Wednesday, December 30, 2015


Reading Time: ~ 10 -12 minutes

(This is part of a series on a theme: Context-Contrast)

I’ve been to Alaska only once. The crispness in the air and the clarity in nature hit me like a transparent wave when I went to put my hand in the cool water of the Nenana River. The polished pebbles on the river bank lay like untouched jewels. We were driving from a glacier park south of Anchorage to Denali.

This was in August 96. Something small happened in the trip, so casual that it was unremarkable at the time but strikes as different, as the years move.


It was a long drive. I was hoping to spot a grizzly bear but alas there were none.  We were searching for the turn into a bed&breakfast I had booked.  Somewhere around there, there was a bridge. Workmen were on it, maybe two or three. They had measuring instruments. We slowed a bit, one man in a helmet turned to look from his yellow tripod. We drove on and reached the rental. My heart sank, the house didn't look inspiring from the outside. 

Per instructions, we found the key and went in. It was comfortable inside. You have the house to yourself for the night. We stay in the small house down the hill, I’ll see you in the morning, she had said. Our room was very nice; the sitting area was also nice. There was a large, elevated sun-room to the side, looking down on the conical tree tops. We ate leftovers we brought with us, it was still light outside at eight. Now what? There was a lull.

We sat in the sun-room and I remembered the bottle the stewardess had pushed inside our bag with a big smile. Oh come on, have something else other than boring juice, she had said and poured wine into my glass. We had flown business class, a perk from the airline job that S (my husband), was in. She insisted and give us an extra bottle.

We found a corkscrew and two glasses in the kitchen. S’s idea of drinking was to take a couple of sips and happily refill my glass. Pretty soon after a glass or two, I was singing grizzly bear songs out to the bears in the woods outside. I had made these up during the drive. Sunset came at ten.


Breakfast was early. Awkward. The hostess and her husband were in the kitchen. The couple was new to hosting (parts of the house were still being finished- like the outside). They both were in white sweats, comfortable and relaxed. She was fixing something vegetarian per our agreement. Her husband was at a desk facing away from the table, on a computer.  We talked about the cold, about groceries, about keeping the car engine plugged in at night in winter. We drive to Fairbanks for our groceries and get enough at a time. But there was the kind of lingering awkwardness where no one wants to say anything wrong. Then something came up about computers and software. The husband broke into a smile and had much to say. He came to the table and ate with us. He was learning and starting a new business, from what I remember. The hostess pondered about a moose. The moose had wandered nearby, near the houses.  Along with some neighbors they had killed it (they had a permit to kill some). They were waiting to collect it and process for meat, share and store for winter. It is getting warm, she worried, looking outside. The meat might spoil.

We drove around and chose a path for a hike. I carefully read the instructions at the path entry point. “What to do if you come across a grizzly bear”. There was a note saying there were a number of grizzlies with babies and one had attacked some hikers recently. Do not hike alone, it cautioned. Well, we were two. We set off. The path grew narrow; the view was constrained by growth on both sides and had turns. There was no one else.

I grew tense. I don’t think I want to do this, I said, finally. Expecting a grizzly to attack, surely one would, and being on the alert was hard work. I took a U and reluctantly, S followed.


We drove to a bus tour place by which you can go to the interiors and watch. But they were all booked. A tourist retirement community had taken all the buses for the day. We watched the old folks depart with bonhomie while we ate quietly lunch at a small pizza shop. It was run by a man and a woman; I was delighted at how quickly they turned out our pizza. 
S walked into the meadow and looked around. People on foot weren’t allowed after that point because of fragile flora. How to see Denali? Now what?

In the lull we got an idea and convinced each other about the excellence of it. We have to celebrate, was the reasoning (after 4 years of being long-distance after marriage we had just started living together).

Soon - wrrrr - we were in a helicopter. The tour started off quite ordinary. Deep in the park, the pilot started doing tricks. He would go up and suddenly swoop down the side of a snowy mountain. It was exhilarating. It was the first time we took a helicopter ride. Later; on other rides, I realized this technique as used by other pilots. It was scary every time.
The pilot was lively in mood and reticent in speech. It was a 2-seater, we were the only passengers. He showed us around and answered questions. The blue in glaciers and mountain goats clinging to sheer cliffs who looked up at us- what? why? We did not see any bears. He showed us Mt. McKinley (now Mt. Denali) at a distance. I come here in the summers, in winters I pilot in other parks. How nice, I thought.


Post dinner it was still light again. We realized we had company- some other guests were in the other room. Don’t know who arrived first but soon we were all in the sitting area. We were on one sofa and they were on the other one, open for conversation. We are here examining the bridges, one of the men said. We travel through the state, we work as engineers. 

Oh, were you on the bridge last evening? I think we saw you.
They were. We stayed in another place last night but changed here for tonight. What a coincidence!

Then it was awkward. The kind of awkwardness where no one wants to say anything to disturb the goodwill.

