Why did the Renaissance occur in Italy?

One person responsible for making Florence a wealthy place was Cosimo de’ Medici who took over the family bank in 1430s. The Medici bank innovated in bookkeeping, debit-and-credit-accounting and by managing the fortunes of the wealthy, became wealthy themselves. Commercial development brought prosperity. Money and goods flowed into Italy from all around the world and Italy was rich. One of the factors that caused the Renaissance to happen in Italy was this wealth and patronage of wealthy people like the Medici. That was not it though. There was another important factor: the discovery of the past. The Tides of History podcast episode on the Renaissance takes a deeper look.

As the cities became wealthy, there was investment in art, education and architecture. The urbanized Italians, who had morphed into a society of ideas, had lots of questions on such topics and they found their answer in ancient Rome. It provided them guidance on education, linguistics and art, political ideology. There was a yearning for the past and it was a time of rebirth and the old was respectable because it was tried and tested before.

The Italians understood that there was a glorious past and then a fall. Roman concepts had stayed for more than half a millennia and was durable and reverence for the Roman past spread everywhere.  This rediscovery caused a cultural revolution and from Italy, it diffused into a wider Europe and freed Europe from its dark past into what they called Enlightenment. (But what they did was to enslave rest of the world and so European progress has to be seen with a huge sack of salt)

A new book on Leonardo da Vinci expands on the idea of the influence of the Roman past. Cosimo de’ Medici was schooled in Greek and Roman literature and was a collector of ancient manuscripts. Brunelleschi, an architect,. traveled to Rome and studied the classical ruins. They measured domes, studied great buildings and read the works of ancient Romans like Vitruvius. Leonardo studied Vitruvius and was fascinated by his detailed study of human proportions. This interest in the ancient past revived the writings of Pliny the Elder who praised artists who depicted nature accurately. The domes, realistic depiction of space, perspective, depiction of human forms — all were influenced by Rome.

Why did Renaissance happen in Italy and not elsewhere. It was not just wealth and the rediscovery of classics that caused the Renaissance to happen. There was a rediscovery of the ancient classics in the 9th century and later again in the 12th. But what made the 14th century rediscovery different was the depth and scale to which people went into the classics. Central and Northern Italy was urban. While there were only five cities with a population more than 40,000 north of the Alps, there were two with 100,000 in Tuscany alone There were many cities surrounded by the countryside. In the 9th and 12th centuries, only a tiny population was literate. Compared to that literacy rates in 14th century Italy was high. That produced a society of ideas instead of a small group of intellectual elite.

PS:  Lessons from the Renaissance for India

How George Washington became an American

There were three revolutions in the 18th century which followed one after the other in the Western world. The first one was the American revolution, resulting in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The second one was the French revolution led by commoners against taxation and elite privileges. The final one — one which rarely is mentioned — is the Haitian revolution. Conducted by  self-liberated slaves in 1791 against French colonial rule in Saint-Domingue, it resulted in the colony’s independence.

While the French and the Haitian revolution were by the slaves and commoners, the American revolution was a rich man’s revolution. An important point in this regards comes from the life of the first President George Washington as narrated in an AoM podcast. The question that is asked is: when did George Washington become an American?

According to the podcast, Washington, who had served in the British Army, turned against them towards the end of his commission. He wanted to become a regular British officer compared to what was something like a National Guard. He was promised that by one of his superiors, but that man died. Though Washington lobbied and sucked up, nothing came of it. He went to meet the new British Commander for North America with a plan to defeat the French who had control over territories. The discussion turned to books and the Commander’s impression of Washington was of an uneducated provincial. Their tastes in books were quite different. At that moment, Washington realized he is not going to be a red coat.

He was not erudite enough and did not have enough wealth to buy that commission. One he realized that his dream had been squashed, he became a Virginian. (The term American was not so common then). He then pursues his dream of becoming one of the wealthiest planters in Virginia.

Unlike the Haitian slaves or the French commoner, it was not hardship and suffering or some ideal that caused George Washington to revolt, but an offended sense of honor. Later he scales his personal experience with that of the colonies and believes that they would not get a fair treatment by the British.

