Category Archives: Books

The Indians: Portrait of a People

The Indians: Portrait of a People is a very readable book, authored by India ‘s foremost psychoanalyst and cultural commentator Sudhir Kakar and his wife anthropologist Katharina Kakar .The book was published about three months back. I read it recently. It is an unusual book, in many ways. I wish to share my impressions of the book with you.

The book aims to describe the manifestations of the spirit of India in various facets of Indian life and thought. It attempts to take a look at the building blocks of the Indian-ness. The authors set out “to present a composite portrait in which Indians will recognize themselves and be recognized by others.”

The portrayal here is of the middle-class Hindus, who, the authors claim occupy the dominant place in Indian culture. Those “at the margins of Hindu society (such as the Dalits and tribals, or the Christians and Muslims),” they write, “Will spot only fleeting resemblances to themselves”. Kakar admits to speaking of Indian-ness in terms of a pre-eminently Hindu civilization that has contributed the major share to what he calls the “cultural gene pool” of India ’s peoples. What about the contribution of other cultures like the Mughals and the British? “There have been many positive and negative contributions,” he says, “but they have been gradually assimilated over centuries – it isn’t a clear-cut process. Thinking of examples offhand, I believe the Indian character has benefited greatly from the Brotherhood Ideal that is prevalent in Islam.”

In their journey to discover Indian-ness or the Hindu view of the world, the Kakars are concerned not so much with philosophical doctrines but with the beliefs and attitudes of Indian people reflected in their lives, songs and stories. They try to show how these beliefs are disseminated through myths, legends, proverbs, and metaphors enacted in religious rituals, conveyed through tales told to children, and as depicted in Bollywood movies, television serials; or glimpsed in the admonition of parents and in the vision they have of their children’s future.

The authors point out, despite ethnic differences there is an underlying unity in the great diversity ofIndia that needs to be recognized. They contend that there are more similarities than differences among the various people of the Subcontinent, and that there is an underlying core at the heart of Indian civilization, one which remained intact through the Mughal invasions, British colonialism and other vicissitudes of Indian history. The authors examine the predominance of family, community and caste in our everyday lives, our attitudes to sex and marriage, our prejudices, our ideas of the other and our understanding of health, right and wrong, and death .The world vision they talk about is not through the head but the heart.

Indian Way of Thinking 

The authors refer to A. K. Ramanujan’s stimulating essay, “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?” which describes the Indian character as “context-sensitive” as opposed to “context-free.” Ramanujan says “Actual behaviour may be more complex, though the rules they think with are a crucial factor guiding the behaviour”. Context-sensitive, he suggests, is the more appropriate term for what others have taken for an Indian tendency toward inconsistency and hypocrisy, as well as, perhaps tolerance and mimicry. Context-free thinking, which he attributes to Euro-American culture, gives rise to universal testaments of law, such as in the Judeo-Christian tradition and in the European philosophical tradition, e.g. Hegel. Context-sensitive thinking, on the other hand, gives rise to more complicated sets of standards such as the Laws of Manu, by which appropriateness depends on various factors, especially factors of identity and personhood, such as birth, occupation, life stage, karma, dharma, etc. Ramanujan stresses that this difference in philosophical outcome is not a symptom of irrationality, but a different kind of rationale

Ramanujan once said “One way of defining diversity for India is to say what the Irishman is said to have remarked about trousers. When asked whether trousers were singular or plural, he said, ‘Singular at the top and plural at the bottom.’ (In where mirrors are windows: Toward an anthology of reflections).

The Indian inconsistency looks puzzling, but it is not. How can a qualified astronomer working at an International institute of fundamental sciences also be a practicing astrologer? How can a CEO of a multi national company consult horoscopes and holy men for taking family decisions? Why does an oxford educated cabinet minister postpone an important meeting because the time is not “auspicious”? 

Ramanujan asserted it is not inconsistency; it has nothing to do with a person’s level of education or social standing or logical rigor. It could be understood better, he said, if we appreciate that Indians operate on the basis of context-sensitive rather than context-free norms.

While discussing the Hindu way of thinking Kakars expand on Ramanujan’s ideas and pose the question how does an individual know what is the right action? Are his actions in conformity with the truth of things? Kakars answer this by saying “he cannot (know) since right action depends the culture of his country (desa), the context in which he lives (kala), on the efforts required of him at his particular stage of life (shrama) and lastly on the innate character (guna) he has inherited. An individual can never know the configuration of all these factors in an absolute sense. “Right” and “wrong” are relative depending on its specific context; every action can be right or otherwise”.

What a person should do or should not do depends on the context. Even truth telling is not an unconditional imperative .Kakars quote Gautama , a law giver, “An untruth spoken by people under the influence of anger , excessive joy , fear , pain or grief , by infants , by very old men , by persons laboring under a delusion or being under the influence of drink , does not cause the speaker to fall(under sin).” The moral relativism of the Hindu mind is thus not an absence of moral code but only a more context-sensitive way of looking at and dealing with its violation.

Context-sensitivity is not a feature of traditional moral law but extends to many areas of contemporary Indian life and thought. If truth is relative, then there is no choice but to be tolerant of the truth of others. The roots of the Hindu tolerance may well lie in this context- dependent way of thinking.

Kakars feel that relativism of Dharma supports tradition and modernism, innovation and conformity. On one hand, the uncertainty enables one take independent voluntary actions that might sometimes be risky; on the other it prompts one to look back to epics, ancestors, social groups for guidance on how they dealt with similar situations.


While talking about the characteristics of Indian-ness, “A key aspect,” Kakars say, “is how connected we are to each other as a people. Compared to Westerners, Indians are generally more ready to embrace the pain that accompanies too much closeness – one reason why the family structure is still very strong compared to many other cultures.”

Another important quality is that it is a profoundly hierarchical society. “Indians are perhaps the world’s most undemocratic people, living in the largest democracy,” he writes “What I mean by this,” he explains, “is that one Indian typically looks at another through a variety of filters – including gender, caste, religion, class – all aimed at answering the question, ‘Is this person superior or inferior to me?’ The difference in status between a chief executive and an office peon is the highest in our country.”

And yet, there is also what he calls a “connected hierarchy, based on a humane orientation” – which means that our leaders tend to be authoritative but not autocratic, and usually benevolent. “Once a leader has been accepted, he is looked upon as a father figure and his subordinates tend to be very loyal to him. We have this culture of people willing to work regularly even on weekends. The flip-side is that this can result in sycophancy and a lack of critical feedback.”

Kakars explain that when an Indian attains success at his work his first conscious thought would be “How happy my family will be!” The Indians tend to idealize their families and their ancestral background.

The Kakars connect Indian business culture to the Indian child’s experience of family. From an early age, they write, the Indian child is made aware of the importance of the integrity of the family, and of the hierarchy within it. Indian children receive much nurturing from their elders, but are also expected to follow their elders’ injunctions – to the extent that they are made to believe that what their elders dictate is what is best for them. This has ramifications far into the child’s future, particularly when he has to join the workforce. Drawing from a report on various global corporate cultures, the Kakars show how the Indian organization is characterized by four elements: a high degree of idealization by subordinates of their superiors; a significant separation between members of the organization by power, authority and prestige; a widespread culture of caring, altruism and kindness; and a fierce loyalty by workers towards the organization.

Hindu nationalism 

In dealing with the Indian “Religious and Spiritual Life”, the authors contrast the Hindu nationalist and the flexible Hindu. There are serious contradictions in a militant Hindu nationalism, since Hinduism is concerned with tolerance and universalism, that go back to traditional Hindu roots. On the other hand, the flexible Hindu tossed on the tide of consumerism and pseudo secularism that has been so uncritically accepted, feels threatened and looks for alternate modes of expression. He fears his identity is under threat. This is what makes the Hindu nationalists’ proposal attractive

Hindu-Muslim conflict 

This brings us to Hindu-Muslim conflict. The authors explain the Hindu-Muslim conflict in terms of the construction and transmission of stereotypes that demonized the ‘other’. Kakars say we will have to give up Gandhi’s dream of “lasting heart unity” between the two communities. “The differences won’t go away,” he says, “and even if it were possible, there will always be someone ready to exploit communal tensions.” What then is his best-case scenario for the future? “An achievable ideal is increased tolerance for the other, even if one disagrees with their beliefs and lifestyles. We might have to content ourselves with the creation of a common public realm while regarding the other community with benign indifference in private.”

Indian Women 

The continuity and change in the evolution of women’s identity and gender relations are traced in the “Indian Women: Traditional and Modern”. The authors seem to soft pedal the position of the girl child in the Indian family, especially upper and middle caste ones. The situation they describe may have prevailed in the traditional rural joint family, but surely that has changed today, if the sex ratios, especially for the more patriarchal states in the North, are anything to go by. 

While facing the question whether the family closeness is getting diluted in the urban parts of the country? “Yes, that process is underway,” he says. “But also, very often, what we have is the illusion of modernity. Centuries of conditioning and generational ‘wisdom’ still underlie most of our attitudes.” He points out, for instance, that the average college girl in Delhi , even one who dresses in jeans or skirts, will hesitate to break into loud laughter at the antics of a boy who’s trying to attract her attention. At some level, despite the surface liberalness, she is still aware of traditional folk-wisdom pertaining to male-female interactions, which she has absorbed from her community – in this case, the saying, “jo hansi, woh phansi” (“if a girl laughs, she is already in the net”). 

