27 June 2005

The strength of women

What most impressed me about the group of women who took the law into their hands and killed a rapist in the premises of a court in Nagpur (see my post of 25 June), were two things: (i) they were women, and (ii) they were slum-dwelling women from a small town in India. Meaning, they were not educated and sophisticated women from an urban city like Mumbai or Delhi; nor were they spandex-wearing superheroes with special powers from comic books or movies.

The Nagpur incident was a far cry from what happened in a Mumbai train almost three years ago: A young mentally-challenged woman was raped in a compartment where over half a dozen men were seated. None of them raised an alarm or tried to get the rapist off the girl. Instead, they waited for their respective stations, got down and left. Only at the final station did someone report the rape to the police.

The Nagpur women were strong, positive and self-reliant – filling the roles of men. They were not superheroes of the Batman school; nor damsels in distress in a fairy tale. They were women with ordinary looks in their ordinary saris or salwar-kameezes. They were ordinary women who left their daily household chores to do something they believed in… to fight oppression.

Yes, a lot of questions arise: About the women’s own motives and actions, about justice, and about taking the law into their own hands. Four women were arrested on the spot. While voicing their frustration, one woman said, “The police is of no use... we thought enough was enough. Instead of dying slowly by swallowing such humiliation, we thought it is preferable to die once for all.”

What a thought! But, what does it mean to us urban sophisticates? Was there now a breed of strong competent women in India who were worthy of hero status? And, were they emerging from small towns to do the work of men and the judiciary system? As individuals, were they more conscious of justice and their self-worth than we were?

If heroism is about living according to heroic ideals and struggling with those ideals, if heroism means action and response to challenge, then these women from Nagpur have certainly proved their point.

According to Joseph Campbell and his interpretation of heroism from mythology (see my post of 18 June), “Heroes play a crucial role… Societies must have heroes to incarnate the society’s values." From what I understand, the whole point of heroes – whether from mythology or from fantasy – is that they are not limited by reality; and here, in a small town called Nagpur, we have not just one but an entire group of women living that reality for all of us.

25 June 2005

Home-grown vigilantism

Last year in Nagpur, women attacked, stabbed and stoned to death a rapist who they said was going to walk free from court. They had seen him do this before. According to the women, he had raped young girls and pregnant women and sent his henchmen to extort money.

In Mumbai, reading this bit of news, I cheered the women on. The rapist’s death would promote the goals of a just society, preventing him from raping again, and potentially deterring other rapists… protecting the sacredness of innocent human life.

In Virar, a suburb of Mumbai, an armed mob attacked a group of men who had robbed a house. Three of the robbers were beaten to death, even before the local police could act. In the following days, crowds roamed the streets, looking for alleged child kidnappers.

It was a serious display of vigilantism. In real life. And I rooted for the crowds yet again. The issue here was punishment. It was part of my notion of justice.

“Effective deterrence is the ultimate function behind the human passion for measured retributive justice. It is the reason why that passion evolved,” wrote evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson in their book HOMICIDE. “But our passion for evening the score has thus become an entity in its own right, an evolved aspect of the human mind. Our desire for justice fundamentally entails a desire for revenge.”

Vigilantism does not consider the usual democratic process of trial, defence and judgment. In countless dramas in real life, people take the law into their own hands and administer their own justice. Meanwhile, audiences – far removed from the consequences of vengeance – cheer these revenge-minded heroes. As I’ve described in the Nagpur and Virar episodes, the desire for and execution of justice, whether keeping with the law or not, is a common occurrence in everyday life.

In fact, this concept of justice and fair play isn’t new to us. In 1931, when Mahatma Gandhi and his followers organised the ‘Dandi March’, marching all the way from Ahmedabad to the sea coast at Dandi to defy the British on their Salt Tax law, they had taken the law into their own hands. How justified was the march to Dandi? No one really knows. The protest was symbolic and intended to remove the tax on the humble salt, which was a burden on the poor. It was a unique idea and caught the imagination of the world – and was widely reported in the national and international media.

Does vigilantism advance the cause of justice? Does it set it back? If justice is to contain a balance between crime and punishment, then should vigilantism be allowed to carry the appeal that it does? To be made popular by the media and the arts?