Mudrarakshasa by Vishakadatta

Mudrarakshasa by VisakhadattaMudrarakshasa, written by Vishakadatta (Translated by R S Pandit) in 6th century CE, is a political thriller set in an interesting period in Indian history. It is the time of Chanakya, Chandragupta Maurya, and the Nandas. By this time, in Kusumapura (Patna), the last of the Nanda kings has renounced the world and his kingdom taken over by Chandragupta and Chanakya. Malayaketu, a small vassal king, left Chandragupta’s court after his father was poisoned. Though he fled, Malayaketu has a trump card in Rakshasa, the honest and smart minister. The goal of Chanakya at the beginning of the play is to bring Rakshasa to his camp so that Chandragupta would have an able minister by his side.

The title Mudrarakshasa refers to the signet ring of Rakshasa. It was stolen by Chanakya’s spy. Using that mudra Chanakya forges a letter which sets the wheel of intrigue into motion.  After a few back and forth moves, Chanakya is able to brilliantly seed suspicion into the minds of Rakshasa and Malayaketu. The spies of Chanakya spin tales and at some point, Malayaketu is suspicious of Rakshasa’s loyalty. Malayaketu thinks that if Chanakya is gone, then Rakshasa might switch loyalty. Also, though it was Chanakya who killed Malayaketu’s father, the blame was put on Rakshasa. While all this is happening, Rakshasa sees his world falling apart, with his friends disappearing in Chanakya’s web for one mistake he did. He left his family at a friend’s house while he left. That step, along with the loss of his ring, would lead to his fall.

The scenes alternate between Chanakya’s house and Rakshasa’s house with one making a cunning move and the other trying to foresee and counter it. It is like a game of shatranj, but with lives at stake. It creates great drama and suspense. Through dialogue, Vishakadatta exposes the ideals of the characters and to what length they would go to defend their allegiances. Chanakya is focussed on the brilliant and brave Rakshasa — he admires him, though he is in the enemy camp — and wants to get him to the Maurya side. He would do anything to achieve that goal, like forging letters, imprisoning innocent people and threatening to kill them, exiling people, using poison girls and spies.  He knows Rakshasa’s weakness for his friends and exploits it to make him helpless and surrender.

Rakshasa is not a simpleton either. He tries his best to murder Chandragupta. On the day, Chandragupta was to enter as the victor to the palace, Rakshasa had placed a shooter and a mahout to assassinate him, but instead of Chandragupta, the assassins get killed. Then Rakshasa tried poisoning Chandragupta, instead, Chanakya made the poisoner drink it. Then a group was made to hide in Chandragupta’s room. Chanakya spotted ants coming from the floor with food and detected the hidden enemies.

The play shows how spies form an important tool in both Chanakya’s and Rakshasa’s arsenal (“They know a thousand languages, they have a thousand eyes, they travel in thousand disguises”).  There is a Brahmin, Indusharman, dressed as a Buddhist monk, who gets friendly with the ministers of Rakshasa. Then there is Nipunaka, who walks around carrying a cloth with designs of Yama. His task is to keep an eye on the general population. Jain monk, Jivasiddhi too is a spy and so is Viradhagupta dressed as a snake charmer.

Rakhasa, though defeated, ends on a high note. He becomes the minister of Chandragupta, passing a tough test. He is respected for his ethical stand and keeping his moral fiber in-tact, despite all the odds. Chanakya too ends on a high note. He used deception to trap Rakshasa, not to benefit him, but Chandragupta. He himself retires. The play brings out the contrast between these two ministers. Chanakya is ruthless, but Rakshasa is softer and relenting. Chanakya can plot a deceptive scheme, Rakshasa is more of a soldier.

An interesting aspect of this play — and I have to confess that I have not read many — is that there is no romance at all. In fact, there are no main women characters (there are minor ones like guards and wife of one character). Apparently, Sanskrit dramas have a vidushaka character, which is missing in this one. It is a cut and dry political drama with intrigue and intellectual arguments on duty and loyalty.

PS: There is a scene where the Jain monk Jivasiddhi shows up when Rakshasa is looking for an astrologer. Rakshasa reacts, “That naked monk! What an evil omen.”

PS1: Do you know how Chanakya died? Interestingly, it comes from a Jain source, which is the only source.

Was Buddhism a social reformation of Hinduism?

Hinduism and Buddhism by Ananda CoomaraswamyThere is an academic notion that Buddha was not just a religious teacher, but a social critic and a revolutionary social theorist. He is also considered a social reformer who challenged the Brahmin orthodoxy. Buddha also reacted against the social structure made up of the four castes, which denied individual autonomy and human freedom.