Even the idea of the ever-increasing generation gap, Kakar says, is part of a canon of Western psychology that we – especially those of us who have grown up reading English – too easily accept. “But in India , even in the less conservative families, the generational bond tends to be stronger than the generational conflict.”

The spread of new media and technologies- internet, mythological comics, TV serials- is not only leading to greater homogenization of Hindu rituals and festivals but is also the main source of religious knowledge for the young generations, they say.

At some places Kakars reveal startlingly ultra conservative views on women, which I find difficult to appreciate. Take, for instance, the relationship between the daughter-in-law and her cruel mother-in-law, which is an inexhaustible theme of Indian folktales and TV soap operas. When such a plot is on view we normally sympathize with the victimized daughter-in-law. But the Kakars argue that animosity towards the mother-in-law is in fact unwarranted, as she is merely “an agent of the Indian family”, whose role is simply to preserve the traditional form of the family from outside intrusion. “Given the organizing principle of the traditional Indian family,” the Kakars continue, in which the parent-son and filial bonds are more central than the husband-wife tie (that is considered the fulcrum of the modern Western family), the new bride constitutes a very real threat to the unity of the larger family. Abundantly aware of the power of sex to overthrow religiously sanctioned family values and long- established social norms, the family is concerned that the young wife may cause her husband to neglect his duties as a son, as a brother, a nephew, an uncle; that he will transfer his loyalty and affection to her rather than remaining truly a son of the house.”

In another place they say, Man’s war with “woman” is a common theme in Indian tales. The woman is defiant and does not submit without a struggle against her husband. Withholding of sex is used against him but sex is permitted when he is humbled. 

The book also says that working wives who express satisfaction with their career still rank the raising of children as the priority in a woman’s life.

Sexuality in Indian society 

The study of sexuality has been a major facet of Sudhir Kakar’s career. In addition to his studies on sexual mores in contemporary India , he has co-authored a translation of the Kama Sutra, and written a novel based on the life of Vatsyayana. In The Indians, the Kakars draw from these works, to create a celebratory and lyrical account of sexuality during the era in which the Kama Sutra was written. 

The disjunction between the classical and modern stance on “sexuality” plays out the tension between the ascetic and the erotic Indian: from the Kamasutra and the Gita Govinda, to popular temple art, to today’s official censorship and vigilante moral policing. The authors explore some of the intricacies involved.

While admiring sexuality as practiced in ancient India , the Kakars are pained by the conservative and puritanical sexual mores of contemporary India . Indian society today, they say, is in “the dark ages of sexuality”, characterized by a lack of “erotic grace which frees sexual activity from the imperatives of biology, uniting the partners in sensual delight and metaphysical openness.” Kama Sutra appears as an effort to critique modern Indian sexuality through the presentation of an example of a superior alternative.

“The erotic love of the Kama Sutra is a precarious balancing act between the possessiveness of sexual desire and the tenderness of romantic longing, between the disorders of instinctually and the moral forces of order, between the imperatives of nature and the civilizing attempts of culture. It is a search for harmony in all the opposing forces that constitute human sexuality.” 

The Kakars approve of social characteristics that promote harmony, health and the refined enjoyment of the daily pleasures that life offers. They disapprove of those characteristics that cause discord, and inhibit expression and enjoyment. They criticize, but their criticism is understated, appearing on the surface as simple description of Indian society. Even when they describe ugly traits, they do so with warmth towards the people they are describing. 


In the concluding chapter, the authors bring together their discussion on the Hindu world view under its three building blocks— Moksha, Dharma and Karma— which of course is mainstream ‘Sanatana Dharma’. They conclude by saying: 

“ In conclusion let us again emphasize that the Hindu world view , the reluctant orientation, the context-sensitivity and the lesser sexual differentiation that go into the formation of the Indian mind are not abstractions to be more or less hazily comprehended during the adult years. They are the constituents of an Indian’s psyche, absorbed by the child in his relationship with his caretakers from the very beginning of life as the underlying truth of the world. Rarely summoned for conscious examination, this cultural part of the mind is neither determinedly universal nor utterly idiosyncratic. The mental representation of our cultural heritage, it remains in constant conversation with the universal and individual aspects of our mind throughout life, each influencing and shaping the other two at every moment of our being.”


This book of Kakars’ is a rather unfashionable one, in the sense that it does not blend with the trend of the books written by some eminent Indian authors. Look at some of the statements made in the book.

 “Identity is not a role, or a succession of roles, with which it is often confused,” write the authors, “It is not a garment that can be put on or taken off according to the weather outside; it is not ‘fluid’, but marked by a sense of continuity and sameness irrespective of where the person finds himself during the course of his life.”

** The authors state that the cultural part of personal identity is wired into our brains as the “software” (Samskara) with which a child grows up, leaving limited possibilities for fluid and changing identities in adulthood.

** Furthermore, they say that cultural traditions as transmitted through the family “have a line of development separate from political and economic systems.”

Kakars’ book does not fall in line with the current cultural and academic trend where the emphasis is on multiple-flexible- identities and on universality. The current intellectual mood in the country loves to promote the idea of mixing of cultures, of multiple identities that can be worn or taken off-like masks – as the situation demands. Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence is a convincing presentation of this point of view. Further, the view that cultural traditions as transmitted through the family “have a line of development separate from political and economic systems” may not be acceptable to political economists and sociologists. The book runs the risk of being blamed for ignoring the heterogeneity of the country as it focuses on Hindus to the exclusion of other segments of Indian society.

Further, some views on women, hierarchy, business culture and political set up are rather naive, over simplified or too conservative. One cannot agree with all the views of the authors.

Yet, the book presents a fascinating portrait of our society and culture. It displays an understanding of the Indian social reality, its “way of looking at things”. The book is well written, cogent and lucid; based on years of clinical research. As I said earlier it is an unusual book in many ways. It is worth reading even in case you do not agree with all that the authors say.

The Indians : Portrait of a People Author: Kakar, Sudhir & Kakar, Katharina Year: 2007 ISBN : 0670999237 [ pp. 232 ] [ Price: RS. 395.00, US$ 9.29 ]


Posted by on September 6, 2012 in Books, General Interest



What is a Black Swan

A.  What is a Black Swan?

Medieval Europeans had seen only white swans. In fact, any impossible event was in those days termed a ‘black swan’. Therefore, when the first settlers reached Australia , they were shocked to find flocks of black swans all over the place! The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for ornithologists and others concerned with the color of birds, but that is not where the significance of the story lies. It exposes the severe limitation of the empirical learning methods and therefore the fragility of our knowledge based on instances rather on generalities.

The term Black Swan, was employed by generations of Europeans as a metaphor to signify an absurdity or to denote something that did not exist. It however took one unexpected sighting of a Black Swan to invalidate the belief of the generations that all swans in the world were white and that a Black Swan was an absurdity.

David Hume (1711-1776), the English philosopher, said: the observation of even a million white swans does not justify the statement “all swans are white.” There is no way to know that somewhere out there a black swan is not hiding, disproving the rule and nullifying our “knowledge” of swans. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), another English philosopher, used the black swan as an example to illustrate the problem of induction in the philosophy of science according to which no amount of empirical evidence in support of a proposition can ever prove conclusively that it is true.

Later , Karl Popper (1902-1994), Austrian and English philosopher used the black swan narrative to discuss falsification and said “No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory “. Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and Stephen Hawkins the celebrated English thinkers both believed “the general principles of science . . . are believed because mankind has found innumerable instances of their truth and no instances of their falsehood. But this affords no evidence for their truth in the future, unless the inductive principle is assumed”. In other words, one single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. All you need is one single (ugly) black bird.

A “Black Swan” is therefore anything that seems to us, based on our limited experience, to be impossible The Black principle thus implied:

a) Absence of proof does not necessarily mean proof of absence ;
b) A perceived impossibility can actually occur.;
c) Do not confuse improbability with impossibility. and
d) Expect an unexpected to happen.


B.  Impact of the highly improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his recent book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Penguin/Allen Lane-2007) expands on the idea of Black Swan and spins a web of ideas around randomness, uncertainty, our understanding of history, financial markets, illusion of “expert advice”, precaution- fire fighting, our perception of “heroes” and a number of other issues. The central idea of this book concerns our blindness to randomness, particularly the large deviations. It talks about skepticism, wild randomness and the power of stories. It is about how not to be a sucker to the unexpected and the unknown. It is in essence a Book of Ideas.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a more specific definition of the Black Swan event —for him, a “black swan” is an event that meets three conditions:

a) It was unpredictable;
b) It carried an extreme impact; and
c) After the event, we made it appear more predictable than it actually was, by concocting explanations.

A “Black Swan” is therefore anything that seems to us, based on our limited experience, to be impossible and which are only retrospectively predictable. Black swans can be positive or negative, a blockbuster book or a stock market crash. He cites the instances of 9/11, WW I and other events and explores how “black swans” throughout history have influenced civilizations, religions, and governments.

