from Kumuda Bhandarkar (achkumg3@batelco.com.bh) Based on emails from S. A. Bhandarkar and M. Giridhar

September 18, 2006

Vande Mataram

1. I revere the Mother ! The Mother
Rich in waters, rich in fruit,
Cooled by the southern airs,
Verdant with the harvest fair.

2. The Mother - with nights that thrill in the light of the moon,
Radiant with foliage and flowers in bloom,
Smiling sweetly, speaking gently,
Giving joy and gifts in plenty.

3. Powerless ? How so, Mother,
With the strength of voices fell,
Seventy millions in their swell !
And with sharpened swords
By twice as many hands upheld !

4. To the Mother I bow low,
To her who wields so great a force,
To her who saves,
And drives away the hostile hordes.

5. You our wisdom, your our law,
You our heart, you our core,
In our bodies the living force is thine.

6. Mother, you're our strength of arm,
And in our hearts the loving balm,
Yours the form we shape in every shrine.

7. For your are Durga, bearer of the ten-fold power,
And wealth's Goddess, dallying on the lotus-flower,
You are Speech, to you I bow,
To us wisdom you endow.

8. I bow to the Goddess Fair,
Rich in waters, rich in fruit,
To the Mother,
Spotless - and beyond compare !

9. I revere the Mother ! the Mother !
Darkly green and also true,
Richly dressed, of joyous face,
This ever-plenteous land of grace.

..........................................................................................................................
Extract from the AnandaMath - The Sacred Brotherhood by Bankimchandra Chatterjee - translated by Julius Lipner

August 13, 2006

MMORPG : The Maya of Vedanta

Massively Multi-user Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) are something that I have been writing about extensively in my other blog the-Imagineer. However the posts in that blog address the technological and economic aspects of this emerging phenomenon. Here I wish to explore the philosophical implications.

But before I attempt to link MMORPGs to Vedanta, let me state clearly upfront that I am not one of those who believe, and try to convince everyone else, that all technology that we see today was known and available to ancient Hindu society. While I am not a pseudo-secularist who revels in trashing each and every aspect of Hindu civilisation, I am also equally sceptical of wild claims about the usage of airplanes in the Ramayana and of nuclear missiles in the Mahabharata. And in particular I have no love lost for Vedic mathematics ... that collection of simple formulae and mathematical shortcuts that have been erroneously compared to the wonders of Euclid and Pythagoras.

What I do have a lot of respect for is the philosophy (darshana -- that which has been seen, by adepts) of the Upanishads in general and its crown jewel (the ChudaMani) Advaita Vedanta -- as elaborated by Sankar -- whose insight, erudition and passionate embrace of the truth is unparalleled in the annals of human history.

Advaita Vedanta is too vast to describe in a single post but the curious may look up my thoughts on Singularity -- the non-dual, which is what Advaita means.

One of the key concepts of Advaita Vedanta is that of Maya, the illusion. Vedanta asserts that the world is an illusion and he who understands this -- at an intuitive level -- realises the unity of the apparent duality of (a) the Creator and (b) the Creation -- or the duality of (a) the Knower and (b) the To-be-Known. In fact enlightenment consists of the convergence of these duals into the Singularity of Advaita or non-duality.

Coming back to Maya, we realise that it is very difficult for us to accept that the sensual world, the world that is accessible to us through our five (six ?) sense organs, does not exist. How can it be that things that we can see and touch are not real but figments of our imagination.

Matrix, the movie, is the first example of how this could be so and you can look up my article on Vedanta@Hollywood on this topic. However, Matrix was fiction, science fiction but MMORPGs suffer no such handicap. MMORPGs are here and now and very, very "real" !

The world of any reasonable MMORPG is certainly not "real" in the traditional sense. Everything inside an MMORPG -- both the physical environment as well as the 'avatars' that operate inside are digital simulations ... created through a computer program and operated by 'external' sentient entities -- the human players.

But inside the MMORPG the sense of 'reality' is immense and with advances of technology, current technology not sci-fiction, the sense of reality is increasing by leaps and bounds. In SecondLife -- the most sophisticated MMORPG at the moment -- the sense of reality is incredible.

What makes SecondLife so different from other MMORPGs is its support for User Generated Content -- users can create artefacts, houses, balls, animals, puppets ... and using the Linden Scripting Language enhance them with 'behaviours'. For example a parrot can kiss you or bite someone ( or his 'avatar') if touched ! Obviously the more scripting you do, the more sophisticated your artefact can become.

