Archive for category January 2015

Cultural Continuum — the Cause of Conflicts

By Kollengode S Venkataraman


After World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 1910s and later decades, victorious France and England recklessly sliced and diced the Middle East, Africa and the Indian subcontinent to serve their interests, unconcerned about the regions’ histories and traditions. Remember, these large areas — Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and the Indian subcontinent — are standing on a cultural and civilizational continuum going back at least 5000 to 6000 years. After WW I, the US joined the Big Boys, eventually becoming the Biggest Boy. The problems festering in these regions today can be traced back to this recklessness.

The West may gloss over what they did to these people as de facto rulers’ even putting a positive spin on the goodies they brought to the regions. But people in the areas have a very different collective memory of their histories. And these people, as people everywhere, live in a cultural continuum identifying with their long histories. This should surprise no one. Consider these:

The Chicago Cubs have not won the World Series in over 100 years. If the Cubs won today, their fans would go berserk. We would understand this as perfectly normal, and even rejoice in their victory. But in those 100 years the owners of the Cubs have changed, and so also their logo, uniforms, fan base and players. Only the Roman letters CUBS and their vocalization have remained constant. Yet, Chicagoans and baseball buffs see continuity through these 100 years of changes and passionately identify themselves with the Cubs’ successes and failures. Whole cultures — not to speak of profitable businesses — are built around such illusional identities.

Jews scattered all over the world today feel that on the basis of their scriptures and their version of history, they have claims on the land in the Palestine their ancestors left four millennia ago. See here: Remember, each millennia is roughly 40 generations. In the last 100-plus years, Western powers and global power brokers have supported Jews’ claims, a privilege given to no other ethnic group in the world.

Ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia –the Bosnians, Croats, Serbs, Macedonians, and Slovenians –– recall the internecine wars that ravaged on their lands several centuries ago as if they occurred only yesterday and display their ethnic hatred to each other even now.

In Islam, during Muharram, Shias all over the world passionately remember and lament the murder of Hussein Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed over 1400 years (50 generations) ago by opponents on the contentious issue of who should succeed the Prophet.

And of course, Christendom has its Good Friday on which the faithful somberly remember the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of their God, over 2000 years ago. The followers of Jesus at that time collectively accused all Jews living there of the crucifixion of Jesus, himself a Jew. This was one reason for the anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews in Christian Europe. Only after almost 2000 years, during the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), the Catholic Church under Pope Paul VI repudiated the belief in the collective Jewish guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion.

Similar stories in India are too many given its long history and social complexities with subtexts based on differences in languages, religions, sects, and social stratification and compartmentalization. It is worth recalling the words of Wali Khan, the Pashtun leader of Pakistan and the grandson of the Frontier Gandhi Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan: “I’ve been a Pashtun for 4000 years, a Muslim for 1400 years, and a Pakistani for 40 years.”

Group identity has many virtues, even as it gives exclusiveness, vanity or  victimhood to  its members. One feature common to all types of group identities is that  people belonging to any one group look at everybody else as “the Other.”  When these identities are branded on large ethnic groups, it leads to dislike, aversion, hostility; and when tolerated by the ruling system, to discrimination, persecution, and xenophobia.

Let us see how it operates in the Indian subcontinent: No matter what they teach in the sanitized school history books in India, its history subjectively internalized by India’s Hindus and Muslims is so divergent. Pakistan’s history books are not even sanitized. By their own account, they are full of distortions and lies, and anti-India and anti-Hindu. Read the multi-part essay What is the most blatant lie taught through Pakistan textbooks? in Dawn (, and  the 300-plus comments at the end of the article. On YouTube several video clips by veterans in Pakistan are available on this very subject.

One reason for the communal tensions in India is Indian intellectuals’ inability to come up with an unvarnished and matter-of-fact narrative of its pre-Mughal, Mughal, and post-Mughal history — warts and all — without glossing over the unpleasant elements that are part of all histories. Without such a common narrative, mutual distrust runs just below the surface among Hindus and Muslims. Even a small trigger — such as miscreants throwing a piece of beef into a temple, or driving a pig into a  mosque is enough to ignite a communal conflagration.

