Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Healthcare: Public Option, the Only Relevant Option

A government is only as good as it treats its citizens. By that standard, America sadly doesn't rank as high as most industrialized western nations. We lack one of the most important services to our citizens and that is universal affordable healthcare. In this post, I will focus on two key arguments for why it is an imperative for the United States of America to mandate a single payer system through the government. The three areas I will discuss are:
1) Nature of government
2) Morality

1) The nature of government and its role in society has changed throughout human history, as it must. All things in nature evolve and so should the government. For most of human history, healthcare was not something that was under the purview of the government and remained a privilege of educated and wealthy. The reason for that is quite simple, most of the population of the world was limited to small villages, towns or cities. If there was a doctor in any of these small communities, it was a local individual who had many a very minimal understanding of the human body. These doctors, well more often than not they were local people using shamanistic "healing", herbalism, homeopathy and other such "alternative" medicines. This method of medical care changed in the Western world around the time of the bubonic plague in which the accepted authority and "truths" of the previous systems was challenged and questioned.

The major breakthrough happened in the 1880's with the discovery of bacteria. Even in that time period, it was not the duty of the government to care for the physical health of its citizens. The accepted notion at that time was that medicine could not make huge changes in the probability of combating diseases, sicknesses and injuries. As bio-medical field grew, in no small part to inevitable acceptance of Darwin's discovery of natural selection, evolution and a common ancestry of all creatures, so did the the ability of the medicine to adequately deal with sickness in an efficient and strong probabilistic manner, it soon became an enormous industry growing day by day. Now, the advances of medicine have the ability to make it more probable that a person will live past 70 as opposed to 30.

These advances in medicine paralleled the necessary growth of the role of government. Originally government was a method to regulate human to human interaction. For purposes of this post, I am not dealing with the role of religion in government as religion's role in government makes the government become more of a "universal" entity with the ability to regulate all aspects of human life. The Enlightment Period of Europe also was the impetus for the eventual disassociation of religion and government, which this country was founded on. Until the late 19th century and early 20th century, government did not have deal with healthcare or the medical field as both were still minuscule industries, if at all. This is in the same vein as social security, anti-trust regulation and so on. Social Security came into existence when the nature of the work force changed, when the world become industrialized the focus became on efficiency and production.

When that focus changed, people were seen as gears or clogs in the economic vehicle, gears and clogs that could be replaced and should be replaced when and if they became too expensive, too inefficient and not able to perform properly. With that change and also the gains in the medical field, which suddenly changed the lifespan of humans from about 40-50 years to 50+ years, the imperative came to provide a way for the workers and citizens to survive in times of need and age. The impetus for this came with the Great Depression, when we discovered that without proper ways to survive, which the private industry would not/could not give as it was focused more on profit and institutional survival, it became a necessity for the government to do so because it became readily apparent that in order for the people to survive and work properly and with hope is to give them some sort of protection and eventual goal upon being too old to work, hence the birth of social security.

In that same rationale, the role of the government must now encompass health care because now the medical and healthcare fields are massive and affects every single human being in this country and planet. Much like equal protection is regulated by the government so that all people have equal opportunity despite their age, race, economic status, religion and so on, so should healthcare not be denied for the same reasons and particularly because of economic status. Now that is my very very brief argument and history of the role of the government and how it must now encompass healthcare.

2) Moral Reasons: Healthcare is now a moral necessity which fundamental is attached to the right to life, property and pursuit of happiness. Life cannot be fully lived and enjoyed without the ability to combat diseases and sicknesses. Any human being who cannot have adequate access to doctors, patient care and medicine cannot live any sort of life in full. Lack of affordable access to healthcare can destroy lives and families both in the immediate sense (the death of people) and in the long term (bills, expenses, bankruptcy). The immediate impact negates the right to life and the long term negates the right to property because people are asked to pay inhumane amounts of money to insurance companies to make sure that they have a right to life, a life worth living.

In America, it is not the extreme poor or wealthy that cannot afford medical insurance but it is the working middle class, who can barely make their day to day expenses let alone any medical dilemma or emergency. Approximately 50 million Americans cannot afford it, that is approximately 15% of the population and that number grows by 12,000 a day, which can equal about an additional 4.38 million people a year. The New England Medical Journal published that in 1999, the administrative costs of healthcare insurance companies across the country was approximately 300 billion dollars, about $1000 per person compared to $300 dollars a person in the public health system of Canada. Remember this is just administrative costs, not actual care.

Furthermore, the goal of private health insurance isn't to actually provide care but to make a profit, the companies are beholden to their shareholders. They do not have any oversight and can charge whatever they wish. The public option is focused on helping people not profit. Healthcare like public utilities cannot be private as it is necessary for people to have in this day and age so that they can survive and be contributing members of society, it cannot be profit driven, it must be service driven. Profit in the health care industry creates a clear conflict of interest and this also goes for the pharmaceutical industry, but that is another post for another day.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

God and Evil

Sorry for the delay in postings but life got busy, hopefully back on track now for one or two posts a month. This past week I was hanging out with my cousin Krishna and a few other people and as usual we engage in conversations about religion, God and problems of evil. My mind has been reflecting on these topics for quite a while and so I decided to post on it. As many critical thinkers of religion and Atheism, my cousin brings up the ancient problem of Theodicy, the Problem of God. Well literally it is Theos (God) Dike (justice), the justice of God. Basically the problem is summed up as thus, if there is a God then why is there suffering and evil in the world. The argument is that how can a perfect, omnipotent, omniscient, just and benevolent Deity exist if there is a world full of suffering, pain and evil. How does one explain that an infant is born with disorders, diseases and such if they haven't done anything wrong? How can one justify a God when we have genocide and heinous evils like Rwanda, world hunger, infanticide and so on? How can God/gods allow this?