And since these artefacts are persistent, the creator need not be logged on to operate his creation ... they could operate on their own like any other well known 'bot' or robot.

This is where the border between the 'reality' of the external, physical world and the 'illusion' of the digital, cyber world begins to blur. Looking ahead we can visualise a programmatic world of 'bots' inhabiting the illusory world of the MMORPG ... and then looking inside us .. it makes me wonder whether the reality of the external world, that we human beings inhabit, is in indeed a fact ..is it really 'real'?

Before I had entered an MMORPG (like Planeshift or SecondLife) I was very sure ... but now my confidence has been weakened. Am I another 'avatar' being operated by some other sentient entity outside this world ?

Is this a recursive ? Just as I could create an 'avatar' within Planeshift or SecondLife .. am I an 'avatar' created inside what we believe is this real world.

Through my avatar, I can create a quasi-intelligent artefact, that exhibits some kind of behaviour. Can I extend this ability to create and end up creating a third virtual world inside the MMORPG .. a third world where my avatar, if he is 'intelligent' enough, can log in and play ThirdLife ? And if that be so ... then how am i sure that my so-called 'real' life is indeed the FirstLife that I believe it is ...

Of course we understand and appreciate programming avatars and 'bots' to be intelligent is a non-trivial problem and one that researchers on AI have been breaking their heads against since the 1960s. But assuming that this problem can be tackled -- see my thoughts on how this could be attempted -- we see no difficulty in envisioning an entire range of worlds where the one that we currently know is called the "Nth life" and a 'normal' MMORPG is "N+1th life"

For the time being N = 1, we believe we are in FirstLife and we are playing SecondLife (N+1 = 2). However whether that is really so ... is something that is known only to he who is a true adept at Advaita Vedanta.

Let me conclude with a story that is popular with Zen Buddhists. There was monk who fell asleep under a tree and had a very vivid dream. He dreamt that he was a butterfly and was flying around the tree. When the monk woke up he was very confused ... and wondered -- "Am man who had been dreaming that he was a butterfly ? Or am I a butterfly who is currently dreaming that I am a man ?"

Is it possible for an avatar to ask similar questions if he has been programmed to do so ? And finally ... have I been programmed by someone else to ask this question through this blog ?

The answer will perhaps be known to those who have have achieved the Singularity of Advaita Vedanta.

The Red Flag Law : From England to India

All students and enthusiasts of the History of the Motor Car are aware of the Red Flag law that was in effect in England in the closing years of the 19th century.

This was the time when engineers were making the first hesitant attempts to put a steam engine on a horse carriage to see if they could make a self-propelled vehicle that was both light enough to move and yet safe enough for the passengers ... and there were many ideas that were explored. Engineers in England, as well as in France, Germany and other industrialised nations were carrying out various experiments to study different options ... with different degrees of technical and commercial success.

But England was the only country where the legislature -- that is Parliament -- had unilaterally and ignorantly mandated that self-propelled vehicles were a danger to the population and hence should they venture out on public roads, they had to be preceded by a man, walking in front, with a red flag.

This arbitrary piece of legislation was guided less by actual concerns of safety and more by the lobby that had emerged to protect and preserve the fortunes of those who made a living out of horses and horse-drawn carriages. This included companies that built and operated horse-drawn carriages ( which were the dominant modes of transportation ) plus the entire industry centred around horses -- those who sold horse feed, those who looked after horses and the like.

This strange and retrograde Red Flag law could not stop the evolution of the automobile industry but it did leave the British motor industry with a very significant handicap ... as European car makers could move forward and establish themselves at the expense of the British.

The law has ofcourse been repealed long ago but it is still held up as a prime example of how irrational and mischivous legislation can and does have a negative impact on the growth of an important industry.

.... That was then, how is this relevent today and in India ?

The left parties in India's parliament are the equivalent of the Red Flag law in India today. When entrepreneurs in this country are at last breaking free from the colonial past and trimming their sails to catch the winds of globalisation ... we have the equivalent of theRed Flag law to hinder and impede progress.

Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation (LPG) in inevitable ... as inevitable as the automobile has proved to be .... and yet our left parties want to have the equivalent of the Red Flag law ... to slow down its progress.