It’s a complex and unending debate. So, I’ll leave you with something to think about:

The next time a motorist cuts into your lane narrowly missing your car, or a pick-pocket steals your wallet on a bus or train and leaves you in distress, or your boss at work bullies you into doing something against your will – the next time a wrong is done to you and you seek revenge – stop a moment and think.

"The world has never lacked for horrifying examples; but I do not believe that these examples are meant to be used as justification for our own crimes. This perpetual justification empties the heart of all human feeling. The emptier our hearts become, the greater will be our crimes."
James Baldwin, “Fifth Avenue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem,” Esquire, July 1960

Cited texts:
Dandi March in an era of violence and vigilantism
The philosophy of revenge

23 June 2005

Batman and vigilantism

“It's not what’s in your heart that defines you, but what you do.”
(Batman in this year’s movie Batman Begins)

On the surface, Bruce Wayne is a handsome, glamorous, philanthropic, industrialist billionaire and somewhat of a playboy. He seems to have no worries, no problems. However, inside, he is still carrying the torch for his parents, who were killed in front of him in a random act of street violence. Years later, in his Batman alter-ego, he responds to crime by taking justice into his own hands. And so begins Batman’s vigilantism.

Are there then two identities to a superhero which need to be reconciled?

“This ambiguity is part of the appeal,” suggests Frank Miller, author of the 1986 novel The Dark Knight Returns, who recreates the Batman saga. Miller tells the story of how Batman “gets dragged back into the vigilante trade. The story is steeped in enormous distrust of authority, and the necessary outcome of this attitude is a straightforward endorsement of vigilantism.”

Nationmaster.com, in one of the best-researched accounts on Batman, reports that, in the original 1939 DC comics series which introduced Batman, the superhero was a violent avenger who left his foes more dead than not. Yet, the series was a runaway hit.

This report is validated by an NPR programme archived from June 2002: “As imagined by Bob Kane, the comics wonder boy who dreamed him up, Batman had violent crime in his blood. As a young boy, he had witnessed the murder of his parents. And unlike other conventionally good-vs-evil superheroes with more spectacular or otherworldly talents, Kane’s hero was always just a step away from criminal behaviour himself.”

These are the origins of our superhero. Yet, millions of people across the world, many of them children, marvel at Batman’s victories, glorifying his methods and motivation. The superhero credo – along with its vigilantism roots – are not only endorsed but actually praised by the whole world.

22 June 2005

Not your usual Batman film

I’ve got to hand it to Christopher Nolan – the creator of the latest Batman film. Batman is almost human.

That’s what I like most about the film “Batman Begins”: It presents a psychological profile of the superhero – tracing his childhood, his fear of bats, his witnessing of his parents’ murder, his guilt for having survived it, his desire for revenge, his misguided sense of justice, his penance.

I’m not sure if Bob Kane (the creator of Batman) had conceived his superhero in this way, i.e. with a 360-degree view in mind, but in the film Batman Begins, writer David S Goyer and cowriter-director Christopher Nolan does a great job of bringing it all together. Although it is a make-believe world of what may have happened to Bruce Wayne – the man who became Batman the superhero – to me, it makes it all believable.

Batman Begins covers a lot of ground: the traumatised child, the young man seeking justice, his life as a criminal, the warrior-in-training, the rich playboy with a secret identity, and the superhero taking on a world of crime. It shows tough Christian Bale as Batman meting out justice by embracing the role of a vigilante – the only kink in the superhero’s character. But most of all, it shows our superhero’s fallibility as a cold-blooded executioner, without compromising on his reserve for fighting crime. I guess, there’s a human side to a superhero after all.

However, let me caution you: Batman Begins is nothing like the action-comedy-fun Batman films of Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher you may have already seen. This is a serious film. It is dark and joyless. It is long – making it boring for those who expect to see an action film. And, for the simple-minded, the plot is complex and heavy-going.

In other words, Batman Begins is not your usual Batman film.

21 June 2005

It's in the American culture

The superhero is really a figment of the American mind. It’s a piece of American psyche that – if we go by the number of Batman, Spiderman, X-Men, etc. films in recent years – has embedded itself permanently in the American culture. The superhero embodies the collective hopes and ideals of the American nation – fighting against evil forces (possessing weapons of mass destruction), which seem to have nothing better to do than attack America.

So, the superhero steps in with his no-nonsense kick-ass attitude. He takes matters into his own hands and gets into action… leaving behind broken bones, death and devastation. Entire cities are destroyed, fireballs the size of comets lighting up the hemisphere, while people run helter-skelter like headless chickens. No one can stop the superhero. He stops only when he’s done.

