September 27, 2009

Sandhi Puja

Sandhi puja is perhaps the most significant event in the entire sequence of rituals that constitute the autumnal adoration of the Goddess -- the Durga Puja, but not too many are aware of the legends that have invested this event with the aura of extreme sanctity.

Sandhi means junction and in this case it is the junction between the eighth and ninth lunar day after the first new moon that occurs after the sun moves into Virgo -- as per the Hindu zodiac, which lags the Christian zodiac by the Ayanamsa value of around 23 degrees. That is why the ritual is performed in the last 24 mins of the Ashtami ( the 8th lunar day ) and the first 24 mins of Navami (the 9th lunar day).

Legend says the Goddess in her manifestation of the Mahishasur-mardini, the destroyer of the evil ogre who took the form of a buffalo or Mahish, performed her deed at this precise moment and so at this auspicious hour the manifestation of divinity is at its peak in the clay image that is generally used to represent the Goddess.

The actual killing of the ogre -- the triumph of the righteous and the destruction of all that is evil -- is supposed to be remembered and recalled through an actual blood sacrifice but today, most puja organisers settle for symbolic sacrifice which is the climax of this specific ritual.

The precise moment when the Goddess kills the ogre is marked by the setting off of firecrackers -- in faint resemblance of cannons being fired in the past -- and this creates a very unique audio ambience especially in the rural, and hence quieter ! parts of the country. As the priest in each puja performs the symbolic sacrifice and the drums and firecrackers that accompany him burst out as loudly as possible, it seems as if a wave of sound is travelling across the (usually) darkened landscape. The sound moves from puja to puja until the entire countryside is agog in a joyous celebration of good over evil. Those who celebrate the puja in the noisy environs of a city very often miss out this experience.

This short movie on the Sandhi Puja at Sonartoree, Prantik Birbhum shows the event and the spray of blood -- in the form of coloured seeds!

September 26, 2009

The Paradox of the Happy Prisoner

Maureen Dowd in her op-ed article -- Blue is the new Black -- published in the New York Times has referred to a survey that, if really true, should force us to seriously rethink the outcome of the War of Civilisations.

But first what is this survey all about ? "According to the General Social Survey, which has tracked Americans’ mood since 1972, and five other major studies around the world, women are getting gloomier and men are getting happier" .... First there is no further reference to this General Social Survey and to the five other major studies ... but we shall let that pass and focus what appears to be the core of Dowd's hypothesis. The reason that women are getting gloomier is because they have more choice today ! In the past, before feminist activism unshackled women from petty domesticity, women lived lives that were tightly controlled by the men in the family -- father, husband, father-in-law and son. They basically did what they were told to do ... and that was pretty much restricted to cooking, cleaning, managing the home and hearth and of course sex. But once these shackles fell away and women ventured out into schools, colleges, employment, entrepreneurship and what not it was thought that it would lead to a more fulfilling and happy life. But according to Dowd's article, what has happened is just the reverse. “Choice is inherently stressful,and women are being driven to distraction.” ! But even if one were to look at the bright side of things, women were "happy to have ... newfound abundance of choices, even if those choices end up making us unhappier" A paradox indeed !

We can now either disregard these 1+5 surveys and treat Dowd's article as utter trash, or else assume that she has indeed stumbled upon a fact of significance. Since the first option is a dead end let us instead explore the full implications of this paradox.

The liberation of women from the shackles of domesticity, from the shackles imposed by a male-dominated society, is one of the many liberation movements that mankind in general has gone through.

The first was the liberation from the physical environment when man learnt to control the taste of food and the temperature of the environment with fire and then went on to use technology to liberate himself from the whims of the environment.

But the more important instances of liberation were the twin instances of (a) relegious and (b) political liberty. The renaissance and similar social movements showed that the gods and their agents on earth, the religious institutions, were no more the absolute arbitrars of what is right and wrong and in the political sphere, the disintegration of the feudal society and the divine right of kings demonstrated that the will of the people was supreme. In fact the pillars of modern civilisation is based on the premise that individuals have the freedom to do exactly what they want -- except that this should not infringe on the similar rights of another individual.

Opposed to this concept of personal freedom is the belief that society at large, manifested either (a) through a tyrannical state like Communist Russia, or kleptocratic Zimbabwe or (b) religious fanaticism as evident in Wahabi Islam -- knows what is good or bad and individual rights must necessarily be subordinate to the dictates of this society.

In the what is commonly referred to as the War of Civilisation, the fault lines are very clear. One one side we have the liberal democracies that are based on the principle of personal freedom and choice and on the other the forces of totalitarianism that seek peace and tranquility in the subversion of the same principle of personal freedom and choice. The crux of the matter in either case is that of personal freedom.