The purported concerns are similar ... it is said that the LPG is too dangerous to be let loose on the illiterate and unsuspecting population of India ... just as self-propelled vehicles were too dangerous for the population of England in the 19th century.

The real reasons are of course far too malefic ... should LPG progress at the pace that it should, it would make life very difficult for a whole slew of people ... the crony capitalists who have been sucking the nation dry and the malevolent trade unions who enjoy unbridled power at the expense of both the worker as well as the population at large.

Hence we have to suffer the modern version of the Red Flag law as the nation tries to take the highway to productivity and prosperity.

In 19th century England, the Red Flag law surely must have been debated and discussed in Parliament and in the press ... but today we know it for what it was .. a worthless piece of legislation that crippled the British motor industry.

Today ... we discuss and debate LPG in Parliament and in the press -- both physical as well as digitial -- but we know that fifty years from now, the jury will be out and we would know that this debate about the progress of LPG reforms was all hogwash.

But industry and entrepreneurship in India would have been dealt a crippling blow from which it would take years to recover.

Such is the power of our so-called Democracy.

August 02, 2006

SecondLife : the next.www.com

Is SecondLife a pre-cursor to a new version of the world wide web ? Let us take a close look at how SecondLife is very similar ( or dissimilar ) to the web in general.

The web is one of the many applications ( like chat, smtp-mail, ftp ) that runs on the IP infrastructure of the internet. Of course it is the most popular application. SL is also another application complete with a client and a server.

The web consists of websites ( or groups of websites ) that individuals build and hope to draw traffic to. SL consists of islands, regions and individual 'properties' that people build and hope to draw traffic to.

On a website, you can do various things .. make it 'beautiful', both visually as well as with music etc, to increase its attractiveness. You can also enable your website to hold chat sessions, or enable it with eCommerce to transact business.

Properties and regions on SL can also traverse the same path. They can initially be simply 'beautiful' places to be in .. but they can be (and are being ) enhanced to support commercial transactions.

Going forward, I forsee a vast variety of regions, some simply beautiful, some for fun, some for education and some for commerce ... that I can visit through the SL client.

Is this not similar to the America Online Service ( precursor to the web ) where you could use a proprietory browser to access a range of services ?

Which brings me to the point of dis-similarity of the with the web. The web is based on an open architecture. You can use ANY browser to access a website created by ANY individual, on ANY server ... as long as both adhere to the http protocol.

On SL you have to use ONLY the SL client ( the SL 'browser') to browse regions created ONLY on the SL server, and that too ONLY by SL subscribers.

Perhaps this is how things start ... if we use AOL as an analogy, but going forward is it possible to define an open architecture of a generic MMORPG client that can access any MMORPG server using some other yet to be defined protocal ( similar to http ).

July 30, 2006

A business meeting inside an MMORPG

Yesterday was a red letter day in my exploration of Virtual Worlds when I participated in a real company meeting inside SecondLife, an MMORPG that has been featured in BusinessWeek magazine.

When the Lotus Notes meeting invite arrived from an unknown US colleague, I had been put off by the unearthly 1:00 AM in the night ? and then I looked closely at the venue and was taken back to read location@SecondLife !!!

This was so intriguing and exciting as well that I immediately suspended my self imposed curfew on conferance calls after 9:00 PM and accepted the invitation.

Fortunately I had an avatar in SecondLife ... though it was a very rudimentary one. Basic male(!) with bare minimum clothes and through him I entered SecondLife at the appointed hour and teleported myself to the location that my company had set up.

And wow ! what a simulation ! Full 3D conferance room with attached lounge. Company posters on the walls, standard powerpoint presentations running on the screen.

It was a big room with about 30 chairs and I ( or rather my avatar ) sat down and watched as a whole crowd of similar enthusiasts started entering the room at the appointed hour. Some were as rudimentarily dressed as I was but othes were in extravagant clothes. At the appointed hour, the convenor of the meeting took a roll call and the meeting commenced and went as per the agenda circulated earlier.

We used a parallel telephone con-call system ( from our First Life !!) for the main discussion but could have used the built-in chat system as well.

All in all, a most unusual and exciting experience and one that is going to be the norm and not the exception in the future.

July 23, 2006

Blogspot is back, but what about Geocities ?