This narrative fits well with the notion of a linear process where a new system differentiates from an existing system. It is similar to how Martin Luther reformed the ritualistic Catholicism and how Christianity came out of Judaism. But was Buddhism a social reformation of Hinduism?

According to Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, it was not. In his book, Hinduism and Buddhism, he writes that the distinction can be found only by people who study Buddhism superficially. A student with deep knowledge will not. According to him, there is nothing he could find which could be called as social reform or a protest against the caste system. Instead, AKC says  Buddha can be called a reformer because he had discovered the ancient ways of the awakened. The Buddha also praised the Brahmins who remembered the old path of the contemplatives that led to Brahma.

Both the Upanishads and Buddhist doctrines were born in the forest where they continued with purity. As time passed, the Brahmins moved to the courts and got corrupted by power, grandeur, and rituals. They became Brahmins by birth as opposed to those who knew Brahma.

The intention of both sets of doctrines was to restore the truths that were known before. The problem is that people admire Buddhism for what it is not and what scholars think Buddha should have said.

At the same time, there is selective suppression of what Buddha said. In lectures by American Buddhists, there is rarely a mention of reincarnation or supernatural powers. The talks mostly revolve around contemplative practices. These techniques are popular in the Western world; in a recent podcast, may high achievers admitted to following the practice.  It is lucrative to remove “otherworldly mumbo-jumbo” from Buddhism and sell it as “mindfulness”. This does not mean that the Buddha did not advocate mindfulness. For him, it was not something you carried in your pocket and used occasionally. Mindfulness was part of life and he warned against doing things absent-mindedly. Buddha believed in reincarnation too. Siddhartha Gautama was seventh in a series of prophetic incarnations.

When it comes to the discussion of the Self, there is little distinction to be found between the two traditions (“for those who have attained, there is naught dearer than the self”, “the Self is the lord of the self and its goal”, says the Buddha). Both traditions are experiential and understanding the concepts logically was insufficient. The goal was to transcend the senses and experience the Self. Like in the Upanishads, the goal of an Arhat is brahma-bhutena-atmana or “with the self that is Brahma-become”. The question which leads to that answer is quite familiar: By which self (kena-atmana) does one attain the Brahma world? Take a look at the first line of Kena Upanishad and see what it says. Buddha also discovered early on that what is now known as cogito ergo sum is delusional and proposed anatmya or the non-existence of permanent ego.

The concept of Brahman is achieved by a process of elimination. No one can define what Brahman is; it is defined by saying neti neti (not this, not this). In Buddhist tradition, the physical and mental factors are analyzed, perceived and observed. Finally, the observer separates from the thoughts and feelings and says, “That is not my self”. In the Upanishad tradition, we know our senses say what the reality is. Finally, we transcend that reality and reach a state where we perceive other states of existence. The Autobiography of a Yogi and Sri M’s book details various experiences that a spiritual person passes through.

Another imagery that is common in both traditions is that of the chariot and charioteer. Through various techniques, both traditions help us understand the Self and what the Self is not. In both traditions, we are not wanderers guided by events like a ship in a storm, but beings capable of knowing the Self and experiencing it.

The brilliance of Panini

Long time back in Takshashila, there lived two students who were studying to be grammarians,  a popular topic. One of them was dull; the other very bright. Everyone used to make fun of the dull boy and drummed into his head that he would amount to nothing in this world. Despite all that negativity, he studied to be a  vayyakarana, which was a big deal. The other boy was brilliant and was favored by the teachers.

One day, fed up with all the taunting, the dull boy left went to the forest and started meditating on Shiva. It is said that after a long time, he got blessed or got some insights. A version of the events says that he heard the sounds of the damaru played it 14 times. Instead of the beats of the damaru, the boy, who was focussed on grammar heard sounds as follows.

  1. अ इ उ ण् |
  2. ऋ ऌ क् |
  3. ए ओ ङ् |
  4. ऐ औ च् |
  5. ह य व र ट् |
  6. ल ण् |
  7. ञ म ङ ण न म् |
  8. झ भ ञ् |
  9. घ ढ ध ष् |
  10. ज ब ग ड द श् |
  11. ख फ छ ठ थ च ट त व् |
  12. क प य् |
  13. श ष स र् |
  14. ह ल् |

These 14 sutras — Maheshwara Sutras — became the basis for the text Ashtadhyayi (the text with 8 chapters) which codified the rules of  Sanskrit, both spoken language (laukika) and the compositional language (vaidika). Due to the perfection achieved by the boy, Panini, Indian linguistic thought can be divided into pre-Panini and post-Panini eras.

