Sunday, 27 October 2013

Book Review: The Bhagavad Gita

The Holy Geeta
Publisher: Central Chinmaya Mission Trust

ISBN: 9788175970748

Author: Swami Chinmayananda

Pages: 1273

The Bhagavad Gita is the core text of Hinduism. In its entire flow, the Bhagavad Gita is fairly simple and straightforward. It opens with the Pandava prince Arjuna preparing to lead his troops into battle and develops cold feet upon seeing mnay of his family members in the opposition ranks. He feels it is a sin to kill so many great men such as his teacher, his grandfather who are part of the opposition. 

Despite Arjuna preparing for the war, haunted by the guilt of killing his relatives, he drops his bow and succumbs to the situation by proposing escapist tendencies. Krishna, the charioteer of the Pandava prince understands his plight and for motivating him, begins the long discourse called "The Bhagavad Gita" and tells him about the reality of Yoga, soul, meditation, life, death and reincarnation. While we would be tempted to perceive the narrator of the Gita as the blue-eyed boy from Vrindavan, it is important and advised that we try to look beyond the physical form of Krishna. 

The book is divided into 18 chapters in 700 shlokas Each teaching touches upon a topic designed to facilitate understanding. Krishna is presented as a patient and well-meaning teacher, who lists the advantages and disadvantages of following his counsel. The poetic narrative is sometimes very cryptic; a familiarity with sacred aspects of Hinduism clarifies some concepts. The book is a concoction of mythology and sagacity; and the reader is well served by a reflective reading pace. Many of the proverbial verses are as challenging as riddles. 

The narrative proposes the means by which perfect peace can be attained; and throughout the book, there are guidelines intended to initiate the process of equanimity. There is a meditative aura about The Bhagavad-Gita. The steps required to reach inner bliss are sometimes vague, and sometimes quite obvious. I liken the book to a well from which one can heave buckets of wisdom. However, the bygone centuries have not tainted the book's messages. The text invites a reader to reassess his or her concept of self. The impulse to understand, self, others, and the world in which we life, is readily encouraged. Also, throughout the book, knowledge is a key to comprehending the essence of being.

The Bhagavad Gita is a revered Hindu scripture that forms a part of the Indian epic of The Mahabharata. It presents a dialogue between the Pandava prince Arjuna and his charioteer and guide, Lord Krishna. The duo’s conversation on a variety of philosophical topics has long been considered to be a lifestyle guide, according to the principles of Vedanta. However, with the passage of time and changing moral values, the essence of the Gita has been diluted, misinterpreted, and often lost in a sea of confusion.

Through this book, Swami Chinmayananda seeks to reacquaint the readers with this invaluable guide for living. He presents the glory of the universe and its vision of an omniscient, omnipotent God. He explores numerous concepts such as the beauty of the spirit, the science of spiritual growth, disillusionment, and moral and spiritual decay.

The book discusses how the delusion and dominance of the ego clouds the true self, giving rise to mental confusion and a distinct lack of inner peace. It shows how the readers can apply the principles of the Gita to their daily lives and enrich them with love, laughter, spiritual beauty, and a closeness to the divine.

Originally published in 1976 by Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, the book has undergone various reprints. Through The Holy Geeta, Swami Chinmayananda seeks to reintroduce readers to the essence of the Bhagavad Gita, helping them integrate its valuable lessons into their ultra-modern lives.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Book Review: Mrityunjaya

Book: Mrityunjaya

Author: Shivaji Sawant

Pages: 628

ISBN: 7421-0105

It is often said that the books of our childhood offer a vivid door to our own pasts, and not necessarily for the stories we read there, but for the memories of where we were and who we were when we were reading them; to remember a book is to remember the child who read that book. The timelessness of the epic is witnessed as we continue to name our children after various characters in the Mahabharata. The brave feats of the epic’s warriors still continue to shape our dreams and inspire our films.

The Marathi novel "Mrityunjaya" is a classic novel written by Shivaji Sawant on the life of Karna, the greatest tragic hero in Indian history. Despite being dedicated to the life and times of the benign hero, it highlights significant characters from the Mahabharata and also a socio-political frame of the time. To begin with, Karna is the eldest son of the Pandava queen Kunti and Surya, the sun God. Due to Kunti's fear of being scorned, she abandoned him in a box. He was found and brought up by Adhiratha, a coachman from Hastinapura and his wife Radha. 

Mrityunjaya was written as a semi-autobiographical take on Karna’s life. The book is written from the point of view of six characters: Karna opens and takes us closer to the end of his story, interspersed with chapters by Kunti (his mother), Duryodhana (his best friend), Vrishali (his wife), Shon (his younger foster brother) and a grand ending by the Lord, Krishna. Apart from indulging the semi-autobiography of a fictional figure, the writer Shivaji Sawant touches on one of the biggest realities of human society, one that has not changed since time immemorial. He reminds us of how we, as a society, place an abnormal amount of emphasis on someone's background to form an opinion of them, irrespective of their actual behaviour or worth. 

