13 January, 2018

The power of disassociative reification

It was some time in the '80s when as a teenager, I was visiting some places in north Karnataka with my family, during Dasara time. On the evening of Vijayayadashami, we went to witness a Ramlila celebration. There was a large statue of Ravana, which would be put to flames by Rama. We were all excited to watch this event as was the large crowd of people that had gathered there. 

However, there was some glitch because of which the performance was getting delayed and time dragged on and on, without anything happening. 

The gathered crowd became increasingly restless. First the shouts started, then people started pushing one another. Soon, there were fist fights among people, vandalism, and.. the works. 

We were stuck in the midst of the crowd and quite far from the gates, and got very worried. Some of my family members also started shoving us younger folks, in a bid to keep us safe. Needless to say, it was a harrowing experience. 

In the midst of this though, my father made a simple statement, which greatly helped me. He said, "this is what is the characteristic of mobs." 

This one statement suddenly changed the situation from a scary event happening to us, to a fascinating curiosity that we are witness to. I was no longer pushed by people and it was no longer people screaming and fighting at one another. It was a "mob" that was being itself. In front of me was not a harrowing experience to run away from, but a fascinating ring-side seat for observing a mob in action! 

This incident had greatly piqued my curiosity about the cognition of human groups, so much so that, even today, I work on understanding the collective behaviour of groups both in the online and offline worlds. 

What had happened that day, was that my dad taught me the awesome potential of "disassociative reification". When faced by a crisis, suppose we are able to "reify" an abstract entity to describe what is happening, and disassociate ourselves from it, the crisis happening to us, now becomes a curiosity that we can observe. 

I've since applied disassociative reification in several situations to keep myself from getting affected. As a result, I've been able to escape psychological attacks like gaslighting, manipulation, opinion-moulding, groupthink, etc. and keep a sense of independent perspective on the matter. 

24 December, 2017

Dharma and liberty

Given my interest in the concept of Dharma, it is assumed that my political inclinations lie with the "right-wing" (a term that has no meaning to describe the Indian political landscape) and by implication, I am a "conservative" and further by implication, I'm in the opposite camp of "liberalism" and favour imposition of collective will (led by religious doctrine), as against upholding of individual liberty.

This is how befuddled and muddled is the collective discourse, as is our understanding of important concepts from the Indian worldview.

This post is to address the question of whether a worldview based in dharma is in opposition to the ideology of individual liberty.

To recap, dharma is the property of sustainability or a "stable state" that is characteristic of any finite system of being. It is not some form of a divine commandment or revelation given by the Gods and accessible only to the sages or some such. It is a property that can be empirically verifiable, repeatable, and even proven. For instance, algebraic topology is full of theorems that look for "fixed points" in finite systems of set-valued transformations. The Kakutani fixed-point theorem for instance, plays a central role in proving that any finite system of interacting phenomena has a stable state of being (which gave the Nobel prize to John Nash).

In contrast, the political ideology of liberalism is essentially that -- an ideology. Fundamentally, an ideology is a wish -- about how things ought to be. The liberal ideology says that individuals are born free, and individual liberty is the basis for all civilised social orders.

As an ideology, it is perfectly fine and it is a good thought on which to base our thinking on.

However, individuals are not islands that are isolated from one another. They interact with one another and with the environment, to exercise their freedom. And when individuals interact, it forms a collective system of being, that settles down into its own stable state, that may or may not uphold individual liberty.

For instance, let us consider a system of two individuals A and B, who are living in a liberal setup and who have all the rights to exercise their free will. The individual A believes that one needs to be open-minded, tolerant and welcoming of differences of opinion, and truly believes in Voltaire's statement that "I may disagree with what you say, but will fight to death, your right for saying it."

The individual B on the other hand, believes that he knows the "truth" about everything and it is not just his right, but his duty to make everybody else comply with his beliefs, because that is the truth.

When A and B interact and both exercise their individual liberty, A has no choice but to be enslaved by B, because according to A, B has the right to practice his individual liberty, that involves domination over others. If A fights back, then A becomes the hypocrite, since he is not following his own ideology of tolerance and open-mindedness.

This is the "Tragedy of the liberals" that is seen in all liberal establishments. While liberal establishments promote individual liberty as an imperative, they also open doors to fanatics pushing fanaticism, using the entitlement for individual liberty.

As a result, societies built on liberal imperatives, evolve elaborate sets of processes and laws, involving snooping, spying, profiling, etc. that on the whole, poses as much a threat to individual liberty as a non-liberal ideology.

A society built on a liberal ideology is also susceptible to individuals being unaware of their individuality. Most of our "free-willed" choices are actually conditioned by social messages from other individuals, mass media and public figures. How many of us, for instance, would like to admit that we would rather not travel, as it is too expensive and exhausting, and does little to expand our horizons (based on who we are) -- no more than reading books or interacting with people on the Internet? Similarly, how many students want to study deep learning because they are genuinely curious about it, and not because it is the "coolest" technology with "lots of scope" and that "everybody else is doing it"?

