Namaskar! Welcome to the twelfth edition of my newsletter: Dharma and Dharmasankata: Infrequent Meditations to Discover the Best You Can Be Using Indic Wisdom. To learn more about this newsletter, what it is, and what it is not, you can read more here.
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This is a further extension of the chapter I am writing in my book, “Discovering Purusarthas: Quest for Meaning and Freedom in an age of Climate Change.” Since I am rewriting old ideas, you will find a few posts from the past getting repeated. I am rewriting these in pursuit of the elusive flow.
Dharma and Dharmasankata is an attempt to make sense of the four purusarthas - Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha for the times we live in.
How does one determine the pulls and pushes of a meaningful life?
Living a life of meaning and freedom has always been that. Pulls and Pushes. When you are making a livelihood inside a technology-accelerated economic machine, your living is a balancing act between specific demands for your labour as a “resource” with a market value and living true to your convictions, the subtle inner rhythm which pulsates the breath of your being.
Perhaps, that’s the nature of reality at an individual level. Is that why philosophers and rhetoricians of the past mused about the perils of being a square peg in a round hole?
What is the point of meaning and purpose if life’s fundamental dilemmas are about being a square peg trying hard to adjust to your life context’s round hole demands?
Perhaps, in our collective quest toward meaning, it may be worthwhile to dig into the origins of the metaphor. As per popular accounts, the metaphor came to life when Sydney Smith delivered a lecture on moral philosophy titled, “On the Conduct of the Understanding”, at the Royal Institution in 1804–06:
“If you choose to represent the various parts in life by holes upon a table, of different shapes,—some circular, some triangular, some square, some oblong,—and the person acting these parts by bits of wood of similar shapes, we shall generally find that the triangular person has got into the square hole, the oblong into the triangular, and a square person has squeezed himself into the round hole. The officer and the office, the doer and the thing done, seldom fit so exactly, that we can say they were almost made for each other.”
Poring through various accounts of this idiomatic metaphor’s storied history, one thing is obvious: Western thought posits that it is undesirable to be a square peg in a round hole. But what if we had gotten the entire thing wrong? What if the goal of human life is to be a square peg in a round hole?
In contrast to western thought, Indic thought offers a radical subversion to the popular idiom: To live a life of purpose and meaning, it is necessary to discover what it is to be a square peg in a round hole.
While it may be surprising for many of us schooled in the western paradigm of thought, it shouldn’t surprise us when we attempt to see from the indic lens. In Indic thought, one comes across geometric ideas. Life is a circle. Time is a circle, consisting of various Yugas. Indian classical music, when defined visually, is a geometric appreciation of musical ideas.
Along with the circle, simultaneously, there has always been a spiritual pursuit to draw a square inside the perimeter of a circle. Is it possible to anchor yourself in a perfect square, while you engage in the circularity of life? How do I discover the appropriate form in which I deploy my life energies and discover the gifts I bring in my life?
Could it be the reason why computing Pi holds a special significance in Indic thought?
Being a square peg in a round hole is a spiritual pursuit to ensure that one doesn’t get caught tumbling in the vicissitudes of life. Development of the consciousness is the attainment of the perfect square which can sit inside the circular flow of life with its ebbs and flows.
How does the perfect square emerge inside the circle? What are the four sides of the perfect square?
In Indic thought, one comes across four stages of human life;
“Brahmacharya”: Being the Learner until 25
“Grihastashrama”: Being the Householder from 25
“Vanaprastha”: Being the forest dweller from 60
Sanyasa - Being the unattached sage from 80
Indic thought offers a powerful framework to discover meaning and purpose. Purusarthas is a four-fold directional framework to discover the goals of human life. This book is an attempt to rediscover the four purusarthas, the four-fold goals of human life in an age of runaway climate change. Discovering the four purusarthas, the four goals of human life is an attempt to draw the perfect square, in living terms, with dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha.
What are the four sides of the perfect square that drives our aspirations?