Panini, was not the first one to attempt this feat. Ashtadhyayi mentions others before him. But, Panini’s codification was so perfect that it superseded other prevalent grammars. Well, almost perfect. Katyana or Vararuchi who was the brilliant kid wrote a commentary on Ashtadyayi called vartika sutras, in which he criticized the Ashtadyayi. Later, Patanjali came along and combined the vartikas with the Ashtadyayi and wrote the mahabhashya.

We constantly hear that what Panini achieved was a great feat of human intellect To appreciate that we have to understand some of the concepts he introduced and how those help in codifying grammar concisely. It uses concepts like definition, compressing large amounts of data,  defining the steps of an algorithm with a terminating condition, and condensing text without losing information.I will illustrate some of grammatical tools of  Ashtadhyayi using examples so that we all can appreciate the work of Panini and the grammarians who preceded and followed him.


One of the basic concepts in Ashtadyayi is प्रत्याहारः It is simply a way of naming a sequence of words. To take an example, अच्. means all letters starting with अ and ending in च्. Let’s go to the Maheshwara Sutra and start with line 1. It starts with अ. Now keep going till you encounter a च्. You find that as the last character on line 4. Now get all the characters from अ toच् (excluding च् ) and you have all your swaras. Thus instead of saying swaras, you say अच्.  

This technique helps condense a large information into a small number of letters. If you look at Maheshwara Sutras and the number of possibilities, you can make up a large number of pratyaharas. All you need to do is pick a starting letter and an ending letter. But in fact only 44 are considered pratyaharas (Panini used 42 in Ashtadyayi)

Now that we have the concept of प्रत्याहारः, let’s see how it is used

In Sanskrit, words ending in swaras are called ajanta. 

अजन्तः = अच् + अन्तः

This means that any word ending (अन्तः) in अच् is  a swara.  Since we defined what अच् is, अजन्तः makes sense.

To see a more complicated example, take the following sutra

इको यण् अचि

Take the first word इको,  which means ‘of इक्’.  Again, look up the Maheswara Sutras and find all the letters that start at इ  and end at क् . Thus you get the following इ उ ऋ ऌ (All the letters at the end of the line are dropped and that’s why we don’t list ण् or क्). The second word यण् lists all the following letters य् व् र् ल्.

The rule is used in यण् संधि. It says, when you encounter इ उ ऋ ऌ, they are replaced by य व र ल respectively. Or in a tabular form, it would look like this


To see an example, let’s look at प्रति  + एकः = प्रत्येकः

This would be प्र + त् + इ + ए + कः . Based on the table above इ would becomeय्, thus making प्रत्येकः

Let’s take another rule एचोयवायाव:

Splitting this, you get एचः  अय अव आय आव. Using the Maheswara Sutras, you find एचः and get ए ओ ऐ औ. Applying the rest of the rules you get a tabular form like this


Thus what you get is an algorithm or prakriya  (प्रक्रिया).  In the West, they think algorithms started with Euclid and was formalized by Church and Turing at Princeton in the 1930s.


The process of naming something is called संज्ञा. Every scientific field has technical terms.  These are technical terms that will be used in Ashtadyayi. The best example is the first sutra in Ashtadyayi.

वृद्धिः  आदैच्.  

This says that the letters in आदै will be called वृद्धिः Once  वृद्धिः is defined, it can be used in other sutras. Another example is १.४.३ यू स्त्र्याख्यौ नदी । Here नदी is defined as ee-karantha and uu-karanatha streelinga words.

It is best to think of these as aliases. There are 91 संज्ञा  in Ashyadyayi and about 66 of them are defined in the first chapter.


This is the technique based on which Ahstadyayi has been built. When a concept is taught, first the most basic sutra is given. He will then follow it with all the exceptions to that rule.