Now, to adequetely deal with this age old issue, one must set certain perimeters in which to allow the discussion to flow. First is what is the Nature of God? What qualities does God/gods possess? What is the nature of the world in regards to good, evil and God? One can spend an entire corpus of writings to deal with this topic but I will focus on three frameworks, the view of God and nature via Christian belief system and the view of God and Nature within the Hindu and Buddhist system.

Accounting for the various strands of Christianity, I will narrow my focus on to the generally accepted ideas amongst the branches of Christianity in regards to God, evil and the world. In the Christian conception of God, God is omnipotent, omniscient, all benevolent, all good and just. He is the God of justice and fairness. In this framework, the individual soul is only born once and joined with a body, at which point it is endowed with absolute free-will, which is a gift from God. Since God is all good, he cannot be the source of evil. God is omniscient so he clearly knows about every instance and moment of suffering and evil. God is also omnipotent so he must necessarily have the power to change it. God is also all-benevolent, meaning He wants the best for all beings and wants to ensure all beings are happy so He has the will or intent to do so. In the words of David Hume, "Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?"

Hume poses the right questions and the right forum for discussion. If God is truly omniscient then he knows all things at all times at all places. He knows evil and injustice even before it happens in our frame of time. Knowing all that and assuming he is omnipotent, meaning he can change all things, it is straightforward that he can prevent evil even before it occurs. Now, one can say that he might not wish to change things and is a passive God without the will to make things good and just. If that is the case then the discussion ends there, God is all powerful and knowing but cares not change things for whatever reason. He is then not benevolent, which would make him no different than the Devil. One may say that evil then is the product of man and cannot be imputed upon God but then the premise of the Christian world view that we only have one life and God put us here for a reason fundamental implies that God then capriously allows certain beings to experience more evil and injustice than others. If that is the case then God is the God of at least some evil as he puts beings into existence for the sole reason to allow evil to happen. Babies born with AIDS or Cancer are born so because of their genetics or other factors which are beyond the control of humans, i.e. remain the realm of Nature, the power of God. Some will argue that such things should not be asked as we can never know the Mind of God and God has a greater plan for us all. That still avoids the fundamental question, evil exists because God allows it to and if he allows it to then being the All-powerful and all-knowing God he is responsible for it and because he allows babies and other such beings to experience pain, suffering and evil for no reason implies he is unjust, so that cannot be it.

If God is just, omnipotent and omniscient then where is evil? Theoritically speaking at this point it should not. Adding to this God's benevolence further eliminates the probability of evil existing yet it still does. Therefore, such a God in such a world view cannot survive the test of either reality or non-contradiction. Now this is a very rudimentary discussion, there are numerous rationales put forth but for this blog it is beyond the scope. Essentially, either the Christian view of God or the Christian view of reality, one life and one chance at redemption is wrong. Now there is an another way to deal with this quagmire and that is one of the eastern conceptions.

The Hindu/Buddhist basic conception of reality is that we are not created by any Deity or Deities but have always existed and will always exist (Buddhism and some forms of Hinduism posit that nothing truly exists and all things are illusion especially the idea of individuality, but that is a different discussion and even assuming that view is correct it would not change anything at the phenomenal level). All beings exist in a cycle known as samsara, a cycle of birth, death and rebirth. They exist in this cycle since before our conceptions of time and will always continue to do so unless they break the cycle. Good and Evil only have relevance while we remain in samsara, hence they only should be discussed in that context. We are born and reborn based on our own intentions and actions, EVERY single thing we do and think has consequence. The idea is that beings experience evil or good in their lives because of something they have done before, that is known as the law of Karma. We may not have recollection of the wrongs or rights we have committed in the past but we do suffer those consequences. A baby is born with some disease or problem not because God wills it to be thus but because of something that it has done in a previous life. One may disagree with my premise that rebirth is a reality and that is a rational disagreement since it is not a proven reality but if one is interested in the rational basis for such a belief from an empirical perspective then read Dr. Ian Stevenson and his case study on 20 cases for reincarnation. I would take it one step further and state if a omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent and just God exists then rebirth must also be a reality. For only rebirth allows for each and everyone of those above qualities of God to exist without contradiction.

Rebirth highlights two of the most difficult questions that I posed above in the section on Christian vision of God. Rebirth is a reality if God is just and benevolent because it solves both of those problems without contradiction. The Law of Karma adequately answers the dilemma of a just God because the system of Karma is absolutely impartial and only doles out just consequences over the course of one's timeless existence. Evil isn't created or by God in this case it is entirely a product of our actions. This flows right into the next point, the benevolence of God. The idea of rebirth allows infinite lifetimes of opportunities for individuals to break free from samsara more accurately put it is an infinite number of chances for beings to discover that they are really not bound to samsara and it is only all merely a dream based on our attachments to the universe. It can be said that God is infact belligerent because no one knows what wrong they did previously to incur the troubles, evils and injustice we experience currently. Only God knows the previous lives and basis for our problems today but we don't, he is a sadistic voyeur. This misses the point, here is an analogy assume a man murders someone but in the process of killing that person he loses his memory. Does his lack of knowledge of his prior acts excuse those acts? Should he still not be held liable for his actions? Should he not suffer or repay those actions? I believe the answer is yes, similarly that is the same situation with rebirth. We are merely not cognizant of our prior actions but still responsible for them. The Omnipotent and Omniscient God exists as that law of Karma and rebirth, in and through God do those laws issue out and operate. It is also a testament to God's benevolence and justice that the individual is not only given one chance to discover the path out of samsare and bonded existence. As Krishna says in the Gita, he is impartial to everyone and no one is more dearer or distant to him than anyother. Now, the Buddhist view is only slightly different in that there is no ultimate God who is beyond all of this but the law of Karma and rebirth are merely just law of nature/existence just like gravity and so on, a God is not required. The goal of existence is the annilation or nirodha or non-movement i.e. cessation of all phenomenal existence. It is called nirvana or the blowing out of all attachments. Now, various schools of Buddhism have different views of Buddha as either just the most important being to have discovered this reality or Buddha as the equivalent of the Hindu vision of God or Brahman.