The base spindle that drives the square is Dharma. While the definition of Dharma has evolved over centuries, and we will look into its evolution at some point, essentially, it asks a fundamental question: How do I live in the world that simultaneously enlivens me, you and the context in which we live?
In the practicalities of life when ideals meet the everyday complexity of living, life is not just about dharma and idealism. You have to discover some forms of livelihood that don’t create a schism between living and livelihood - the ways you live and the ways you make the wealth that sustains your livelihood.
The next side of the square deals with the engagement of wealth - How do I generate wealth that upholds my dharma as a householder? How do I generate enough wealth that allows me to live a life of idealism without making any Faustian bargains on the dharma that enlivens me?
Living a life of dharma is not an invitation to live an ascetic life. Life has to be a celebration of the fullness of living. The third side of the square deals with the engagement of Kama - How do I live a life of passion, beauty and connectedness?
The fourth side of the square deals with the engagement of Moksha - How do I free myself from the trappings of conditioned existence to make mindful choices in my pursuit of dharma, Artha and Kama? What is the conscious distance I need to maintain between the ways I live and make my livelihood and the global capitalist system which is devouring the earth?
These four axes start to make real, tangible sense when you start placing them in the four journeys of life.
Brahmacharya starts from the age of 7-9, when the child kicks off learning with upanayanam (not limited to brahmins as historical evidence show how everyone wore the sacred thread when they started learning under a guru) and commits him or herself to deep immersion in learning not just technical skills, but life skills required to lead a wholesome life.
The emphasis here is on Dharma, the bedrock of one's existence.
Grihastashram kicks off when the young adult decides to get married. The emphasis here is on Artha and Kama, as the householder pursues wealth and pleasures that are grounded on the dharma he has built his or her roots in.
Vanaprastha begins at 60 when the Sashtiabdapoorthi ceremony invokes a new context between the partners who were earlier in grihastashram. It is the time when the emphasis shifts to renunciation and moksha, moving away from earlier goals of seeking wealth and pleasures.
Sanyasa begins at 75, when the individual prepares for complete renunciation, preparing for the departure of the material world.
Today, amidst present-day worries of wars and fears of food security alongside tomorrow’s worries of climate change, it wouldn’t be too remiss to say that meaning has lost its meaning.
There seems to be a shared sense of realization that all frames of meaning that we built over 2-3 decades of our lives have lost their irrelevance. We seem to be in a meta crisis mode where we are right now not just seeking meaning, but frames of meaning on which we will anchor our lives on.
How did we come to this pitiable state of the human condition?
There was a time in my life when the only thing that mattered to me the most was a double promotion. I was probably in fifth or sixth grade. Nine or ten years old, I guess. I wasn’t content securing the top rank in a farcical joke called an examination to assess my “academic performance”. I wasn’t content spending the best part of my childhood with didactic books that bored me to death and extra-curricular classes that gobbled up my social life.
I wanted more.
I was foolhardy enough to believe a myth floating around that my school gave exclusive double promotion for its crème de la crème. I wanted to be that special creamy one at the top. I had my own reasons to obsess over it.
As the cards of my life had played out, my parents were much older than most of my friends’ parents and I wanted to race up the ladder to jobs and a good life faster than anyone else.
If you've grown up in India, you would know exactly what I am talking about.
Early on, you are taught the Industrial Age's Divine Gospel for success.
"Study Well -->Get Good Grades -> Get Good Jobs -->Live Your Good Life".
The Industrial Age flourished all over the world because the economic machine was built on the basis of high capital investment. In personal life, it meant that education was the best upfront capital investment you could make for your life.
No wonder there was pressure to make sure that you got that capital right.
You made sure you got your
a) Tenth grades right
b) Twelfth grades right (as the case in India)
c) Engineering GPA right
d) MBA GPA right. (To discover a life of purpose in India, you have to do engineering and MBA.)