The millions words of criticism that have been written to condemn the illogical, ineffective and downright detrimental ban that the Government of India sought to place on accessing certain websites ( and associated domains )are HARDLY ENOUGH to assuage the feelings of extreme outrage that has been felt by the internet community in India.

Those who are internet-illiterate, and that would include a large percentage of the Indian bureaucracy, cannot ever hope to understand the feeling of helplessness, anguish and despair that those of us, who choose to live in cyberia for a large part of the day, had experienced. It is similar to cutting of both the daily supply of newspaper and access to the local transport system !!!

Good thing is that finally public opinion has been strong enough to modify government policy and the blogs are back again ... but what about geocities ?

Most of today's bloggers may not be aware of geocities, but those of us who had started builing websites in the second half of the last decade ( well BEFORE the dotcom boom ) have fond memories of ( and large websites located at ) geocities which along with tripod were the first that allowed us to create real websites ( as opposed ot blogs )for FREE ....

The same ham-handedness that killed blogspot has killed geocities as well. However the blogger community has been vocal enough to recover its rights.

The geocities community is much smaller and I hope that even we can fight this ban and get our websites visible again.

Finally, let us remember that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. We need to be vigilant that such blocking does not happen again ... and finally we must not forget about those specific blogs that are still blocked ... Why are they blocked ? What did they try to say ? Who took the decision ? And is this decision correct ?

Perhaps someone should invoke the RTI to get these answers ...

June 05, 2006

Code Review : The Movie, the Book and More

I saw the movie last Friday and the first thing that struck me was the amazing stupidity of the reviews that were penned by the critics at Cannes after the premiere on 19 May. Apparently they found it ridiculous and funny and some of them broke out laughing ... well, we in Bengal have a saying that the fool laughs thrice - once without understanding, once because everyone else is .. and finally when they understand the joke. Unfortunately neither this movie, nor the book that it is based on is a joke .. so now that these idiots have had their last laugh ...it is time for us to move on without paying these jokers @ Cannes any further attention.

Having got that piece of venom out of my spleen, let me turn to the movie. It is a very faithful reproduction of the book but you must have read the book well to make sense of the movie. Unfortunately the vast majority of people with whom I shared the movie hall had possibly not read the book ... and so to most of them, it seemed as if they were watching a B-thriller ( B for Bond, James Bond ) ... how pathetic.

But if you have read ( and understood ) the book, the movie is a marvel. Given the immense complexity of the plot it is a wonder that the director could stay true to the storyline and still maintain the mystery right up to the very end.

Net-net a very good movie but one not likely to be hugely popular, which is fine with me since I have always believed that popularity is not synonymous with quality. The acting was competent, though my wife did have higher expectations from Tom Hanks but I suppose that is a uniquely feminine perspective !! I was more focussed on what he was upto and of course I was interested in his delightful companion -- of whom I am sure we would see more in a sequel.

But of course the 'hero' of the whole episode is not Tom, not Audrey, not even Dan Brown but the enigmatic figure of Mary Magdalene .. about whom I had first heard of under the most strange circumstances !!

I was in London in February 1997 and one of my senior colleagues, Howard Digby-Johns had taken me to a little pub on the Thames, right next to the Globe theatre. Apparently, Shakespeare used to frequent this pub and had commended their ale in one of his plays ... but that is a different story. But the real story was the one that Howard told me and that was the story of Mary Magdalene .. how she was the true inheritor of the legacy of Jesus and how her supporters, who claimed to belong to the Bloodline Church, of which Howard himself was a member, had kept her memory alive through the Dark Ages and were now planning to bring her to the forefront of the public perception durng the Third Millenium.

I do not wish to go back to the story, which has been told by Dan Brown and others so well, but what stuck in my mind was the fact that the Third Millenium, which was just around the corner, was the Millenium when the truth about Mary would be finally revealed.

Howard and I parted ways -- he runs a restaurant in Phuket these days, but the words that he left me with resonated very well with my personal interest in the Divine Mother, The Shakti, who is essential to the Hindu view of the world. And it grew upon me till I sat down and wrote an essay on the similarity of Mary Magdalene as the Consort of Jesus and the ubiquitous Shakti without whom our dear Shiva is helpless to act !! Finally on Christmas 2000, six days before the new Millenium, I heard as if it was Mary herself who was crying out for justice and before I knew it I had posted my essay on the web.