One man was a little nervous in the beginning, the other man wasn’t, he was much at ease. It turned out he had the most, quiet initiative. They were both older than us, I can’t say how old. When you’re young, you don’t seem to notice age. They were older, was all I noticed. Now, I'd place them maybe in their late-thirties. 

Their homes were in Juneau. We talked about their jobs, about us, about India. We talked about Northern lights. The man at ease said- Sometimes in summer we sit in the porch in the evenings and watch the northern lights- they fill the sky, he said easily, slightly spreading his palms outward to show the expanse.


We saw the northern lights from the plane window on the flight back. They were spectacular. It’s something, I thought, when your way of life has the northern lights as a casual display on a casual summer porch.

It seems to me, we assiduously seek and build a network of context on context with experiences. And then, unexpectedly, sometimes we see, feel or hear something that takes us out of contexts. It stays in contrast, within and without context, like a lone water drop glistening on a leaf. 
Northern lights shining on a porch somewhere in Juneau, was such a drop.


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Buckminster to Baahubali

Two plays stand apart in all the plays we went to, around 97-02.  Even after more than a decade. They were not even real plays, they were monologues. One was Heidi’s Chronicles and the other was Buckminster Fuller.

The other plays I remember are for a trick or a treat in them, not for the content.

Baahubali the movie is opposite to the monologue plays. The monologues were plain-speak - one person at a mike. That’s it. So it is strange that the movie, a commercial enterprise, and the plays had something in common! Something that is rare in the art and craft of story-telling.

is this a movie?

I asked in my family Whatsapp, where Baahubali was being talked about. My niece forwarded the trailer.

I went to a show. It was in a small, worn theater in downtown San Jose. I was late, the movie had already started. It was my first Telugu theater movie in 20+ years. I was little apprehensive – submitting to a screen projection completely for 2+ hours seemed daunting (I see few movies in the theater). (Not really completely, but with 3 of our sensory channels)
Also I was missing my son, M, (12).  It is not often that I choose to do something without him. He wasn’t feeling theater-able after we arrived. But the Amar Chitra Katha, Chandamama and Vittalacharya stories from yore lured me in.

such ride, many mind, aww

The pauranic narrative of the movie held right away. However the premise required some time to settle into. There was a serious tone and there was a lyrical tone. How to mesh? How to stop asking questions and settle for the ride? Some movies somehow set the calibration right away. Or we come already calibrated. For me, here, it was after about one-fourth of the movie.

A movie (or any story) is actually our mind-screen acting on and reacting to the projected screen, isn’t it? So it actually is- movie x movie or movie2?  For example, the same act may be an aww to some but an eww to others. The unexpected thing is that this movie2 had enough awws for so many! Quite a feat, given that our minds are so diverse.

where exactly?

The positioning of the narrative pieces was the first strength of the movie. And there was narrative continuity. Within which there was the just-right unpredictability and portent. The second strength was the steady and continuous pace of story-telling. All other strengths were held within these two main flows.

The narrative had the three interactive streams. Top layer- the story, which we consciously follow. Below, the background of expressions, visuals and sound, with which we swell and ebb. Even below, the unsaid, light & fragile. The thickness of these layers was an unusual ratio.

All actors were earnest. Two stood out (where you couldn’t tell the actor apart from the character). The Kalakeya king was one, with his character being a delightful cross between the Klingons and Ferengis. He was menacing without ever raising his voice in anger! The other was Amarendra Baahubali, more so towards the wordless scenes at the end of war. He carried the movie.

bucky balls are very stable  

In Heidi’s Chronicles and Buckminister Fuller, there were these moments towards the end – which were just a long, weighted pause. When the two hours of story-telling came to a halt. And stood on its own. These few moments transformed the story on the stage into a universal story. And the audience breathed as one.

Buckminister Fuller, a real life story, was about Bucky (of the Bucky Ball/Fullerene fame) going back to his beginnings. The few moments were when he was talking about walking along the river, contemplating ending his life. Because of his inability to stay within his way of free-thinking and living, while facing poverty, with a wife and child to feed. He was afraid of his child dying.

Then he paused in his monologue. Because he could not express what he felt in words. His struggle and acceptance he could only show in a pause of decreasing tautness. The grace of which brought the mind2 of audience to tears. It is this pause, this grace, I remember, even after years. These moments of the unsaid still carry the context, and the story, on their back.


I want to say about two, one minor and one minor. Bear with me.

It’s that the movie seamlessly mixes two things that are opposites. The point is just to point it.

The war tactics and some equipment in Baahubali were more Greco-Spartan and Roman. The culture of hugeness in buildings and statues was more Egyptian and the slave labor was more Egyptian/Roman. But then, there are no rules for a fantasy! Telling of new stories or re-telling of the old with newer, interesting or popular twists has always been so.  Like Ballaladeva’s cool, retractable mace.

Much of ancient Indian and part of medieval Indian mindset/philosophy was a pole apart from western counterparts. For example, Greco-Spartans had a tremendous energy vested on the physique. In Sparta, boys were brought up separately, in abusive conditions, to become fearsome warriors and only that. Infant boys with unpromising physique were left outside the city walls to die.