For instance, the astonishing success of Google was a black swan; so was the Harry Potter.

Black swans may occur almost anywhere, say from the rise of religions to events in our own personal lives. In short, black swans are some of the most important and influential events in the history of the human race. It started accelerating during the industrial revolution, as the world started getting more complicated, while ordinary events, the ones we study, discuss, and try to predict from reading the newspapers, have become increasingly inconsequential.

Life is the cumulative effect of a handful of significant shocks. A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives. Go through the following exercise.

Look into your own existence. Count the significant events, the technological changes and the inventions that have taken place in our environment since you were born; and compare them to what was there before their advent. How many of them came on a schedule? Look into your own personal life, to your choice of profession, say, or meeting your mate, the betrayals you faced, your sudden enrichment or impoverishment. How often did these things occur according to plan?

Extending this logic, many of the discoveries that have had tremendous impact on our living were accidents in the sense that they were discovered while searching for something else. Because of hindsight bias, histories of scientific discoveries are written with straightforward story lines telling that someone set out to do something and succeeded and that it was all about intention and design. However, in truth, “most of what people were looking for, they did not find. Most of what they found they were not looking for.” For instance, Viagra was devised to treat heart disease and high blood pressure. ; Lasers at first had no application but were useful as a form of radar; and the Internet was conceived as a military network

What makes the black swans particularly dangerous is that most of the times they are unexpected. He explains this by saying: “Consider the turkey that is fed every day. Every single feeding will firm up the bird’s belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race “looking out for its best interests”. On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey. It will incur a revision of belief.”

C. Why Black Swans happen?

Why do Black Swans happen? It is because, Taleb says, we do tend to confuse improbability with impossibility. This inbuilt tendency makes us over-confident about predicting the future; and over-confidence can lead to disaster. Further, we fool ourselves into thinking we know more than we actually do. We restrict our thinking to the irrelevant and inconsequential, while large events continue to surprise us and shape our world.

The problem of induction tells us that we cannot really learn from our experiences. It makes knowledge very problematic, if not impossible. Yet, we have too much faith that past events will repeat and we can take care of them. We therefore concentrate on things we already know and repeatedly fail to take into consideration what we do not know. Black Swan logic makes what you do not know far more relevant than what you do know. Unfortunately, we do not know how much we do not know.

Largely, says Taleb, human beings are blind to the impact of randomness and fail to appreciate the asymmetry in our perception of events. In addition, we confidently predict the future in any number of ways. Unfortunately, we are nearly always wrong, though later, when things have happened, we tend to remember only the times when we were right. We attribute our successes to our skills, and our failures to external events outside our control, namely to randomness

Comforting simplifications make us over-confident. Uncertainty makes us curious and cautious. We often hear only what we love to hear. For example, when a doctor says, “there is no evidence of cancer” we often misinterpret that as “there is evidence of no cancer”; obviously, there is a huge difference between the two, but the latter is impossible to state with 100% certainty.

Another related human impediment is that we tend to learn the precise, not the general. “We’re suckers for a narrative,” he says.” When a story is attached to an event, it seems more probable than it actually is, causing us to err on the conservative side for negative events and on the risky side for positive ones.”

Not all Black Swans are negative, and not all are sudden. From one perspective, all modern history is one huge, slowly unfolding Black Swan. This is reflected in the ever-changing stories we live in. Stories of the earlier generations used to be more stable, their children saw the same world they did. Now the stories are as short-lived as a summer blockbuster. Still we believe in them, in the next as sincerely as in the last.

Most of the really big events in our world are rare and unpredictable, and thus trying to extract generalizable stories to explain them may be emotionally satisfying, but it is practically useless. It results in what Taleb calls the “retrospective distortion”. September 11th is one such example and stock market crashes are another. As he puts it, “History does not crawl, it jumps.”

Taleb insists that our brain is “the wrong user’s manual” for the complex unpredictability of the world we are now living in. He says, “human nature is not programmed for black swans”; “our inferential machinery is not made for a complicated environment”; our “statistical intuitions have not evolved” for our current habitat; we are “not well adapted to the present, post-alphabet, intensely informational, and statistically complex environment.”

I am not convinced of this, if Taleb were to be entirely correct how could the humankind survive and multiply successfully all these ages. In addition, I think Taleb’s argument does not give due credit to the human ingenuity and unconscious, which can handle multiplicity just well.

D. Experts and “Empty Suits”

Taleb is harsh on Experts dispensing advice and handing down oracle like predictions. He is particularly harsh on Economists when it comes to prediction of market events; and on Historians for the manner of their explaining the past events.

As in the good old medieval days, “experts” are many times empty heads with empty (and expensive) suits. Certain professionals, while believing they are experts, are in fact not. Based on their empirical record, they do not know more about their subject matter than the general population, but they are much better at narrating — or, worse, at smoking you with complicated mathematical models. They are also more likely to wear a tie.

Taleb tends to regard economists as not just the blind leading the blind, but leading them perilously close to the cliff’s edge. “Our cumulative prediction errors for political and economic events are so monstrous,” says Taleb, ‘that every time I look at the empirical record I have to pinch myself to verify that I am not dreaming”.

For instance, he states, in 1970, the US government’s official view was that, by 1980, the price of foreign crude oil might well decline, and, in any case, would not show a substantial increase. In fact, oil prices went up tenfold by 1980.The inability to predict outliers implies the inability to predict the course of history, given the share of these events in the dynamics of the economics .

Today our paid experts wear knowledge on their sleeve while they sleepwalk into the future of unpredictability. Today, all knowledge is available to us, or so it seems. We even teach our kids to go to Google or Wikipedia, but, unlike a library, the browser hides the trillions of bits of information we can never know. The blogosphere is, at its worst, a Tower of Babel . Our confidence grows, but the complexity of our environment has expanded exponentially.

Later in that same chapter, Taleb writes : It is often said, “Wise is he who can see things coming.” Perhaps the wise one is the one who knows that he cannot see things far away.

As regards History and its lessons, Taleb writes eloquently .

What did people learn from the 9/11 episode? Did they learn that some events, owing to their dynamics, stand largely outside the realm of the predictable? No. Did they learn the built-in defect of conventional wisdom? No. What did they figure out? They learned precise rules for avoiding Islamic proto -terrorists and tall buildings.

Taleb writes, and I agree, that USA took the wrong lessons from the September 11 terrorist attacks. It learned how to avoid another 9/11 like attack. It learned to fear the specific causes of that attack. What USA should have learned was to trust the stories less but to pay heed to the causes that prompted the attack. We all learned that 20th century history culminated in Osama bin Laden. What we should have learned was that history does not march, it jumps.

Good historians know that, but the bad ones tell better stories; and their good sounding false stories provide a canvas for the news media productions. In the hands of journalists, pundits and media experts, history becomes a mythology – a collection of moral lessons for our time. In reality, history is wildly random. While it happens, it is shocking, insane and painful. The stories come later, to heal the trauma, and make-believe a sane world.

Taleb writes, “as I formulated my ideas on the perception of random events, I developed the governing impression that our minds are wonderful explanation machines, capable of making sense out of almost anything, capable of mounting explanations for all manner of phenomena, and generally incapable of accepting the idea of unpredictability. These events were unexplainable, but intelligent people thought they were capable of providing convincing explanations for them – after the fact. Further, the more intelligent the person, the better sounding the explanation .”

To summarize: the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable (improbable according our current knowledge) dominate our world and all the while, we spend our time engaged in small talk, focusing on the known, and the repeated. This implies the need to use the extreme event as a starting point and not treat it as an exception to be pushed under the rug. Further, in spite of our progress and the growth in knowledge, or perhaps because of such progress and growth, the future will be increasingly less predictable, while both human nature and social science seem to conspire to hide the idea from us.

E. How do we deal with Black Swan

You cannot predict a Black Swan. If you did succeed in doing so, it is then no longer a Black swan. Black Swans being unpredictable, we need to adjust to their existence (rather than naïvely try to predict them). There are ways to manage that uncertainty to our advantage, but it requires an understanding of basic psychology and to look for generalities. We can do so many things if we focus on anti knowledge, or what we do not know.

Taleb admits that the Black Swan too is a story. It is, however, a better story. We can only understand the world through stories, there is no way to change that. What we need are good stories to fight the bad ones. Stories that prepare us for the unpredictable encourage us to doubt what we know. As Taleb writes, you cannot avoid crossing the street, but you can try not to do it blindfolded. You can try not to be a sucker .

Taleb’s book is also full of advice about how to benefit from the unpredictable nature of the world: “focus makes you a sucker; it translates into prediction problems”; learn to “avoid ‘tunneling'” (“the neglect of sources of uncertainty outside the plan itself”); “train yourself to spot the difference between the sensational and the empirical”; and remember that “we are not natural skeptics,” that “not believing” requires an “expenditure of mental effort.”

