Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Bullfighting – No Longer a Spanish Past-time

Albert Einstein had once said, ‘If a man aspires towards a righteous life, his first act of abstinence should be injury to animals’. For all animal rights activists, a final adieu to the turgid spectacle of bullfighting in Spain  definitely is a moment to rejoice, though it is equivalent to a granular speck extricated from a copious sand-mound. In Spain, some have denounced it outright while for others it is a welcome break-away from an archaic, nay barbaric tradition. For a nation brought up on a fizzy fiesta of flamenco music & dance, decades of armed rebellion for Basque independence and the international dispute over Gibraltar, bullfighting has been an indelible cultural earmark, believed to have lasted since the reign of Emperor Claudius almost 2000 years ago. As Barcelona recently hosted the last of the controversial sport, it definitely marked a watershed in Hispanic history.

The fight itself as it unfolds makes for compelling study. In the Spanish lingo it is known as corrida de toros and the team consists of the matador and his assistants, 03 banderilleros and 02 picadores who appear during the first two stages, known as the tercio de varas and tercio de banderillas to provoke and tire the raging bull. The matador himself appears at the third stage called the tercio de muleta performing a number of passes, then jabs at the animal using sharp lances and finally subdues it using a sword or espada which is pushed over the horns and deep between the shoulder blades. If the sword goes in to the hilt, it is an estocada but if it hits the bone it is a pinchazo or media-estocada. An estocada usually results in the bull dropping down immediately and dying but if it survives, the matador takes the descabello, a sword with a protruding shaft, which he stabs straight into the bull’s neck severing the spinal cord.

Now what does one make of this scenario of unfettered blood & gore? If anything, it presents a sad picture as the Spaniards appear to take pride in the killing of a poor, helpless creature. Despite a custom having spawned generations on end, the raw and raucous undercurrents of it in making capital out of an animal’s protracted suffering cannot be justified. Going by the all-pervading law of nature, a spirit of mutual conviviality has to exist between all living species. It is again nature’s decree that man is bestowed with faculties superior to animals, so prudence dictates that we ought to be their guardians rather than oppressors. Such emotional palliatives apart, a tradition that has lasted through centuries is always going to evoke mixed reactions when it draws to a close. For the moment, Spain witnesses the dawn of a new epoch, even as the conscience-keeper of time and faith attempts to cull out a sordid chapter, whose contents no longer makes for worthy settings, from a nation’s chequered history.

Usage of Stone Tools In The Pre-Historic Age

Some interesting facts have come to light as per the latest findings of archaeologists during their latest excavations in far-off Kenya with regard to the tools used by human species in the pre-historic age.

Pre-historic classification based on Christian Thomas’ system deduces that stone, mainly flint was used as a weapon and a tool throughout the old stone (Paleolithic) and the middle stone (Mesolithic) ages. Chipped stone used by the earliest human species from Africa, were in fact, pieces of quartzite, a sort of metamorphosed rock formation. Such stone artifacts are easier to date as quartz itself is the commonest rock forming mineral resistant to chemical breakdown. As the quartz crystals themselves take millions of years to form, the stone weapons that have been located could have been chipped off rock structures extending to the earliest years of the old-stone age, about 3.5 million years ago.

The collection of picks and axes as mentioned in the report, which supposedly date back by 1.76 million years, relate to the Acheulean tool tradition, distinctly attributed to the Homo Erectus species, which existed about 1 to 2 million years ago, originating in Africa and extending beyond. However, the fact remains that the usage of stone tools had started much earlier. The first of the stone choppers that is believed to have existed was Australopethicus, a genus of extinct primates which pre-dates the hominid lineages of Homo Habilis & Homo Erectus.

According to noted anthropologists, Homo Habilis, which appeared about 2.3 million years ago, was scabrous in the use crude stone tools made from solid rock, some of which have been found in the Omo Valley in Africa. But the tools that have been recently recovered and have been in the news, definitely belong to a more complex school, requiring greater operational skills with their sharp, clean edges formed by removing flakes on either side along one face, to cut the sinewy portions of animal flesh. These have been ascribed to the Homo Erectus species as with their evolution, came the Acheulean hand-axe tradition that shaped stones to serve as scrapers, knives, hatchets & picks. The use of such tools enabled the species to move about untrammeled and occupy different habitats, leading to improved communication and better understanding among individuals. Having said so, it often becomes difficult for tools to be classified specifically to Homo Erectus or Homo Habilis, as the existence of both these species overlaps for at least 200,000 years.

