Tuesday, August 30, 2011

On 'Why We Believe in God(s)' a book by J Anderson Thomson

Why We Believe in God(s) by J Anderson Thomson

A Review.

At the first glimpse one wonders why this 140 something page small format book was brought out in a book form when all this could well have been published online as an essay. However, the author explains that he wanted to write a small book which the reader can go through in a couple of hours. Point taken, but you certainly need more than that; a couple of days actually.

Anderson tries to explain scientifically how faith evolved in human mind whereas it has been proved that no “god centre” existed in the brain. Darwin’s Natural Selection is based on the concept of adaptation to the environment. How religion enters our mind is not through the evolutionary adaptation but as a by-product of adaptations that occurred for other reasons. What are these adaptations? Well, the psychological mechanisms like ‘social bonding’, ‘attachment system’, ’pleasure’, ‘craving’, ‘seeking protection’ and ‘desire’ are some of the adaptations our brain has through the evolutionary process.

The human brain has developed a region called the Medial Frontal Cortex for the purpose of perceiving the non-physical. Anderson calls this ‘hard wired’ for the things non-physical.  God was created as a protective figure and the attachment system (an adaptation) is keeping it alive in human psyche.

The abilities of the human mind like ‘decoupled cognition’, ‘theory-of-mind mechanism’, ‘transference’, ‘hyperactive agency detection’ etc. are directly responsible for perception and interpretation of religious phenomenon, in the guise of the non-physical. The author pertinently provides a link with the primitive religion and the mechanisms through which it affected human brain.

The earliest and the most primitive form of religion that our ancestors practiced was that of rituals based on song, dance and trance. When in a trance brain chemicals get a boost and the neurotransmitters that regulate various social functions of our brain caused specific behavioural patterns depending upon the intensity of their stimulation. The state of trance was caused by excessive physical exercise, sleep deprivation for longer periods of time and also some potions or concoctions etc. In trance people spoke to their dead ancestors (later gods), heard extraordinary voices etc. The author also reveals that the feeling of “oneness with the universe” – as claimed by the godly and the religious people, is in fact a disorder of a specific area of the human brain. Similarly, epilepsy of the Frontal Lobe of the brain leads one to behave with extreme religiosity. Some godmen claiming having experienced contacts with god were in fact epileptic and suffered from hallucinations and that sort of mental disorders caused by electro-chemical disturbances in the brain.

What reinforce religion in our brain are the factors like ‘deference to authority’, ‘kin psychology’ and ‘morality’. Morality is easily identified with religion which is not at all true because our primitive ancestors living in social groups and in absence of religion would not have survived without the sense of right or wrong. Therefore, putting morality in realm of religion is not only conceptually wrong but also scientifically untrue.

Anderson believes that once religion’s psychological roots are exposed – something this book does, it will wither away. Moreover, his research is helpful in revealing that religion was man made and not sent from any heavens.

All in all, a nice little ‘mind-opening’ book. 

- R K Sudan

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Quickly through Kerala

"God's own country", well, I certainly don't agree with this adage. However, Kerala seems surely gifted by Nature. A land that has water, trees, greenery, topographical variety and mild climes naturally appears favoured. Crossing over into Kerala at Palghat brings a feel of the state. Lush green countryside and a range of NilgiriHillspresent a beautiful landscape. The only problem is the condition of the roads and to cite an example, the state highway up toTrichur which is very bad. The traffic is too heavy for this two lane highway. Moreover the drainage system is poor and there are stretches that could have better been in embankment. This highway needs due attention of the engineers of the PWD. You are comfortable only when your vehicle touched the 4-lane NH-47.
Entering any city brings traffic woes to the fore and Ernakulam / Kochi is no exception. It took the KSRTC bus about an hour and a half to find its last stop and my hotel besides the Ernakulam Bus Stand. The road is again bad, full of ruts and deep troughs where enough water had accumulated so as to squirt and bathe a passer-by in dirty water if a driver with the typical Indian mindset happened to be pulling a vehicle along.

Kerala has a landscape that has all type of topography like seaside, plains, hills and backwaters. Here are historical ports / harbours like Calicut (Kozhikode), Cochin (Kochi), Alleppey (Alappuzha) and Quilon (Kollam) to name some. Vasco da Gama had landed in 1498 at a beach called Kappad that is near to Calicut. Of course, the long coastline has beautiful pristine beaches as well. Bekal, Kollam, Verkala and Kovalam are famous beaches of Kerala.
Then there are hill stations like Wynad and Munnar, so very rich in wildlife and exquisite flora and fauna. Periyar wild life sanctuary has the reputation of having some rare species of animals and birds in the Nilgiries.Wynad is famous for coffee and tea plantations besides the famous Kerala spices. Cochin, the twin city (along with Ernakulam) has many historical places like the Fort Cochin, Mattancherry (famous for its Jewish synagogue and the palace) Bolghatty Island and Willingdon Island. Chinese fishing nets are unique to Cochin. Rubber plantations are found in Kottayam, Wynad and Cannanore districts.