If you’ve seen this once, you’ve seen it a hundred times – in all superhero films coming out of Hollywood. Then, why do you go to see a superhero film?

According to William Indick, Ph D, in an article in Journal of Media Psychology, Fall 2004, “when we identify with the hero and vicariously experience his journey, we transcend our own private conscious existence and integrate a collective cultural archetype.” Can this be true? At least, Dr Indick thinks so. In fact, he assures us right in the beginning of his article, “This compound identification with the hero fulfills what Carl Jung called the ‘transcendent function’ of myth and dreams.”

So you see, Dr Indick is not alone in this belief. There are others before him. Carl Jung and Otto Rank to start with… Then Lord Fitzroy Raglan and Joseph Campbell. In his somewhat long but fascinating article on this subject titled “Classical Heroes In Modern Movies: Mythological Patterns of the Superhero” Dr Indick gives us a 70mm view of the origin of the concept of the superhero. The question is: Is this concept restricted to American culture alone?

20 June 2005

Superhero: a generic profile

A superhero, as we know from our comic books, is noted for feats of courage and nobility. He (or she) has abilities beyond normal human beings. He has extraordinary powers – normally physical strength and/or one or a combination of the five human senses. He has mastered fighting and/or thinking skills. And, he usually uses some sort of advanced equipment – made by him or for him by a scientist.

A superhero is also an idealist. He believes in a world which is good – where peace and harmony reigns supreme – but seldom is. He believes in saving this troubled world from evil forces which torment it – sometimes risking his own life – without expecting a reward in return. He believes in a strict moral code which he follows relentlessly, sometimes to the frustration and desperation of others (particularly a girlfriend), and lapsing into the role of a vigilante in an attempt to instil order.

A superhero is also driven by motivation: anger, revenge, justice. Sometimes, even guilt. A childhood traumatic experience, inducing fear, or a calling from a previous birth have also played a part in motivating him. Whatever be the psychographic profile of your favourite superhero, you can’t deny that he takes his responsibility seriously: he’s someone you’d like to have around when things get out of hand. In short, a superhero gives hope.

A superhero also has a catchy name, like Batman or Spiderman, and a matching costume in the superhero’s favourite colour scheme, adorned with a personal logo, fancy gadgets and fighting weapons. Plus, a superhero has a secret identity which very few people around him know.

Most people, whether they’re acquainted with DC and Marvel comics or the recent spate of superhero movies, have their favourite superheroes. Some even want to become one. If you’d like to know which superhero character and costume you’d best fit in, why not try this superhero quiz that The Guardian put together? The result can be fun and interesting.

18 June 2005

The myth of the hero

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his [/her] fellow [people]."
(Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1949)

Around the time Ayn Rand was hard-coding her concept of the hero as a man of reason, a man of exceptional intellectual insight, whose only motivation in life was self-preservation, Joseph Campbell was exploring the concept of the hero from the point of view of myth and religion. Campbell studied the myths and cultures of communities around the world and created an outline of the hero, which he believed was repeated over and over in stories throughout history… irrespective of race or religion. He proposed that all stories were fundamentally the same story, which he named “the hero’s journey.”

Campbell’s myth of the hero, though not hard-coded like Rand’s, was based on the concept of the “archetype” proposed by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Jung’s archetype was developed, in turn, from the pioneering work done by German anthropologist Adolph Bastian, who believed that myths from all over the world were built on the same “elementary ideas.” Jung named these elementary ideas archetypes, and used this concept to find meaning within the dreams and visions of his patients who were considered mentally ill.

How all of this ties in is in Jung’s proposition: “archetypes are not only the building blocks of the unconscious mind, but of a collective unconscious.” Jung believed that everyone in this world was born with the same basic subconscious model of what a “hero” is, and that’s why people who don’t even speak the same language can enjoy the same stories… the stories Campbell called the hero’s journey.

However, Campbell took this further by suggesting that, “while mythic structure is universal, myth itself must be kept fresh through reinterpretation. Every generation must recontextualize myth to suit their times, to create their own road map for how to fit best into the world.” So, if you’re wondering what all the fuss is about Spiderman or Batman or The Lord of the Rings, or those weird Pokemon characters your son is so crazy about, remember the words of Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung or Adolph Bastian. Or, better still, go out and see the movie “Batman Begins” – at least, that’s what I’m going to do this weekend.