Now, in Hinduism God truly encompasses and is beyond such conceptions. Good and Evil exist within Him/Her but is not bound by them. The Hindu Conception of God is a Deity is all things and in all things. Good and Evil come from God insofar as they are mechanisms and relevant only through rebirth and Karma. Even more, the only actor and action is God, all beings are ultimately only machinations of God to express his infinitude. Good and Evil are only relevant as long as one is tied to this existence, just as the actions and morality that we experience in this life are only relevant here and not in our dreams and vice versa. Now my cousin says that this view of God is merely the equivalent of the Force and ultimately is the same as saying that God is nothing because if God is everything then God is nothing also because nothing is there to differentiate him from other things. In part he is correct, the Upanishads (Kena) make a key point in reference to God:
"That which cannot be apprehended by the mind, but by which, they say, the mind is apprehended,That alone know as Brahman and not that which people here worship"

The God of the Upanishads is the Sum Bonum of all and it is for this reason God is referred to as "Satyam Jnanam Anandam Brahma" or Reality, Consciousness and Bliss is Brahman (God). All that can be ascribed to our existence and reality is but a portion of reality of that Being it is also why they say that all the known universes are but a portion of Him and he exists beyond it all. Sorry about the long post but just some food for thought.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 2: The Yoga of Discernment (Samkhya) (Part 1)

Krishna observing the actions and decision of Arjuna looks at him and in compassionate words first appeals to Arjuna's sense of courage and honor telling him that it does not become him to run away from battle and from one who is of strong determination. At this point, Krishna has not yet accepted Arjuna as a disciple but only as a cousin and friend. Arjuna's compassion and his despondency at the prospective of having to kill his family continues to weight heavily on him. He tells Krishna, "It is better to beg for a living than kill these men such as Drona and Bhishma, who are my superiors and great souls." Then he makes a very very real point, "if we kill them than everything we gain will be tainted with blood." Arjuna does not lose the sense of phyrric victory here, all violence and all gains from violence will fundamentally be tainted with the pain and blood of others. Arjuna says at this point that he is utterly confused as to what his Dharma (duty) is and what actions of his are being dictated by desire and his grief at having to fight. Arjuna tells Krishna, please show me the way and take me as your disciple and counsel me. He looks at Krishna and says to him "Govinda, I shall not fight." (Govinda being another ephitet for Krishna, he who is friend of the cows)

Now is when Krishna finally speaks in his full capacity. This verse is amazing poignant even though many people gloss over it. Here, standing in the midst of this world war while Arjuna is breaking down in front of him and all others, then Arjuna resolving not to fight, Krishna merely smiles or smirks. It is the smirk of a being who sees the situation as it is, the world's greatest archer Arjuna is now cowering in the battlefield like a child refusing to fight. He smiles, as he conveys all that he needs to convey in that smirk. He smiles because he knew this was going to happen, he would not fight this war with his hands or weapons but using his knowledge and wisdom. For Krishna, this was his war, to reignite Arjuna's knowledge and ability to discern reality and dharma from the trappings of fear and ignorance. He wasn't fighting men but the shackles of the human condition and he knew he would break them so that we can transcend the limitations of our own existence and enter into the bliss of knowledge and truly see the nature of the world.

With that smile, Krishna launches into his song, his Gita. Looking down upon Arjuna, Krishna says, "You seem to speak such wise words Arjuna but you are lamenting for what is not worth lamenting over. The wise do not grieve for the living nor the dead. There was never a time you did not exist, neither these kings nor me. Nor is there a future when we will cease to be." Krishna here begins to give Arjuna a brief lesson on what really constitutes the "I" and its nature. It is consciousness which is what we truly are, nothing more or less. The body, the mind and all that is connected with that are transient. The emotions we experience are like seasons to the planet, they exist but for a moment then pass on. As they are by nature fleeting, one is to weather them and remain steady through their emotions. The body is like clothing for the consciousness, it is worn then discarded when time comes with a new body then taken.

Krishna asks Arjuna to look past the phenomenal world, the world that appears and into the world that is ever eternal, which is the substratum for the world of sensory perception. For those who are born death is certain and so is life certain for the dead, it is the way of nature, why should you grieve for the inevitable. Krishna makes a key point about the nature of duty (dharma) and ones action. One must discharge their duty, for a warrior/prince like Arjuna, whose duty is to always fight for righteousness, law and justice, this war is his calling. As I briefly touched upon in my post Background of the Gita, the Pandavas have been harassed and continually assaulted and viciously attacked by the Kauravas. As long as they lived they would be under constant threat of death. Even a request to govern 5 villages was refused. Krishna's point is it is your duty, no one else's to fight for your rights and principles, if you get stuck with the ephemeral emotions and attachments then justice/dharma will never be served. Once you determine a course of action and see justice falter, you cannot hesitate to do your duty. In fact, he even says its a sin to shy from your duty. A teacher who doesn't teach is sinning, a doctor who doesn't help people is sinning and so on.