In this context, the US, compared to England, France, Spain, and Portugal, has done a far better job in coming to terms with its racial history. That is why the US has moved forward on racial matters — always a work in progress — far ahead of the European colonizers of Africa. This is a good lesson for India to learn and implement in the Indian context.

Living in this continuum, people pass on their collective and skewed  memories of pride, honor, victimization/humiliation, from one generation to the next. And our behavior is driven by the visceral and often prejudiced beliefs internalized from what we hear in family gatherings, social groups, and places of worship. Anthropologists call it meme.

Now, with social media to stay here and become even stronger, no one organization or group of organizations, however powerful they may be, can control the flow of information, or thinking and behavior of peoples.

In this environment, groups of ethnically, religiously, linguistically, and/or racially distinct people traversing in their own orbits, out of necessity, as they have been all along, overlap and intersect with others’ orbits. So, how can the interactions among these groups be made such that they are respectful of each other and can live in relative peace?

Can political and religious leaders help us? With very few exceptions, the track record of political and religious leaders over the last 2500 years is not reassuring. Religious leaders, steeped in their own dogma, are unable or unwilling to unlearn the arbitrary axioms on which they have built their edifices. These axioms are in mutual conflict with each other, and are, to begin with, the root cause for many conflicts. Political leaders have their own compulsions, particularly in a democracy.

Can today’s social thinkers address the problem? Given the lack of mass appeal of cerebral minds in general, this is not likely to happen.

What is likely to happen? Conflicting ideas have always existed, and will always exist, and so are the urges by nation-states to annex strategic land masses and waterways. Resolving these conflicting ideas and pursuits will not be always peaceful. The League of Nations and the UN in the last 100 years could not prevent WW-II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the on-going wars in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and in the larger Middle East.

Most likely, the world will move episodically from one convulsion to the next, some really big, many small. All we can do is to learn to manage the conflicts without too much bloodshed, and lengthen the gap between the episodes. This conclusion is more realistic, though not reassuring. We cannot hope for more. If we can accomplish this, that in itself is a great achievement. ∎ — END


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Superstar Welcome to Prime Minister Narendra Modi

By Vinod Doshi, Monroeville, PA



And why not? After 67 years of dynastic rule, economic decline and rampant political corruption in India, the Indian-American Diaspora was eagerly waiting to hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi, elected with an absolute majority in the May elections for the first time for any non-Congress government in India. The venue was Madison Square Garden in New York with a seating capacity of 20,000 people.
And what a superstar welcome it was! The head of the government of the world’s largest democracy was visiting the world’s most powerful democracy. No other foreign political leader in US history has received such a tumultuous welcome addressing a large and diverse audience (in the Indian context) of 18,000 people gathered in one place. History was made. It was an experience never to be forgotten.

Doshi Gang at MSG Picture

The event was conceived and managed by the Indian American Community Foundation with 400 US-based organizations as members. Actually 700 organizations had applied but only 400 were approved.

Our Pittsburgh Organization was called “”, with our group leaders Mr. Harilal Patel and Mr. Hitesh Mehta. Each organization was issued tickets depending on the interest shown. 110 people had registered from Pittsburgh but we were allotted only 83 tickets.  As a result, some people who had applied late could not be accommodated. Forty-eight of us went in a bus. Others made their own transportation arrangements.  We had to give full background information for security verification by the local organizer. Several thousand tickets were given out for free on a lottery basis. There were 10 applicants for each ticket given out in the  lottery. People who did not get a ticket — there were several thousands of them — saw the event live outside MSG or on the large screens at the Times Square. Furthermore, the event was also beamed live to forty university campuses nationwide.

The well-managed program was organized with financial support from various social, religious, political, educational, and cultural organizations and temples of all denominations throughout the country; and from individual community, political and industry leaders.