And this is precisely the point where Maureen Dowd's article strikes a thunderbolt ! If we extrapolate from her analysis of women's freedom and enlarge our discussion into the domain of general personal freedom then we are left with a bigger paradox : Are we happy to have an abundance of choice and freedom even if the exercise of the same choice makes us unhappy ? Is the prisoner happy to be confined to a fixed routine ? Or would he be happy if were given the choice of doing whatever he wanted to know ?

Who knows ?

Tranquility of Saptami

The evening of Mahasaptami at Sonartoree, Prantik, Birbhum

September 24, 2009

The Broken Shivalinga at Kankalitala

Kankalitala is one of the 51 Shakti Pithas in the Indian sub-continent and is a place of pilgrimage and tourism for those who visit Shantiniketan. While most visitors are happy to visit the tiny shrine of the divine mother, not too many take the trouble to walk another 100 metres to the shrine of the Pitha Bhairab -- the consort of Shakti -- who is referred to here as Ruru Bhairav. But those who do, get a glimpse of one of the darkest images of medieval Bengal.

Sulaiman Khan Karrani was the Pathan who ruled Bengal in the second half of the 16th century and his general KalaPahar [ the black mountain, perhaps an allusion to his physical size ], a Hindu who had converted to Islam was notorious as the demolisher of temples in Bengal and Orissa. Legend claims that he was finally killed before the temple of Sambaleshwari by the goddess herself in the guise of a milkmaid who seduced him and his people with a gift of milk and sweets that was laced with cholera germs.

Kala Pahar is known to have demolished a number of fine Hindu temples in Birbhum and the temple of Ruru Bhairav is one such. If you enter the temple today, you will see the dismal remnants of a giant Shivalingam that is nearly two feet in diameter and it is broken ! Unlike a normal Shivalinga that rises up and erect from its seat in the yoni of the Mother Goddess, this one has clearly been broken off -- with great force and malevolence -- near the ground. A piece of basalt this big does not break off or topple so easily .. and so it is natural to infer that this was the handiwork of someone who was inimical to the temple.

September 19, 2009

Quantitative Techniques in B School : Mea Culpa

I have been teaching Quantitative Techniques [ or more simply Statistics and Probability, for those who have given a miss to B-schools ! ] and as a part of my course I have taken the liberty to "borrow" heavily from the work of other teachers and professors who teach similar things in other parts of the globe. With all the talk of digital rights management and ownership of IP I feel rather guilty for having done so ... I could have of course acknowledged the origin of the information but since I have accumulated all this for a number of years, I really have lost track of what I got from where !

So I thought of doing something else -- and have decided to publish my entire set of slides under the creative commons license. Anybody who wants to teach Quantitative Techniques [ at least the first, introductory part ] is welcome to use my slides. This covers a little less than 30 hours of class room contact, with the rest being used to solve problems from the text book by Levin and Rubin.

I hope that this will be of use to both students and professors.

September 18, 2009

Mahalaya - in the digital age

Mahalaya -- celebrated on the day of the last new moon before Durga Puja -- is when many of us in India perform tarpan : a solemn act of remembrance of our ancestors. Those who have the inclination and the time perform this on the banks of Ganga, the Hooghly or any other river that they consider sacred.

In view of the pressures of time, many of us prefer to remember our ancestors in the privacy of our homes but in this age of the Internet, I thought that it would be a good idea to dedicate this post to my ancestors without whom I would not have been here.

"শ্মশান অনলে দগ্ধসি পরিত্যক্তোসি বান্ধবৈঃ।
ইদং নীরং, ইদংক্ষীরং অত্র স্নাহি ইদং পিব।।
আকাশস্থ নিরালম্ব বায়ুভূত নিরাশ্রয়।
অত্র স্নাত্বা, ইদং পীত্বা স্নাত্বা, পীত্বা সুখি ভব।।" -

smashan anale daghdhosi,
parityaktosi bandhaboih ,
idam neeram, idam kheeram atra snahi idam peebo .
akashastha niralomba bayuvuta nirashrayo,
atra snatwa idam peetwa ,
snatwa peetwa sukhi vaba

meaning ,roughly,

you are burned in a fire at smashan,
you are deserted by relatives/friends
here is water & here is milk ,
take a bath & drink the milk.
You are floating in the sky,
with no support , no shelter ,
you are dissolved in air -
come bathe here , drink this,
by bathing & drinking be happy.

September 02, 2009

Why is Social Media Important ?

I was trying to create a presentation on the importance of Social Media in Marketing but realised that there is no way that I can improve on these two ... Since discretion is the better part of valour I know when to step aside and let the master speak.