Krishna does something quite peculiar at this point, he undermines the very nominal understanding of the scriptures, the Vedas. He says that the Vedas, only deal with the tripartite nature of reality sense gratification, selfishness and knowledge. "All purposes of a small well can be served by a large body of water, so all purposes of the Vedas can be served by those who understand its nature and limits." Krishna tells Arjuna to transcend the bounds of the letters of the Vedas and religion and to rise beyond them and all duality. Here Krishna makes one of the most iconic and fundamentally poignant statements, "You are only entitled to the action/duty that you are beholden to, never to the fruits of that action. You are not the cause of the result of your actions and never be attached to avoidance of your duty. Acting without attachment to success or failure and equipoised in those results, that is what is yoga."

This is called Nishkama Karma, or desireless action. It is the crux of all Hindu spirituality and social action. As conscious beings, we are required to act but we shirk from those duties and actions that are necessary because we are too attached to the outcome, good or bad, success or failure. All desire bind whether the desire is good or bad, so does all attachment to fruits of that action. Krishna's point is act because you have to act not because the success or failure of that action. Do the right thing because it must be done not because good is going to come from it. A doctor's duty is help people in times of physical ailment or deterioration. Whether or not they can actually save the person isn't fully in their power, so the end goal isn't something in their control so why make that the focus of your action. All consequences of any action are dependent on infinite number of factors, one of which is the action of the individual but it is not the sole or overriding factor but it is an important. It is better to act out of duty, which is the only thing that one can control then not act and let things pass by. Krishna is asking Arjuna and us to see ourselves as clogs in the universal machine, an important one but nonetheless one of infinite clogs. The universal machine cannot continue to proceed properly without our actions but it can function without our desires or attachments to the fruits. Now, I will address the rest of Chapter 2 in a subsequent post. Comments?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Instead of a post on Chapter 2 of the Gita, I wanted to post something else I have been mulling over for a while.

One question that haunts me and I think a lot of people is the question of Significance. Is our individual existence, individual efforts and actions of any real or lasting significance? Or is it merely a tiny ripple in the ocean that is our universe? Many of us walk through life without asking that question about ourselves because we are content that while we live our lives, we will affect and be significant to those who are around us and care for us. This should be enough and a satisfactory answer but for some persistent reason it is not, or at least for me.

Many including myself, live our daily lives in very much an autonomic sort of manner. We awake, we shower, eat breakfast, jump into our car or take public transportation to work, work long hours, take a lunch, work some more, leave the office, come home, cook, spend time with our friends or family or even alone then go to sleep, rinse, cycle and repeat the next day. We do this for at minimum five days a week. Then on the weekends we spend time going out, doing the chores we neglected over the week, spend time with people and so on. We do this over and over again till maybe when we hit our mid-lives suddenly we ask where has the time gone and what is my impact, aside from my biological legacy?

Honestly, I don't have an answer for that question that will please everyone maybe not even anyone but myself. Sometimes the depressing truth is that most of us will fade into oblivion only leaving behind genetic material, I don't think this necessarily has to be the case but most of the time it appears to be the case. When I originally started writing this post a few months back, I would have said that most people would disappear into nothing and only leave behind their genetic legacy without changing the world for the better or any way but now I don't think that is the case at all. Life actually throws surprises at us and causes us to reassess our world views and outlook on the ebb of our existence both universally speaking and also specifically in regards to the individual.

Our significance is this, we, each and everyone of us are the living force of nature. Billions of years of stellar, planetary and now biological evolution have led to us, the only known highly intelligent and conscious beings in the universe as we know it. In our very bodies dwells this history of expansion, modification and development of consciousness. It burns within our being brightly but we lose sight of it at times and by doing so we lose sight of our own significance. This earth is our home and all living and conscious beings are our relatives. We are significant in our insignificance, amongst all other living creatures on this planet, it is we that alone have the ability to protect and save each other and them. With this fundamental knowledge must come an ethical imperative for us to act accordingly.

We find ourselves burdened by our fears and ego. Recently, I came to the insight maybe had by hundreds if not thousands before me that our fears are a by product of our own egos. Fear is the emotion or thought that our very self worth or even at a deeper level our notion of self is potentially entirely extinguishable. Fear of loss, fear of death, fear of loneliness, fear of abandonment, fear of change, fear of the unknown and so on. At the heart of all these fears is the ego. It is the ego that will change or be affected by these fears. It is our very notion of self as we have come to view it that is at stake, which causes these fears to arise. It is these fears that drive us from understanding and fostering the significance that the universe has endowed in us.

These fears begin to disappear when we find our purpose both as individuals and as a world. Our purpose is simple, sustain this planet and sustain ourselves. Build a bond with one and other so that we no longer remain islands unto ourselves but a support system, where each of us can and must depend on others. We are the harbingers of our own path and as a collective we have a huge impact on this planet. What we do here in our every day actions has an aggregate affect on the people around us and the world at large. This might be a running theme in a lot of my writing, the idea that we are called upon to be more compassionate and caring, for it is our inherent destiny if we are to survive and sustain ourselves. It is a destiny we are afraid to accept at times because it will shake us to the core and require that we re-engage ourselves with our fellow beings beyond just a superficial level, opening up our own selves and expanding our consciousness developing empathy and sympathy. This is the key point of people who gained this insight and were able to issue it out into action like Krishna, Buddha, Jesus and the thousands of people who devote their lives to others.