Yet, the current findings establish beyond doubt that though in the course of hominid evolution, stone tools have existed in various forms almost 2 to 3 million years ago, the emergence of flaked stone tool-making constitutes a definitive evidence of a marked technological shift in the prehistoric age. Archaeological evidence has exhibited an increase in the complexity of stone technology up to varying degrees, which have helped extrapolate the more sophisticated stone-tool production modes that have evolved over a period of time.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Twin Schools of Spiritual Hinduism

In the 5th Century B.C., both Buddhism and Jainism rose as spiritual orders that basically rebelled against Brahmanical Orthodoxy. Impregnated by the seeds of spiritual unrest, these twin offshoots yielded in the realm of history a harvest of new interpretations in religious broad-mindedness.

Both Gautama and Vardhamana who have come to be associated with the two cults as the paramount figureheads of their respective reform movements happened to be from the Kshatriya clan, who challenged the spiritual hegemony of the Brahmanas just as they refused to acknowledge the paramountcy of the Vedas. It was basically a clash of ideals between the governing and intellectual classes, each of whom brooked its own exclusivity in the social fabric of the society. Here it must be mentioned that neither Buddhism or Jainism were rigid schools of religious reform to the extent of attempting obliteration of Hinduism itself, in the sense that they never preached the abstinence of individual faith in the Hindu deities. Both existed as corollaries of the tenets enshrined in Hinduism and both alluded to a religious order that preached to the closest approximation, a chastity in words, thoughts and deeds as the means to salvation.

However, unlike Jainism which remained close to its Hinduistic origins in that it adhered to the rudiments of the caste system and ceremonial sanctity, Buddhism gradually was weaned away from the parent stock and thus, weakened its base in the country. While Jainism continues to flourish in its country of origin, spreading out of the Magadhan seat of imperial power to parts of North-West and to the Southern parts of India, Buddhism has been uprooted quite a bit and has gone on to flourish in South and South-East Asia. Several reasons have been cited for this. Even as many of the Buddhist doctrines came to be assimilated in the Hinduistic folds, the supremacy of the Brahamanic order that was challenged during the 5th and the 6th Centuries B.C., once again gained ascendancy during the age of the Guptas somewhere around the 3rd and the 4th centuries A.D., which mitigated the hold of Buddhism on the masses. Paradoxically, the neo-atheistic doctrines of Buddhism did not carry any level of conviction for the masses that was seeped in idolatory practices and sermons for centuries on end. Then of course, came the corruptible influences in the Buddhist monasteries and the religious order, followed by the horde of invasions which saw Buddhism lose much of its primal energy. The spirit of compassion and religious freedom thus, became a more potent antidote in far off lands that never required the Hinduistic crutch to flourish.

It must be admitted however, that both Buddhism and Jainism occupy a status of paramountcy in the religious orders that have flourished in India even though there is no definite period to delineate in history as either the Buddhist or the Jain period. Both are like the spiritual fountainheads that have attempted to create an outlet for human sufferings through the ever-flowing waters of purity and wisdom.

Lord Mahaveera and the Tenets of Jainism

The 6th Century B.C. witnessed the rise of the twin sects of Buddhism and Jainism in India following a period of spiritual unrest. They were both fallouts of a revolt against the orthodoxy as enshrined in the Brahamanical tenets of Hinduism and yet neither propagated the surrendering of one’s existing beliefs in the spiritual deities of the Hinduistic cult.

The founder of Jainism was believed to have been Lord Parasvanath, the 23rd Teerthankara (Prophet) of the Jain hierarchy, whose order of ascetics was governed by the four basic tenets – non-injury to life, truthfulness, abstinence from stealth and non-attachment to property. Historically, the religious sect of Jainism owes it genesis to Vardhamana (one who brings in peace and prosperity), the son of a Kshatriya noble called Siddhartha who ruled at Kundagram, Vaishali more than 2,500 years ago. Vardhamana was rechristened as ‘Mahaveera’ owing to the unusual strength he displayed at quite a young age. However, Mahaveera was not destined to be the powerful Emperor of Vaishali as everyone had anticipated for as time went by, He decided on a path of renunciation. Like the Holy Buddha, He too wanted to find a way for mankind to be rid of sorrows in a world torn asunder by the differences of cast, colour & creed. At the age of 26, He embraced the life of an ascetic and for 12 long years, led a life of deep penance, oblivious to pain or pleasure, food or starvation, sleep or awakening. It is believed that once, while seated under a Sal tree on the banks of the Rijuwalika river near the Parasvanath hills, he found ‘enlightenment’ as a ‘Jina’ - the one who understood the cause and the cure of sorrow. He acquired ‘Kewal Jnana’ or the only knowledge that is infinite and supreme. The ‘Jain’ or the ‘Jaina’ thus, was an offshoot of the ‘Jina’, the conqueror. Once he attained enlightenment, Lord Mahaveera emphasized upon freeing the soul of earthly bondage with the possession of three jewels – ‘right faith, ‘right knowledge’ and ‘right conduct’. His teachings espoused God as the extreme manifestation of all that is good in human soul. Thus, according to Him, ‘Nirvana’ or the state of final emancipation was attainable by one’s own efforts without the aid of a supreme authority, simply by controlling one’s passions and desires. The Jains came to be divided into ‘Swetambaras’, the white-robed and the ‘Digambaras’, who use no clothes in adherence to the stress on chastity, added by Lord Mahaveera as the fifth to the earlier four tenets of Jainism.