At the end of the fun-filled bus trip (arranged by Chetan Patel), we were dropped a couple of blocks from Madison Square Garden.  People were converging on the venue from all directions. Lines were very long, but orderly. Security was very tight. What was allowed inside and what was not was clearly conveyed to us in advance — no cameras and no note books. Smart-phone cameras were OK. At the entrance, they were checking our tickets against our photo IDs. The whole atmosphere was exciting with a lot of buzz. People were eager to see and hear India’s new prime minister. We received a white MODI T-shirt as a souvenir.

The Indian Diaspora at the Garden represented a wide cross section, and was reassuringly diverse in the Indian context. One could see a large number — roughly 1/3 of the crowd — of women of all ages. Youngsters too were there, many of whom were born and raised here.

Nearly 40 high-profile Congressmen and U.S. senators were there to hear Mr. Modi. Among them, the influential US Senator Chuck Schumer from New York and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Senator Bob Menendez (NJ-D). And these members of Congress: Tulsi Hubbard from Hawaii, Joe Donnely, Jim McDermott, Sandford Bishop, Caroline Malorie and Sheila Jackson Lee. And the Indian-American Republican governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley too was there.

Among the business leaders and educators present were: Microsoft Head Satya Nadela; Pepsico’s Indra Nooyi; Nitin Nohara, Dean of the Harvard Business School; our own Dr. Subra Suresh – President of CMU, and Pradeep Khosla, the Chancellor of UC San Diego.
New phrases/expressions were heard: Modinomics, Modism, “Modi”son Square Garden, Moditva, Modi Movement, Modi Mania, Modi Magic, “Modi”fication, Pradhan Sevak (not Pradhan Mantri)… …
Some of the key Modi Mantras launched were: “Bharat Vikas,” “Swachha Bharat,” and “Make in India.”

As I entered the arena to go to my seat on the second level, I was awestruck to see the welcoming crowd of around 20,000 people – three floors of humanity, buzzing with Modi Mania: people eating, drinking and talking in small clusters, waving Indian flags and taking pictures with their smart phones.  Indian music was blasting away over the PA system. Last minute preparations at center stage were going on at feverish speed. People were wearing the white Narendra Modi T-shirts. The buzz was regularly interrupted by chanting of slogans like “Jai Ho”, “Vande Mataram” and shouts of “Modi …Modi’. The whole atmosphere was jubilant.

Riding on a wave of popularity, with a loud spontaneous outburst of Modi, Modi, Narendra“bhai” Modi entered the arena. The “Modi”son Garden was “Modi”fied–mesmerized by the Modi Magic. In his speech, Modi charmed everyone and connected extremely well with the audience.  It was a rousing and warm welcome indeed. Applause was spontaneous – I counted over 100 eruptions of them in his 1-hour speech.

Indian-Americans have been inspired by his work so far. His vision and mission for this visit seemed very clear – marketing India, and projecting a positive image of India among overseas political and business leaders and with the Diaspora.

He invited everyone to participate in this lofty mission of infrastructure and industrial development of India. “India is very different today,” he declared. Reassuring business leaders worldwide, he told them he had already taken “initiatives towards ending the policy of paralysis and dismantling the barriers to India’s growth.”

India has market, manpower and talent, so, “Come and make in India,” he declared. He wants to unleash India’s energy and drive for growth.
He came, he met and he conquered with his simplicity, honesty, sincerity, and with his progressive leadership and zeal to move India forward. There is now a greater optimism for improving US-India ties.
As I left the arena, I too was in awe of the Modi Magic. The echoes of his overall vision were ringing in my ears. The sincerity in his message was inspiring. I was happy to see in Modi’s message, an assured confidence for a brighter future for India.  ♦

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An Unflattering Facet of Desi life in the US