At the same time, there is a generous dose of skepticism in Taleb’s work. . It is the view of one who tries to keep his mind in a state of suspended judgment, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, staying open to contrary facts and viewpoints. A Skeptic believes in reality, but not in human reasoning. A Skeptic laughs at certainty and feels most comfortable as a Devil’s Advocate. The true Skeptic is, however, an unattainable ideal. Therefore, we must do our best with what we have. Taleb’s advice is to pick your battles. Skepticism is hard work, so reserve it for the beliefs and choices that really matter. Be practical.

Taleb seems to suggest:

*Since we cannot control unpredictable events we should accept uncertainty and seek to maximize our exposure to Serendipity, as by putting ourselves in the way of new ideas.

*Since there is such danger in accepting conclusions based on too little information simply because they confirm our beliefs, we should try to remain aware in the present of what we are doing, paying attention to what actually happens and refraining as far as possible from imposing theories on our experience.

*We should recognize our poor record as a species in predicting the future, that we are much better at doing than knowing. Some things are more predictable than others are; we are safe enough in expecting tomorrow’s sunrise to plan on breakfast. We can start noticing which situations are most susceptible to black swans, and when we encounter them, remember how little we truly know so our ignorance does not lead us around by the nose

F. New terms coined by Taleb

Taleb has coined a few terms which I suspect may gain currency just as the hybrid terms E-mail, blog etc. I picked up a couple of them:

Extremistan : A province where a single event can have a huge impact. This is where chaos reigns, the wholly unexpected happens, power laws and fractal geometry apply and the events here are beyond the range of predictability.

Mediocristan : A province where a single observation does not affect the aggregate. A place ruled by mild forms of randomness .This falls within the area where the events are predictable to a certain extent.

We assume the entire world is “Mediocristan”, whereas in reality large bands of it are “Extremistan”. The problem is there is no clear demarcation of the areas of Extremistan and Mediocristan.

One can never tell whether one is in the relatively safe territory of Mediocristan or if one has wandered into the lawless regions of Extremistan. This means the events in either case are not predictable.

Taleb’s hypothesis is that as a result of globalization and the speed of electronic communications, the world is becoming more like Extremistan and less like Mediocristan.

Platonicity: This stands for our tendency to mistake the map for the country, the finger for the moon. It makes us think that we understand more than we actually do.

The other terms are the “lucid fallacy” or “uncertainty of the nerd” (basing studies of chance on games and dice); and GIF (the “Great Intellectual Fraud” that is the bell curve- where the data falls between the mean and standard deviation).

G .Prevention and cure

The wisdom of the ages preaches that prevention is better than cure; but rarely do we treat it as a better option.

“Everybody knows that you need more prevention than treatment, but few reward acts of prevention. We glorify those who left their names in history books at the expense of those contributors about whom our books are silent. We are not just a superficial race (this may be curable to some extent); we are a very unfair one

In other words, we glorify the heart surgeon who performs a bypass surgery but scarcely take notice of the dietician or a physiotherapist who strives to keep his charge healthy and fit. We make a hero of a general who wins war but neglect a diplomat who strives to maintain peace and prevent a war.

H. Flaws in the book

The book suffers from a few flaws, unfortunately. I wish Taleb used the services and skills of a professional editor. Some ideas and phrases are highly repetitive. It gets too technical at places.

Taleb carries on a personal battle with certain economists and the French in general through repeated jabs and diatribes. It looks rather unsavory. I wish he avoided bringing in his personal prejudices into a work of this nature.

There is a lot of needless sarcasm and bad humor directed against certain trades or professions like Dentists, bakers etc. that he labels as boring and non-scalable careers.

He carries the unpredictability principle to the extreme, saying that we can predict almost nothing about the future.

Many of Taleb’s ideas accord with those that are repeatedly explored, often advocated, on Serendip: “doubt everything,” “fight against dogma,” “shed the idea of full predictability,” and know that “you can benefit from it.” Most strikingly: “maximize the serendipity around you.”

I am not convinced of Taleb’s argument about our brain being “the wrong user’s manual” etc. He does not give credit to the human ingenuity and the unconscious, which can handle multiplicity very well.

If you accept Taleb’s position, we are left with an uncomfortable question: How do we function in a world where accurate prediction is rarely possible, where history is not a reliable guide to the future and where the most important events cannot be anticipated?

Taleb suggest some answers. I am not convinced by most of them


Despite the flaws, the main ideas of the book are important and merit reading and great consideration. It is not surprising The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, is it self a Black Swan.



Posted by on September 2, 2012 in Books


Tags: ,

Where do we go from here?

 My post Oh History! My History! ( )

was about writing and understanding History in general. It also highlighted the problems in interpreting Indian history, the way in which it is taught in schools. The comments that followed discussed the problems involved in teaching Indian History and culture to Indian children in USA .


 The debate is still on. In the mean while a book titled “Invading the Sacred” edited by Ramaswamy, Antonio de Nicolas, a professor, and Aditi Banerjee appeared on the scene. , the book brings together essays by well-known scholars and seeks to facilitate a debate to challenge the systematic misrepresentation of Indian culture and philosophy by certain American academicians. The book is product of an intensive multi-year research project that uncovers shoddy and biased scholarship driven by certain power cartels.. The book narrates the Indian Diaspora’s challenges to such scholarship, and documents how those who dare to speak up have been branded as `dangerous’.

  Further, an article written by Aditi Banerjee one of the authors of the book appeared in the Outlook magazine


 Following the debate thereon I wrote to the Discussion Forum of the book saying that we were having a lively and a very concerned debate in progress about the Indian History in general, and the way in which India and Hindu religion is taught at the schools in USA , in particular. Further I said

 “Our anxiety is that the abuse of India does not merely start with the books you mentioned .They are just symptoms. This issue has a deeper root and a sinister history of its own. It has its roots in the content of Indian History in our school books; patronage of a certain brand of Historians by the Government; the anxiety of “Historians” to please those that matter, neglect of research and higher studies in Indian History in our Universities and Research Organizations and disillusionment of our bright young minds who are scared (with reason) to take up study of History as an academic career.

 The question is, where do we go from here? How do we tackle the menace that confuse and disillusion our younger generation about our History, our Culture and our Religion? The question is not merely about books written by some westerns without an iota of understanding; it concerns the identity of our communities and valuing conservation of our culture

 You have a wider canvass and larger area of work and influence than many of us have. Could you please let us have your views on the issues we are grappling with? Where do we go from here? “

There are other discussions in progress on  similar issues . Please follow those interesting  debates too.

 Invading The Sacred-The Foreword . 

 Invading The Sacred-A Review

 Challenging Western Scholarship on Hinduism

 Invading The Sacred : An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America


Riverine suggests that measures to project our history, our culture and our religion in the right perspective and to present it to our younger ones should start from our homes and our schools. Re asserts the truth that mothers are the protectors and nourishes of our identity and Dharma. She also suggests involvement in this task of women disposed to social service/activities.

Melody Queen says,”would be a good way to start with ( to st right all the distortions). Requires  rallying of all the like minded people;success shouldn’t t be be elusive if we display the tremendous amount of unity ,patience, and perseverance that is required for a cause of this kind.”

On that optimistic note please read on.

 Kindly post your comments

Message received from the Editors of Invading the sacred

 From: ITS Team <invadingthesac…>
Date: Jul 12, 2:58 am
Subject: Where do we go from here?
To: discuss-invadingthesacred

Dear Srinivasarao

Thanks for your presence & adding to the discussion. Also, thank you
for keeping the discussion alive on outlets like Sulekha.

 My response to the Editors’ reply

 Dear Sir, Madam

 Thank you for the reply and the appreciation.

 We were aware of the problem and were trying to spread the awareness about that with our very limited resources and a restricted reach. Your book has accomplished the task of awakening, on a larger scale, in a more scholarly, professional manner acceptable to academia and in a   much more effective way. None of us had the capability to do what you have just done. It has made a great difference. We all thank you for the task you just finished.

 The question we were wondering at: “Where do we go from here?” remains largely un answered in all the discussions that followed. Most of the comments posted are the reactions to the contents of book with hardly any thought expressed on what we need to do now or in future. Where do we go from here?

 We have just identified a problem and reacted to it. However, it takes much greater effort and dedication to effectively deal with the issue in a holistic fashion and to find credible answers to questions gnawing at the root of our cultural identity,” What do we tell and how we tell our children, who we are?” .We feel that a long term and a well thought out strategy involving various segments of the academia, the govts and intellectuals is essential. There are no quick fixes here. Have you envisioned a strategy or a road map in that direction? Can you kindly share it with us now or later?

 Thank you again for a difficult just accomplished.

 Looking forward to your response.


 Sreenivasarao s


This was the reply received from the Editors

  TS Team <>   hide details 2:54 am (4 hours ago) reply-to to discuss-invadingthesacred <> dateJul 13, 2007 2:54 AM subject[discuss-invadingthesacred:34] Re: Where do we go from here?