For the religious minded there are temples and shrines like Sabrimala, Guruvayur and now the richest one in Asia; the Padmanabhaswamy temple at Trivandrum.Culturally, Kerala is very rich. Museums, art galleries etc are located in big cities. It has Kathakali and Mohinattam forms of Indian classical dance as well as the Kalaripayattu martial art of ancient standing. Onam (Aug – Sept) is a famous festival and so are the boat races conducted through the back waters. The Nehru trophy boat race at Alleppey is very famous. This year it was on 13th August, the second Saturday, and I happened to be there.Kerala Back waters are world famous and a cruise through them is a lifetime experience and a dream of every tourist.
Kerala is home to many rationalist movements and people are amenable to reason and rationalism. People from different faiths are turning to atheism and materialism and feel no discrimination either from the society or the establishment.

Kerala rightly boasts of its 100% literacy rate. Mathribhumi, the Malayali daily sells about 2 million copies. Availability of reading material is in abundance. Prof Ravichandaran of English department at the Trivandrum University whom I happened to meet twice this year has to his credit translation into Malayalam of many books including Richard Dawkins’ best seller - The God Delusion. People are not only literate but they actually read a lot.

Unfortunately, Kerala has a higher suicide rate in the country. What makes rich and well off people of Kerala to go into depression and end their lives? One Keralite told me that it was the signs of a possible recession and the likely ensuing economic hardships that was causing distress in minds of some people. They feared that they might not be able to cope with such situations and that thinking caused in them deep anxieties and suicidal tendencies. I may not entirely agree but the gentleman certainly has a valid point there.

Kerala women are beautiful and they look more so in SalwarKameez, the usual north Indian attire that is making a remarkable appearance in Kerala and other South Indian states. Here they call it theChuridar. I think more and more young women are abandoning the traditional sareeand dressing up in the churidars. Perhaps this Churidar doesn't have that grace and flair of the salwar-kameez, yet it is making a definite mark on the dress culture of these women. We were having coffee together when Sandeep Krishna, my friend from Cochin, raised this topic of beauty of Kerala women. They are beautiful indeed but drawing a comparison I expressed that women from Coorg (Karnataka) were more beautiful. Sandeep exclaimed, 'Oh, Pahadiladki' (dame from the hills). Yes, I said that the women from the hills were stunningly beautiful and men, well, suavely handsome.
Transport, despite bad roads, is cheap in Kerala. The Kerala State Road Transport service is cheap and efficient.  I was told that auto rickshaws in Kerala were as good or bad as anywhere else in the country. However, in Trivandrum city, I was told,they were all good i. e., they didn’t overcharge. Untrue. From Trivandrum city to the airport the auto man asked for Rs 150 but eventually settled for Rs 80. I think Bhubaneswr (Orissa) has the best autorickshaws followed by Gwalior (M P).

A trip to Munnar and Waynad alongwith a backwaters cruise remains hence the desire to come back.

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Monday, August 22, 2011

Ridiculously Rich Temple

This Padmanabhaswamy temple in Trivandrum is ridiculously rich. Remember the recent gold haul valued at crores of rupees found in the cellars of the temple. Every temple or religious place is full of irrationality and corruption. However this temple is ridiculously irrational. They want all men to remove their clothes and clad themselves in a dhoti (loin cloth) and a plain upper cloth (angavastram) before entering the temple premises. Women too have to clad themselves in a dhoti though they are allowed to have their upper attire intact. I asked why one be not allowed inside barefooted but in a dress of one’s choice. Someone tried to convince me that cladding in a dhoti was traditionally and culturally maintained on the principle that all were equal before god. I wondered if that was a symbol of equality or discrimination. A forceful implementation of a religious diktat is discriminatory as it implies recognition of only one viewpoint. This means exclusiveness. Then what right the god or his priests have to impose a uniform dress code? It surprises me why the god didn’t decree people come to his temple in their birthday suit.