By Kollengode S Venkataraman


People’s self-preservation mechanism is irrational, if not funny. People vainly associate themselves with the achievements of other individuals belonging to their ethnic group. For example, we all feel flattered thinking about how good we are as an immigrant group when we listen to the gratifying references to us in the American media, starting from Spelling Bee championships year after year, our education levels, entrepreneurial skills, children’s accomplishments in schools, and youngsters’ disproportional presence in graduate schools… …

And then Indian-Americans get presidential awards, are appointed as university presidents or chancellors, as federal judges, and even elected as governors in state-wide elections. The Wall Street Journal and other publications report about our high net worth and high family incomes. So, when Indians really get giddy in elation, others may understand.  [But we are stingy, even towards good causes. Ask any Indian struggling to raise money for his/her cause. That is the real haddi (bone) in the Indian kabab!

But when people belonging to our ethnic group — like Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta, Mathew Martoma — are caught in Wall Street crimes running into billions of dollars, we instinctively disassociate ourselves from them. Same is our response when we see Indian healthcare professionals, including doctors, arrested for Medicare frauds running into hundreds of millions of dollars. See here and here. We rationalize that these people’s behaviors are individual aberration, so atypical of us.

Illegal Indian immigrants in this country are a case in point. We all by now know — we should know because we brag we are better educated — that 12 million undocumented people (aka illegals) are in the US. This is 4% of the US population of 300 million.

When we think of the undocumented, we think of Latinos from Mexico and Central America. After all, they make up ~70% of the undocumented in the US.

But do we know we have 450,000 illegal Indians in the US? This is nearly 4% of the 12 million of the undocumented. (Ref: The recent Pew Research Center report on the topic). This may look like a small number. But consider this: With the population of Indian-Americans around 3 million in the US, 450,000 illegal Indians are 15% of the entire Desi population here. In Pennsylvania, out of the 135,000 illegals, 10,000 are Indians, which is 7% of the total illegal population in Pennsylvania.

Is there any wonder why people in India encounter all kinds of hurdles for getting visas for visiting the US of A?

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Phipps’ Adieu to Tropical Forest Live Exhibit

By Premlata Venkataraman


The annual Phipps’ Wines Under the Glass gala in the fall bid goodbye to the 3-year old Tropical Forest India live exhibit. While tending these foreign plants with love and care through three harsh Pittsburgh winters, the exhibit was seen by one million visitors.

On October 30, close to Halloween people gathered to celebrate this event with colorful masks. Many guests were in their colorful saris and lehngas. A choice list of wines and cocktails too was there to go with specially catered food to reflect the theme of the evening.
Krishna and Om Sharma were the Event Chairs, with Alina and Joseph Massaro as Honorary Event Chairs, and  Joan and Robert Peirce as Honorary Host Committee Chairs.

Live entertainment with music was part of the gala. Ruby Jain’s Kathak and Bollywood dance items complemented the India theme.


The evening also honored Richard V. Piacentini’s twenty years as the Executive Director of Phipps. A slide presentation highlighted his valuable contributions. Phipps also honored Krishna and Om Sharma for being hosts for the evening.

Dr. Surinder Bajwa and his wife Jagdeep of Fox Chapel were effusive with their Phipps experience: “We’re very pleased with the Indian Exhibit. We came here a few times to enjoy the tropical ambience. We’re now members of Phipps. We bring our books to sit and read in this verdant and peaceful surrounding.”

Dr. Ritu Thamman, Member, Board of Trustees at Phipps, was sad the exhibition is coming to an end. “I learnt so much from visiting and volunteering here. I am nostalgic every time I see signs in Hindi. It was particularly wonderful to bring children to the exhibit,” she said.
Shubha Mullick of Fox Chapel was all praise for Ben Dunigan and Jordyn Melino, curators at Phipps, for their countless hours in maintaining the plants. “The Indian American community in Pittsburgh should get more involved in projects like these to give back to the community.”     ♦                          

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Nandini Mandal’s Prakriti Portrays Motherhood

By Deepa Godbole, Upper St. Clair, PA


Editor’s Note:  Deepa Godbole grew up in Pune, India and came to Pittsburgh 28 years ago to earn her Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering.  She now lives in Upper St. Clair with her family.  Her hobbies include Indian culture and arts, yoga and bridge.