Individuals are extremely vulnerable to suggestions and manipulations. Without an intense inquiry into our own selves, we do not really understand what our preferences are, and when we say we are exercising our liberty, are we really expressing ourselves, or giving an outlet to our frustration, or complying with what the rest of the society thinks is freedom?


The problem is not with liberalism as an ideology. The problem is that liberalism has remained just an ideology. We cannot just be wishing and insisting that individual liberty has to be protected. We need a theory about know how to protect it. 

This is where the theory of dharma is very important. 

Every system of being (called Atma) -- be it an individual person, a society of people, or even a physical entity like a piece of coal -- has one or more stable states into which it settles down. This is called its dharma. Each stable state is characterised by a level of Prana or "capability" of the system of being. A carbon polymer for instance, can settle down into various stable configurations, each of which gives it a different characteristic. 

The capability of a system of being, is not just a function of the amount of resources or "wealth" at its disposal. Consider a tall skyscraper that is powered by a local power station. The electric power is utilised by the building to manage its lighting, elevators, air conditioning, etc. -- basically to "be" the building. Now consider that the power station is hit by a lightning, and several orders more electricity flows through the system. This extra resource did not give greater capability for the building. In fact, it mostly ended up burning out the fuses and appliances, thus reducing the capability of the building. 

Capability or Prana, cannot be measured in a purely objective fashion. A fish and a monkey may have the same amount of energy measured objectively in terms of joules. But, the capability of a fish to climb a tree is very low, as is the capability of a monkey to swim in deep waters. Prana is innately tied to individuals and their individuality. 

Hence, for example, "real India" is not the poverty that is shown on news channels by an "objective" third-party observer, let alone in a movie like Slumdog millionaire. Real India is how Indians see themselves. Real India, as is the notion of India itself, is defined in the minds of its individuals. If Indians see themselves as innately wealthy, then their response to poverty would be to fight it and bring themselves back to a state of wealth. On the other hand, if poverty enters the mind, then it would result in real poverty. 

There is a saying in Kannada which makes me cringe every time I hear it. Groundnuts (ಕಡಲೆಕಾಯಿ) is called "ಬಡವರ ಬಾದಾಮಿ", or "poor man's almond". Except that the groundnut is grown in a region that is rich with tropical resources, rains, minerals, rivers, etc. while almonds are grown in deserts and desolate regions that are much less endowed with natural resources. And yet, we call ourselves the poor man, and crave for almonds which supposedly is affordable only by the wealthy. 

A dharmic society has to begin first from the individual. It has to begin with eradicating the poverty latent in their minds, and empowering individuals to deeply inquire into their individuality. We need to have individuals find their dharma that maximises their Prana -- a state of being where they feel the most free to express themselves, without being hampered by scriptures, norms and social expectations. 

In this sense, dharma for social structuring, is innately about individual liberty -- not just as an ideology, but as an integral element of establishing collective sustainability. 

But dharma does not stop with individual finding their state of dharma. Every collection of individuals forms a system of being that has its own stable states. A dharmic society is one where any collection of individuals actively communicate to understand where is their stable system of being, and what is the Prana associated with that stable state. A dharmic institution for example, encourages people to speak up about their concerns, own up the institution and actively work towards its sustainability. It does not, for instance, create rigid hierarchies and power structures for the sake of efficiency. 

The founder of Sony Enterprises, Akio Morita, had this to say about institutions in the US and Japan (and Asia in general). In the US, employees are kept happy because happy employees are more efficient and productive, and bring more profits to the company. While in Japan, the company was seen as a family and all members of the family were made to understand that the company has to make profits and be efficient, if the family needs to be happy. 

The dichotomy between collective will and individual liberty is a false dichotomy -- they are not always in conflict with each other. The relation between the collective and the individual, is a whole-part relation -- somewhat like the relation between (say) our liver and the rest of the body. They body cannot be healthy if the liver is suffering, and even if the liver is healthy when the body as a whole is suffering, it adversely affects the liver as well. 

Individual Prana is important for the collective dharma (sustainability of the collective) and the collective Prana is important for the individual dharma

An individual may be part of several collectives (office, family, club, neighbourhood, ecology, etc.) each of which have their own stable states. Sustainability of all these collectives are affected by the individual's contributions to them. An adverse impact on the individual in one collective (say, office politics) may impact the individual's contribution to another collective (say, the family). A dharmic mind is holistic in nature, and is sensitive to such interferences. It does not live in an articulate, water-tight compartmentalisation of one's life. Hence, "work-life balance" as a separate object of inquiry, makes no sense to the dharmic mind, because the dharmic mind is always balancing between several systems of being that it is contributing to. 

Dharmic hermeneutics offer the most promising potential for building theories of sustainable liberty, rather than pursuing liberty as an ideology.