The prophesy was coming true. Here I was, at the dawn of the millenium, heralding the long forgotten, long suppressed story of Mary Magdalene ... but of course I was a very small and insignificant herald for this great fact ... behind me, the printing presses had started to whir !! and The Da Vinci Code was getting printed ... and the rest as they say is history.

So that is the story of The Da Vinci Code -- or at least my (very small) part of this very gigantic turn of events. Having been so uniquely introduced to it, I find it impossible to criticise the movie. But even if I had not been sold so strongly on the facts, the movie is eminently watchable ... but if, and only if, you have read the book.

So do buy, beg, borrow or steal the book, read it and then sit back and watch the movie with that smirk of smug superiority on your face. You will enjoy it.

..............................................................
Click here for my original essay, written on 25 December 2000

May 30, 2006

Gayatri : "Translating" the untranslatable


The "Gayatri" Mantra is actually a misnomer. Perhaps it should be called the Savitri Mantra, that is sung, or chanted, in the Gayatri metre. But irrespective of the name that we use to refer to it, it is fact that it is the most significant string of characters that is central to the Hindu way of life. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Kamaksha to Kathiawar, this is one set of words that are universally recognised and held dear by the Hindu population or at least the scholarly and priestly class.

It is of course a different matter that this string of characters is almost impossible to translate into English or even any other Indian language. The syntax, the sequence of nouns and verbs, incredibly archaic ... and yet for those who can feel its throb in the echoes of the heart it is quite clear and lucid ... but of course inexpressible in a language other than the native Sanskrit.

I found this translation, which is first literal and then allegoric, to be the closest to what it perhaps means.

April 16, 2006

Vedanta and Gnostic Christianity

Most of us are familiar with the word agnostic but are slightly unsure of Gnosticism, so let me first explain the genesis of the word. The word gnosis derives from Greek and 'means' knowledge or the act of knowing. However this knowledge is different from rational, logical knowledge -- as is obtained by reading books or listening to a guru -- and instead refers to a form of knowing obtained by experience or perception.

In this respect it bears an uncanny resemblance to the revelation or enlightenment that is experienced by Eastern mystics, which is different from the 'bookish' knowledge obtained by reading the Vedas or the Upanishads. The ascent of Kundalini in Tantra and the 'flash' of revelation that it brings to the sadhak is also an example of gnosis. Ramakrishna blessed many of his disciples by stating : Tor Chaitanya Hok - which may be translated as May You Be Aware Of, or, May You Realise (the Truth).

In the first century after the appearance of Jesus Christ in the Middle East, there existed many schools of Christian thought -- each with its own set of adherents and reference books. One such group was what we refer to today as, the Gnostics. Christianity as we know today, principally from the Catholic schools where many of us had the good fortune to be educated in, is based on the accounts of the life of Jesus Christ as written down by four individuals, namely Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. These are the books, or Gospels, that are accepted by Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, as being authentic. But at the dawn of the Christian era, in the first few hundred years after Christ, there was in existence and circulation, many more books that also described the same events.

However, in the clash of ideas between the various sects and in the competition to be recognised as the one-and-only-true-owner-of-the-legacy-of-Christ, one specific group prevailed over the others. We in India can find a parallel in the conflict between the Shaivas and Vaishnavas, though the results were not as one-sided. The brand of Christianity that was based on Gospels of Mark, Mathew, Luke & John triumphed and established itself as the dominant brand. And to safeguard its position in the market, its leaders went about -- in the true spirit of the barbarism of those times -- to destroy all evidence of the rival schools of thought. Followers of the other schools were branded as heretics and killed and their books were located (there were not too many copies around anyway!) and burnt.

With the passage of time and with the active connivance of the dominant Christian church, these alternate versions of Christianity disappeared from public memory and would have been lost, had not it been for an Egyptian farmer who found a set of rare manuscripts as late as 1945 in the village of Nag Hammadi. And our perception of Christianity has never been the same again !

The manuscripts of Nag Hammadi introduce us to the 'lost' school of Christian thought that is referred to as the Gnostic school and as we read them, and through them peep into the mind of the Gnostic leaders, I have noticed an uncanny resemblance to the thoughts and ideas of Vedanta and the Sanatan Dharma of India. In particular, there are THREE facts, which incidentally happen to be the three pillars of Gnostic thought, that stand out in their equivalence to the Hindu experience.