You tacitly agree to play the gospel as a karmic payback duty for your parents' lifetime of sweat and hard work. Your career choices get appropriated from your Ivy League cousins. Seeing my successful cousin’s career trajectory, I wanted to simply copy-paste his life script to the T. I went on to study in a premier engineering institution simply because I wanted to study in India’s premier Ivy League management institution.
I know that sounds like a tautology.
Ironic as it may be, it was one tautology I chased vigorously in the first two decades of my life. In India, job markets and potential arranged marriage markets were good for those who did MBA along with an engineering degree and I made sure that I stick to the default path. I was the kid who inquired with my college seniors about CAT coaching centres on the first day of landing at my engineering college. Today, when I look back, I am amazed to discover a stranger who chose mechanical engineering even though he never had the basic ability to relate with machines.
When you play by the “default path” that you’ve inherited from your parents, everyone, except you, gets to decide all the important choices of your life. Starting from your LIC Insurance Plan Premium to your promotion cycle to your portfolio of religious after-life insurance plans. Of course, you do get to choose things like, you know, the clothes you wear.
It’s easy to blame my parents for convincing me to go down the default path. I was born in a half-colonized country, unlike other fully colonized countries which only had settler populations. And when you are born in a half-colonized country, I had to carry comfortable parts of my national identity that I held in pride (the parts of culture, spirituality, tradition, arts) and uncomfortable parts of my colonial identity that I held in shame (the parts of economic muscle, science, technology, development)
Born to parents who faced the direct impacts of colonization and had to step outside to make ends meet, my parents valued work over family and everything else. Unlike the previous generations who had a different understanding of wealth that was not necessarily tied to money, my parent's generation had to work hard and come out of economic poverty unleashed by the forces of colonization.
Their generation carried two split parts of identity. One was the protestant working self which held work as divine. The other was the religious self which uses the moorings of culture, tradition to work continuously on inner transformation. It amazed me to see how they had assiduously built a hermetically sealed container between those two parts of their selves.
But what about this generation? Do I still have to prioritize work over family and everything else? What would it take to bring together these two split parts?
Ever since I quit my full-time job and became an independent free agent, my seeking energies have been directed towards discovering an integrated self that held a harmonious relationship with work and life.
It was that seeking which brought me on a journey to discover dharma.
This is of course easier said than done, and it’s an ongoing process. Living the life of a free agent, it was evident that I carried both the “pathless path Venky” who is on a quest to discover the four purusarthas in my life and the “default Path Venky” inside myself.
The latter is one who walks around with a manager in his head, even though he has quit a full-time job. This manager is more often the Judge of Bhishma propensity who reminds him to work when he is relaxing. This manager inside his head makes him anxious when he explores interests that are outside the money-making and wealth creation Artha realm.
When I am anchored in Yoga, it becomes easier to watch the whole psychodrama and accept that I will work on my practice and slowly strengthen the friend inside me, the Sakhi to observe the compulsive activities of the default path Venky and awaken the dreamer to being the pathless path venky to life.
Have you observed your “pathless path” self and your “default path ”self you’ve inherited from your parents? In what ways do they determine the choices you make in the realm of dharma and Artha?
One day, when Sage Narada came with a mango fruit to Kailash, the abode of Shiva, the family was celebrating the naughty mischiefs of their little children Ganesh and Murugan (Karthikeya, as he is more known outside South India). When Lord Shiva saw that Narada had brought one mango, he knew that Naradian controversy - which always troubles but wisens in the end upon deep reflection - was ready to brew.
“This is the golden fruit of wisdom and whoever eats this mango will be granted eternal knowledge and wisdom”.
With a glint of smile, Narada continued.
“There is a condition to eating this fruit. It has to be eaten by only one person.”
Shiva knew what he was getting into, and laid down a simple but fair condition:
“Whoever among his sons first comes around the world once shall win the fruit.”
Lord Kartikeya, with a sprightly spring in his step, beamed at the sight of the mango and jumped onto his beloved peacock and vanished.