15 June 2005

Foundations of heroism

Whether you’ve been reading my previous posts or not, you must’ve figured out that to be a hero you need to give your life to something bigger than yourself: Either display an act of courage and save lives, which is the physical deed; or experience something superhuman and then come back with a message and share it with others, which is the spiritual deed. Then, according to a third philosophy based on Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, there’s the intellectual hero, fortified with the power of reason, ready to conquer the world.

Heroes seem to understand that something is missing from their consciousness. They struggle with it until they find what it is, claim it, and then share it… even if it leads to a tragic end for them. I’m sure many of us have experienced this in our lives; and this thought made me wonder if there is a hero hidden within all of us. Are we not all heroes in some way or the other?

Dr Andrew Bernstein, an Objectivist in his own right, doesn’t believe so. In fact, he proposes a quick reality check for us: “What, the first question must be, is the distinguishing essence of heroism? What characteristics must one possess to qualify as a hero?” In his essay “The Philosophical Foundations of Heroism” he presents, what I believe to be, one of the best studies of heroism.

Barring a few references to Hillary and Bill Clinton, even Hamlet, which I found rather foolish, the essay is really good. However, Dr Bernstein may have overemphasised the Randian presentation of an intellectual hero as a moral genius. Yes, moral character is an integral part of heroism; and so is intellect. But, I believe, one could be an intellectual hero without possessing any moral character whatsoever.

13 June 2005

Heroes versus heroes

[No, this is not about Brazil versus Argentina in World Cup Football]

Traditionally, a hero has been defined as someone who has found or done something beyond the normal range of achievement and experience. A hero is someone who has given his life to something bigger than himself. Meaning, there’s a moral objective to heroism: usually saving people, or supporting an idea. To put it in a few words, a hero is someone who sacrifices himself for something of greater good to mankind and society.

Typically, the hero has been a person of superior skill and/or distinct physical prowess: the soldier-king is a prime example of this. In many myths, the hero has also been defined as a person of divine origin: a son or daughter of a god or deity. Traditionally, too, the hero has been seen as a man of the mind: a thinker/philosopher, a scientist, a spiritual leader. And, since the Industrial Revolution, the hero has been identified as a producer – from the technological/economic/business sense.

These heroes are the life-giving forces whose work makes possible human success, prosperity and happiness. And the stories we read are really the tales of what being a hero is all about.

The heroes in Ayn Rand’s stories, however, are a sharp contrast to all this. Except, perhaps, to include the producer-hero of the Industrial Revolution. Rand’s heroes have nothing to do with war or slaying of dragons or saving people; they are driven by reason, science, technology, economics and business. They have everything to do with the power of the mind of the modern man: therein lies his heroism.

Mind you, “the power of the mind” Rand refers to is not the Gautama Buddha nor the Plato variety that dominates our history and civilisation. Her philosophy of the hero is that of practical reality, of self-preservation, of reason. Hers is an intellectual hero, far advanced from the common man; a product of the best of modern civilisation. Hers is a hero whose rational potential is fully actualised. Hers is a hero whose life-giving force is his intellectual accomplishment.

Which one would you rather be?

12 June 2005

Ayn again: celebrating 100 years

“An organism’s life is its standard of value. Whatever furthers its life is good and that which threatens it is evil… The nature of a living entity determines what it ought to do.” This is Dr Edward Younkins’ understanding of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, as expressed in his article in “The Individual” in 1999. Dr Younkins may be right – for the concept of “the individual” is in the forefront of every Ayn Rand novel and writing.

I had no clear vision of this when I read Ayn Rand. To me Rand stood for personal freedom, selfishness and capitalism, and these seemed almost Olympian in size in my teenage mind. Impressionable and with an imagination which needed curbing, I remember reading Night of January 16th, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged in my high-school days, wallowing in lofty ideals like, “The man with a purpose is a man in control of his life.” Or, “Work and achievement are the highest goals in life.” Or, even better, “Sex is an expression of a man’s self-esteem, of his own self-value.”

Rand’s books had their own attraction, giving impressionable egos like mine a fillip they badly needed; and I’m sure, if I had come across a Playboy magazine then, it would have stirred things up just as much. So, imagine my surprise, when, more than 25 years later, on the internet, I discover an Ayn Rand interview by Playboy magazine dating back to 1964, discussing the very ideals I had to find after ransacking books and magazines at the British Council Library.