The Three Principal Features

A] The FIRST essential feature, perhaps the defining feature, of Gnosticism is the assertion that "direct, personal, and absolute knowledge of the authentic truths of existence is accessible to human beings". The Hindu word for philosophy is Darshana -- the vision and Hindu saints and savants have always claimed that this vision appears to those who are ready for it. Moreover, Gnosticism is not based on a logical, rational approach to the Truth. It is not for individuals with the 'book keeper' mentality. Instead, it is for individuals who cherish the ongoing force of divine revelation.

B] The SECOND definitive feature of Gnosticism, and one which is in close congruence with Advaita Vedanta, is the concept that 'inside' man was 'something' that was uncreated. This uncreated seed, the uncreated self, the divine seed, the 'pearl', the 'spark' of knowing: consciousness, intelligence, light, is identical to the substance of GOD.

This is indeed a very loud echo of Advaita Vedanta, where we assert that the ATMAN, the spark of consciousness that lies at the 'core' of man is identical to BRAHMAN, the Universal Consciousness. The truth of this identity is hidden by the illusion of MAYA that causes one to believe, erroneously, that the Ataman is distinct from the Brahman.

Gnostics believe that a man or woman who achieves 'gnosis' or experiential knowledge of this identity, the equivalence of humankind and divinity, was truly free and liberated. The big mystery was that apparently Man was not God and yet he or she was Godly: this paradox was the Gnostic mystery and knowing the answer was their treasure.

The Advaitin is on a quest that is identical. He seeks that experience that extracts him from the illusion of Maya and makes him realise his identity with the Universal Brahman

Finally, Gnostics believe that the god who had apparently created the universe, who was the God of the orthodox or 'standard' Christianity was a lesser God. Here is another similarity to Brahma, the Creator, (or any of the 3.3 million members of the Hindu pantheon) that is far inferior to the singularity of BRAHMAN of Advaita Vedanta.

C] The THIRD important feature of Gnosticism was its emphasis on the dyad (or duality) of God consisting of a pair of male and female identities. This is a direct and head on challenge to the explicitly male nature of the 'standard' Christian god.

When we switch to Vedanta, we see an apparent contradiction, since Advaita or non-duality speaks of a Singularity without form, without shape and without attributes. But one step away from this absolute singularity is the pair of Shiva-Shakti, the Purusha-Prakriti that even Shankara, the most ardent votary of Advaita-Vedanta had acknowledged as the fountain head of creation. "Without Shakti, even Shiva is unable to move" is how he begins his most famous work, the SaundaryaLahari (also known as AnandaLahari)

This acknowledgement of the equal and complementary role of the feminine principle in the effectiveness of the male principle is a defining point of departure of Gnosticism from 'standard' Christianity and brings it very close to the Tantric paradigm. There are even references to sexuality, muted by the norms and needs of the era, and an explicit reference to Mary Magdalene as the consort and the most beloved disciple of Jesus Christ.

In fact the most famous and sacred of all Gnostic rituals, as described in the Gospel of Philip, is that of the Bridal Chamber, where the perception of God is viewed through the principle of 'duality seeking unity' and was perhaps enacted by a man and woman, the Sadhak and his Sadhika, the Bhairav and his Bhairavi, in their search for the ultimate truth. Tantrik chakra-sadhana where a man and a woman unite to experience the joy of union with the infinite is a close analogue to the Bridal Chamber.

Convergence and Divergence

These THREE principles, (1) the importance of direct realisation, without the intermediation of a priest or the Church, or even a Savior like Jesus Christ (2)the potential divinity of man and his equivalence to God and (3) the importance of the feminine as a complementary to the masculine image of the divine, show that elements of early Christian thought had on one hand (a) shows convergence towards the world view of Advaita Vedanta, and on the other hand, (b) may actual diverge awar from what came to be accepted as the world view of 'standard' Christianity.

Unfortunately for the Gnostics, the 'standard' Christianity prevailed and succeeded in pushing Gnosticism out of the public domain. However the discovery of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts shows that Truth, may be hidden, but is rarely destroyed. The triad of Semitic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, may seem to be at a significant variance with the Advaita Vedanta of India but as this analysis shows, there could be a deeper congruence of all world views that will emerge with the passage of time.

Gnosticism that is presented here is based on the ideas expressed in the website located at The Nag Hammadi Library

Good Friday, 14 April 2006

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