10 December, 2017

An Indian Teacher's Dilemma

Every year, when bright students come to me for advice and recommendation letters for them to pursue their careers abroad, I'm stuck with a debilitating dilemma, which I'm sure, is not unfamiliar to teachers all over India.

India is a wounded civilisation that is emerging from centuries of oppression, and grappling with collective trauma. The challenges it faces are immense and we require the brightest of minds working endlessly to make even small collective improvements. There is still life left in its civilisational roots, and it takes enormous care and nurture for these roots to grow back into the magnificent tree that it once was.

India needs bright minds, and bright minds are likely to be consumed by its challenges, with little or no traces left of their individuality.

On the other hand, moving abroad to a more developed country does wonders for these bright minds for developing their individuality. They get exposed to new cultures, new experiences, greater wealth, greater power, etc. However, none of these are likely to add much value to address the challenges that India is facing.

My Western, liberal education tells me that individual liberty is the basis for all free societies and development. Any society in which the individual cannot express their individuality is not free, and hence it is not only rational, but also moral, for individuals to seek greener pastures where they can grow and express their individuality.

As a teacher operating in the same hermeneutic echo chamber, no doubt, I would have implicitly endorsed and repeated those values to my students.

However, the values of dharma or sustainability that we learnt at home, teaches us something slightly different. It says that every individual is essentially a complex system of being, who themselves become components of a much larger and even more complex system of being, called the human society. And the basis for all free societies is to maximise the sustainability of all systems of being -- be they the individual, or the collective. Freedom in the dharmic sense, is hence, a multivariate optimisation problem. Individuals have to sustain their system of being, while at the same time, they are also responsible for helping sustain the collective system of being.

Promoting individuality by encouraging migration to greener pastures, greatly impedes the sustainability of the collective system of being. Individuals, by their mere presence can contribute greatly towards affective benefits of others around them. The mere presence of people we care about being in our vicinity gives us hope, strength and gumption to take on life's challenges for yet another day.

Of course, every student who wishes to go abroad, says that they are going to come back soon and they are only trying to "expand their horizons". But data tells us otherwise.

It is very rare for expat Indians to return to India after their studies. Their studies would have created some debt, which forces them to look for jobs after their studies. By which time, they would be married and having kids. And so on.

But more insidious is not these rational decisions that drives them to grow their roots elsewhere. The real scary and insidious elements are the narratives their minds (subconsciously) build to justify for themselves emotionally, that they are doing the right thing.

We are not rational beings who are emotional. We are emotional beings who are rational. Our system of being is largely driven by our emotional connects. And the decision to break away from one's emotional roots and settle down in a different country and culture is a decision fraught with trauma.

Our system of being -- the system that strives to keep us alive, quickly jumps into action and builds defences to justify the rational decision. Hence, people who decide to settle abroad end up with extra hate and resentment about their Indian roots. Indian culture, Indian values, Indian worldview, everything becomes the evil incarnate, which kept them oppressed in creepy ways, and which they have escaped to find a refuge in their new home.

The specific trajectory of each expat would be different -- but the broad template of experience that they go through is somewhat like the above. And I know that when I write a reference letter to a bright student who can solve complex math problems and write great code, they are actually diving headlong into an existential crisis, in a few years time. Not every one emerges out of existential crises, stronger. Most of them are scarred and traumatised for life.

So am I really helping them when I encourage them to expand their horizons? Can't they expand their horizons using the Internet and with the myriad exchange programs that exist to bring people of different cultures together? Do they have to essentially uproot themselves in their quest for their individuality?

On the other hand, if I discourage them, will I be hurting them emotionally? If I convince them to put their minds for work in India and they end up struggling and getting consumed by its problems, without being able to express their individuality, did I not fail the trust they had in me?

The dilemma continues...

22 November, 2017

Argumentation: Being Style

Over the last several posts, I have been developing the Theory of Being inspired by ancient Indian hermeneutics, as a universal theory.

The main idea here is the assertion that the fundamental building block of the universe is an abstract entity called "being" (Atma). A being has a certain capability (Prana), which is based on the energy and information content of the being. A being settles down in a stable state (dharma) relative to its environment (Vidhi) that maximizes its potential to express its capability.

Now that we have revised the essential elements of the Being theory, let me focus on an interesting aspect of argumentation in such hermeneutics.


One of the most celebrated debates from the first millennium India, was the debate between Adi Shankara and Mandan Misra, that took place in modern day Bihar, sometime in the 9th century CE. There are several commentaries and interpretations about what exactly happened in the debate and what were its key learnings. 

It is difficult to separate fact from myth in the several commentaries and narrations that exist about this debate. Here, I will discuss one such narration, which may or may not have reported the exact sequence of events as they happened in the debate. 