Next post I will pick up from Chapter 2 of the Gita, which is Krishna's overview of what he will delve into. Any thoughts or comments?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 1: The Despondency of Arjuna

"Dharma Kshetre Kuru Kshetre"
"On this Field of Dharma, on this Field of the Kurus...."

With that first line, begins the Bhagavad Gita. The blind King Dhritrashtra asks his minister Sanjaya to tell him what is occurring between his own sons and the sons of his dead brother Pandu, the Pandavas, on the field of Dharma and the field of the Kurus (his ancestors and lineage). The field of the battle is known as Kurukshetra as it belongs to the Kuru people, which both the Pandavas and Kauravas belong to. The more pertinent name of Dharma Kshetra is applied to this field at this time because this is the place that the olden code of Dharma battles with the new code of Dharma as put forth by Krishna. It is on this field that Dharma as righteousnes, law, justice and morality will play out.

One of the most perplexing and amorphous words in any language is the word Dharma. It has a wide range of meanings from natural law, positive law, morality, tradition, justice, righteousness, duty, religion and harmony. Those are its most used meanings. Dharma literally means "that which upholds or sustains". In the Gita, Krishna uses Dharma in nearly every conceivable sense of the word to fully flesh out the complexity of the human and even the divine existence. Dharma is the starting point and the ending point of the Gita, if not of all Hindu and Buddhist thought. As such, through out this series of posts I will keep referring back to this conception.

Duryodhana, the antagonist, approaches his teacher Dronacharya, who is also the commander in chief of the Kaurava army. He asks to describe the relative strength of his army and also the armies of the Pandavas. The mighty and vast armies of both sides are then described focusing on the greatest warriors on each side. The Pandavas have 7 massive regiments and the Kauravas have 11 massive regiments totaling nearly 4 million people. The Kauravas blow their conches and trumpets while beating their drums. The sound shakes the very ground. The Pandavas respond in kind but the sound of their divine conches appears to shatter the very firmaments of the earth and sky. At this point, lifts up his bow Gandiva, an indestructible celestial bow and then straps on his two inexhaustible quivers of arrows. He stands on his invincible chariot, a gift from the Devas or gods.

Arjuna looks at Krishna, his charioteer and then asks him to drive his chariot in between both armies so that he can fully grasp the logistics of both sides. Krishna without a word does so. He drives the golden chariot between both sides and stops. Arjuna then spends a few minutes looking between both sides. The desire for battle begins to slowly whittle away when he sees his brothers, uncles, friends, cousins, nephews, teachers and even his grandfather all aligned against each other. The inevitability of this war, if not all wars, dawns upon him. He will have to kill those he loves and cares about. Suddenly, it hits him, all war specifically this war will kill generations of people and kill people who have a connection with each other.

The sanskrit verses that follow and describe Arjuna's feelings are simply touching and absolutely humanizing but for the sake of brevity I will give a synopsis. Arjuna sees all his friends and relatives on both sides ready to fight and kill each other. A wave of compassion crashes into him and he comprehends the simple fact that here on this field all these ties of family, relations and friendship are tossed aside and replaced with a desire to kill. Years of love, emotions and experiences together suddenly become merely a pebble to step over. With that realization, the reality of heinous act of killing strikes his very core. The physical reactions begin first, his limbs start to quiver, his body trembles, his mouth dries up, the hair on his body stands up and the celestial Gandiva in his hand begins to slip from him grasp. His mind begins to spin and he loses his balance. Shock sets in and the fight is leaving him....

Arjuna explains a very ethical, compassionate and practical view. What good comes from killing those we care about even if we gain all of the universe, when those who we would like to share it with will die here too? Even if those who want to kill us are prompted by greed, why should we who know better also engage in killing? How can we happy in killing others especially our own family and friends just for land and rights? By killing people we destroy families leaving women and children alone. When families are destroy the foundations of society and tradition are corrupted leading to a cycle of pain and problems, not to mention sin attaching to those who kill, so why fight this war and kill? Why should we engage in the sinful act of killing so that we can claim our right to govern?

Arjuna ends by telling Krishna, "It is better that the Kauravas, the sons of my uncle Dhritrashtra, kill me unarmed and unresisting than me killing them and gaining the kingdom." He then throws down his bow and arrows, sitting down in his chariot.

The first chapter of the Gita is an important one because Arjuna presents to Krishna and us, all the human emotions and rationale that come with weight of killing and war. Arjuna, here is the everyman or woman. He connects to us as the reader or listener and explains our own qualms about the very act of killing. Why should we fight and kill another being especially those whom we love for something as intangible as a right or something as inconsequential as property? Arjuna captures the idea of a cycle of violence, to hurt or kill another will not no matter what lead to good results, the potential for more pain and problems grows. Furthermore, the individual who commits those acts becomes burdened with both the sin of the action and the psychological consequences. Arjuna, like most of us, is filled with compassion and restraint from harming those we are close to as the pain and loss from that is lifelong. He then resolves to not fight and allow himself to be killed if attacked. Thus ends Chapter 1 of the Gita and sets the scene for Krishna's response. Comments...?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Brief Background of the Bhagavad Gita

To fully appreciate and understand the various strata that are layered on the Gita, it is important to understand the events and story that led up to that moment. The Gita is situated in the Mahabharata, the world's longest and largest epic, nearly 100,000 verses. For me to try and recap all of that in any succient and perfect would be a prodigious task that is probably beyond my skill and ability. So I will just present a very very brief synopsis that will work for our purposes.