The search for meaning of being is a man's eternal quest and that entirely forms the basis of Mrityunjaya. The book is an outstanding instance of a literary masterpiece in which Shivaji Sawant explores the meaning of life through the persona of the prince from the Mahabharata. It is a remarkable exploration of the human psyche. In Mrityunjaya, Karna is given a three-dimensional personality, something which the original Mahabharata does not provide. The writer also takes a few liberties with the original, but the changes he makes are only to make the story more realistic. The characters of Vrishali and Shon for example, are given such appropriate voices, that you are left wondering whether Sawant had the fortune of stumbling upon some long lost letters written by them.

My only complaints with this book were a few intermittent yet inexplicable errors, such as the turning of the Kuru dynasty into a solar one, which I presume is to reinforce Karna's fascination with the throne of the Hastinapura and also partly because as the son of the Sun when the Mahabharata describes the Kuru dynasty as a lunar dynasty. He has also referred to Krishna constantly as the king though this is not how it is narrated in the Itihasa-purana tradition. If you are into mythology, Mrityunjaya will certainly interest you. As a psychological insight into Karna's life, the metaphors in the book are very apt and the conversations between different characters are thought-provoking. Even if your introduction to Karna is through the Mahabharata alone, you cannot help but feel empathy for the eldest son of Kunti. In fact, Mrityunjaya only deepens it. 

Summing up, Mrityunjaya is one of the most eloquently narrated books and is most certainly a book worth adding to one's reading collection. 

Monday, 21 October 2013

Book Review: Mahabharata

Publisher: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan

Author: Kamala Subramaniam

Pages: 870

ISBN: 9788172764050 

The story of the Mahabharata is an invaluable legacy for both the old and young. Keeping in mind the same, the version by Kamala Subramaniam that begins with the meeting of Ganga and Shantanu. The book moves ahead as it describes their marriage and Ganga drowning seven children until Shantanu asks her the reason for doing so. From there, the story progresses through the lives of Satyavati, Dhritarashtra, Pandu and the Pandava and Kaurava princes. It eventually concludes with the entry of the Pandavas into heaven. 

This version by Kamala Subramaniam published by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan does a marvellous job of translating and abridging the Mahabharata. At 870 pages, the book is an excellent page-turner despite its numerous stories going on tangents. As a writer, she tends to write in short, jerky sentences, using adjectives and adverbs in abundance. She spills the melodrama left, right and centre and is not afraid to overdo it in the emotional sector especially in the character graphs of Satyaki, Bhima and Radheya. Her narrative of the post-war section takes up less than 70 pages. 

Kamala Subramaniam’s Mahabharata 16th Edition was originally published in 1965 and since then it has been reprinted fourteen times because of its popularity. Besides being one of the finest epics, it is a romantic tale consisting of heroic people and some divine characters. It is a complete literature in itself and provides readers with a social philosophy, code of life, speculative perspective on human issues, and philosophy on ethical relations. And most importantly, at the heart of the epic is the Bhagavad Gita. 

The story of the Mahabharata is an invaluable legacy for both old and young. And keeping in mind the same, Kamala Subramaniam provides a vivid narrative in this book and retells the famous story of the Pandavas and Kauravas in a convincing manner. Though it is an abridged version of the epic, the author has ensured to cover all the important events of the story in this book.

At the very best, this book is a good starting point for adults who are reading the Mahabharata for the first time but a word of caution that ignores the various sub-plots and overlooks many of the supporting characters. However, in lucid English and despite spelling errors, her version gives a very compelling rendition especially in the war sequences. While I felt that most parts of the book were well-covered, there is an unusual sense of sympathy for Radheya especially during the war sequences which I felt takes away the "objective" tone of writing.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Their Words, Our Minds