The opposite – was – bodily valor was valued equally or sometimes less than inner questioning, ignoring the body (not considering the extent to which this may have been followed). For example, the real life Baahubali (no relation to the movie as far as I know) won a few duels with his older brother and claimed the kingdom. Enthroned, he was puzzled enough by his actions that he retired into his famous quest. He is famous only for the quest.  
How do we separate the two streams- outer heroism and the inner heroism? Outer heroism can be so dazzling, and it was. It piggybacked on inner heroism.
Then, we have two yuvarajas at the same time, which feels like an anomaly. The ensuing rivalry being the basis of the story. 

From here let’s go to the Shiva-transportation scene. Please bear2 with me.

Shiva, the symbol of Advaita, was in a majestic dvaitic interpretation!! (Moving the symbol from one place to a better place is Dvaitic. Whereas, everything is the same, nothing is better or worse, with no need to move anywhere, is Advaitic.)

If you take an even closer look, Dvaitic world-view is within Advaita. Heh. Otherwise, there would be no movie made, nor would we be watching. 

Or are some of these apashrutis somehow a part of the melody? We can't really say until Part 2.  

then there was one

I missed some scenes after the interval, because hey, interval! The manager was selling curry puffs and I had to get one. All this made me late. Then I missed some scenes in the end because – you won’t believe this - new audience started coming in! Lots of them, for the next show. And they were frantically trying to find seats in the dark. One woman was asking me - Is this seat taken? That one? While I was trying to follow a war.

In this confusion was the scene where A. Baahubali was about to strike down the Kaalakeya king when Ballaladeva steals a strike from a distance. A. Baahubali restrains himself, puts down his sword with some effort even as he begins to realize what just happened.
His acceptance settles as a smile. It was an aww. A prince at height of war, putting down his weapon and spontaneously withdrawing his mind to honor another’s ego - you can’t get more Indian than this! This moment of poignant, silent grace goes across cultures.  


It seems to me that movies (and plays and stories) are constructed hoping to create in them such moments of magic. We pay and submit, to be entertained and hoping to connect to these magical moments and their harmonics. It is like an elaborate dance between the makers and the seekers. With the movie-dance going on for 100+ years now.  

(M did see the movie, when the shows were less occupied. Also the movie came to a regular Century)

Monday, June 8, 2015


Maharani Didda was a remarkable person. She lived in medieval Kashmir. 

Have you heard her story? 

But first - Who is remarkable? (in this series of posts) Why women?

Remarkable- Those from history who did something unique. It was an outcome of the intensity of interaction between the person and prevailing conditions. The outcome was not what one would typically expect from the person’s background.

Women- because the boundaries for women have always been drawn tighter than men. So it is all the more spectacular and meaningful when these are questioned or broken.

Remarkable Women – who give pause with their innermost zest for life trying to break free from the confined halls and hallways of preset norms.

(Also, there is no moral judgement here, on the setting or outcome. However there is an unintended bias- the stories I come across, some of which arrive here, can only be a small part of many out there) 

Didda was born in 924 CE. Her father was Simharaja, ruler of Lohara (now in Poonch district). She had a physical disability- a limp. 

In 950 CE she was married to Kshema Gupta, ruler of neighboring Kashmir. He was son of Parva Gupta, who claimed the throne after killing a boy-king Sangramadeva and throwing the body into Vitasta (Jhelum river), weighted with a stone. Parva Gupta had been a minister in the court.

The region had a terrible history prior to the boy-king’s scholarly father Yashaskara, who had brought peace for a decade. The history was of rebellions, treasons, assassinations and depravity. An insane king had even had his father cruelly killed. A queen regent- Sugandhadevi, was executed after she was captured by rebels.

King Kshema Gupta was very fond of his dice, wine, hunting and women.  Yet, he was captivated by his wife Rani Didda- her intellect, charm and beauty. He was nicknamed Didda Kshema, because of coins issued in both their names. Her maternal grandfather King Bhima Deva, of the powerful Shahi kingdom (now in Afghanistan-Pakistan), visited when a child was born. Then one day in 958 CE, the king got a fever after a jackal hunt and died. Sati was expected.  Rani Didda asked for approval for Sati, which was given by Phalguna, the chief minister.

So on the day of the cremation, Rani Didda started walking to the pyre along with other mourning queens. 

What is Sati?

By 900 CE the practice of Sati had taken some hold in the royal families of far northern parts of the subcontinent. (Sati spread to all social classes across the whole, over the next centuries). It had its origins in vague instances from far before, showing up more frequently in 200-800 CE. Some horrified social intellectuals and poets (like Banabatta, 600 CE) desperately lobbied against it. They lost out to extremist voices. Distorted religion is a big weapon, at any time. In this case it was distorted Karma theories.

