Friday, June 25, 2010

Book Review - My Country My Life

My Country My Life by L. K. Advani: This book is about the long 60-year political journey of Mr. L. K. Advani packed into a whopping 1000 pages - reading it is a long journey as well. He makes his views known, both good and bad, about a host of political personalities in India starting with Nehru-Gandhi-Patel years, Indira Gandhi-Rajiv Gandhi years, until his recent rendezvous with Rahul Gandhi, that makes it pretty comprehensive. It was also enlightening to learn about less popular personalities like Dr. Shyam Prasad Mukherjee, Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya and Jayaprakash Narayan, who are portrayed as better visionaries but could only lay the ground work, given the Indian political situation. His tireless efforts are inspiring to read - in building BJP as an alternative to congress, dealing with the draconian emergency era and its legacy, dealing with the alliance politics that has produced little output in nation building - the last one still remains an issue. On the one hand, it gives hope that sharp minds starting from Swami Vivekananda, Dr. Mukherjee, Pandit Deena Dayal Upadhyaya and Mr. Advani himself have continued to build so much momentum over 100 years, on their vision for the nation. On the other hand, it also feels hopeless as we read through the challenges faced from compromising politics, sycophancy, lust for power and bad ethics resulting in bad leadership and leaving the nation in shambles time and again. There is a strong defense of RSS as an organization committed to churning more ethical and disciplined people each generation, as well a strong tinge of Hindutva, though he tries to provide a secular view and explain the Ram temple or Ayodhya issue in a cultural context as a means of building a strong future with roots in glorious past traditions. I get the feeling that if the same efforts were put in a different more progressive strategy without past hangups, it may have resulted in wider acceptance and better results. Some interesting tid-bits from the book:
  • India got its name from the Sindhu river; Sindhustan became Hindustan in Persian, and Indu in the regional language. Now, the Sindh province or Sindhu river doesn't run in India at all!
  • Mr. Advani did not know Hindi until he was 20 years old! He learned it later after migrating to India from Sindh.
  • The Vivekananda memorial in Kanyakumari was a result of tireless efforts and leadership of a person by name Mr. Eknath Ranade.
I have also read another book, Gandhi and Churchill, which provides a good narration from 1850 to 1947, prior period to much of what is in this book. As well, books like the Argumentative Indian, by Amartya Sen that provides glimpses of Indian history way back to Akbar and Ashoka (BCE) days. Going by these, it seems Indian politics was always a mixed bag of good and evil alliances with pockets of illustrious rule, and will continue that way at least to the foreseeable future.

The best tribute to this book is what I heard the renowned journalist Cho Ramaswamy say; Not verbatim, but it goes something like this: "As far as Mr. Advani is concerned, My Country and My Life are the same thing - his life has always been about this country"!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Book Review - Chanakya Neeti

Complete Chanakya Neeti - Manoj Publications: This is a book with words of wisdom from Chanakya, a political genius and minister that lived around 300 BC.It provides the original verses in Sanskrit and a reasonably close English translation. Some words are translated differently in different verses (e,g, dharma as religion, or law), so we have to watch out if it is really authentic translation as it claims. It also has a detailed explanation, which in many places is unnecessary and poorly written, mixed with author's own opinions and contradictions.
Neeti means Law or Rule, but the book is only words of wisdom or fact book centered around value of education, money, values for women, kings & brahmins during Chanakya's times - not categorized as criminal, family, contract law that we'd expect out of a law book.

Here are some interesting views of Chanakya that you may agree or disagree with, and might question if some of these are really words of wisdom:
  • Hates fools (evident from recurring mention in many verses). Feels teachers shouldn't waste time teaching them.
  • The verses say things about women that make it difficult to cut him slack. Like, women eat twice as much, have 8x sexual drive than men! A pretty wife is an enemy! Prostitutes envy housewives!
  • It appears the food pyramid is upside down, in his mind! The verses say leafy veggies bring diseases. Milk has ten times more calories than flour, and Ghee (melted butter) is ten times more energy than meat and provides more vigor (book interprets the word virya as semen, but I am being kind ).
  • Plenty of good advice and leadership emphasis for kings. Yatha Raja Thatha Praja - Like King, like subjects. He advices to get out of a country that doesn't respect you or doesn't provide a reasonable means of living among a few other criteria.
  • Idol worshipers are fools. Wise folks realize God is everywhere and look for God in their own hearts.
There is also mention of gold, brass and other interesting historical tidbits, greed for money, women or wives of loose character, that students shouldn't be distracted by love, entertainment shows etc. implying similar problems existed in those times as well!

Overall, I am glad I read the book. It gives us a good insight into Chanakya's times, the metaphors used are great, and much of the book is actually good advice we could use even today.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Book Review - The Vedas

The Vedas by His Holiness The Paramacharya of Kanchi: This book is a well written translation from the discourses of the Parmacharya of Kanchi back in the 1980s. The Acharya's wisdom is splendidly obvious and fulfilling to the mind as we read through. It doesn't provide the vedic hymns and translation, that the title of the book might suggest. Rather, it provides an excellent ground work as a first reading - an excellent overview of the Vedas, classifying the various texts, that constitute the Vedas, outlining the basic content and history behind of each of them. It offers sensible and well thought out explanations and arguments on the scriptures that can appeal to the scientific mind, even if we may not agree with the ideas presented or debate if the arguments. The Acharya suggests that research and debate on exact timing of when vedas were written is not so important to get hung up on, as it is a documentation of various pieces of knowledge that existed even before it was written - much like trying to date a physics book that documents Newton's laws, Galileo's discoveries etc all of which happened at different times. He explains, the science behind Vedas as descriptive of nature, the universe, astronomy origins and calculations, and the cosmic vibrations at various levels, and how the close association of our ancestors with nature helped them develop the vedic mantras and rituals, and how chanting these mantras and performing rituals can influence the cosmic vibrations, thereby controlling the elements of nature, and the effects even at an individual level. It is a well built case and strong defense of the Vedas, but we may argue some of it requires substantiation that modern researchers could attempt. Why would science be written in hymns? - the Acharya offers the explanation that prose became popular only after print media came about, hand hymns were the easy way to memorize and pass on to generations prior to print!

The Acharya also dispels many myths and offers plenty of lessons from Indo-European linguistic origins that leave us astounded. Some examples:
  • Dental is an offshoot from the Sanskrit word Dhantha, a word that requires teeth to pronounce properly! But, pronouncing Dental doesn't need the teeth at all!
  • Hour is a result of transformations from Hora, which has origins to mean time in Latin and Sanskrit. Heart is a transformation from Hrudhaya.
  • The sun-god in Hinduism is depicted as riding a chariot driven by seven horses - the Acharya cites the hymn on which this belief is based, which uses the word Saptha-Ashwa meaning seven-rays (as in VIBGYOR or seven colours in each light ray), It turns out Ashwa also means horse, probably because horses metaphorically travel as fast as light rays! Mindboggling oversight in interpretation that lost the science behind!
The book also highlights the contributions of scholars and philosophers over time such as Lord Krishna, (in Bhagavad Gita) Adi Shankara, who have interpreted the Vedas the right way and written commentaries, stories, hymns to simplify or embellish the understanding. Finally, there is a boat load of Vedic philosophy (Upanishads) in many chapters that went over my head, but may delight the philosophically oriented.

I am glad I picked this book at the airport for in-flight reading - the gain was worth way over the $3 cost!