But, is there a male bias in all this? Did Rand write only for men, taking their egos to lofty heights? According to influential feminist writer Susan Brownmiller, Rand is “a traitor to her own sex.” And to Camille Paglia, Rand is “an intellectual prototype of her own bad self.” Yet, Rand had thousands of women students among her followers, and to this day, we find Nora Ephron (novelist and screenwriter) and Hillary Rodham Clinton as supporters of her philosophy.

What about the women in Rand’s novels? They defy conventions and are fiercely independent. And unapologetically sexual. Yet Rand also wrote that the nature of female desire was to seek worshipful domination by a heroic male. I couldn’t figure this one out. Was this a joke? Was Rand suggesting some sort of a sadomasochistic role for her women in preference to her male heroes? Controversies abound.

Who was Ayn Rand? What was her vision? When, like me, millions of high-school students enter her world with enthusiasm, are they entering an intellectual adventure of a fictional hero? Or, are they discovering a world much more potent than what we have ever dreamt of? While we celebrate the Ayn Rand Centenniel Year, maybe we’ll find some answers.

10 June 2005

Ayn Rand's Objectivism

Ayn Rand named her philosophy “Objectivism” and described it as a philosophy for living on earth. Objectivism is an integrated system of thought that defines the abstract principles by which a man must think and act if he is to live the life proper to man. Ayn Rand first portrayed her philosophy in the form of the heroes of her best-selling novels, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). She later expressed her philosophy in non-fiction form.

The following is a short description of Objectivism given by Ayn Rand in 1962:

“At a sales conference at Random House, preceding the publication of Atlas Shrugged, one of the book salesmen asked me whether I could present the essence of my philosophy while standing on one foot. I did as follows:
1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality
2. Epistemology: Reason
3. Ethics: Self-interest
4. Politics: Capitalism

If you want this translated into simple language, it would read:
1. “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed” or “Wishing won’t make it so.”
2. “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too.”
3. “Man is an end in himself.”
4. “Give me liberty or give me death.”

If you held these concepts with total consistency, as the base of your convictions, you would have a full philosophical system to guide the course of your life. But to hold them with total consistency – to understand, to define, to prove and to apply them – requires volumes of thought. Which is why philosophy cannot be discussed while standing on one foot – nor while standing on two feet on both sides of every fence. This last is the predominant philosophical position today, particularly in the field of politics.

My philosophy, Objectivism, holds that:

Reality exists as an objective absolute – facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.

Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.

Man – every man – is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.

The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.”

Copyright 1962 by Times-Mirror Co.; courtesy The Ayn Rand Institute

09 June 2005

Objectivism: A to Z

“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
Ayn Rand, author, Atlas Shrugged

“I couldn’t stand it anymore… I was 19 when I killed my stepfather who was constantly beating me and my mother.”
Zhanna, 20 years old, serving her sentence at a women's prison in Zhalgashty, Kazakhstan

Like Zhanna, many women in the Zhalgashty prison are there for killing men – husbands, stepfathers, brothers – who abused them physically and mentally.

“Domestic violence remains a serious problem, against which the government has failed to take effective measures. Those who commit physical abuse rarely face criminal prosecution. The revitalization of old cultural traditions that call for women’s submissiveness to their husbands and the lack of legal tools have resulted in many local officials refusing to take violence against women seriously, often blaming the victims and blocking women’s attempts to escape brutality and violence in the household.

With little or no legal protection, women who are victims of domestic violence suffer doubly: at the hands of husbands who abuse them, and at the hands of society. As a result, many women become desperate and take matters into their own hands. And those who do usually end up in prisons.”
Zuzanna Jezerska, Regional Project Manager, UNIFEM Public Awareness Campaign for Women’s Right to a Life Free of Violence

08 June 2005

Testimony of Dr Geeta Rao Gupta

“The most extreme form of male power is violence against women – and we now know that physical violence, the threat or fear of violence, and the fear of abandonment and destitution interact with other gender-based economic and social inequalities to significantly increase women’s vulnerability.