Ganesha stood in deep contemplation and when his inner light shone, he walked his way towards his parents and bowed before them.
“You are my universe. You define my world. I shall circumambulate you.”
Narada smiled and Lord Shiva handed over the fruit to Lord Ganesha.
There are a million ways to read a story. Who knows which way is right? All I can do is share how I am reading it, and hope that through the arduous act of listening, you discover something precious, and we could, perhaps, chat about it.
When I first heard this story as a child, it was presented to me as a parable of obedience. Do you want to know who won the fruit? Yes, it was the child who bowed to his parents.
It took me several years until I became a parent to get in touch with the wisdom this story had been patiently pregnant with.
What does Ganesha mean when he says that “You are my Universe. You define my world”? At one level, you could read it as a metaphor and dismiss the story in a flash.
At another level, one that requires tremendous patience you rightfully earn as a parent, you could perhaps choose to read it as a literal statement that is now getting supported by various pieces of evidence that tell us how the child’s universe is constrained (but not limited) by the mind-body envelope of the parents.
Research in child psychology today talks of how the child’s mother tongue shapes and constrains the range of aural sounds [phonetic units, to be precise] the child gets acclimatized to.
Jeremy Lent writes a good summary of Ms.Kuhl's research.
“By twelve months, the infant has learned to ignore phonetic units that don't exist in her native language and can no longer discriminate their phonetic contrasts.”
Excerpt From: Jeremy Lent. “The Patterning Instinct”. See also Patricia K. Kuhl, “Early Language Acquisition: Cracking the Speech Code"
The Mahabharata and Puranas are replete with stories of children inheriting wisdom from their parents.
Beyond evidence from contemporary science and ancient wisdom, at a more personal level, the relevance of Ganesha’s actions hits you like a ton of bricks when you experience what it is to be a parent.
Parenting business is a strange thing, especially when you are unsure whether a parent is a noun (Are you a parent when you become a parent?)or a verb (Are you parenting when you are being a parent ?).
Thankfully, my yoga practice has helped me so far to see through what I am doing as a parent, and in doing what I am doing, what am I really doing.
When you practice Yoga, you start to notice how your subconscious field becomes the bio bubble that wraps your child either in comfort or in agony, depending on the contents of your subconscious field.
At first blush, this realization scares you. “Oh Goodness, what all my son is going to pick up from me”. It takes a while to make peace with it and see parenting for what it is - a live project of c̶h̶i̶l̶d̶ self-development.
Until the child develops his theory of the mind at the age of seven, the child absorbs everything - massive datasets that carry the parents’ fundamental beliefs, values, and biases that they downloaded from their parents in their childhood.
It’s only when we discover this insight inside our bones, we get in touch with the wisdom of Ganesha’s actions. And when that happens, we could perhaps sense a fascinating trait of Indic thought: The Power of the Human scale.
When you pay attention to Indic thought, its fractal nature becomes obvious.
If you’ve paid deep attention to Indian thought, you would observe its fractal nature. What works at the scale of the universe is also true at the scale of the individual. When you study Chakras at a more experiential level, this understanding becomes available in the here and the now.
Krishnamurti states the immensity of human scale in stark terms, “You are the World”
But what does it really mean?
I was born in a deeply religious family in the bylanes of Mylapore, the brahmin neighbourhood at the heart of Chennai where temples, music and rituals merge like the warp and weft of the Kanjeevaram silk saree.
When I was seven years old, I underwent the initiation rites of Brahminhood with the sacred upanayanam ceremony. The word sacred, I admit, finds its place here after a long, circuitous journey of introspection which taught me the true meaning of profundity through complete ownership of profanity.
Back in my childhood, I was taught to respect what's profound only by abhorring what's profane. I remember doing my sandyavandanam rituals religiously until my hormones began to treat callously the rituals I bequeathed from my parents. Like many others in their teens, I began to question them, especially the way it was presented to me, in its ossified form, enforced through parental authoritarianism.