So, with a combined backdrop of political, social and familial reasons, Sati in royal families became not compulsory, but acceptable as an honorable thing to do, voluntarily. We don’t have numbers on how many royals in all, went this way.

The widowed queen had to get prior approval from a council of ministers, which was usually given. Then, the queen or queens and for a time, also the dead king’s attendees (physician, servants, etc.) entered the funeral pyre and died. If the wife had duties- like a nursing child or special guardianship, she could excuse herself. Or at the time of ascent to pyre, a minister from the assembled council could raise an objection to a queen, requesting her to stay behind for royal duties. She could accept. Recoiling in the last minute and not entering the pyre on her own was dishonorable- she lost her position, caste, home, family and money. She would have nothing and no one to turn to. However, many women who died believed in the practice, we can’t say what fraction. They gave away all their wealth and jewelry and willingly died. What we know is how much any human mind can believe what it wants to, in any time period. 

Lo! In the last minute, Naravahana, a courtier, objected. Rani Didda accepted, gave up her voluntary resolve and got off the ramp. Other queens died, including Chandralekha. Her father, chief minister Phalguna, watched.

Rani Didda had bribed Naravahana to object! Luckily for her, he did. In similar circumstances in about the same area in 1111 CE, another queen wasn’t so lucky. King Uchchala was murdered and Jayamati, his wife, gave a minister Gargachandra, her treasure, with the understanding that he would question her resolve. He accepted the money but didn’t come to the cremation ground at the required time. She delayed while waiting for him on route before entering the pyre, behind Bijjala, the loved queen. But not before her arms were hurt by robbers impatient for her ornaments.


Released from death, Rani Didda became regent of her young son, Abimanyu. She was the force that helped him stay on the throne, despite plots to eject them. Rani Didda’s ability for politics, negotiations and strategy was at work. She overcame threats – first, a big fire destroyed the capital. Then, she eliminated a built-in habit of the past- manipulations of ministers over the rulers.

Nephews of her late husband led an uprising with support of Brahmin sections. They besieged her when she visited a temple. There was a stand-off. She managed to send her son away to safety of a matt and negotiated. She talked out some, bribed some and her faithful minister Naravahana defeated the rest. She executed some rebels and pardoned some.

Apparently, and this caused considerable contention- men were seen having access to her living areas.

Yashodhara was another minister who helped put down an uprising. He wanted to march back into the capital with the army and was refused. He revolted and lost. Eventually, the trust also broke between Rani Didda and Naravahana: she suspected he was growing too powerful. He killed himself. Rani Didda recalled Phalguna, who was in exile.

Her son died in 972 CE. In sorrow, she had many temples, Buddhist monasteries and resting houses built. About 64 temples were built, some named after her, like Diddasvamin. Valga, who was Rani Didda’s porter- who sometimes carried her on the back, also built one- Valgamatt.

Nandigupta, her grandson, now king, died within a year. Tribhuvanagupta, another grandson who was installed as king, also died. Bhimagupta, third grandson was placed on the throne in 975 CE.

Here the story took a twist. Phalguna, the chief minister died. Soon after, Rani Didda found new help-a young buffalo herdsman, Tunga. He started as a letter carrier, got noticed and was elevated to a minister. It was said that the pair found love.

Tunga’s position in the court was protested by a fresh rebellion. It was led by Rani Didda’s nephew, this time aided with fasts by Brahmins. Forces lay in wait to catch Tunga at various places. Rani Didda had him hid and overcame the rebellion with her usual strategy: negotiations, gifts and bribery. Later, some were executed. Bhimagupta died in 981 CE in mysterious circumstances- Rani Didda was accused to be behind his death.

She now took the throne herself, finally. Maharani Didda was the ruler for 22 years! Tunga became prime minister and military commander, for he led the army to quell a difficult rebellion in Rajouri and was successful. He later put down more of the same.

Maharani Didda died in 1003 CE at age 79. She chose her successor, Samgramaraja, her brother’s son. He retained Tunga as prime minister. Samgramaraja was weak, and Tunga faced opposition from those who resented him.


Meanwhile, Mahmud of Ghazni’s invasions started in those parts.  When Mahmud’s forces invaded the Shahi kingdom in 1013, Tunga was sent with a large army to aid King Trilochanapala. The new invaders were using different tactics. Trilochanapala had some experience in previous attacks, he asked Tunga to take a defensive position in a vantage point. Tunga ignored the strategy and bravely attacked – he won. But the next morning his forces found themselves surrounded by a large army- what he won was a battle with a small spy force. The Shahi kingdom fell.  Tunga returned home dejected. One day while returning from the royal palace, he and his son were murdered. Suspected conspirators included the king’s brother, his own brother and a trusted follower!

Ghazni failed to reach Kashmir Valley in 1023 CE; the weather played a role.


Almost all the sources of that area and time period trace back to Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, written in 1149 CE. Kalhana disapproved of women rulers- Even in the case of those born in high families, alas! the natural bent of women, like that of rivers, is to follow the downward course. He also disdained women who did not follow gender norms, even Sati.