Belur and Halebid

Belur and Halebid
These two towns in Hassan district of Karnataka are 16 kilometres apart, yet both these names are invariably mentioned together when it comes to tourism in that state. Belur and Halebid (Halebidu, mostly) present such wonders of temple architecture in India that is a unique example of the grandeur of a vibrant culture of the Hoysala dynasty. Two famous ancient temples, both UNESCO World Heritage sites, are situated there.

 The Chennakeshava Temple, Belur
Chennakeshava means ‘beautiful Keshava’. This temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Construction of the temple was commissioned (to commemorate some victories in battlefields) in 1117 CE and it took 103 years to complete. They say the temple had a tower (Vimana) which was dismantled sometime in 1879 keeping in view safety of the structure. There is an example of part destruction of the famous Black Pagoda (The Sun Temple) at Konark in Orissa which got severely damaged owing to an unstable highrise top. Now the Chennakeshava temple is flat roofed.
There are approximately ten thousand sculptures and figures adorning every inch of the temple walls. Most of the sculpted figures are three dimensional and done completely without any patch of roughness anywhere on them. Tales from Hindu mythology are beautifully carved. There are various gods and goddesses of the Hindu Pantheon as are scenes of wars, dancing, hunting and daily chores of life. Then there are celestial dancers, courtesans, musicians and monkeys and other animals decorating the exteriors of the temple. This one is a live temple, worshiping is still in practice inside the temple.
What remarkably stands out is the filigree work done on granite. One wonders at the skill of the artisans and sculptors who so patiently carved out very minute details with so much of intricacy and finery. It must have taken at least three generations of artisans and sculptors to complete the mammoth task of carving out the stone figures. Wonder how over so many years they could have synchronised it so well and smoothly conducted the construction work according to the lay out plan.
It is a star shaped foundation plan with raised platform. A frieze panel, up to approximately four feet height, with figures of elephants, tigers, boars and other weird animals and creatures runs all along the base.

The Devadasi tradition had been constantly followed in India wherein the temple women practised customary singing and dancing in most of the prominent temples. Here too. This temple continued with practice of dancing girls till recent past. However, presently the practice stands abandoned.

The Hoysaleshwara Temple, Halebid
Halebid / Halebidu means old capital. The Hoysalas abandoned their capital in favour of Belur after it was twice ransacked in 1311 and 1327 by the Sultans of Delhi. There is a history of vandalism by Muslim rulers and examples galore. Whether the destruction they carried out was a result of religious fundamentalism or jealousy and hatred arising out of incompetence can’t be said conclusively but the fact remains that Muslim rulers invaded rival kingdoms and razed to the ground monuments, temples and other structures of grandeur. Hampi (the erstwhile Vijayanagra, not far from here) is the one blatant evidence of such a savagery.

This temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is in fact two shrines done on the one platform. The guide was telling me that there were twenty thousand figures in those twin structures. This temple also took 100 years to complete. The sculpted work is at par with that of Belur. In fact, life size statues of the Dwarpalas (door keepers) are awesome and surpass those at Belur.Particularly the life size figures of the Dwarpalas in black granite present the exquisite artisanship of those times. The filigree work is as exquisite as at Belur. The ornaments and dresses done to very fine details present a mesmerising three dimensional visual delight. The same masterpieces of the frieze panels adorn this temple too. However, there are no bracket figures in this temple and this is not a functional temple. There are two halls (mandapas) each with a huge statue of Nandi – the bull Shiva rode.

Getting there
Make Hassan your base and keep one full day at your disposal. There are very good hotels and transportation available. The hotel can arrange you a car (Rs 1000) for a trip to both these destinations. However, the best mode of transportation is the Karnataka State Road Transport buses that ply in plenty. Catch a bus to Belur (40 Km, Rs 30) and enjoy the lush green countryside for about 45 – 50 minutes before disembarking at the bus stand barely 250 metres from the Chennakeshava temple. The guide would charge you Rs 200 for about 40 – 45 minutes of parroting. Photography is not prohibited and you can make liberal use of your equipment.

Stay there till 12 or 1 pm and post lunch catch a bus to Halebid (17 km, Rs 15, 25 minutes). The temple is just opposite the bus stand. Here also the guide will charge you Rs 200. Photograph extensively. There is a museum in the lawns of the temple. Entry fee is Rs 5 only but you can’t take photographs even in the open ground where about 30 sculpted figures are on display. They have a good collection of artwork in stone.
Catch a bus to Hassan (32 Km, Rs 25) and you are left with enough time to take rest and plan for your time ahead.
Best Time to Go
Winter, commonly, is the best season (Oct – Feb) to visit any place in the southern part of India. However, I went there in August 2011 and at that time weather was just excellent for travelling.

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