The Gita begins off with two armies facing each other ready for complete annihilation. On one side is the side of the Pandavas including Arjuna and Krishna, who are fighting for their rightful claim to the throne and even more so that they are in fact legitimate members of the royal family. On the other side are the Kauravas including all the elders and family of the Pandavas. The Kauravas are the faternal cousins of the Pandavas. They have tried to poison, burn and exile the Pandavas. They also attempted to disrobe the common wife of the Pandavas, Draupadi in middle of court. The Pandavas were exiled from their land for 13 years and if they were to be discovered before that term ends they were to enter back into exile for another 13 years. They tried to assassinate the Pandavas while they were in exile and then refused to return the kingdom to the Pandavas when they successfully completed the terms of the exile.

After the exile, the Pandavas send Krishna as their messenger of peace. Krishna gives the Pandavas and the Kauravas a choice, between picking him and his world famous personal battalion the Narayana Seni. The caveat is that Krishna swears that he will not raise any weapon nor fight in the war but will only behave like a charioteer. Duryodhana and the Kauravas choose the Narayana Seni and essentially laughed at the Pandavas for picking Krishna. Krishna on behalf of the Pandavas, asks for peace and only 5 villages but the Kauravas led by Duryodhana, refuse to give them even enough land equal to that of a tip of a needle. It was at this point that the war became inevitable. Nonetheless the Pandavas tried to just avoid war but prodded on both their mother Kunti, their wife Draupadi and Krishna, they decide that war is the only course of action to assert their rights. Both sides amassed their armies in total about 4 million people and meet on the field of the Kurus. It is on the first day of battle that the Gita occurs.

The Gita is essentially a conversation within a conversation, the meta conversation is between Sanjaya, a minister of the Kurus, and King Dhritrashtra, the blind king who is the uncle of the Pandavas and father of the Kauravas. Sanjaya, who has been granted divine vision to observe all that occurs on the battlefield, conveys to Dhritrashtra all that transpires. As such he relates to Dhristrashtra the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna as they are situated between both the armies. Time is said to have slowed down as the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna took place. In the next post, I will start with Chapter 1 titled "The Despondency of Arjuna".

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Gita and Me

This past year has been a very interesting year for me. Beginning of the year was period in which I walked a path I never thought I would but in July things took a rather different spin. I think I found my center and my greater journey, I was inspired and also had a deep realization. I really owe a couple people my deepest heartfelt thanks and am blessed/honored to have been inspired by them, one day I will tell them personally but for now to them all I say Endaro Mahanu Bhavulu... "I offer my humble obeisances to all the great people".

I occasionally re-read the Bhagavad Gita, which to me is one of the greatest if not the greatest spiritual text of mankind. The Bhagavad Gita is traditionally said to have been spoken by Krishna to his cousin and friend Arjuna in the year 3137 B.C.E. on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, in the plains of the of what is near modern Delhi. Modern scholarship, based on linguistic analysis and comparison to various other texts, places the composition of the Gita from 500 B.C.E. to about 200 B.C.E.. Whatever the date of the actual composition or recitation of the Gita is, means little to most people who read it. It was the favorite book of Gandhi, Vivekananda, Henry Thoreau, Aldous Huxley, Robert Oppenheimer amongst other luminaries in all walks of life. It has influenced and changed the lives of millions if not billions of people, including mine.

The Gita is the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna, just as Arjuna is about to fight in the most pivotal war of his epoch. The war of Kurukshetra was a civil war of sorts but also involving every country, nation and tribe known to the ancient world of India. Arjuna, who was the greatest warrior of his time, became overcome with compassion and despondency. He was about to enter into war with his grandfather, his teachers, his friends, his family and his kinsmen. He had fought them on previous occasions but this battle was the war to end it all and he knew it.

Arjuna asks Krishna to draw his chariot in the field between the two armies. He looks across and sees all those he will fight and kill. He loses his nerve and refuses to fight. He is mouth drys up, he gets dizzy, his skin feels like its on fire and he drops his bow. He tells Krishna that he would rather let himself be killed than fight his loved ones. He tells Krishna that he has no desire to fight and is conflicted between what he is supposed to do and the feelings and angst he is going through. He then falls to Krishna's feet weeping asking him to instruct him. It is at this point that Krishna smirks and thus begins the perennial Bhagavad Gita, the Song of the Lord.

I read the Bhagavad Gita for the first time when I was 18 years old before that time it was merely something that my father had taught to me in snippets, I did not understand nor care to understand most of it. When senior year of high school came around, I began to become interested in my own cultural and literary background. I had been attending Catholic School for nearly four years and had imbibed in the Bible, both the old and new testament. I also became well acquainted with Catholic tradition, theology and dogma. It dawned on me, I knew more direct source material about non-Indian religious traditions than I did about Indian traditions.
It slowly became apparent to me that I should at least get a grasp on my own background, so I picked up the copy of the Gita we had at home, the one that nearly every gita owner has, the Hare Krsna one. It was from that moment on that the Gita became my best friend.

The Gita is a voice that spoke to me from ages past yet a voice that knew what I needed to hear. It is a text that has been with me through all my moments of darkness, despair and fear. When I was alone and confused, it brought me solace and clarity. When the world appeared bleak, the Gita gave me the lamp of knowledge. Where the world was Krishna through the Gita became more than just a friend but a deep confidant. It seems absurd for a man, I use that term loosely in reference to me, living in the 21st century to think that a person from possibly several millenium back could be a confidant but such is the case. Anytime I felt the weight of the world drop on my shoulders like that of Olympus and the titan Atlas, I would open the Gita and read. Suddenly it would be like all around me ceased or at least froze and Krishna, himself spoke to me. His voice was at once both deep with immense gravitas and yet with the air of play. As if he was pointing out the most sublime thing to me and saying look how obvious it is.