Then he had this to say about Maharani Didda- She, whom none believed had the strength to step over a cattle track- the lame lady- traversed, in the manner of the son of the wind, the ocean of the confederate forces...

The coins issued by Maharani Didda during her solo rule are still floating around. One can buy them on e-bay.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Not Just a Bike Ride

Something happened today on our bike ride, said S one recent weekend evening.

It was a clear day; we were on a nice path. M was ahead of me. (M is our son, 12). He was on one side of the trail. It was mostly us. 
Then I saw a couple far away, walking towards us. They were walking… differently. They sort of walked away from each other, to opposite edges of the path, then came back and met at the center. Then they did this again.
You know, M is pretty good at navigating. Still, I tried to bike faster, to get closer. I was still behind when M reached them. He rode in between. It seemed a bit close, I couldn’t tell. M was startled, stopped and looked back, they were startled and stopped. I apologized. They were nice; they laughed it off and went on their way.

Incidents like these worry me. We can say, oh, it’s autism and move on. But what was protocol there? What would anyone do? If we ask, what happened there? -I’ll have to take you inside an autism mind (as much as I know).

Please sit back, relax and fasten your seat belts.

The couple was walking in a pattern. M saw that. He adjusted to manage through the pattern, like anybody would. I’ve seen him navigate his bike carefully around baby ducks, moody geese and toddlers on tricycles or wobbly feet. He slows down, watches and waits with interest. 
A bike, a scooter, a swing, a trapeze- are like extensions. The extensions are far more controllable than his own body’s sensorimotor mechanisms. He loves the extensions, the grace and the freedom. When on them, he is a different person.

The couple had a pattern and then- maybe changed it suddenly when he came closer. Most of us might expect that- we would see that it is a couple doing some lovey thing; they would pause that and give way. We might prepare to take that way. From M’s action we might say that he expected the original pattern to continue. Did he?

I don’t know. I also don’t know if the couple’s pattern indeed changed. What we know is that he was startled by something he didn't expect and paused to check. And that the couple was startled. 

One can’t prepare for every scenario. But if I explain to him this scenario, the next time might be slightly different. If dad was closer and reminded, hey, watch out, the people ahead might give way on our side, he might have integrated that into his response. 

It is so easy to assign a low/high expectation by saying- Oh it is autism. Many do that- they don’t see the person but only see through their expectation of behaviors. They can’t integrate the two. They outright reject one stream of observations and thoughts.

It seems all about that - integration of different directions of thoughts. Yes, an autism body/mind seems to have difficulty in this real-time integration. We can’t imagine what it is like. Different thoughts here are- unusual pattern, a couple, lovey, right of way, etc. How many of these thoughts are integrating at a given time, forming a mind-response, which a body’s motor system is capable for acting on, propelled by intrinsic self-worth and motivation- is key.

This integration and execution can vary with the autism- given that there are different autisms out there*. It also varies with stress, anxiety, and familiarity. (This variation happens to all of us on a much smaller scale. Or, say, when in shock, we can’t fully process what we’re seeing). I’ve observed this integration for us also varies a lot with movement, quietness and agenda - whether M is sitting down or moving about, where we are and what the agenda is in the setting (and then, whether he is on feet or an extension). This is rarer in autism, making it all the more difficult to explain to others.

Sometimes, at times of stress or sensory overload or state-of-day or even by habit, one thought might take off like a runaway train. It may result in some off-beat action or even gather into a meltdown. This is one of the many pathways for a meltdown.

So when M is tired, I do the preemptive prompting- I scan around for high stressors, get a feel for nonverbal body language and say something- before a thought might take off. The loud song is going to end in a few minutes. The waiting isn’t going to be more than ten minutes. We are not going on the ride you see there (he doesn’t like amusement rides).

This eliminates the uncertainty and some anxiety. Because an autism body-mind is always working so hard, especially in novel situations, even a small help can go a long way in staying integrated. When the world is seen differently, when the mind-body responds differently and without the aid of full range of communication, just imagine what a particular vulnerability can do.

That’s why having an aide or a counselor can make such a difference. Having a trained and willing aide makes a big difference in ability to integrate, stay together and participate. This general functionality base increases with time. To the ideal point of not needing an aide, for some.

Then there are- some experts- who say that not being able to put forth an integrated response in real time is proof of not having the different thoughts at all. And with this, they seek to control the autism habitat while extending this opinion into the future. They can’t seem to integrate the incoming range of information into their own knowledge. Some change their base with new data, some don’t. Their ideal remains neurotypical or near-normal functional behavior and a person of autism is judged only by how close they are this normal.

There are those who see and yet don’t see the need for this integration. They protest if a caregiver says- Oh this activity is hard on my child at this time, we’ll try something else. And insist, excitedly, but, I tried this with X the other time and he wasn’t sure at first but loved it in a day! Suggestions are always good, but not taking maybe-not for maybe-not can be stressful. The thing is- when you know a person with autism, you know one person with autism. Some commonalities do exist but much caution is needed while extending them. 