Dear sreenivasarao s
Thanks for your perceptive comments, & your obvious concerns about the
big picture. What you have, in the form of this book, is a tool for
firstly absorbing a deeper understanding of the problem, and then
fashioning an intellectual & intelligent response to it.
At the bare minimum, the book calls for an awakening of the people
concerned to the problem, & and an acknowledgement that it exists.
After that, it is up to the person(s) to think how to go ahead in
contributing to a remedy. It could be as simple as alerting oneself &
friends & family about the issues faced when one’s cultural heritage
is unfairly targeted, or bigger things like getting together to form
organizations that actively participate in academic forums to have the
“insider” voices of the traditions heard.
It all starts with healthy discussions like this one.
Thanks for the comments, & please continue sharing your thoughts. They
are important


There have been discussions in Group. You can read the detailed discussions at(

 The following are excerpts from the comments made by some members of the Group

Krishen Kak <> 

 15 July , 2007


This is being sent at RM’s request.

 It is about a personal experience of “reversing the gaze” that resonates strongly with the theme of the book.  It also resonates with subsequent personal experience in Delhi where, as guest faculty, I teach occasionally at a well-known b-school (and elsewhere).  There are all these bright young MBA aspirants, supposedly of our country’s intellectual “creamy layer”, who uncritically accept “the Western knowledge of India … as God’s own truth”.  But it’s not their fault.  We have a macaulayan educational system firmly in place producing macaulayan parents who go on to produce macaulayan children who go into the macaulayan education system.  Of course, this is a generalization but, I think, a valid one – witness, for one, your book itself!  

 As a small but another characteristic example, some Punjabi families were celebrating “lori” and I asked this teenager (private school, mission college, but of pukka Punjabi parentage – language, food, head-covered women, etc., etc.) what “lori” is about.  She said she didn’t know, and added brightly, “But I can tell you about Christmas”.

 At the b-school and elsewhere, more and more I find that our English-medium educated youngsters are ignorant of even the Mahabharata – but unthinkingly subscribe to a tangle of confused beliefs that all religions are equal and about love, and that “Hinduism” is mythology and not truthful and therefore inferior to the religions that are the Truth and so if I have any Hindu beliefs I should keep these superstitions to myself and not talk about them in “secular” society because that will make me a Hindu fundamentalist and I will be looked down upon by Westerners and the West-educated.         


Krishen Kak

June 25, 2004

This one starts on a personal experience, but I hope it has a larger lesson that is topical.  Not so very long ago, I negotiated a Ph.D. from Princeton University .   Shri Ashok Chowgule has for some time been pressing me to share that experience with the larger world, and “prevailing ideology” in David Brooks, “Lonely Campus Voices”, The New York Times, Sept 27, 2003 that Shri Chowgule circulated, plus certain behaviour, essentially unchanged since it was televised to the world on May 18, 2004, prompts me now to do so.

 I won a Parvin Fellowship for 1983-84 to Princeton University and during that one year fulfilled nearly all the requirements of a major in anthropology (i.e., the honours course requirements for a BA in cultural anthropology).  Sat for the GRE and, armed with my course grades and my GRE, and with strong encouragement from Prof James Fernandez (who later shifted to Chicago ), applied for regular graduate admission.

 Joined as a graduate student in 1985 and had 5 years in which to complete (an MA and) the Ph.D. before being obligated to return to sarkari naukri back home (the average time taken by an indigenous student exceeded 7 years). 

 I must say those 5 years were a most educative experience – the pluses of the American educational system are well-known and I won’t repeat them here.  Mainly, these are the opportunities and facilities the system makes available to any one who wants seriously to study. 

  This is about what I didn’t know then – and I have no reason to believe it has changed in its basics.

  First, my teachers as a Delhi Univ undergraduate in the early 60s were as good or better than the ones I had at Princeton in the 80s.  Whatever the drawbacks of the Indian system, ours has a discipline and a rigour that enables those trained in it to do very well there. 

  Secondly, for all the academic freedom proclaimed, there are high walls you cross at your risk.  The playing field is a large one, but its boundary is then sharply demarcated.

Thirdly, racism is subtle but sharp.  I was encouraged by Prof Fernandez and, after he left, by my advisor Prof Hildred Geertz, to reverse the well-entrenched hierarchy of enquiry (in which Western/White/West-based anthropology studies others, preferably dark-skinned, non-Englishspeaking, Third World natives) and bring to bear my non-western eyes and non-western perspective to any aspect of American culture that interested me.  As I told an indigenous student (of Tamil-Irish parentage!) who asked, “But aren’t you supposed to study someone exotic?”, “What makes you think that to me you Americans aren’t exotic?”  “Oh!”  

 But life in America is expensive, and while my Department had always been understanding and generous, no funding agency was prepared to give me a grant to do my fieldwork on mainstream Americans.  I read some of the feedback.  Essentially, it was a question of authority: who is he to study us?  Politely and carefully-worded, but the subtext was clear – student, Indian, Brown, Third World, inferior, the ruled, the periphery, etc. to study the No.1, White, First World, superior, the rulers, the centre, etc.? Nah!

 This “who is he to study us?” played like a signature tune to the very end.  Up to the qualifiers (the MA), I played by their rules, did their coursework, met all their academic requirements to their pronounced satisfaction.  I was apparently successfully co-opted and could be a fine example of their system (senior administrator from world’s largest democracy, fluent in English, Westernized, much older than the average indigenous student, and dutifully kneeling at their altar to Athena, not mine to Saraswati).    

 Then came the fieldwork, of studying Americans as “them”.   My area of ethnographic enquiry was the Western social paradigm in its American expression, but in its “bhayanaka”, not “adbhuta”, side; and to express it I introduced “rasasvadana” (from Indian aesthetics) as an ethnographic method. 

 Suffice it to say that, as I began to share my experiences and critical understanding in the Department, I was soon disabused of the notion that, as a Brown foreigner, I had interpretative authority.  For example, some interpretation I shared with Prof Laurence Rosen was “wrong”.  So I began to use the words of the indigenes instead of my own; I used American quotations to say to White Americans what obviously they were not prepared to hear – let alone accept – from a Dark Brown Indian who was forgetting his place in their larger scheme of life!

 The procedure required the submission and clearance of the draft dissertation by the main advisor, its approval by a second reader, then it was to be seen by two more readers who’d have it for a fortnight each, and then, all going well, the date for the student’s final public oral exam (FPO) would be notified – and the whole world and their nears and dears could attend!    

  Right on schedule, I handed in my final draft to Prof Geertz.  Her initial response – “marvellous”.  Three days later she said she couldn’t accept it – it wasn’t “science”.  I pointed out I was critiquing “Western science”. She wanted this change and that, and changes that I felt I could make without compromising my integrity and that of my thesis, I made.  At one change, I drew the line.  I said that if I made it, it would no longer be my dissertation; it would become hers. She was asking me to convert from my faith (as an academic credo) to hers, and I wasn’t prepared to convert. She said that then she couldn’t accept my dissertation.  I said, fine, I’d go back without the Ph.D.

  Impasse.  Sensation.  After all, here I was.  A brown sahib there, and not just any chhota-mota brown sahib. I had been a Parvin Fellow at the same university.  I had a certain official status in my own country.  My academic results had been to their entire satisfaction.  How would they explain not awarding me a Ph.D?            

  Friendly American students advised me to write as my guide wanted; when subsequently I published I could rewrite as I wanted.  I was horrified to discover this well-meant advice was a very common one.  The important point was to get the degree, not how you got it?  And I then realized the American doctorate is not awarded, it is negotiated.

  The negotiations began.  No, no, I sat tight – in my dharma, that piece of paper would not go up (or down!) with me when my  time finally came.  As my wife will certify, I was quite prepared to return home without that degree.  I was certainly not going to “sell” myself for White / Western recognition.  What to me was important was what I’d studied and learned and understood, and that they couldn’t take away from me.

 My second reader was Prof Gananath Obeyesekere (of Sri Lankan origin) and to him Prof Geertz referred me and my draft.  Prof O, apart from being a fascinating teacher, is one smart cookie, and he brought to bear his Asian chutzpah in dealing with the American system (and, believe me, first-generation clued-up Asians who smartly want to play the American system to their own advantage – as I did – can certainly do so).  So we negotiated certain portions of my draft without compromising on its integrity and he sent me back to Prof G.  She declined to look at the draft, saying that if O had okayed it, it was okay by her.

 It then went to big-name professors Jorge Klor de Alva and James Boon, with a covering note that I would be happy to explain any point they wished.  Complete silence from them both for their fortnights, and the date of the FPO was announced. 

  Now, I’d sat through the FPOs of a number of my seniors – small friendly affairs, just other students of the Department (and perhaps some friends) and a supportive faculty that’d known the student for six years or more.  Professional, yes, but very friendly, and I’d seen how once they gently led a sweating student out of his sudden and total mental block.  Nothing to worry about, except that in my case I was warned “they” were out to get me!   So, strategy became necessary, and some close, concerned American friends and I went into a huddle.  The student has about half-an-hour to “present” the dissertation and then the questioning starts.  We decided that I would raise no substantive issue in my presentation (let the questioners do that) and I wasn’t, absolutely was not, no matter how much the provocation, to lose my temper!   

 The entire faculty were seated around a long table, I was at one end, and the hall was overflowing with students from my and related departments. Word had certainly got around – martyr to the lions!!  And, oh yes, instead of my usual jeans, I wore a kurta and a churidar pajama. 