On Saturday, November 15th, the Nandanik Dance Troupe staged Prakriti, a show devoted to Mother in two forms, Devi and Nature. The well-orchestrated debut performance with many in the audience from the American mainstream started and ran on time. The show was different from Nandanik’s past productions. The songs were in several different languages with very little dialogue, and InterPlay provided the on-stage narration to relate the traditional story to contemporary events. The performance was engaging with the performers narrating the story as they danced.

MatrikaMandalThe first half was purely Indian classical dance focusing on the relationship between a mother and child portrayed in multiple ways. In the second item, a parallel was drawn between the relationship between Yashoda and Krishna and a modern-day mother and her son. This dance was the audience’s favorite with Nandini Mandal first portraying both Yashoda and Krishna; then InterPlay’s Sheila Collins danced to show the relationship between herself and her children reciting excerpts from her book Warrior Mother. The recital was riveting, driving home the point that a mother’s love for her child is eternal through all the passage of time.

The second half was dedicated to Mother Nature, choreographed in the Chau style of Indian dance. The story of a kingdom in which villagers, especially women, fought against their king as he tried to cut down their beloved trees was paralleled with the modern-day Chipko or Tree-hugger Movement that has spread across the world. The combination of Indian and American dance forms for telling this story was well done. InterPlay’s Neil Straub portrayed the tree and Sheila Collins and Shari Mastalski danced to tell the stories of modern-day deforestation around the world.

The imaginatively done last piece was inspiring: A young girl is tending to a sapling she found after all trees had been felled. As she cared for the sapling, slowly other saplings sprouted. The dancers begin as logs, and slowly, one-by-one, they grew into trees, first with their hands, and then with their entire bodies. It was a finale that will be hard to forget.

Overall, Prakriti was enjoyable and educative. The focus on mother-child relations as well as Mother Nature kept the audience engaged, bringing parallels to modern-day life. Integrating beautiful Indian dance (choreographed by Nandini Mandal and Sanjib Bhattacharya) with InterPlay’s unique style was seamlessly done. 

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Our Experience with Longwood at Home

Balwant N. Dixit, Ph.D.

608 Ravencrest Road, Pittsburgh, PA  15215 USA
(412) 963-8023, e-mail:
Note: Balwant Dixit is now a professor emeritus in pharmacology at the University of Pittsburgh.

My wife, Vidya, my son Sunil and I flew to Washington DC on June 6th for a short vacation and checked into a hotel in Alexandria (VA), about a mile from a Metro station. On the first day we spent most of our time visiting the Holocaust Museum. We had to wait for two hours to get in, but it was worth the wait. The next day we walked from the Smithsonian Metro stop all the way to the Lincoln Memorial, a distance of over a mile. My wife, Vidya, suddenly came down with intense pain in her left leg; she could not even stand up and nearly collapsed. A park ranger came and tried to help but realized the situation was serious. She called DC EMS and Vidya was taken to the George Washington University Hospital (GWUH) emergency room. Initially admission was declined since Vidya’s insurance plan rejected the emergency room coverage as well as in-hospital stay. I had to sign papers agreeing to pay the bills in case our claim was rejected. I knew that since Vidya was never employed in the USA, she does not have Medicare A & B coverage on her SS#, although her “UPMC for Life” insurance ID card lists her SS#. I suggested to the admitting nurse that she try my SS# since Vidya’s Medicare A & B is on my SS#. It worked. Vidya was admitted for emergency care and given pain control medication.  X-ray and a few other tests were necessary for a diagnosis.  After about four hours, I was informed that Vidya needed to be admitted for additional care since she was not able to stand up or walk even a few steps. I wanted to stay in DC until a diagnosis was made, but could not find a room to stay after June 8th anywhere in the DC area or in nearby suburbs, except for one room in the Pentagon City for just two days and another room in DC for $550/night. Inter-hotel accommodation services were not helpful either. Hotels recommended by the GWUH were also full. Vidya agreed to stay in the hospital and Sunil and I returned to Pittsburgh on June 9th. Our “UPMC for Life” plan (a Medicare Advantage Plan) covers only the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  After four days in the hospital Vidya was transported by a fully equipped EMS ambulance with the help of Assist America from Washington DC to Pittsburgh (246 miles). All those who have “UPMC for Life” plans also get Assist America as one of the benefits for no additional payment.