Unlike Buddhism that branched off considerably from its Hinduistic parentage Jainism kept itself closer to its origins and never really attempted any serious overtures outside India. Mostly it was confined to Bihar and parts of North India before extending to Gujarat, Rajputana and to the Southern parts of India.

During the thirty years of His teaching life, Lord Mahaveera, developed a sizeable number of followers to his religious order, before attaining immortal peace at the age of seventy-two at Pavapuri in Bihar around 527 B.C.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Occult of Theosophy

It happens to us often in our lives, when we wonder – Is there a God and is there a universal order that follows God’s decree?’ It so happens that in spite of belonging to some religious order and following some fundamental basis of religion, we seek a more logical and more inspiring solution. The occult of Theosophy explores a rational explanation to these questions, as a body of ideas, not to be thrust upon an individual but offered for one’s own examination and judgment, for those united by a common search for truth and the desire to learn the meaning and purpose of existence by engaging themselves in study, reflection, purity of life and loving service.

Annie Besant (1847-1933), a reformer, humanist and educationist along with Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891), one of the outstanding spiritual figures of the 19th century – were the most forceful orators of the Theosophical Cult in India as a leaning towards the metaphysics of pure, unselfish life; to be ever ready to sacrifice one’s own pleasures for the others; of pursuing truth, goodness & wisdom for their own sake and not for the benefit that they may confer. It is a philosophy which renders life intelligible and demonstrates that justice and love guide the cosmos and its teachings aid the unfolding of the latent spiritual nature in the human being without dependence or fear.

Before she came to India, Dr. Besant, a radical freethinker, remained active in the British suffragist movement and an important speaker for women's suffrage. She moved to India to study Hindu ideas (karma, reincarnation, nirvana) which were foundational to the Theosophical school of thought in describing the universe as not just a place where nature’s forces operate by chance, but every event takes place according to certain laws inherent in the universe, which are the expressions of one’s consciousness. Theosophy as a cult outlines the vast schemes of life in which we are involved, the long route towards self-realisation. It says each man is his own lawgiver, the dispenser of glory or gloom to himself, the decreer of his reward, his punishment.

The abiding truth is that the nature of God resides in every man and woman, for we live, move and have our being in Him. Man has sought for the Almighty in many ways, but the one place where He can be found, never to be lost again is beyond emotion & intellect, in the depths of one’s own spirit. In other words, all that we postulate concerning God, of goodness, holiness, truth and beauty resides in a man, who as an immortal being, unfolds the divine powers that are latent within through repeated lives in mortal bodies. Theosophy primarily offers an optimistic view of life based on the law of natural justice – ‘As a man sows, that shall he reap’, which means that man is a master of his own destiny.

As a lateral perspective on divine wisdom, Theosophy emphasizes on the fact that the spirit of God is derived from the mind, the ‘spiritual soul’ using the mortal life of the man in whom it is captive. It militates against a religious thought that occurs at a level of sensibility not susceptible to reason. It concludes that the God in us – that is, the divine wisdom of justice, goodness & power alone should be our true and permanent love, our faith, which will never fail us even if all other things perish, which shall bring about our fundamental unity with all other living beings.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Nehru’s Letters to the US President and the Indo-China Conflict

China has been India’s bete-noire since the time a horde of Yuch-chi nomadic tribes from North-West China had overrun Indian territory in around 150 BC. Subsequently, the 1962 war, which resulted in an embarrassing loss of face to the Nehru Government, proved a watershed in Sino-Indian relations. In the context of the war, the two letters of Nehru, as addressed to John F. Kennedy, the then President of the US, that were recently made public, make for interesting reading. Apparently, they were reeled off in quick succession on 19th of November, 1962 after China had made deep inroads in the North-Eastern territory, following their crossing the MacMohan Line in the month of September.