 For 25 minutes I spoke, and carefully said nothing at all.  Then, questions from the faculty.  Appropriate ones, including one from Prof Laurence Rosen about the application generally of my anthropological method, except for Profs Klor de Alva and Boon who were clearly seething with anger (Boon was literally red in the face) and who took over and dominated the table.

 Prof K de A: “Who are you to write this about us?  Can this be written about your country too?”

Prof B: “Your behaviour is uncharacteristic of Hindu behavior”

 Across the table it went, around those two statements of theirs I’ve never forgotten.  Cutting, insulting, snubbing.  K de A saying that all that was needed was to replace the title page with one saying ” India “, and what’s the difference.  Boon’s statement suggesting that Hindu (not Indian, mind you, but Hindu) behaviour is characteristically one of humility, of abject and grateful servility (yes, the kind leading “Hindu” members of our country’s Parliament happily displayed in the CPP meeting on May 18 – V’mala 59).

 And not a word from Prof Geertz or anyone else to restrain or divert them (as not a word at that CPP meeting from La Duce Suprema while her Hindus behaved in the way she obviously considers characteristic of us). 

 No, I did not lose my temper.  But Prof G didn’t allow any questioning from the audience; she ended the FPO immediately after the faculty had done with me.  There was a moment’s silence, then the students gave me a standing ovation, and student feedback later was that faculty behaviour had been “obnoxious”. 

 I had successfully negotiated my degree.  But I declined the invitation to dinner with the faculty that the new Ph.D has, as having become their peer.  A few days later, the five years soon to be getting over, I left.

 (And please do not compare my negotiating my Ph.D. to caro Raul’s obvious negotiation of his M.Phil. – V’mala 62.  I had sat for and passed the proper prerequisite examinations!)   

 Poor Prof Geertz was clearly very embarrassed that her potential White swan had metamorphosed into this ugly Brown duck!   No, no, the Department and she – and this I make emphatically clear – had been very supportive, and my qualms about “namak-harami” were brushed away by her and by Prof Rena Lederman.  I value indeed the opportunity I had to study the Western system from within it.  But my concern is with the hegemonic paradigm so well-illustrated in the uninhibited typecasting of Hindus by Profs Klor de Alva and Boon (see Part 1 of Krishen Kak, “Enucleated Universes: An Ethnography of the Other America and of Americans as the Other”, Princeton University, Ph.D. dissertation, June 1990, available in America on an inter-library loan through your academic or friendly neighbourhood public library.  On “namak-harami”, see its fn 5, Part 1.III).  

 Now, it is easy to point out worse attitudes in the Brown system but we, by our own general consensus (by “the people’s mandate”, if you prefer!), are a people inferior to the White.

 Call it the “fair and lovely” syndrome.  If you’re fair, you’re by definition lovely.  And the White is by definition fair and, therefore, lovely. 

 The White West universities by general consensus (that includes themselves and elite English-speaking Indians) are the best in the world, and the White Western educational system is the best, and the White West is the best……..

 Sure it is, if you’re willing to be co-opted by their system, to gratify them by praising theirs and running down our own, to becoming faux White.  Okay, okay, the full reasoning is in that dissertation which first q.v., so “flames” will be promptly extinguished if you’re responding angrily only to its findings as repeated here.  Don’t forget I defended in extended, publicly and successfully these findings there! 

 Apart from my experience as a grad and, this offering illustrates two points: how mainstream America / the Western social paradigm / mainstream White culture really perceive us “Hindus” and, much more significantly for us, how we continue to reinforce that perception. 

 And the larger point of that research that, in analysing the Western social paradigm, implicitly warns against blindly seeking a White solution to Brown social problems.  The remedy is worse than the disease, and we seek it at our peril.  


Gautam sen

Jul 7, 1:29

The main issue is how to stop their ‘normal’ prevalence being used to attack the entire fabric of the Hindu order, its society and the Indian State , or what  remains of it.

Without political power and control over the Indian State all endeavours to defend Hinduism will remain painfully difficult. India will soon be ruled directly from Brussels, headquarters of NATO .mark my words.


Lalitha vaidyanathan

 July 02, 2007

 Indian academics should rise to the occasion and do a better job of critiquing and debating  Western scholarship on India , the authors said.

 “Enough funds should be made available for scholars so that such detailed work can be carried out in India to counter such misrepresentations,” says Rajiv Malhotra, a US-based Diasporas  intellectual who first exposed many of these biases.


Tavleen Singh   

July 01, 2007

Indian students who want to learn about their religion and civilization have to go to foreign universities where they are taught that Hinduism has no philosophy or higher idea, only a pantheon of badly behaved gods and priests. Until Indian scholars work actively to rectify this scandalous distortion, it will prevail. But where are the scholars going to come from if our own universities do not produce them?


Sanjeev Nayyar

June 28, 2007

 India has not actively funded and managed the American academic representation of her cultural identity. Therefore, on one hand American Business Schools view India as a place of opportunity and problem-solving creativity, on the other, the large civilizational achievements of India in science and technology or its contributions to American lifestyles through yoga, vegetarianism, non-violent political protest are made invisible.

 Today, Sanatan Dharma in U.S. universities is taught more by Christians, than Hindus themselves. There is a very powerful trend in the American establishment that views Indian culture and Sanatan Dharam in particular, as being oppressive, psychologically destructive and the cause of India ’s problems like poverty.  This view is very strongly held in many top American schools like the University of Chicago , among influential “secular” professors of the humanities.  From these colleges, where America ’s elite are trained, a very biased view of India emanates, and can undermine the ‘ India brand’ built by I.T.  and automotive component cos.

 Why does this book concern Resident Indians? Given the neglect of rigorous academic documentation of our history and culture, there is an almost blanket use of foreign textbooks, academic material and research in teaching, learning and authentically defining Indian history and culture. The views of European Indologists or American Sanskrit scholars loom massively as “truth” in the psyche of the student, teacher and intelligentsia.

While this book is in the first instance about reclaiming the space for unbiased and non-defamatory academic research and study of Indian culture in the U.S. academia, its import goes well beyond that.  No nation can surrender sovereignty over the authentic documentation of its culture -or of its problems and solutions- to others.  It is not only a matter of academic debate, or of traumatized Indian-American children and adults; it is also a strategic imperative in the projection of soft power as the Indian nation rises to its rightful place at the world’s high table

Smita Deshmukh

June 30, 2007

The scholars also express the need for India to have a home team to debate about its religion and culture, the way China and Islamic nations have many scholars in the West writing from a sympathetic Islamic centric view point . The idea is to hear all voices- not to silence the western voices, but ensure that bias is exposed . The standard portrayal of Hinduism, often a caricature, is far from the truth.


 V. Balachandran

Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat

7 July 2007

 “Indians themselves have contributed to the problem in significant ways.”While American  universities have major programmes for studying world religions, their Indian counterparts do not offer any comparable courses resulting in scholarship being confined to “Ashrams, Mattas, Jain Apasaras and Gurudwaras.” Those who want to seriously study Indian religions have to go to American, British or Australian universities.

 Indian Americans who are merely content with building temples “while their cultural portrayal in the educational system and in the media has been abandoned to the tender mercies ofthe dominant western traditions.”

 Is there a way to tackle this imbroglio? A recent California experience has shown that it is possible to reverse the trend with hard work. In 2005, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim groups complained to the California State Board of Education (SBE) that their
religions were negatively portrayed in some textbooks. The board was in the mood to make the changes proposed by the Hindu groups, but reversed the stand on the motivated intervention of Prof. Witzel, a Harvard Sanskrit professor. As a result, the changes made by the SBE did not satisfy the Hindu groups who chose court action. Their suit that the textbooks tended to demean and stereotype Hindu beliefs and practices, opening itself to ridicule was decided partly in their favour in 2006. The court held that fair and open process was not followed in adopting textbooks to Standard VI students and ordered SBE to pay part of the costs to the litigants. However, their demand to scrap the textbooks was not allowed, although during this year advance consultations on the textbooks had begun from March onwards.

Financially strong Indian associations should emulate this example. It will not be irrelevant to mention here that the American Jewish groups have been able to wrest fair treatment for their community only by aggressive ground action through their Anti-Defamation League.


Dr. V. V. Raman
Emeritus Professor of Physics and Humanities
Rochester Institute of Technology
July 7, 2007

 Possible impacts

This book could have three kinds of impact: From now on, many scholars, Hindu and non-Hindu, may become extremely cautious about what they publish on traditional Hindu themes. This could be viewed as a damper on freedom of expression, but also as an antidote to irresponsible commentaries. Another effect of the book could be that in the future there may be a decreasing number of non-Hindus who choose to pursue Hindu studies as a life-long commitment, because they may see this to be a rather risky profession. This may or may not be a loss for Hindu scholarship. Or thirdly, the whole field may be influenced in positive ways if outsiders take seriously the insights and perspectives that insiders provide.

 Given that throughout the book there is little of anything positive in Western scholarship and attitudes, I am somewhat concerned that those unfamiliar with the openness of Western societies and the positive contributions of Western science and enlightenment, and are legitimately ill-disposed towards America at the present time for various other reasons might get the impression that every American harbors Hinduphobia, and that all American scholars are working in cahoots to denigrate Hinduism and Hindu culture. I am not persuaded that this is the case.