I believe each person’s integration-base is different. A primary caregiver’s input as to how much this fragile base can be challenged at a given time- is key for stability. And not to forget- a primary caregiver for autism is likely operating from a base of fatigue- he/she may not be able to put forth a well-integrated argument in real time in requisite tone.

I worry. I worry because A. With autisms so poorly understood, what will happen without the advocating of a parent? It is so easy to say that something is an autism-based behavior and not give benefit of trust. Especially in difficult phases. Then there’s the thought of those who don’t have advocates at all. B. We remain dependent on the kindness of strangers to allow for deviations from normal. There are always going to be rushed bikers or walkers who feel they own the trial (we try hard to go on non-busy trials or slow, park trials).

One thing that is abundant in our autism- a blessing- is the ability to suspend continuous integration of thoughts- a bane of the normal mind, and live in the now. Here is ours



*Autisms - as in physiological states currently being discovered, not psychological criteria.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Nan Yaar? (Who Am I?) - Ramana Maharshi

(Long post)

In the spring of 2014, a book kept coming up on my book recommendations on Kindle. It was around $3.00. I bought a copy. When it arrived in the mail, I almost missed it because it was so thin. At about 15 pages, it felt like a pamphlet.

I picked it up a few days later to read. One paragraph in, the book dropped from my hands. Because I was in shock, feeling something like a pleasant void.

In one paragraph the author had answered all questions we usually ask.


Nan Yaar? is a compilation of answers given in writing, by Ramana Maharshi in 1902. Fourteen questions were asked by another. It was translated into Who Am I?

In the answer to the first question – Who am I? Ramana Maharshi answered first who he is not. In summary, he (I) is not what we (as I’s) usually think we are.
Isn’t all we think- from the experiences we seek, our books, art, travel– about understanding ourselves? Understanding our lives and our world, using our senses and comprehension?  (He said that isn't us!)

If you’re someone for whom the above is funny and only that, now may be a good time to stop reading. It has been said- There is no Tao without the hearty laugh!


All living beings desire to be happy always, without any misery. In everyone there is observed supreme love for oneself. And happiness alone is the cause of love. In order therefore, to gain that happiness which is in one’s nature and which is experienced in the state of deep sleep, where there is no mind, one should know oneself…

Happiness alone is the cause of love. Oh my. So clear, so elegant. I had been thinking it was the other way around! So clear, my unanswered questions simmering indefinitely on many back burners simply turned off.  Many dots got connected and are still connecting.

(As an aside- the essential difference between eastern and western philosophy is in the above. Core eastern philosophies speak of the elusive state of no mind, of stillness, of action in non-action and the reverse. Western philosophy is of the mind1.)


Born in Tiruchuzhi, a small town near Madurai in 1879, Venkataraman Iyer lived with his parents, two brothers and a sister2. One day in 1896, when he was 16, he felt as if he was dying3. Surely, there was something about him that led to this feeling. It was no ordinary feeling, as found out later. He went upstairs and laid down.

The fear was violent. His senses became numb. He instinctively asked himself- Nan Yaar?

What happened afterwards was spontaneous. He saw the seer in him disappear, and no thought arose. An awareness came over which became the “I” and the “I” associating with the body disappeared.  This Self-awareness was luminous, continuous, unrelated to anything.

It took him a few weeks to realize that this was him, that this state was staying. Gradually he found himself unable to function at home and school. He left home with three rupees for the train and went to Tiruvannamalai. He went to the temple in Arunachalam. He was there for many months, unaware of his body. Kind people took care of him- even feeding him.

He lived in a similar way until 1916, in caves and temples. Feeling an attraction, people started coming to him. In 1902, Sri Sivaprakasam Pillai, slate in hand, asked him the 14 questions which became the book, Nan Yaar. He was addressed with the title “Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi” by Sri Ganapati Sastri, a scholar who visited in 1907 and was overwhelmed.

In 1922 he moved to a place which came to grow as Ramanasramam. He lived in the ashram until 1950.

Sri Ramana Maharshi stayed in the magical state of Self-awareness while living a regular life. A regular life- as one in such a state would be. This state was felt by one after another visitor, who felt Self-awareness sweep over them by just being in the ashram4. It was not explainable by any known analyses.


Ramana Maharshi just was5. He was said to emanate bliss from the stillness of being. Those who visited him (or sometimes even far away) felt this as a quietening of their own minds and feeling their true selves.  He lived simply, spent most of his life in a small corridor/room with bare-minimal personal possessions. His authenticity was disarming.

When a new room was built to accommodate the large number of visitors, his reluctance to leave his old room also had to do with – how will the squirrels find me? Apparently birds and animals visited him. He woke up very early to work in the kitchen and insisted on food be shared equally, even with visitors. He didn’t like food being wasted, apparently not even mustard seeds that rolled off in the kitchen. He asked the fruit from trees be picked with care and only as needed. His affection for Lakshmi, a cow in the ashram was legendary6. He was sensitive- it is said once a man rushed in and hugged him, and Ramana Maharshi’s skin broke out in welts. He did everything himself- even in sickness in later life, he would not take a hand to navigate a small step into the visitor room.