Krishna forces one to examine yourself from a myriad of perspectives. In the Gita, he weaves in various strata of analysis and also justifications. He uses keen psychological analysis to peel away the layers of ego and the lifetime of armor that we have levied on ourselves. He does so without even alerting us to it, as he does to Arjuna himself, where by the end of the entire text you have automatically without conscious understanding submitted yourself to his guidance. After he presents all his arguments and conversation he then says "yatha icchasi tatha kuru", which is "As you wish so should you do". Krishna never forces one to do what he asks but by the time one gets to that stage, Krishna has already won them over. The Gita delves into our very core and asks us to look at the root of all our problems and troubles. It dives into our emotions and fears finding in them our own desires and attachments as its root cause.

Aside from the religious truths that the Gita expounds, it also gives us practical advice on how to view life and our role in life. The foremost both in my mind and in many others is the idea that all we have the right to is the action not the fruit of that action. We have the right to act and we must act as we see our duty and let the consequences of that action fall where they may, there should be no attachment to them. To many this may seem a bit odd, but to fully grasp this idea one must understand the fundamental tenant of all Indian religious and philosophical systems, existence as we experience it is bondage and the goal is release from this bondage. Krishna's point is that any sort of attachment to the fruits of an action creates more bondage. As long as one's ego is still in the picture so does attachment remain and as long as attachment remains so one will remain trapped in this limited existence. The goal Krishna says is to act but to act without desire of "victory or defeat" but act because it is required of oneself and also to ensure that society continues to function. The God that the Gita gives us, is the only God I think that can exist.

Gita presents to us a God that at once both so amazing and transcendental yet so connected to all living things. The God of the Gita, is both beyond all duality and yet abides in the souls of all beings, baring witness to all their anguish, pain, fear, hurt and also their joy, happiness and love. He is the "mother, father, grandfather" of all beings. A deity who does not show favoritism nor does this deity turn away any faithful seeker, no matter what path or faith they chose to worship him. In fact, he says he comes to them as they worship him and even steadies/strengthens their faith. "So is the faith of a man, so is he" is what Krishna says. Krishna makes one believe that despite any pain, loneliness and desperation that they experience, he isn't faraway but in fact he is dwelling with us during that experience, never abandoning. He makes a promise to all those that seek him:
"man-mana bhava mad-bhakto
mad-yaji mam namaskuru
mam evaishyasi satyam te
pratijane priyosi me

sarva-dharman parityajya
mam ekam saranam vraja
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo
mokshayisyami ma sucah"

My translation:
"Think of me, become my devotee
Worship me and offer homage unto me
You will come to me, without fail
As you have become dear to me

Give up all your dharmas
seek refuge at my feet
I will release you from all evil
Do not grieve"

These two stanzas are the foundation of all bhakthi or devotion in modern Hinduism. They also contain in them the idea of a loving God, a god who will not abandon anyone that seeks Him/Her. Here the relational aspect of God becomes key, just as God becomes the focus of the devotee so does the Devotee become the focus of God, the devotee becomes dear to God. As Krishna says earlier that one who has become close to God can never be lost because he has placed his success/failure and all into God, forcing God to become his raft in the ocean of transmigratory existence.

He also reveals to Arjuna his universal form, the form that contains all things known and unknown. Both amazing and terrifying at once. This scene had such a big impact on the life of Robert Oppenheimer, the man behind the atomic bomb, that when he saw the power of the bomb he quoted the Gita specifically the line "Death I am, destroyer of all worlds". The Gita gives a fitting description of what looking at God would be akin to, "if hundreds of thousand suns were to rise in the sky at once, it MIGHT resemble the splendor of that great being". The amazing part of this description of the Universal Form is that, the Gita holds that this form is constantly around us and in fact we exist in this form but with our limited vision, we cannot see it. Krishna gives Arjuna divine vision to see it. It is in this chapter that we gain full understanding of who Krishna is and one of the most touching lines is when Arjuna who is Krishna's cousin recognizes Krishna's nature and apologizes for his own ignorance in his relationship.

The purpose of me writing this particular entry is I would like to relate to what this text means to me and in subsequent blogs I want to address the Gita chapter by chapter for all 18 chapters. I don't want do a straight translation but present my thoughts on the particular chapter and how it has affected me and how it pertains to us all. I hope you will all follow me on this journey of sorts and maybe at the least develop a respect for one of the greatest testaments to human thought. Hopefully something more! Any comments or questions are much appreciated and solicited!

"Yatra Yogeshwara Krishno
Yatra Partho Dhanurdharah
Tatra Shri Vijayor Bhutir
Dhruva Nitir Matir Mama"

"Wherever there is Krishna, the Lord of Yoga
Wherever there is Arjuna, the Wielder of the Bow
There is also certainly Opulence, Victory, Power
and Law/Morality/Ethics, such is my opinion"

- Mukunda

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Nurturing of the Soul

ahimsA prathamam pushpam
pushpam indriya-nigraha
sarva-bhUta-dayA pushpam
kshamA pushpam viSeshata
jnAnam pushpam tapa: pushpam
dhyAnam pushpam tathaiva cha
satyam ashtavidham pushpam
vishno: prItikaram bhavet

Ahimsa (non-violence)is the first flower
Controlling of the senses is the second flower
Compassion for ALL BEINGS is the third flower
Quality of Forgiveness is the fourth
Knowledge the fifth, Austerity the sixth
and Concentration the seven
Truth is the eighth flower
All eight of these flowers are dear to Vishnu

This is a prayer or stotra by the name of Prapanna Parijatam,
or Offering of Flower by the Surrendering one. It was written
around 12th century by Varadacharya. Essentially it is describing
what offering the individual should make to God. My father taught me this
when I was a young boy, it has stuck with me since. The import of this
stotra is that one doesn't need offer anything material to God aside
from one's own qualities and actions. Meaning that our lives themselves
are an offering.