Mandan Misra was a learned scholar in the Mimamsa school of Vedic philosophy that stressed on the "karma kanda" -- or the formal, ritualistic way for spiritual exploration. In this school of thought, spiritual realization is sought through focusing upon our actions (karma) and performing each of them with the greatest possible commitment. 

Adi Shankara, who at that time was a young man in his 20s, was on a tour from the south of India where he hailed from, to the Himalayas, in his quest to identify and revive places of historical significance as mentioned in the epics like Vedas, Ramayana and Mahabharata. 

He was disillusioned by "karma kanda" and the way it was widely practiced. He had seen the enormous emphasis on rituals and facades actually obscuring, rather than facilitating the realization of the underlying wisdom. Thus, he chose to not take the "karma kanda" for his journey and instead chose the path of "jnana" (knowledge). The "jnana kanda" is characterized by skepticism as the primary tool for exploration. The explorer in this mode of exploration keeps rejecting assertions (also called the Neti or "not this" response), until an assertion sustains against the skepticism. (Yes, India practiced the scientific principle of falsification, centuries before Karl Popper). 

Following this process of exploration, Adi Shankara revived the underlying ideas of the Vedic worldview from the perspective of a skeptic, and called it Vedanta (literally, beyond Vedas). 

The debate between Mandan Misra and Adi Shankara about ritualism versus skepticism, was refereed by Mandan Misra's wife Ubhaya Bharati, who herself was a renowned scholar. At the end of the debate Ubhaya Bharati declared Adi Shankara's arguments as more sound than that of the much more learned and experienced husband of hers.

There are several narrations about the actual debate itself, which went on for about six months. But here is a story that piqued my interest. 

In this story, Ubhaya Bharati insisted that both Adi Shankara and Mandan Misra start their debates by wearing a garland of fresh flowers. And by the end of the debate, she duly noted the garland on which the flowers were most wilted. 

She found that the flowers on Adi Shankara's garland were consistently more fresh than that of the garland on Mandan Misra, every day after the debate. And this was one of the factors that contributed to her declaring Adi Shankara as the winner!


For someone who was educated in the "scientific" worldview as understood by the West, and having studied Stoicism, Objectivity, Socratic argumentation, modus ponens, modus tollens, etc. this makes no sense. 

I mean, what does the freshness of flowers (resulting from the emotional state of the wearer) have to do with the content of the argument? The objective merit of an argument is independent of how it is expressed or the emotional state of the argument maker. Right? 

For instance, someone may nervously state that the number of prime numbers is infinite, while another may confidently assert that the number of prime numbers is finite. That does not make the first assertion false and the second assertion true. We can prove that the number of prime numbers is infinite and is independent of how someone feels about it. 

Well yes, that is right, but, and there is always a but.. let's look at the big debate once again. 

Mandan Misra and Adi Shankara were debating about the relative merits of different pathways for the ultimate spiritual realization -- something which cannot be empirically verified. (There was and is no reliable test for "enlightenment"). Moreover, both "karma kanda" and "jnana kanda" are pathways for realization -- they don't guarantee anything. The seeker needs to pursue this pathway (perform "sadhana") for several years, before they can return any more wiser or enlightened. There is no way Ubhaya Bharati could have conducted a controlled experiment to determine the merits of each line of argumentation. 

What she instead noted was that both Mandan Misra and Adi Shankara were not just professing their respective philosophies, but were embodiments of these philosophies! They were not just preaching their philosophy -- they were living it!

Given this, if one of them consistently ended up flustered and emotionally insecure than the other, then the other embodiment displayed a greater level of sustainability or dharma.

Yet, one can still argue that, maybe Mandan Misra took a bigger emotional toll in the debate because he was emotionally insecure by nature, or maybe that he was much older than the young and energetic Adi Shankara, and hence got tired faster. 

Both are valid arguments and indeed if the adjudication were based solely on whether the flowers wilted or not, without any consideration of the actual contents of the argumentation, it would not be a sound judgment. 

However, given that Mandan Misra was a renowned scholar who knew how to argue objectively and dispassionately, the fact that he consistently felt emotionally insecure at the end of each day's debate, was evidence for Ubhaya Bharati to conclude that the objective merit of Adi Shankara's arguments were indeed strong -- strong enough to make a learned scholar who knew how to argue, feel emotionally insecure.


What I find really fascinating in the above, is the brilliant elucidation of what holistic thinking really means. 

We are taught so much to articulate and "divide and conquer" a complex issue, that we completely forget that the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. When we consider the entire system of being as a whole, its characteristics are vastly different from a simple aggregation of the characteristics of its parts. 

We have lost this ability to think holistically (read also this theory of synergistic thinking that I'd started to develop some 10 years ago, before I really understood dharmic thought). We instead, focus on just one dimension or aspect of an issue and blow it totally out of proportion. 