It was at this juncture, I was introduced to "spirituality", packaged exclusively for the modern mind by the Art of Living Foundation. Spirituality suddenly acquired a new language. It was no longer about boring, somnolent lectures - those ventriloquist renderings of scriptures reverberating since eternity- given by sexagenarians, out of their wits. It was a journey of "Inner Transformation", to be undertaken in the prime of the youth, for the restless mind, as one Art of Living Teacher had put it, had become as unhealthy as an effervescent bottle of Coca-Cola.
Today, I cringe at the recall of writing such cheesy lines in my personal blog, several years ago, when I was an influential Evangelist for 'Youth in Spirituality' in my college circles, having won the Times of India national debate on the same topic,
'All those bubbles which effervesce out of the coca-cola bottle are our thoughts. Thoughts keep coming up and disappearing. The moment the bubbles settle down, you get to enjoy your drink'.
My early lessons in marketing came from active volunteering for the Art of Living foundation. I went about organizing meditation camps on the campus, recruiting my fellow classmates, and employing all the guerrilla marketing techniques I had learned in my volunteer training.
Flushed by the maiden success of my efforts, I became aware of my growing marketing-fu skills. If I could sell meditation to a bunch of teenagers peaking on hormones, I can sell any damn thing on Earth. How about soaps? By then, I had already visualized my FMCG marketing career escalator in the image of my successful cousin. It took a few years before this decision returned to haunt my work and identity, triggering a deep spiritual crisis in my journey of self-introspection.
During my early twenties, when I was an active volunteer with the Art of Living Foundation, my baptism of fire was spurred by my lofty ambition - To transform the world through meditation and spirituality. All was fair and right, as long as it was driven by this atavistic purpose to make a difference in the world that had gone astray from the truth. I was on my way to throwing away my career goals and becoming a full-time Art of Living Teacher.
Of course, life had other plans.
I slowly began to realize that marketing "spirituality" came with a deeply insidious, price tag of an unexamined assumption - I know what is best for the rest of humanity. As I started to question it, the edifice started tumbling down. I could no longer buy the plot of the story fervently narrated by the tribe of marketers - Yes, you can aspire to be better than who you are by doing something which we recommend.
I could no longer take over the job of creating desire, even if it were transcendental, to transform people into constantly moving happiness machines. I pivoted my career away from marketing and began to play other games of the consulting kind.
Why do humans aspire towards spirituality? As it turns out, we humans are part of nature, and part of us responds very strongly indeed to the natural world. We are a species that is constantly reaching out to the world beyond ourselves.
Lest you naively imagine such new-agey notions to be romantic, let me warn you. Trusting your evolutionary instincts to strive beyond your limits can be dangerous. Seeing your well-polished dominoes knocked down can send you into a tizzy. You stop tip-toeing around and start confronting the bare essentials of life. You slowly realize that handing over the puppeteer's strings of authority from parental traditions to "guru" doesn't solve your existential problems. You are still there, as you were, in the same place.
And once you truly realize that, you start doing what needs to be done: shaping your freedoms, rock by rock, bit by bit.
You should write more frequently, lots of great thought provoking questions and musings here! One part near the end struck me:
"I slowly began to realize that marketing "spirituality" came with a deeply insidious, price tag of an unexamined assumption - I know what is best for the rest of humanity. As I started to question it, the edifice started tumbling down. I could no longer buy the plot of the story fervently narrated by the tribe of marketers - Yes, you can aspire to be better than who you are by doing something which we recommend. "
I find this is a frequent problem along the path of spiritual evolution - when you find deeper truths about the world you are moved to share them. But in this process one can become arrogant about these insights, and in fact plateau spiritually. Typically in our culture this is tempered by continuous introspection and teachings of a guru. But exploring spirituality in the modern context, it's often not as simple. I'm curious where you've landed and what insights you have to share in regards to your thoughts around this. Perhaps it could be the seed of a future article as well?