 As a Hindu American I am as much concerned about the demonization of all Americans as of all Hindus. There is potential for such an impression despite the fact that the book explicitly limits itself to criticize one hermeneutics only, namely, Freudian psychoanalysis. However, while the book rightly exposes many intolerable aspects of Hindu studies in the U.S. , it does not explicitly mention that there are also scholars in the United States who have genuine regard and respect for Hindu culture, religion, and civilization. In fact, some of them have contributed to this book. Others have embraced Hinduism themselves. Yet others are secular scholars who speak and write just as harshly about Christ and the Virgin Mary. It is also true that a Hindu woman was recently elected as President of the American Academy of Religion, Hindu scholars teach Hindu philosophy in American universities, one of them is Head of the Department of Religion in a Christian College in America, American universities host conferences on Hindu philosophy and Vedanta. The Metanexus Institute on Science and Religion elected a Hindu as their Senior Scholar prior to giving that honor in succeeding years to a Catholic theologian and a Jewish scholar. Many schools in America invite local Hindus to come and speak to their students about Hinduism, its worldviews, festivals, etc. There is a growing number of Interfaith Forums in the country where Hindus play important roles. Recently Hindu prayers were introduced in the American Senate.

 There is no question but that courses on Hinduism taught in the United States could and should be vastly improved. This book is certain to contribute to that need. But it is also a fact that there are not many good textbooks for such courses written by competent Hindu scholars.

 Concluding thoughts

It would be good if Indian scholars who may disagree with the contents or perspectives of the book also engage in healthy discussions on its basic thesis. This publication may be taken as an opportunity to enter into mutually respectful and productive dialogues and debates, which can only serve the greater cause of Hindu culture at this important juncture in our history.

All parties will be losers if the current state of inimical tension is allowed to fester and persist for long, and the diverging perspectives between insiders and outsiders are looked upon by both groups as classic conflicts between devas and asuras. The book diagnoses a serious problem, but now we must take the next step, which would be to explore effective ways to enhance the understanding of Hinduism, and elevate the quality of Hindu scholarship and the West and in India


Posted by on September 2, 2012 in Books, History


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Of poverty – literature – Sarat Chandra Chatterjee

Shri Ratan Datta in his two blogs wrote lucidly about poverty displayed in arts and cinema .He said,” I find nothing wrong in the approach”. He also referred to the colossus of Indian cinema Satyajit Ray and his Apu trilogy.

There appears to be a stubborn bond between art, artists and poverty. In some cases the artist might seek it because poverty is the great reality; but in most other cases poverty is the only reality that artist is familiar with. Who can forget Van Gogh driven to insanity by punishing poverty, cruel neglect and suffocating loneliness?Somehow a view has gained ground that the artist is given to sense more keenly than others only while placed in poverty, prison, or illness. Rainer Rilke said, one cannot be a good poet unless one loves poverty, indifference and wretchedness.The passion in human nature chooses “the one precious thing” and urges him to pay for it through poverty, conflict, deprivation, and endurance of anger from rejected divinities. As if to prove him right, Dostoevsky, Kafka and others of the tribe lived their miserable life in ignominy and penury while producing masterpieces. Strangely, an artist who gains success and affluence would be seen as one who has lost his authenticity; and, he would live the rest of his life on borrowed glory.
Whenever a debate about poverty and literature comes up, I cannot help thinking about Charles Dickens and our own Sarat Chandra Chatterjee.
Dickens portrayed the urban poverty, deprivation and the wretchedness it brought, especially, upon the slum- children of the Victorian society. No other author of that era presented a more realistic and “humanized” face of poverty. He created some of English literature’s most memorable characters. Some People might mock Dickens’s style; but no one, I feel, has been able to capture such variety of human nature. His characters are all amazing, so vivid that by the time he reaches the end of the novel, the reader comes to know them on a personal level.
Dickens’s was a study in abuse of power.Dickens’ novels criticize the injustices of his time; but are dedicated to the suffering poor everywhere. He pictures poignantly their starving, rumbling stomachs, bare feet, cold lives, empty staring eyes and the fear lurking behind them. He says it is all because the mighty ones snatch away their rights and refuse to help them. His novels, at a later time, succeed in bringing about some changes in social conditions and criminal laws of England; and above all in the attitudes towards the poor.

sarat chatterjee

This article is mainly about Sarat Babu that is Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (Chatterjee). He is one of my favorite writers, in any language. His portrayal of poverty was lot more understanding and sensitive. His characters carried around them their poverty with a great sense of dignity. They never were ashamed of their poverty; instead they seemed to feed on the misery mounting on them and eventually claimed out of the heap with composure and dignity.

Sarat Chandra Chatterjee knew Poverty very intimately.
He did not have to obtain his material from research. It was his encounters with life as a country lad and youth that provided him the inspiration, ingredients and storylines for his life-like characters placed in rural family settings. He molded them in his own inimitable style. The distinctive features and the essence of purpose that he added rendered them larger than life. That is the reason   his stories have gained such universal appeal.
His real heroes are not those under the limelight, but those in the corners, the shadows of life. They are the ordinary men and women placed within their limited confines battling extraordinary situations with courage and conviction; but finally emerge out of the ordeal with composure and dignity though a bit bruised and looking tired. He seemed to believe, One’s true test is in one’s daily life; and in one’s reliability and integrity as a human being.
Most of his stories relate to rural life and society. Sarat Chatterjee is at his best when he draws from his experience and writes about women from poverty stricken rural Bengal who hold on to their values even while placed in the very caldron of life. He had a deep affection and respect for Bengali women. Some of his women characters stand out; they are the dominant personalities without in any way losing their femininity. 


Sarat Chandra had a great admiration for the fortitude of the poor and respect for their undemonstrative courage. In his acceptance speech delivered on 2nd Ashwin, 1339 BY (15th Sep 1933) at a gathering organized at the Calcutta Town Hall to celebrate his 57th birthday, Sarat babu acknowledged his debt to the poor and depraved:

My literary debt is not limited to my predecessors only. I’m forever indebted to the deprived, ordinary people who give this world everything they have and yet receive nothing in return, to the weak and oppressed people whose tears nobody bothers to notice and to the endlessly hassled, distressed (weighed down by life) and helpless people who don’t even have a moment to think that: despite having everything, they have right to nothing. 
They made me start to speak. They inspired me to take up their case and plead for them. I have witnessed endless injustice to these people, unfair intolerable indiscriminate justice. It’s true that springs do come to this world for some – full of beauty and wealth – with its sweet smelling breeze perfumed with newly bloomed flowers and spiced with cuckoo’s song, but such good things remained well outside the sphere where my sight remained imprisoned. This poverty abounds in my writings.


Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (Chatterjee) (nickname Nyarha) was born in Devanandapore – a village in Hooghly district of West Bengal, on 15th September 1876 (31 Bhadra 1283 BY). For a time, his father was employed in Bihar – the rest of the family lived in Bhagalpur with his maternal grandfather. Because of the semi-nomadic nature of his father’s life and his ever stringent financial situation, Sarat had to change schools frequently. In his own words: 
My childhood and youth were passed in great poverty. I received almost no education for want of means. From my father I inherited nothing except, as I believe, his restless spirit and his keen interest in literature. The first made me a tramp and sent me out tramping the whole of India quite early, and the second made me a dreamer all my life.
Father was a great scholar, and he had tried his hand at stories and novels, dramas and poems, in short every branch of literature, but never could finish anything. I have not his work now – somehow it got lost; but I remember poring over that incompleteness. Over again in my childhood, and many a night I kept awake regretting their incompleteness, and thinking what might have been their conclusion if finished. Probably this led to my writing short stories when I was barely seventeen.
Sarat Chandra lost his mother in 1895. He had to give up studies for ever, because he could no longer afford formal education; and had to return to the native village Devanandapore. But he did not stay there long as Sarat’s father was forced to sell his home for a mere Rs.225 to repay a debt. The family moved to Bhagalpur, again.
Young Sarat was very sensitive and fragile. He left home following a disagreement with his father. Forced to earn his livelihood, Sarat started working early in his life. In 1900 Sarat found work in Banali Estate in Bihar and later in Santhal district settlement as an assistant to the Settlement Officer. He disliked both the jobs and gave them up. Alone, unhappy and indifferent, Sarat lost sense of direction. Dejected and aimless he wandered around graveyards at dead of night. Later, for a while, he joined a group of Naga Sadhus and drifted to Mujaffarpur (1902). On his father’s death he returned to Bhagalpur and on completion of his father’s last rites he left for Calcutta in search of a job. He worked at a few temporary jobs and later secured a job as a translator for a Hindi paper book on a monthly salary of Rs.30. He then worked as a translator at the Calcutta High Court.
After he lost both his parents, Sarat Chandra left Bengal, in 1903, to live with his uncle in Rangoon and to find a job there. He often referred to Burma as the karma-sthan of the middle class Bengalis (Bengal being the janma-sthan).Sarat left Calcutta just in time before a severe plague broke out there. But, sadly his uncle died of pneumonia soon after Sarat reached Rangoon. Sarat rendered destitute and insecure was on the streets again. After he served a number of temporary jobs, he secured a permanent job in the Accounts Department of Burma Railway- where he served until his return to Calcutta in 1916. 