He didn’t need religion or philosophy. He was all spiritual. What he said to the people who visited him is difficult understand as-is. But was explained by David Godman (name is a coincidence), who collected and published Ramana Maharshi’s words in Be As You Are and other collections, with dedication.

Ramana Maharshi offered help- depending on the level of the person asking him. This level was of the mind and heart of the visiting person. Some were met with silence (his highest form of communication). With people who could not absorb the silence, he spoke.  So some of what he said can be very confusing, if out of context- because of necessary shifting of levels to the seeker’s level of Jnana. This ability is not of intellect but of extent of Self-knowledge- how quiet is the mind and how open is the heart.

An extraordinary story was of a poor weaver from a small village who came to visit him, Mastan Swami. When he first met Ramana Maharshi, Mastan Swami apparently stood still, for hours.


If a Guru asks you to do something, anything more than what you are already doing (for spirituality), he/she is not a guru

From Ramana Maharshi we know that a true Jnani sees everyone and everything as equal and does not glorify anything, even Jnana or Self-knowledge.

What really is Jnana?

The standard response is – it is knowledge of the Self. But it means nothing to most. What Jnana is not is learnings from schooling or skills for livelihood and survival7.

So instead, let’s ask- what is Self?

My simple theory - Self is like a hidden pattern behind patterns. Jnana is being able to feel, analyse and discover the hidden pattern. This is pathless. We can feel the Self for what it truly is, only at the elusive end-point of Jnana road. Somehow at the dead-end, a person has an irreversible change. Tunes into a non-anthropomorphic state. In that reality all questions are answered because… they cease to exist.  Especially the most daunting questions- What is death? Why do we exist? Why do we suffer? Why does a child suffer? What does it mean that questions cease to exist?

There are no prerequisites for Self-knowledge. There is no need for renunciation.

Ramana Maharshi’s response to the question- What is the nature of the Self?What exists in truth is the Self alone. The world, the individual soul and God are appearances in it, like silver in mother-of-pearl; these three appear at the same time and disappear at the same time. The Self is that where there is absolutely no ‘I’-thought. That is called ‘Silence’. The Self itself is the world; the Self itself is ‘I’; the Self itself is God; all is Siva, the Self.

As we can see, Self-knowledge is elusive. A knowledge which a culture has been trying to know and keep, any way it can, for a few thousand years, in song, story or stone.

I’ve read that Buddha wondered, he wondered after Nirvana just how was he to explain what he knew to people because it was so… ungraspable.

There is nothing to achieve

Ramana Maharshi said this many ways, for it is difficult to get our minds around because it is counter to everything we know and perceive. I summarize-

-As long as you are seeing yourself as “I am different”, you are not seeing. Quite contrary to what we learn from birth, we have to lose subject-object differentiation.

-You just need to realize that you already are the Self. This happens when the ego is gone, like a stirring stick in a burning pyre, by method of Inquiry, asking “Who am I?”

-Rituals, prayers, fasts, feasts, meditation, yoga,  chants, music - are of limited nature because they involve I, unless it is overcome (if overcome, you won’t need them). Yoga nidra, however long, tantras & siddis, however mighty, are all of limited nature, they involve I. Even visions, if any, have to pass. Bliss is beyond ecstasies. There is no Mukti to achieve. You already have it.

- Then you’ll see that you do not exist, only the Self exists (so your suffering also does not exist!)

You see, his view was different from ours. It is difficult for us to understand. His view was of a Jnani, he was Self-aware and he saw through Maya. (But the less said about the mystical Maya, the better, because it has been used up a lot by many). Another way is to look into shrusti-dhrusti, dhrusti-shrusti.

Two kinds 

Now we come to the most riveting part of the whole. 

Our normal view is the shrusti-dhrusti. It is: world-view. We see the stars, the world, nature, people and animals. We make laws, form pockets of cultures and traditions. We learn, we figure out how things work. We have science, art, religion, sports and entertainment. Each one of us is separate and we are trying to live to our maximum potential. We are born, we live, and we die.
This is the cause-effect world we know. It has our dear friends- the mind and the ego.

Then there is dhrusti-shrusti. It is: view-world. It is most mysterious. Is it for real? For some extremely rare people.  They have said that we make our own world.

They have said the change happens when you see your true nature. The world as we know, disappears somewhat, because everything and everybody becomes equal. 
(Ramana Maharshi said to persistent questioners who were curious about super powers- Who is asking the question? Who is using the powers? To show to whom?)


Alas, spirituality is a business opportunity for some. A link came up the other day and I heard someone declare on YouTube- I am Self Realized! And offered the same for select devotees. But in the nature of the claim was the contradiction. It was also in the voice, in the eyes, in what was said and not said. 