In most social matters, this one dimension usually pertains to what is a legal entitlement and what is not. For instance, the entire public debate on the issue of the movie on Rani Padmavati, has focused on whether the makers of this movie have a legal right to make an artistic rendering of a historical figure that greatly distorts and offends the sensibilities of a large segment of the population. 

Well, yes of course they do -- just like people are not forbidden from cursing in public. But that is not the issue. The issue is what happens to our collective world-view or disposition when history is continuously and subtly distorted in several different ways. For most of our lives, we are driven by perception -- not by reason. Where will the collective system of being end up?

The story of Ubhaya Bharati shows us that a good scholar is one who not only reasons on the objective elements of the argument, but also on the affective dimension of the argumentation!

05 October, 2017

A Being perspective of the Mahabharata

The Mahabharata is the largest epic poem ever written some time in the 8th or 9th century BCE, comprising over 100,000 shlokas (couplets). It narrates the story of the Kuru empire of ancient Hastinapura, spanning over several generations, and interweaving several other stories within it.

The main feature of the Mahabharata is the Kurukshetra war that lasted over 18 days, involving several kingdoms of ancient India, bringing forth great bloodshed and destruction. The epic narrates events leading up to the war, as well as the aftermath of the war.

The epic has captured the imagination of Indians for almost 3000 years now, and even today several authors continue to analyze and provide commentaries about the intricacies of the story.

Here is one such perspective, based on my understanding of cognition and the theory of Being.

At the face of it, the Mahabharata war is a war between cousins -- the Pandavas on the one side, fighting the Kauravas. Events that lead to the war are many, and span over several years. War was seen as inevitable after Pandavas, led by Krishna had explored and exhausted all possible options to seek justice in a peaceful manner. The war was touted as "dharma-yuddha" -- or a war that was meant to prevent the system from collapsing from within, due to its own unsustainable (adharma) activities. The dharma yuddha hence potentially prevented a much larger catastrophe.

Rivalry between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, is seen as the primary factor resulting in this war. A rivalry that was exacerbated by a "weak" father Dritharashtra, and an "evil" uncle Shakuni.

However, I prefer to see it very differently, as terms like "weak" and "evil" have no meaning in the theory of being.

In order to understand my perspective, we need to refresh some basic definitions for atma (being), dharma (sustainability), vidhi (schema), and prana (capability). Atma is the fundamental unit in which the physical world is built. It represents an abstract notion of "being" that has many stable states called its dharma, where it would settle down, depending on its environment (vidhi). Once a being has reached a stable state with respect to its environment, the system of beings in mutual equilibrium forms a composite being that is in its stable state with respect to its environment.

A being also has a certain level of prana (capability). Prana refers to the complexity of the being's self expression, and may be viewed in terms of the information entropy of its expressions. A being with a high level of prana is capable of very rich expressions in some form (rich musical ability, rich athletic ability, rich philosophical ability, etc.)

Within an environment, a being reaches a stable state that maximizes its prana. Each stable state (or local optima) allows for a certain extent of expressive complexity. If a being is capable of more complex expressions than what the stable state allows, it strives to find a better stable state -- the so-called "global optima" for the being.

Hence for instance, in the Mahabharata, the being called Karna who had been endowed with superlative abilities of a warrior was raised by a charioteer, he could not stay as a charioteer. His prana pushed him to find a dharma that suits his prana.

When we look at things from the perspective of dharma and prana, we have no need for vocabulary like "weak", "evil", etc. When an atma (being) is stuck in a stable state where the expression of its prana is highly curtailed, it leads to frustration and helplessness, and release of its latent energy in self-destructive ways, which in turn leads to other negative repercussions.

This in a nutshell is the story of the Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata is the story of two system of beings -- the Kuru system of being and the Gandhar system of being, both of which had very different experiences with their dharma and prana.

In the Kuru system of being, there was relatively more peace and freedom for people to explore and express themselves to the best of their abilities. So much so that people were generally unaware of the interplay between their prana and their dharma.

Among them was the prince Dritharashtra, who was born blind. Dritharashtra was a highly capable warrior and endowed with a lot of prana. He had trained himself in several martial and administrative abilities, despite his debilitating blindness.

However, Dritharashtra was constantly frustrated. His prana pushed him to aspire for much higher goals, while his blindness cruelly pulled him back. None of the others around him understood the intensity of frustration that he was constantly going through.

Dritharashtra understood several aspects of administration and governance, and was much more able than his brother Pandu. However, in their "wisdom" the Kuru advisers advised the queen against making Dritharashtra as the king, citing his blindness. This frustrated Dritharashtra even more leading to his latent prana releasing itself in self-destructive ways, which was widely interpreted as his "weakness".

No one in the Kuru empire thought of creating an formalized abstract administrative process and system, where Dritharashtra can still express his capabilities despite his blindness, and which could be gainfully used for effective administration. Instead, they only saw the throne as an entitlement for one who is capable -- and being stuck in a disability was seen as a lack of capability.