What is Assist America? Assist America, a global emergency travel assistance plan, helps you when you have a medical emergency more than 100 miles from home and are not sure where to turn. I found out that Assist America will not provide services if a patient needs to be transported from one medical facility to another medical facility of similar capabilities, but Assist America will transport a patient from a medical facility to the patient’s residence. Assist America services are accessible 24 hours a day and free of charge to members. A single phone call activates Assist America services 24 hours/day, 365 days/year and is available from any location in the world — no exceptions. Communication specialists are available in any language — from Arabic to Zulu.  There are no costs and minimal restrictions. Assist America pays for all the services it provides. There is no financial cap on any of the Assist America services. Not all health insurance carriers provide Assist America as a benefit. More than 300,000 companies and schools do. One should call the host insurance carrier for more information.

When I contacted a representative of Assist America and gave him all the details about the condition my wife was in, he suggested that my wife would be transported by taxi cab with a driver but no other equipment such as a cane, walker, or wheelchair would be available to her, since it takes a minimum of 2.5 hours for a cab to come to Pittsburgh from GWUH.  She could either sit in the front seat or could travel “lying down” in the back seat. I suggested that he use MAPQUEST to find out the driving time and the distance.

He was surprised that the distance is 246 miles. When I suggested that my wife’s condition was such that she needed to be transported by ambulance, I was informed that I needed to make some other arrangements. So, as a standby, I contacted a private medical transport company which agreed to provide the necessary transport at a cost of $3,600. I then informed the representative of GWUH dealing with the situation that under the Medicare Act a patient can reject discharge if he/she feels insecure after discharge and from that point on all the hospital charges become the responsibility of the hospital. I advised Vidya not to leave GWUH unless a Medicare representative came to see her.  The situation changed very rapidly. The next day at 6:00 AM a representative of Assist America called and informed me that my wife will be transported to Pittsburgh by a fully equipped EMS ambulance.  It took almost 6.5 hours for the EMS ambulance to reach our home in Pittsburgh from GWUH. After her return to Pittsburgh Vidya underwent X-ray, MRI and bone scans and is being treated by two orthopedic physicians. Although no definitive diagnosis has been made, with physical therapy and other supportive treatment she has shown considerable progress.

What happened to Vidya can happen to anyone anywhere. One must be prepared with all the information to deal with such situations. I learned a lot. All throughout this time our assigned social worker from Longwood at Home was working with us to get everything arranged. When the ambulance arrived at our house, the Director of Home Care, a care giver and our social worker were there in the drive-way to help.  For the next 48 hours care was provided around the clock and from then on, care givers have been visiting us every day for 8 to 10 hours providing help as needed. All caregivers come on time and are well behaved and trained, and as of today (July 30th), over 250 hours of assistance has been given. Caregivers also helped in many household chores such as meal preparations (if asked), grocery shopping, prescription pick-up, taking Vidya to medical tests and to doctor’s appointments. They did regular laundry, cleaning dishes and vacuuming as well as garbage disposal and any other light housekeeping chores we asked for. Each caregiver wrote a brief report on Vidya’s progress, medications she took, her diet as well as all other activities she participated in. Such logs were helpful for the subsequent caregivers and also to the supervisor who monitors the services provided.  Becoming a member of Longwood at Home was the most rational decision we made two years ago. We did not have to file any claims, had no waiting time to qualify to receive help, and made no payment for any services we have received. In my opinion LaH is a much better option than having Long Term Care Insurance. We learned a lot from this unusual experience.   Unexpected adversity provides a great learning experience, but it has its own cost! In another issue I will describe in details Continuing Care at Home (CCAH) programs.