Let’s look at an example

३.१.६८ कर्तरि शप् ।
३.१.६९ दिवादिभ्यः श्यन् ।

These two follow one after the other. The first one is the basic concept or the उत्सर्ग. He then follows it with the exception rule saying, but if it is in दिवादि gana, then here is the exception rule or अपवादः (Don’t worry too much about what is a दिवादि gana)

So taking the basic rule, we have पठ + शप् + ति  = पठति

And the exception rule = नृत् + श्यन् + ति = नृत्यति (Because, it is in the दिवादि gana)

Thus again, the algorithm or प्रक्रिया is followed here. You would take the word नृत् and try to apply the उत्सर्ग rule. Then you realize, it belongs to the दिवादि gana and hence you need to apply rule #2. Once you are done with that, the प्रक्रिया terminates. At the same time, if you pick पठ, you know that it does not belong to दिवादि gana. So the first rule is applied and the प्रक्रिया  terminates.


This is tied to the concept of उत्सर्ग-अपवादः. Anuvritti  is a part of a previous sutra that is carried to the sutras that follow it immediately. An example will make it clear.

७.१.२३ स्वमोर्नपुंसकात् ।
७.१.२४ अतोऽम् ।

This is an example of उत्सर्ग-अपवादः. The first sutra is a general rule for all napumsaka lingas. It says that in napumsaka, सुं or अम्  gets removed and hence वारि remains as वारि

But this does not work for words like फलम् which are a-karantha pullinga.  So it becomes फल + अम्  = फलम्  Here the second sutra is the अपवादः sutra which talks about the exception.

Now look at the अपवादः rule. The word नपुंसक is not repeated. It is invisible, but is required. This concept is अनुवृत्तिः  

To give another example, there is a sutra called इको यण अचि. The second sutra is called एचोयवायाव:. Here the अचि is implied.

Panini does not repeat anything. It helps remove unnecessary repetitions and condense the sutras. Words are removed, but the information that is essential is conveyed.

These are just a few concepts used in Ashtadyayi. There are many others which I have left out.  At an initial glance, these sutras appear terse, dense, allusive and mysterious, but once they are unlocked, they cast a brilliant light on the power of Panini’s mind.

Lessons from Panchatantra – Artha

The evil jackal Damanaka meets the innocent bull Sañjīvaka. Indian painting, 1610.
The evil jackal Damanaka meets the innocent bull Sañjīvaka. Indian painting, 1610.

In the first book of Panchatantra, the merchant Vardhamana sets off from the city of Mahilaropya and has to abandon his bull, Sañjīvaka in the forest. This triggers a set of events involving a lion, Pingalaka, and two jackals, Karataka and Damanaka. Vardhamana considered various career paths and settled on inter-regional trade. In Panchatantra, Vardhamana is a role model, a man who had achieved great wealth due to his karma. A dharmic trader has to offer charity, donations, and construction of religious and civic amenities.

Besides becoming rich, a dharmic person has to generate additional wealth as well.

What has not been obtained should be obtained. What has been obtained, should be kept secure. What is kept secure, should be augmented and expended on the deserving. Even wealth that is protected according to the practices of the world can be suddenly lost due to various calamities. If wealth cannot be used when the occasion for it arises, then it is just as good as not having earned it. Therefore, protection, increase and use of the earned wealth should be done (Natural Enmity: Reflections on the Niti and Rasa of the Pancatantra [Book 1])

This is illustrated using the example of collyrium (anjanam or kohl) and an ant hill. When you have a dabba of collyrium, a small quantity is used daily.  Soon, the dabba becomes empty. Contrast that with the ant hill. Every day, the ant contributes a little, but over time, it becomes – well, an ant hill. The niti shastra, advocates saving money and building capital. At the same time, it advocates against hoarding because all it takes is a natural calamity to destroy it.

Natural Enmity: Reflections on the Niti and Rasa of the Pancatantra [Book 1] by Ashay Naik quotes

upārjitānām arthānāṃ tyāga eva hi rakṣaṇaṃ|
taḍāgodarasaṃsthānāṃ parīvāha ivāṃbhasāma||

[3.1] In order to protect the wealth that has been gained, one must let go of it like the outflow of water that is stagnant in a tank. Hoarded money is comparable to stagnant water – it becomes the harbinger of dregs and diseases. Like water, money should be constantly in circulation.

arthair arthā nibadhyante gajair iva mahāgajāḥ|
na hi anarthavatā śakyaṃ vāṇijyaṃ kartuṃ īhayā||

[3.2] Wealth attaches itself to wealth just as giant elephants to each other. Without outlay of capital, it is not feasible to practice commerce assiduously. Use money to make money. Wealth attracts wealth as – we have a nice ancient metaphor here – elephants attach to other elephants.