In contrast to the Kuru empire, the empire of Gandhar, situated in the desolate region of present day Khandahar in Afghanistan, lived in a place with constant challenges and threats to survival. Their life was a constant struggle and they had to keep themselves fighting fit, just to survive.

When Bhisma from the Kuru empire came with a proposal for the marriage of Dritharashtra with the Gandhar princess, the king and his son were aghast at the thought of marrying the princess to a blind prince. But having struggled for everything all through their lives, they saw the practical benefit of being aligned with a much stronger kingdom, and agreed for the marriage.

The Gandhar princess Gandhari on her part, was equally aghast at this arrangement. Not only did she have the frustration of being used as an object of trade to buy peace, she also had to spend the rest of her life with a blind king. But having been no stranger to adversity, struggles and defiance, she took a drastic decision to blindfold herself and lead the rest of her life in blindness. This decision is interpreted by different people in different ways. But for her, it was a complex expression of her prana struggling to break out of its surrounding constraints -- it was a mix of expressions involving protest, defiance, empathy and acceptance.

No one in Kuru understood the complex nature of the frustrated prana and the different ways that it finds to express itself. Instead, they continued on with very simplistic models of dharmic practices, making both Dritharashtra and Gandhari's brother Shakuni (who had accompanied his sister to live in Hastinapura), feel even more frustrated and helpless.


The second part of the story is with the next generation.

When we interact with others, we are simultaneously communicating in two dimensions -- abstractions and expressions. Abstractions represent the ideas that we are processing in our minds, while the expressions represent the emotions that we are feeling.

Cognitively, we are hard-wired to catch and imbibe others' emotions even without our knowledge. This is called emotional contagion. This is even more so with children. Children are far too ill-equipped to process our ideas, but have native abilities to imbibe and internalize our expressions.

Which is why, when we bring up our children, it is very important to be mindful of how we are feeling, in addition to what we are telling them.

From this perspective, the Kauravas have the saddest story ever. Right from the day they were born, they were subject to the intense feeling of frustration and victimhood by their father and uncle. These emotional states were so deeply ingrained in their minds that they practically became embodiments of those emotions!

They never got to learn who they were as individuals. They never got to experience happiness that characterizes our fundamental nature. All their happy moments were entailed on a bedrock of frustration and victimhood.

It is only when Krishna realized this, that it became clear to him that war was the only option. There is no way to reason about peace with a person who does not have an innate understanding of peace. There is no way to appeal to a person's happiness when they do not innately understand happiness.

It is somewhat like trying to reason with a suicide bomber or threaten them with punishments. When our hermeneutics -- or the basic framework of reasoning -- does not know the existence of essential elements like peace, trust, empathy, etc. it tries to interpret everything within its own bounded framework of victimhood or frustration, and ends up with wildly inaccurate conclusions.

And when such minds with damaged hermeneutics occupy a position of power, there is no way one can bring peace or uphold dharma without battling them.

This is just the same problem we face today with terrorism or religious extremism that seeks to rule the world according to a rigid belief system that is based on segregation, discrimination and hatred of the "other".

21 September, 2017

Imbibing the Theory of Being

Over the last few posts, I have been writing down my thoughts on the "Theory of Being" in my attempt to re-create the way of thinking that characterized ancient Indian thought. With my familiarity with modern day scientific thought that has its roots in ancient Greece and with the emerging theory of systems and rational games, coupled with the kind of upbringing we had in our homes, where dharmic way of thinking was practiced, I believe it gives me a unique perspective to re-create the underlying worldview of dharmic thought process.

Let me start with examples to provide evidence for the fact that the dharmic way of thinking is indeed different in characteristic than the Western model that we learnt in school.

It is common to encounter debates in educational circles, about whether students should be encouraged to "pursue their dreams" or have "realistic ambitions". I even saw a Quora answer by a famous physicist about how students should be taught to be realistic with their ambitions, and provided several examples of people whose lives have fallen apart in their pursuit of their dreams.

It started me to think why we (at least me), never had this dilemma. In fact, I did not really have a separate "dream" that was separated and compartmentalized from the reality around me.

The reason was not hard to see. In our homes, we were imbibed with a meme that we should always "uphold our dharma". While the concept of dharma has been distorted to give this meme several weird interpretations like we have to uphold our religion, uphold our ethics, etc. our culture has internalized this meme over several millenia. People are implicitly taught to strive for sustainability in every pursuit.

The moment we add "..in a sustainable way" to our advice, the dilemma is resolved. We can advice our students to "pursue their dreams in a sustainable way" or even "be realistic in a sustainable way" (i.e. don't get bogged down and depressed by reality to the extent that it threatens your sustainability).

Both of these pieces of advice are much more stable (sustainable?) than the earlier sets of advice "pursue your dreams" or "be realistic".

This is the most significant potential I find with the theory of being.