Someone making a claim may be real or not. It may be difficult to differentiate. Most likely- someone may have an idea and some experience, but the road is long, and it is all or nothing. Delusion is probably a part of the process for some, but conning others needn’t be a part of it.

I believe we can try to understand the nature of Self-Awareness but cannot lay any claim to it. We can’t mix and match the two views with poor understanding of either. It is insincere in more ways than one. Worse, if with a personal agenda, we go advocate a public policy on a social platform. 

As Taoist saying says- If you are still thinking that you are doing, you are no closer than the day you were born! Our world- our regular world- is where we comprehend with our senses and mind. And enjoy cardamom tea in the afternoons.

O Sita! O Rama! O Krishna!

(I digress. This is related, but separate. I’ve never read Ramana Maharshi say anything about Rama or Krishna, except comment on the Gita- only when someone mentioned a sloka and asked for opinion. I only read that he spoke of Siva8)

We don’t understand goodness, do we?  Maybe because it is so difficult to explain, it mostly has to be felt, Rama and Sita were declared a priori gods by bhakti narratives of past centuries. So, no questions were left to be pondered.

There’s a fine layer beneath the layer beneath the surface layers of the story? I believe so.

Rama had one thing- his closeness to the Self. It was this grace of goodness that earned him the hearts of people. The knife-edge journey, of Rama to the Self, and of Sita, is the Ramayana. I feel it is out of this world.

“…Bhadre, …” After the war, pensive, Rama pointed out four aspects to unsuspecting and soon, a shocked Sita. A regular person would have rushed to success and glory. Instead, Rama put everything aside. It is a mystery. 

In our world view we see this episode only within the cultural-knots of the time- faithfulness, honor and duty. This is the tone of most narratives.
What is love? What are our bonds? For a Jnani, love is unconditional and bonds are egoless. Do the mystery puzzle pieces of this episode actually start in dhrusti-shrusti?  What did Rama say, why, how did Sita Devi respond and what happened, is the stuff that stories are usually not made of9.

Oh Krishna! Is there anyone who realized his Self like this? Asked the baffled Arjuna. Krishna replied “Yes. There was Janaka10”.

Of all the people, Arjuna alone stood at the doorway of Maya. He dissolved in his place in the world. Filled with grief, he could not move despite the crisis at hand. So Krishna walked him over to a temporary dhrusti-shrusti. The Gita is a treatise by Krishna, of the state of Self-awareness. Unbelievable.

(One has to have the eye for the verses of cause-effect nature, most likely from layers added later on by others)


Who Am I?

In last century we had Ramana Maharshi, who spoke in silence. He left a book11- in which he gave us a method of self-inquiry for knowing the Self. A BKM (best known method), if I may say that. It starts and ends with the question- Who am I? It is beyond extraordinary.

How does it work? He said- When thoughts arise, one should not pursue them, but should inquire: To whom do they arise? The answer would emerge “To me”. Then one should ask “Who am I?” The thought will become quiescent. With repeated practice, the mind will go its source, the heart. Then the “I”, which is the source of all thoughts will go and the Self which ever exists will shine.

He also said elsewhere- The thirst for Self-awareness has to be as desperate as a drowning man’s for a breath of air.



  1. Socrates spoke of the mind that uses information from senses as not seeing the reality.
  2. This section is compiled from a number of resources, mostly online including wikipedia.
  3. The accounts of this vary based on the interpreters. Some of them tend to dramatize the narrative. Ramana Maharshi himself spoke very little and either in Tamil, Telugu or Malayalam.
  4. Face to Face with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Complied by Prof. Laxmi Narain. An excerpt from the book from an account by Dilip Kumar Roy from Aurobindo Ashram:                                                                                                                                                                           “…All our ideas as to how the great should act seem to be dismissed by him with a smile of simple disavowal. I saw with my own eyes day after day during my five-day stay at the Ashram of this unique sage, the like of whom I am sure is not to be met within this vast world. I have never in my life of varied experience and wide travelling met a man so utterly indescribable and yet so profoundly moving. I cannot say why he moved me to my depths with eyes where no soft light of emotion presided, and yet it bathed me when I met his gaze with a peace that I find as unaccountable as it was delectable. The Maharshi has not the slightest use for pretentiousness and self-importance. He is for no trappings either of speech or learning. I saw indeed a man, who in his exterior was anything but distinguished, far less handsome or captivating, and yet – how shall I put it – he was so compelling and so disarming!...”                            
  5. This section and parts of section There is nothing to achieve are based on the book Be As You Are and You Tube videos on Ramana Maharshi posted by David Godman.
  7. That it is not, is a simplification.
  8. Siva is symbolization of Self.
  9. From Ayodhyakanda to Yuddhakanda. Authorship of Uttarakanda, a sequel, is debatable.
  10. All the kings of Mithila of a certain time had a name ending with Janaka. We actually don't know if the reference was to a king in this line. 
  11. The book Nan Yaar, has many editions. The book I have has 28 questions.