Acknowledgement: Grace Smith of LaH, Sudhir Manohar and Girish Godbole made useful comments. ♦ 

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University of Pittsburgh’s New Lecture Series on South Asia Focused on India

By Premlata Venkataraman


Mobasher Jawed Akbar, popularly known as MJ Akbar, the official spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) spoke on September 30 at the University of Pittsburgh on “India After the 2014 Elections.” His talk focused on the “new leadership, priorities and possibilities.”

For the geopolitical and business interests of the US, India is strategically important. So, the University of Pittsburgh started this year an annual lecture series at its South Asian Studies department. India is front and center of South Asia not only in geography (see the Map of South Asiamap), but also in culture, history, and economy. Akbar was the first speaker in this series.

Akbar’s is a well-known name in India and in the Indian subcontinent. His name as a journalist is associated with a long list of well-known publications. He also was a Congress Party MP and served as the official spokesperson for Rajiv Gandhi when he was India’s prime minister. Currently Akbar is the spokesperson for the BJP, which he joined just two months before the 2014 elections — talk about good timing. How many political operatives in the world’s large democracies have been so close to two diametrically opposed political systems?

Akbar at the podium in his talk.

Akbar at the podium in his talk.

Akbar was introduced to the audience of over 200 people by Mark Nordenberg, who recently ended his long tenure as the university’s chancellor. Nordenberg, as he told his audience, is related to Akbar as sambhandhi,with his son marrying Akbar’s daughter.

Akbar started by stating that India’s impatient youth — 54% of the population is under 25 years of age — had reached a point where the lethargic status-quo was no longer acceptable, which was the main reason for BJP’s spectacular victory, with Modi becoming India’s Prime Minister. He highlighted the changes the BJP has made by focusing on four decisions.

•  Abandoning the Planning Commission, a relic of the Soviet model of planning adopted by Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress Party. The post-colonial reality of India was that 60% of people lived below the poverty line. Even 60 years after India’s independence poverty was reduced only by half. The BJP believes in poverty elimination not alleviation.

Government wants the private sector to create millions of new jobs. Government wants to do this while protecting the environment and the poor. BJP looks beyond the ideology from both the Left and the Right, and will pursue ideas that work.

•  Secondly, Modi recognizes that “Trickle Down economics,” a term popularized by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, does not work. Even the poorest need to be an integral part of India’s economy, and that is why it brings these people into India’s formal banking sector. Empowering people at the bottom gives them much needed purchasing power wjhgich benefits India’s manufacturing and service sectors.

•  Third, Modi’s background gives him a better understanding of the difficulties of those stuck in the cycle of poverty. He addressed the need for toilets for every Indian from the Red Fort in his Independence Day speech. He took part in the Global Citizen’s concert at Central Park, joining in efforts to provide access to toilet for all in India. This initiative will give basic dignity to women in rural India, so that girls feel safe going to school (but only when fulfilled, we must say).

•  Fourth, Akbar emphasized that the secularism of India predates by many centuries the secularism of Europ., India accepts all faiths and belief systems. It is in the very fiber of every Indian. Gandhiji is the best symbol of secularism in India, gaining inspiration from the Hindu, Christian and Muslim faiths. Modi, he said, wants the Muslims to be strong in their faith but modern in outlook and participate in India’s growth. Indian Muslims are as patriotic as anybody else in India.

Modi’s vision, Akbar said, is looking towards the East. Symbolically, Modi came to the United States after visiting Japan and after Chinese President Xi’s state visit to India. In Akbar’s choice of  words, “East of India is growth, prosperity and productivity, and west of India is a wasteland all the way up to Morocco on the west coast of Northern Africa.”  Only three countries, India, Iran and Israel, he said, have stable governments and democracy. The Middle East, he said, is slipping into medievalism.