Imbibing the Theory of Being, into our modern day theoretical physics helps us understand a very complex system by reducing it down to its sustainable states and the transitions between them. "Strange Attractors" from chaos theory, anyone?

Imbibing the Theory of Being into engineering and architecture helps us analyze and design large systems by focusing on their stable states. It also helps in understanding the growth of cities, the complex interplay between its different subsystems, and strategies to manage such complex systems.

Imbibing the Theory of Being into education, humanities and social sciences helps us understand both humans and societies in terms of their stable states, rather than their ideologies. In fact, a staunch ideological stance like fanaticism, indicates a stable cognitive state -- a local minima -- which only gets reinforced by our vociferous disapproval of it. We stop looking at social problems through the lens of ideology and morality, and stop blaming, attitude, apathy, greed, etc. for our problems. Instead, we will start looking at greed, apathy, etc. as stable systemic states that a person's or community's mind is stuck in, and is getting reinforced by self-fulfilling prophecies.


So, here is a quick recap of the essential elements of the Being theory of the universe. 

There is only one kind of element that the universe is made of -- called "being" (Atma).Beings compose to become bigger beings, with the entire universe as the ultimate Being (Paramatma). 

Beings can be in different states (of being). Not all states are equally stable. A being in an unstable state tends to settle down to a stable state. The stable states of being are called its dharma. 

The dharma of a being is not a property of the being alone -- but also of the environment (vidhi) in which it operates. A being's dharma is the best response function that maximizes its sustainability, given the characteristics of its vidhi. 

As humans, we have our dharma, and the social system in which we operate has its own states of dharma. The system as a whole, tends to settle down in its stable state, which in turn requires us to find our own stable state, given the state that the system has settled down in. 

Hence, for instance, given the state of our roads, lack of driving sense, lack of public transport, dogs, etc. commuting by car to work is my best response function -- even though it costs me a lot. My ideal commute would be by a multi-modal public transport, to which I can walk on well paved footpaths and am reasonably assured of my safety from stray dogs, rogue drivers and other such factors. But then, the vidhi has settled down in some stable state that is not conducive to this ideal. 

At every stable state that a being settles into, it has a given capability (prana). Every being tries to settle down in a stable state where its prana is maximized. Given two stable states with different levels of prana, beings prefer the one with higher prana. This is for instance, the reason why IIT grads emigrated to "settle down" in the US rather than looking for a job in India. Settling down in India (used to) have a much lower level of prana (capability) than settling down in the US. 

This is true not just of "living" beings -- but of all beings. If we excite molecules of a crystal with energy, they change the overall shape of the crystal. This is the new stable state with the higher level of prana that the beings are endowed with. 

While I've used prana (capability) in the sense of "energy" there is a subtle, but important difference between energy (urja) and capability (prana). Consider a tall building and its operations. Every day it consumes several megawatts of electricity to be the building that it is (for its lighting, elevators, air conditioning, pumps, etc.) This electricity is part of the larger system and interactions that gives the building its capability. Now suppose that the building is one day stuck with lightning, and even more electricity flow through its cables burning away all the appliances connected to it. What just happened, was that the building obtained a lot of "energy" (urja) but lost its "capability" (prana). The system of the building has now settled down to a lower state of dharma with lesser capability (where we cannot use the lights, the elevators, etc.).

What makes a being move from a lower state of dharma to a higher state of dharma? This happens when the being is endowed with more prana, so that the current state of dharma is no longer the best stable state, given the state of the prana. 

This process of taking a being from a lower stable state to a higher stable state is called pranayama. The idea of pranayama is holistic upliftment of being to help find a new stable state. Empowerment of only some parts of being will not improve the overall capability. Hence for instance, running into wealth without an improvement in our education about how wealth works, is not likely to increase our capability. 

Pranayama hence, starts with internal capacity building -- be it for an individual, a family, an organization or a country. We can "shoot for the stars" only after we have built an internal capability to sustainably shoot for the stars. 

It is hence, no surprise that mega achievements in aviation and space technology have all but disappeared. No country is interested in putting a man on the moon anymore. No one seems to be too keen on building supersonic passenger jets. No one even seems to be keen on building space colonies that was widely expected to happen after the International Space Station was built. None of these achievements were a result of the increased capability of humanity as a whole. These stellar achievements were made at a time when large parts of the world were fighting one another or were literally starving to death. 

If we wish to build a sustainable world, we need to increase overall capability. This not just means financial and material capability of humans, but also their educational and spiritual capability. Pranayama for the world includes increasing the prana of the world that we are endowed with -- its forests and its diverse set of flora and fauna. 

04 August, 2017

Dharma and Fairness

It is common knowledge that almost all social upheavals around the world have been a fight for fairness. Or were they really about fairness?

To answer this of course, we need to define what is fairness. Unfortunately, this is where things start going out of hand. In my class on negotiation theory we study at least six definitions of fairness -- many of them contradicting one another!