In media studies, Paul Lazarsfeld gives us the concept of ‘two-step flow theory’ in which he believes: “in a society there co-exist two types of people: opinion leaders and opinion followers.” He explains that to convince the masses, one must convince the leaders. If one compares Lazarsfeld’s theory to columnists and their followers, we see that columnists act as opinion leaders who have the power to shape public opinion through their words. The aspect and dimensions that a columnist persuades his or her readers to see determine which way popular opinion moves. They can reinforce or re-form popular attitudes.
Modern psychology states that the human mind responds positively to stimuli that are favourable to him/her and the adverse is usually ignored or rejected. The smart and powerful know this pattern of behaviour of society too well and use mass communication to serve themselves or their causes. Typically, most people consume information that reinforces their viewpoints. It is less frequent and more difficult for writers and columnists to transform or completely alter this tendency. This can be borne out by the kind of praise or abuse heaped on an article that commits itself to a particular point of view.  The more extreme a point of view the more extreme the feedback. Often comments and feedback criticize a piece for it’s “bias” or lack of objectivity. But is that at all a fair expectation?
“In my view, editors who say they are neutral and objective start from a position of bias. Columnists are expected to take a position and argue their case with robust knowledge and that the evidence can be independently verified. It is the job of columnists to influence public opinion through their arguments. It is for the masses to decide whether or not a case is well made. This explains why some columns are eagerly awaited while some are ignored. To cite an example, The Economist comes to mind. I do not agree with a lot of what they say, but I read the magazine for the way they state their opinion and make a case for it,” says journalist Chitra Subramaniam Duella.
The difference between persuasion and manipulation is thin and it is a topic that can polarise readers. “Why would someone write if not to let people know what s/he thinks? Why would you want people to know what you think as a writer if you do not want them to think and persuade them into thinking like you? If that is manipulation, sure it is. There is no line between persuasion and manipulation. I don’t wish to persuade anyone. I wish to manipulate them. I want a monocultural world wherein everyone thinks like me. Fortunately, for me, as much for anyone else, this is impossible because you can only manipulate someone who wants to be manipulated. Else, you can try to persuade them. So, the line isn’t in the head of the writer but in the head of the reader,” says journalist and author Jerry Pinto.
Individuals in any society make up their own minds on issues but are influenced by those who society itself elevates to opinion leaders, if not through columns in print, as permanent panelists on TV. However the latter are often created by geography or proximity to journalists and anchors.
“A columnist is not someone who conveys news.  S/he has views, though I accept that sometimes, the difference between news and views can get blurred.  No one is truly objective.  Even if a person claims to be objective, he/she has subjective biases and those creep in.  Let’s not pretend there are no biases.  Columnists take themselves too seriously and exaggerate their own importance.  But yes, columnists can influence public opinion.  I am not sure how to respond to “persuaders” versus “manipulators”.  Every columnist is attempting to “persuade” readers.  That’s the reason for writing columns.  I guess “manipulator” means when there is more to it than that, when that persuasion is driven by some ulterior motive, even pecuniary.  Most columnists I know wouldn’t do that.  But I am sure it happens,” says economist and writer Bibek Debroy.
“I think influencing tends to happen on a subconscious level. A columnist’s facts are assumed to be vast and their research is regarded highly by their reader base. At the end of the day, they are as human as we are and have their own biases. A responsible columnist would indicate his opinion and refrain from using judgmental words. The columnists I follow closely are Bibek Debroy and Arun Shourie who take a lot of care in separating fact from assumption in their opinions. In such cases, readers are enabled with more data to form their judgments. However, there are also columnists who start with controversial titles and knowingly or unknowingly blur the difference between facts and biases by forcing their opinions on the subconscious mind of the reader,” says business analyst Saiswaroopa Iyer.
“Columnists are entitled to their opinions as individuals. I’d call certain columnists as manipulators for the utter disdain with which they report on certain personalities. At the same time, a column must be realistic. Hence, I like reading “Loose Canon” by Manas Chakravarty (in Hindustan Times) which uses humour to comment about happenings of the society. Yes, I do agree that columns do tend to influence our opinion in a way that objectivity takes a backseat but at the end of the day, it is the style of writing and the name of a columnist that matters,” feels journalism student and reader Sharada Kishore.
“The most effective columnists do influence public opinion. Manipulation as a word has negative connotations. But if one wants to use the word ‘manipulation’, stripped of any value judgment, it’s exactly what columnists do. As they should. That is what news reports very often do as well. There is no such thing as perfect objectivity. The moment you pick one story to report and not the other, objectivity has ended. The attempt can be and should be to fairness, that in the story picked, all viewpoints are presented fairly. But that does not mean there is no bias.
There are two basic differences in a news report and a column. One is the obvious nature of content. A report is a first hand account by a reporter presenting facts as he or she finds them while columns mostly are opinions on an issue presented by the writer having drawn conclusions based on reports (by others) and/or personal experiences.  The second is in terms of “bias”. In a column the bias most often is overt and stated (implicit or explicit) and in a news report it is not. That’s not to say all bias is motivated from some personal benefit or corrupt practice. A bias can be an internalised prejudice on account of class, religion, caste, personal experience, family, friends’ circle exposure, etc. In presenting such a piece of writing, the columnist is trying to convince a reader to look at the issue from his or her point of view. So yes, it is manipulation. Although since any information we consume alters how we look at things everything is manipulation in the bigger picture. Some is more fair and fact based than others. That’s the only difference,” says Managing Editor of Newslaundry, Abhinandan Sekhri.
Everyone has the power to manipulate or influence, if words, speech or images have that power. Those with a larger space in media have more of it. While reading a column if one can compensate for its leanings and biases and still find value in what is expressed, the exercise is more complete.

This article was originally written and published on the media-watch website Newslaundry. If you wish to add the article in its original avatar, you can read it here