Panchatantra adds two more aspects of money management to the existing thought. Till those times, it was considered that one should acquire and protect wealth. But Panchatantra argues that one should consider the application and augmentation of wealth as well. Vanijya, cannot happen without capital investment.

In socialist India, before the economy was opened up in the early 90s, being wealthy had a bad connotation. Popular culture showcased the wealthy as people surrounded by henchmen and molls, roaring with laughter without any purpose who took special fascination to poor blind mothers. In Kerala, we took it one step further. These villains built their houses next to a pool housing hungry crocodiles, into which the hero would be dunked.

Gaining wealth is not bad. As per our tradition, it is part of one of the four purusharthas, along with dharma, kama, and moksha. The testimony to that is the graph below

The global contribution to world's GDP by major economies from 1 CE to 2003 CE according to Angus Maddison's estimates.[65] Up until the early 18th century, China and India were the two largest economies by GDP output.
The global contribution to world’s GDP by major economies from 1 CE to 2003 CE according to Angus Maddison’s estimates. Up until the early 18th century, China and India were the two largest economies by GDP output.

The graph shows the global contribution to world’s GDP by major economies from 1 CE to 2003 CE according to Angus Maddison’s estimates. Up until the early 18th century, China and India were the two largest economies by GDP output.

Once the enlightened Europeans took over, it was a disaster. This disaster was prolonged in 1947 by a family, who had no grounding in dharma. Vishnu Sharma wrote the Panchatantra to educate the foolish sons of a king. If only the fools, who crashed the country into a ditch had read any of this.

Revisionist History

Revisionist History by CREDIT - Bill Hudson, AP
CREDIT – Bill Hudson, AP

The above picture was taken in 1963, during a protest march for civil rights, in the United States. This was the time in history when Martin Luther King and his people were organizing sit-ins, boycotts, and marches to protest their oppression. They were looking for a means to turn public opinion in their favor by provoking the police.

They got their moment on that day in 1963. The protest march started at a church near the Kelly Ingram Park. Besides the protestors, there was a crowd to watch the march and police to control both of them. The police stood between the spectators and the protestors. And they had dogs. Then the dog, controlled by a white police officer, attacked one of the foot soldiers, an innocent looking black boy.

The picture became famous. Newspapers printed it above the fold. The President was asked about it; Congress discussed it; there were debates around the country. Eventually, the civil rights act was passed.

All of this was fine, except that the photo did not represent the reality. This was the topic of a recent Revisionist History podcast.

The boy in the picture was Walter Gadsden. He had skipped school and was walking to meet a friend when he saw the protests. He moved away from the marchers when he was attacked by the dog. In a later interview, Gadsden revealed that he had no connection to the civil rights movement. He was neither a participant nor a foot soldier. Also, the police officer had not unleashed the dog on the boy; he was trying to pull the dog away to save the boy.

There is a statue at the Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham which memorializes this incident. The dog attacking the boy scene has been immortalized; a powerful memory which people had chosen to preserve. The Podcast makes the case that even though that particular incident was technically wrong, the statue is an art (the dog turns into a wolf, the boy is falling down) needs to be seen as an interpretation.

Thus does it matter that the basis of the statue at Kelly Ingram Park was incorrect? Doesn’t it miss the big picture of what happened in 1963? Did police use dogs at that time? Sure they did. These kind of gotcha stories are an example of missing the forest for the trees. Societies which are not obsessed with these low-level details have ways to abstract the wisdom of events into stories which can be retold.

The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit is a best-selling book which explains how habits are formed and how you can develop good habits. According to the book, habits have three components (1) a cue (2) a routine and (3) a reward. For example, a cue could be the time 3 pm, the routine would be to go and find something sweet to eat, and the reward would be the joy. If you want to change the habit, you have to realize these components. After that, you can change by keeping the same cue and reward, but by changing the routine. Thus instead of downing chocolates, you can go for a walk. (Read a detailed review of the book or listen to a podcast with the author)

When I read the book, it felt as if I had seen this elsewhere, with more depth. So I went back to Patanjali’s Yogasutras with commentary by Swami Vivekananda.

First, Swamiji talks about how habits are formed. Imagine a lake. Each action we take is like a pulsation over the lake. Once the pulsation dies out, what remains are the impressions of those pulsations. When a large number of these impressions are left on the mind, it becomes a habit and it becomes our nature. If some good impressions remain, then we become good and if some wicked impressions remain, we become wicked.