Consider this example. Suppose some people agree to meet up for something. And they all agree that they will meet in the house of one of the persons. It is clearly unfair, right? Everybody else, except the guy at whose house the meeting is to be held, needs to commute in traffic, while the lone guy gets to relax at his house waiting for others to arrive.

However, when we were students pursuing our theses, we routinely went to meet our professors at their house to discuss our research on holidays and it never occurred to us that it was unfair. No, it was not because there was a "hierarchy" with professors bullying students (I studied in post unification Germany which was very keen to attract students, and the professors were not only inspiring, but also "chilled out" -- if that's the right word).

The reason we found the setup fair was that as students we had a singular goal -- to make progress towards our thesis. And commuting several miles for a meeting was just a small cost towards the benefit of making progress on our theses. While the professor had several students and had several goals to pursue -- not just research goals, but also administrative and financial goals to keep the department and lab running. The intrinsic cost that he would have to pay to commute through traffic for meeting his students would be much higher.

The thing here to note is that utility and cost have subjective elements, even though there is a price tag associated with the object. If a kg of tomatoes cost Rs. 100/- (Ha!) and I buy tomatoes by paying Rs. 100/- what it means is not that the value of a kg of tomatoes is Rs. 100/-. What it means is, for the buyer, a kg of tomatoes is more valuable than Rs. 100/- while for the seller, Rs. 100/- is more valuable than a kg of tomatoes.

Hence, a system of fairness based on objective valuation may not actually be considered fair.

Here is another example connotation of fairness -- the property of Pareto optimality. A system comprising of multiple rational agents is said to be in a state of Pareto optimality, if no agent can change what they are doing, to get a better utility, without hurting the utility of some other agent.

A queue for example, is in a state of Pareto optimality. People standing in a queue can choose to either remain in the queue, or cut the queue and go straight to the counter to get for themselves a better payoff (lesser waiting time). However, while they get a better payoff, all others in front of them in the queue would be worse off by this action of theirs.

Pareto optimality, is hence seen as yet another example of fairness.

However, consider this example. A society that practices slavery is also in a state of Pareto optimality. And if Pareto optimality were to be the measure of fairness, then slaves seeking freedom, or workers seeking better and more human working conditions, would hurt the prospects for their masters or for the management, making it unfair.

So when is Pareto optimality fair and when is it unfair?

Consider yet another example -- a game called the "Battle of the sexes".

A couple wish to go on a date and they have between them two options -- a musical concert or a cricket match. The boy likes to go to the musical concert, while the girl likes to go to the cricket match (of course!). If they both decide to go to the musical concert, then the boy would have "won" the battle -- not only are they going on a date, they are going to his preferred choice. If instead they choose to go to the cricket match, the girl would have "won" the battle. They of course, have a third choice -- to call off the date and go on to the concert or the cricket match separately. In which case, they are both equal -- but they are not on a date, which is what had started the whole exercise.

The above is an example of a choice between a system state that is "equally poor" or "unequally rich", where the poorest in the unequally rich state is richer than the richest in the equally poor state.

So in this case, do we favour equality over collective wealth, or collective wealth over equality? (The answer is not that simple -- what if unequally rich state, the richest was orders and orders of magnitude more richer than the poorest?)

I can give several more examples of fairness, all of which have a "Yes but.." exception, where the very definition of fairness can be used to create a system that is blatantly and visibly unfair.


You guessed it right if you are thinking that fairness cannot be defined only in terms of payoffs of the players involved. There is more to the definition of fairness than just the self-interest functions of the players. 

And that is the element of sustainability -- that dharma thing again! 

Look back at all the social upheavals of history. Were they really about fairness, or were they about sustainability? 

Slavery -- or the trading of our liberty for some concrete benefit -- has existed for millenia and it was also rationalized away by weird logic. A weak person for instance, had two choices -- struggle for survival or become a slave of a stronger person and make the other guy stronger, so that he can take care of both of them. Trading of one's freedom for a life of safety was seen as a most rational thing to do. 

Except, beyond a certain point the configuration becomes unsustainable. 

We trade our freedom for safety or convenience all the time. Be it using Gmail and telling google all about ourselves, or passing through an X-ray scanner in airport security and answering embarrassing questions about the contents of our bags to airport security. 

As long as the extent to which we give up our liberty is bounded (by place, time and type of liberty) it is still fine. But when this trade becomes unbounded, we get into systemic stability issues. 

Which is what is the core issue concerning privacy in the digital age. The question of privacy is not about fairness per se. The argument for fairness can be countered by several examples where we voluntarily give up our personal information. 

The core issue is of sustainability of basic human values and dignity in a system where every information about them can be recorded in high-fidelity forever. 


So, let me say this again. Unless we develop a comprehensive "Theory of Being" we cannot hope to find real solutions to the digitally connected world of the 21st century. We will just keep harping on fairness rhetoric without gaining any fundamental insight about what is the real problem.