In the first letter, Nehru thanked Kennedy for the ‘speed at which the urgently needed arms & ammunition were rushed to India’ and voiced his grievance at the ‘grim situation in the struggle for survival against an unscrupulous and powerful aggressor’. At the time of drafting of the two letters, China had all but captured Bomdi La in the Kameng Division, the headquarters of the NEFA command. A distraught Nehru also happened to address the nation acknowledging the serious reverses with the imminent takeover by the Chinese of Chushul in the Ladakh valley which would lead them to Leh, the headquarters of Ladakh. Within hours of dispatch of the first, Nehru reeled off a second letter, after the fall of the Sela Pass, requesting Kennedy for comprehensive air support in the form of ‘a minimum of 12 squadrons of supersonic all-weather fighters’ and for the US Air force personnel to ‘protect the radar installations from Chinese air attacks’. Nehru, despite a desperate need to deploy the nation’s own air force, expressed his inability to do so in his letter, as ‘the present state of India’s air and radar equipment did not provide a defence mechanism against retaliatory action by the Chinese’. All of this, became meaningless as the very next day, China declared a unilateral ceasefire and a withdrawal from most of the Indian territories that they had taken over, perhaps with a foreboding of the possible intervention of Western powers. They of course, refused to give up the highway stretch in Aksai Chin that gave them direct access to Tibet from Xingiang region.

But the harm had been done and India was downsized in a military showdown with China like never before. The events were a direct offshoot of a flawed defence policy, troops that were ill-equipped to fight the enemy in alien terrain and a lack of tactical resources. It was ironical that less than a decade of his rejecting Eisenhower’s offer of military aid with no strings attached, Nehru had to turn to the US for immediate air support with an unceremonious volte-face to India’s committed non-alignment policy.

Almost 50 years have since gone by, yet the vestiges of the war still remain. Despite friendly overtures by the Prime Ministers of both the countries recently, relations continue to be strained over boundary disputes, which seem unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

Is India Home to the Oldest Civilisation?

The discoveries of the Indus Valley Civilisation are now well-documented. It is also believed that the ruins of Harappa were first located when a British Engineer, John Brunton accidentally stumbled upon some bricks close to a railway line being laid to connect Lahore and Karachi towns in 1856. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Sir John Marshall carried out excavations at the site to fix a time-zone of 3250-2750 BC when civilization at the Indus Valley flourished. It is generally agreed upon that civilization took shape sometime between 8000 and 4000 BC.

There have been several theories on when and where did the oldest civilization take root. The most popular one is that it all began in what has come to be known as the 'cradle of civilisation', Mesopotamia, primarily because some human settlement has been sourced to the region during the Neolithic age which dates back to 7000 BC. However, concrete evidence points to the fact that civilization flourished in the region during the times of the ancient Sumerians, roughly coinciding with the Bronze age, which in turn, ran concurrent with the mature Harappan period during 3100-1900 BC. The rise of dynastic Egypt in the Nile Valley occurred in approximately 3200 BC, which is concurrent with the same age as the Sumerians and some of the oldest, but pre-civilized settlement relics found in China again date back to about 7000 BC.

In the North-West part of the sub-continent, the revolution is believed to have occurred somewhere around 8000-7000 BC when the use of metallic objects and agriculture for livelihood began. Based on the excavations carried out by a French Archaeologist, Jean-Francois Jarrige in 1974 around the Indus Valley region and from remnants of the pottery, the tools, as well as the human and animal bones, it has been concluded that even during the pre-Harappan period, some form of civilization existed in the Kachi plains of Baluchisthan, specifically the region of Mehrgarh dating back to 7000-6500 BC, arguably the earliest urban site identified that pre-dates all others in substantial measure. Another evidence of a ‘lost river civilisation’ was found in 2001, when marine archaeologists detected signs of an ancient submerged settlement in the Gulf of Khambhat off the West coast of India in Gujarat and carbon dating of one of the wooden samples has fixed the period to 7500 BC.

So could it be that the most ancient forms of civilization existed in this part of the world? If one takes into account that life on earth has existed over 2 lakh years of which the pre-historic age dates back to the best accuracy of about 10000 to 8000 BC, it is hard to establish facts as incontrovertible truths, based on research that at best stretches over a few decades. But the fact remains that no form of civilization pre-dating 7000 BC that is representative of organized community living, has been identified with a level of certainty as yet and some of the ones that did seem to have existed during the period have been sourced to the sub-continent.