Swami then talks about how to change bad habits. While Duhigg talks about replacing the routine with a different one, Yogasutras talks about replacing a bad habit with a counter habit. The base habits which are deeply ingrained in our mind automatically kick in every situation. The only way to change the base impressions on the mind is by doing good things, thinking holy thoughts and various other yoga practices. These help overwrite the base impressions with new ones, thus transforming you at a deeper level.

This transformation does not happen over night; it requires long continued practice. For example, when you start skiing, you will fall down a lot. Do you give up because others are making fun of you or do you have enough internal power to continue? Do the opinion of others control you or do you have mastery over yourself? Do you have enough vairagyam?

The drawback of Duhigg’s method is that once the cue happens, it can be strong enough to over power the mind. If the waves are strong, then you will not even realize you have carried out the routine; It might hit as a regret later. Thus you need to intercept the waves even before they become a swell. That requires transformation at a subtle level, that the practices mentioned in the Yogasutras can help.


The Self-Validating, Self-Sustaining Transcendental System

The best way of knowing something is through direct experience. You watch a beautiful sunrise and you feel joy. There is nothing here that deludes the senses. Another way is through inference. Observing that there is a distortion caused by some invisible object in space, astronomers infer that there is a black hole nearby. Though this is not direct perception, this seems like a perfectly rational way.

There is another way of knowing which is experiential. For example, yogis perceive certain truths by going beyond the mind. They profoundly alter their consciousness and experience heightened levels of insights. They experience knowledge beyond the senses and we consider them sacred. Raja Yoga has detailed descriptions of these experiences. The biographies of Sri M (See Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master) or Paramahamsa Yogananda contain experiences which would be considered blasphemy in dogmatic traditions.

This also gives an opportunity for charlatans to claim the same experience. Since it is the experience of one person, how can one validate it? Usually, when two of our perceptions do not contradict, that is proof enough, but here are talking about experiences beyond ordinary perceptions.

Rather than depending on a central authority, these systems are self-validating. There are few simple rules which can help to figure out if the person is making up things or if this is really a sacred experience. These are simple rules which long living civilizations can hold in their memory.

They are

  1. It should not contradict past knowledge in that tradition
  2. It must be true knowledge by someone who has transcended the senses.
  3. It depends on the character of the man
  4. This experience must be verifiable.
  5. He should not be selling this knowledge

In science, if a mass murderer like Stalin, makes a discovery, it is acceptable. That is not acceptable in dharmic traditions. The person has to be sattvic, following a well-established path (See No one does yoga anymore)

If someone says, this is an experience that only I can have and that the rest of us have to trust that, it has to be rejected. In scientific traditions, anyone should be able to have those experiences, provided they follow the right path.

Once we understand this, it is easy to figure out why there is so much hatred towards a decentralized, self-validating and self-sustaining tradition which has sustained for millennia. The fact that anyone can be divine goes against the only-one-divine-person-and-trust-him dogma. Belief in this dogma causes them to destroy anyone who does not believe so. (All in the name of “religious freedom”). Once you become a dogmatic prisoner of science too, you shut yourself from these possibilities by restricting yourself to what is directly perceived and inferred. Our mind and body are capable of much more.

Reference: Patanjali Yoga-Sutra by Swami Vivekananda (Kindle Edition – India, US)

No One Does Yoga Anymore

Yoga is a multi billion dollar industry in America and yet it has nothing to do with Yoga. In the 1970s, Neem Karoli Baba said that no one does Hatha Yoga anymore and the American Yoga industry proves just that. What Neem Karoli Baba said was Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s has steps to acknowledge our spiritual aspects and it assumes that you have completed two steps prior to embarking on the third one, which is Asana, which is what Yoga studios focus on.

The first two steps are Yama (ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya and aparigraha) and Niyama (Saucha, Samtosa, Tapas, Svadhyaya, Isvara pranidhana). Just look at the last item, Isvara pranidhana. According to Yoga journal, it is surrender to God (the one with the capital G). That’s their game. That’s not what Patanjali means though. He means Ishvara and not God. They both are not the same.

Swami Vivekananda writes that Ishvara has to be worshiped by praise, by thought and by devotion. Will atheists do that? But when you are getting a pie of the multi billion dollar cake, you don’t want to throw Yama and Niyama and Ishvara at your clients.