The list of 8 qualities above are pivotal for our individual spiritual,
psychological and moral development. Non-violence is the first and foremost
of all the flowers. Non-violence isn't just an action but a state of mind
and philosophy on life. Life itself is fundamentally a violent activity, for
us to live we necessarily harm others. When we breath we kill millions of bacteria,
walking kills the insects on the ground we step on, we kill animals and plants for
food and so on. Clearly here, we are asked to have a mentality of non-violence,
which includes acting non-violently. Non-violence doesn't require that we absolutely
abhor or stop our lives but that when possible we avoid harm in action, word, deed or

The next important offering is the controlling of the senses. It is imperative to
understand that in Hindu and Buddhist thought it has never meant that one subjugate
the desires or the senses, that is simply near impossible speaking from a practical perspective.
What is meant is that we must control our actions which stem from our senses. To do so, we must understand the
psychology of the mind. Our senses are entirely at the whim of our minds and emotions.
Our eye sees something and suddenly we desire it, we cannot dismiss that desire nor
can we fight the desire itself because it is ingrained in us. What we can do is control
our actions. We can either allow the desire to control us or we can control it.

Empirical Studies in consciousness conducted by Benjamin Libet have shown that in most cases
we begin to act even before we are conscious of it, there is approximately 200 milliseconds
between when the action starts and we are conscious of it. In fact, what we have is a veto power
which usually is invoked around 100-150 milliseconds before the action is fully in effect.
What this requires is that we understand the action before we undertake it. Before anger sets in
we should understand its root and quell it. Understanding the root will allow for the mind to be

The third flower is vitally important one too. Compassion for all beings. Every living creature
that has a nervous system has the ability to feel physical pain and many if not most of those beings
can also experience emotional or psychological pain. Compassion requires us to find ourselves in the other.
One can say that in the pain of others is our pain and in their happiness is ours. Compassion is
not just an act but a thought too. The ability relate to another and give them the empathy and
sympathy that is required. In Buddhist thought, compassion is the goal of meditation so that
one can see past the suffering that is existence feel for all beings. A Bodhisattva is he/she
that has forsaken Nirvana until they can guide all other beings to that state.

Next to compassion is forgiveness because compassion allows us to see the inherent humanity in others and
thereby forgive them. Forgiveness involves understanding the circumstances of the incident or act and
there upon allowing that moment to pass. Forgiveness entails the idea that many times we fall prey to
our emotions and circumstances, not even the greatest amongst us is free from that. To be human is to
be fallible. Forgiveness also allows us to conquer the insecurities and hurt that dwell within us.
Violence is perpetuated when forgiveness is not given nor accepted.

Knowledge is the fifth offering. In Indian thought, knowledge as used in the word jnana (cognate to
the Greek word gnosis) means wisdom and spiritual insight.
Krishna says in the Gita:
The humble sage, by virtue of true knowledge, sees
with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a
dog and a dog-eater

Here spiritual wisdom or jnana, prevents one from discriminating against others based on physical
differences. To one who is steeped in wisdom, they see pass the shell that we all wear and delve
into the core of what connects us all together. Our common existence and connection, in the words of
Martin Heidegger, continuum of Being. We all share an equal desire and right to exist. Krishna asks
us to stop seeing the "other" and see them as part of oneself. The lines of caste, creed, race,
nationality, species and so on disappear.

The next flower is Tapas or austerity. Austerity here means dedication and discipline. It is the active
principle of trying to better oneself through practice. This is a practical matter, as human beings like
every other animal is a creature of habit. So the habit of a person so is that person. If we breed good habits
into ourselves by that I am not referring necessarily moral choices but acts that allow us to grow in our
world views, compassion, understanding, knowledge and so forth. Tapas generally means heat in sanskrit
referring to building up of ones spiritual strength and also physical. Austerities were practiced to
cultivate one's mind and train it to overcome physical and other mental difficulties.

From austerities one develops concentration, the ability to focus or more specifically single pointed
focus. Unwavering unlike a lamp in midst of wind. Concentration lets us dissect ourselves and
gives us a way to discriminate in our actions. It allows us to learn and develop our strengths.
Stilling of the mind through meditation takes us away from the flux that is life and brings us to a
world that allows us to focus on the self.

The last and most important flower that all others depend upon is Satya or the Truth. Truth here is
both empirical and spiritual. There is a Vedic saying "satyam eva jayeta" or Truth alone triumphs.
Truth is the core of our being, it is how we can learn compassion and develop the ability to control
the senses and forgive. Truth is looking first at the world at large from a variety of perspectives
and trying to understanding things as they are not as we wish them to be. At a deeper level it is
looking into ourselves and staring down both our strengths and faults. Accepting those faults as
existent and trying to improve them. Every statement has some level of truth to it, when people
make comments about us, it is important for us to first ascertain in that comment if there is anything
that is true and if so address it and fix it.

The qualities listed in this little stotra or verse are universally good qualities, an ideal to strive
to. Not just for the idea of pleasing a god but even if one does not believe in a god, these qualities
are humanistic and ideal. Virtues as Socrates would say. Just something to keep in mind.