On the question of Pakistan, Akbar was quite blunt. Alluding to the rise of Syria’s Islamic State, IS, Akbar said, “Pakistan is the first Islamic State,” and hence a natural home for Osama Bin Laden.  While the US has sought Pakistan as a solution to their terrorism problems, Akbar said, India sees Pakistan as a problem.    ♦

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Beware of Charlatans in Your Spiritual Journey

By Kollengode S  Venkataraman


Taayumaanavar, a great poet-spiritualist-philosopher (1705-1742), lived in Tamil Nadu, expounding Advaita Saiva Siddhantam. His Tamil name splits into Taayum and aanavar, meaning in Tamil He Who is Also the Mother, a descriptive reference to Shiva. In Sanskrit, it would be Maatr-bhooteshwara.

He was born not in a brahmin family but in a Vellala family deeply steeped in Saivism. His parents were Kediliappa Pillai and Gajavalli Amma. Though most of his poems are addressed to Saiva deities, he was a universalist on matters of spirituality. In many verses he addresses the Infinite using a Tamil word PoruL, literally meaning “The Thing.” Most probably, he would have struggled for a long time and failed to find a word or phrase to comprehensively and precisely define the Infinite. So, he chose poruL, the same way the Upanishads use tat, literally meaning That.

Etymologically speaking, the English that is cognate with, and derived from, the Sanskrit tat. Can you get any closer either phonetically or in spelling?

In an alliterating Tamil verse Taayumaanavar says how difficult it is to master one’s own mind, a prerequisite in our spiritual journey:

You can control an elephant, catch hold of a tiger’s tail,
Grab the snake and dance, dictate to angels,
Transmigrate into another body, walk on water or sit on the ocean;
But it is far more difficult to still your mind and remain quiet.

He was impatient with theological hair-splitting, common in his time, as it is in ours. After serving as a minister for the Maratha king Vijayaranga Chokkanatha Nayak of Tanjavoor, he quit and became a mendicant.

Taayumaanava Swamy was a scholar in both Tamil and Sanskrit. If you want to understand and enjoy his several hundred verses composed in a variety of complex Tamil meters, grounding in Sanskrit  and the Indian metaphysical ideas are necessary. Well-versed in the two classical languages, he would have easily identified charlatans of his time as we see in the following non-poetic translation of his verse in a dasakam  (padigam in Tamil), a set of ten verses on a theme, called Siddhar Ganam:

Coming to think of it, the illiterate are indeed virtuous.
Look at my karma and my intelligence [that’s impetuous].
I’m well-read, but still live in ignorance!
If a wise person advises, “The liberating Jnana (wisdom) is worthy of pursuit,”
Karma (action) is more important, I will assert.
But if one defends Karma as the better option,
I’ll argue, “The good old Jnana is more important.”
With a Sanskrit pandit, I will elaborate on how great Tamil is.
When meeting people well-versed in Tamil,
I will dazzle them with a few Sanskrit shlokas.
My conceited bombast frustrates everyone, but convinces none!
O, the skilled Siddhas, You’ve reconciled the ideas of Vedanta and Siddhanta!
Will this talent of mine ever give me Mukti (liberation)?

The answer to his rhetorical question is obvious: No. Taayumaanavar deftly brings out the hypocrisy in us by employing the first person singular in the verse. Obviously, he is not referring to himself. But when you read his verse, you may see shades of yourself in the first person pronouns I, my, mine, and first-person case-endings in the verbs. This technique is commonly used by Bhakti poets all over India since the 5th century to temper our vanity and pride.

Today we see modern versions of Taayumaanavar’s archetype all over India. You have to only replace Sanskrit with English, French, German,  Arabic, Persian, or any Indian language other than your native tongue.

Here is the Tamil original for you to enjoy the alliterative and rhyming verse of this great poet-philosopher:

Taayumaanava Poem

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