As regards his literary activities, his earliest creations were two short stories Kakbasha and Kashinath (later expanded into a novel) published during 1894 in the handwritten magazine while he was studying in Entrance class (similar to PUC of the present-day) at Tejnarayan Jubilee College, Bhagalpur.

Referring to writings of his early years , he later said : 

But I soon gave up the habit as useless, and almost forgot in the long years that followed that I could even write a sentence in my boyhood.

In 1903, on the eve of his departure to Rangoon in search of a job, he at the instance of his uncle Girindrandra nath sent a short story Mandir for the Kuntaleen literary competition. He submitted the story under name of Surendranath Ganguli, another uncle. From among about one hundred fifty short stories that entered the competition, Mandir was adjudged the best for the year in 1904. The fact that Sri Jaldhar Sen the veteran editor of the Vasumati magazine was the adjudicator enhanced the prestige of the award. Mandir published in the name of Surendranath was the first ever printed story by Sarat Chandra. For some reason, Sarat Chandra continued to send his stories in someone else’s name. He contributed stories regularly to the Jamuna magazine in three different names – in his own name and in the name of Anila Devi (his elder sister) and Anupama. 
The magazine Jamuna played an important role in setting his literary career on course. According to Sarat Chandra, Jamuna was the catalyst in reviving his literary career whilst he was in Burma. He said: 
A mere accident made me start again, after the lapse of about eighteen years. Some of my old acquaintances started a little magazine, but no one of note would condescend to contribute to it, as it was so small and insignificant. When almost hopeless, some of them remembered me, and after much persuasion they succeeded in extracting from me a promise to write for it. This was in the year 1913. I promised most unwillingly – perhaps only to put them off till I returned to Rangoon and could forget all about it. But sheer volume and force of their letters and telegrams compelled me at last to think seriously about writing again. I sent them a short story for their magazine Jamuna. This became at once popular, and made me famous in one day. Since then I have been writing regularly. In Bengal, perhaps, I am the only fortunate writer who has not had to struggle.
The years he spent in Burma (1903-1916) turned out to be a significant phase in Sarat Chandra’s life. It not merely spurred his literary activity but also established him as a leading creative writer. By the time he returned to Calcutta (1916) his stories and novels were being serialized in most leading Bengali magazines; and his popularity was soaring. This period witnessed changes in his personal life too. His first wife Shanti Devi whom he married in 1906 died of plague in 1908 along with his one year old son. To fill the void in his life, he turned to books, read voraciously on sociology, history, philosophy and psychology etc. He also dabbled in Homeopathy; opened a primary school and formed a singing group. In 1909 he suffered a major health problem and had to cut down his studies He then took to painting. Sarat Chandra married the second time in 1910; and his bride was Mokshada an adolescent widow. He renamed her Hiranmoyee.



Sarat Chandra wrote in all more than 30 full-length novels, dozens of short stories, plays and essays. He wrote about the evils of society, social superstitions and oppression; and in his later works he wrote about the patriotic and rebellious spirit of his times. Many of his early novels were serialized in monthly magazines –just as in the case of Charles Dickens. Both were prompted by the sheer need to earn a living by pen. But, while Dickens specialized in creating a great number of wonderful and fascinating characters, Sarat Chandra focused on crafting intriguing situations depicting conflicts between conservatism and social change; superstitions and rebellion;  pure and profane. 

Sarat Chandra’s earliest writings show influence of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. They display his displeasure with the core of Hindu orthodoxy and the prevailing social system. His impatience and anger against social discrimination, superstitions; and bigotry in the name of religion simmer through in his writings. His criticism of the establishment is never vitriolic; he never flouts the accepted moral basis of the Hindu society. His novels such as Devdas (written in 1901, published 1917), Parinita (1914), Biraj Bau (1914) and Palli Samaj (1916) belong to this phase. The themes and their treatment are not much different from Bankim’s; but their presentation, their locales are updated; the language, particularly of the conversations is easier and matter-of-fact. 
The women in particular step out of the system with agony, passion and intensity to cleanse the guilt ridden system. There is a burning desire to blow away the old cobwebs and usher in a new order, a new dispensation. Their restraint; and the clarity of thought and speech are remarkable. That is the reason his stories retain their freshness even nearly a century after they were written. Many read over and over  weeping and laughing with his characters.

[His Devdas appears to be an exception. It is basically a love-story written in the early stages of his literary career (1901), It is said, Sarat Chandra did not like what he had written; and did not want it to be published. He didn’t approve the negative and the escapist streak in Devdas. When he eventually agreed to publish the story, reluctantly, in 1917 (sixteen years after it was written) he begged the readers to have pity and forgive Devdas.]
Towards the latter half of his life Sarat Chandra wrote Pather Dabi (1926) spun around a revolutionary movement, inspired by Bengal, operating in Burma and in Far East. His last complete novel Sesh Prasna (1931) was crafted around a slender theme , inflated by ethereal talks on problems of love and marriage; and of the individual and of the society. These were almost ‘intellectual’ monologues. 
But, Sarat Chandra was at his best when he wrote with understanding of women, their sufferings, their often unspoken loves, their need for affection and their desperation for emancipation. His portrayal, particularly, of strong-willed women of rural Bengal defying the convention; and also of women rooted in their sense of values and who set a benchmark for other characters to be judged by the reader, stand out as authentic. His women are admirable for their  courage, tolerance and devotion in their love for their husbands, lovers or children. These stories also picture husbands who do not know or do not care to express love for their beloved ones. Somehow, the women in his stories never attain happiness in their personal lives.
Just to cite an example, his Srkanta quartet(1917, 1918, 1927, 1933), encompassing lives of many women, is a remarkable study in the conflicts between the individual and the social perception of purity and profanity; and between rebellion and timid submission to orthodoxy. For instance, take a hurried glimpse at the thumbnail sketch of a few characters in Srikanta.
Rajlakshmi, Srikanta’s lover, in order to erase her past (of fallen woman) and to reform her present (her relationship outside the marital state with Srikanta) goes through a series of purity rituals. She is a sort of benchmark to other characters.

In the first book of the Quartet, Annadadidi, a very properly brought up middle class woman, revolts against propriety, and runs away with a Muslim snake charmer. She suffers not because of her socially unacceptable love; but because the  husband she chose was unworthy of such love .

In the second part, Abhoya, deserted by her husband, breaks out of her social environment to live in sin with a man she accepted. 

In the third, Sunanda, a scholar, rebels against the poverty imposed upon the peasant by the land tenure system.

In the last book, Kamal Lata has walked out on her people and joined a Vaishnava sect based on surrender and devotion.

Sarat Chandra refuses to be judgmental. His critique on social norm was only a message and never an agenda.  He lets his characters to speak for themselves; and lets the reader form his own opinion of the purity concept in the Hindu Society. He tried to heighten the social awareness; and to ignite revolt against the oppressive social cults, which debased and degraded humanity.

Sarat Chandra Chatterjee died of cancer of the liver on 16th January 1938 at Park Nursing Home in Calcutta. Bengal and India lost one of its most gifted sons, a tortured soul and one that loved his country and its people from the core of his being.
Sarat Chandra did not write his autobiography because he said he “lacked the courage and the truthfulness to tell his true story”.
I gratefully acknowledge the material from the Sarat Sahitya Samagra (Complete Works of Sarat Chandra), Ananda Publishers Private Limited, Calcutta ,1993 .And from the introduction to Srikanto Part I published by Oxford University Press, London 1922.

Poverty is a smoldering fire in the belly and in the heart. It drives one to reach out, to explore and at times to explode. But when the heat is too much to bear, it could reduce one to ashes which any can trample upon with impunity. It takes great courage to be poor and to live with dignity.
[A brief Note on the photographs posted on this page:
On reading this blog Dr.   Subroto Roy of Kolkata sent me a Note that the picture of Sarat Chandra I posted at the bottom of the article was a part of a photograph taken in 1927 when Sarat Chandra visited Dr.Sobrato Roy’s great-grand father Surendranath Roy. The sofa on which the two sit, he says, is still in use at his home; and indeed if you are in Kolkata some day, you are welcome to view and even sit on the sofa.
Dr. Roy also mentioned that the iconic picture of Sarat Chandra, posted at the top of this article, is from a photograph taken at Bourne & Shepherd Photographers of Kolkata at the instance of Shri Manindranath Roy. He added that Sarat Chandra habitually wore long unkempt hair; and Smt Nirmala Debi (wife of Shri Manindranath Roy) combed his hair neatly before the photograph was taken. According to Dr.Roy, Sarat Chandra/s Pather Dabi is perhaps dedicated to Smt Nirmala Debi.
Dr. Roy also asked me to view and to reproduce on my page, a hand-written note sent by Sarat Chandra (1931) to Manindranath Roy (Dr.Subroto Roy’s grand-father). I am told, the Note is about transport of a table (or writing-desk?) by rail.
Please visit Dr. Roy’s page at


Other references and sources: 



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Of poverty – …


Posted by on August 31, 2012 in Books


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