One in three women around the world has experienced violence in the intimate settings of their homes and within their marriages. We have fought for many years as an international development community towards the freedom from hunger, want, and disease – but somehow we forgot that what many women desperately need is the freedom from fear. Fear of violence and abuse regulates the behavioral choices of more women than we care to know. It regulates the behavior of women from a wide range of socioeconomic classes, ages, and geographical regions. And the costs of violence are borne by women themselves, their children, as well as the communities and economies in which they live.

A recent study conducted by ICRW in partnership with epidemiologists in India found that 40 percent of almost 10,000 women surveyed had experienced physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner at least once in their lives. Nearly two-thirds of those had experienced physical violence three or more times and half had experienced violence during pregnancy. In addition to physical injury, the study found that violence has both emotional and economic impacts on individuals and families. Women reported loss of motivation and energy, a decrease in productivity, with a high percentage having considered suicide. The economic costs were also found to be very high. A preliminary estimate indicates that a serious incidence of violence, leading to hospitalization or inability to work, results in the loss of 30 to 40 percent of the monthly income of rural households.”

Dr Geeta Rao Gupta, President of International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus & Congressional Women's Caucus on 29 October 2003 [excerpt]

07 June 2005

Have we not evolved yet?

At The Penn Summit on Global Issues in Women’s Health, “Safe Womanhood in an Unsafe World” in end-April this year, it was felt that “Although women often provide the foundation for societal stability, their ability to contribute productively to the environments where they reside is often compromised by violence, a lack of rights, low social status, marginal health and limited decision-making about their lives and those of their children.” Can this be true?

A friend and fellow-blogger reports in his 4 June blog, “under the Sharia (the code of Islamic laws… and their convenient interpretations) women rape victims can be put to death – for having slept with strangers. Mass rape carried out as ethnic cleansing in Sudan’s stricken Darfur region has largely gone unreported. Victims are afraid to testify and face the wrath of Sudan’s strict Shariat laws.”

Across the globe from Africa, Janice Asher, clinical director of women’s health at University of Pennsylvania’s Student Health Service, suggests that there is a tendency to think that rape or sexual assault only happens to “other people” or “uneducated people”. Yet, every year, she sees some of the best, brightest and richest students of an Ivy League university like uPenn walk into her clinic as rape victims. In her reality, Ms Asher says, before the year is through “at least one-quarter [of the female students] will have had sex against their will.”

Around the time delegates discussed “Safe Womanhood in an Unsafe World” in the ambient atmosphere of a conference hall at The Penn Summit, in Mumbai, a drunk police constable raped a teenage girl in the early hours of the evening close to a walking thoroughfare. In New Delhi, our capital, there are reports of rape everyday, in spite of the fact that most rapes are not reported.

Who gets raped? According to an article, New Delhi – the rape capital of India?, “Everyone from little girls to grandmothers. Age is no barrier… Rapes happen across the social strata in India.” Why do women get raped? Why do men rape? Why are women afraid to report being raped? The answers can be many… ranging from foolishness to frightening.

I guess there are sociological as well as psychological issues involved here. Even cultural predispositions. But, what about the “becoming human” aspect of our evolution I blogged about last Sunday? About intellect controlling instincts? About displaying behaviour disciplined by intellect… which is a hallmark of our civilisation. Have we not evolved to that extent yet?

05 June 2005

Becoming human

According to the theory of human evolution, our social drives developed long before we developed intellectually. Which means, these social drives – like mother-love, compassion, cooperation, curiosity, inventiveness and competitiveness – are instinctive; not intellectual.

“Not intellectual” means they cannot be modified through education – i.e. by presentation of knowledge for future assimilation and use. Yet, the principle of “survival of the fittest”, which is clearly evident in our evolution and in our behaviour, suggests we can modify our behaviour to suit the need of the hour… slowly growing (evolving) into a smarter (higher order) animal.

Does this mean the intellect developed as a “control” over instincts to provide adaptable behaviour? If so, it means that control – or self-control – is a major differentiating factor between us humans and lower order animals (i.e. those who apply only instinct to their behavioural decisions).

This also means "control" is an important measure of our human-ness (being human). The more control we have over our instincts, the more human we become. The more we display behaviour disciplined by intellect, the more human we become. Sounds reasonable, right?

“Becoming Human” is an interactive documentary on the human evolution created by Arizona State University’s Institute of Human Origins. In it, Dr David C Johanson, a leading paleo-anthropologist, guides us through four million years of human evolution in a beautiful easy-to-understand presentation. Take a look; you may find some of the answers here.

04 June 2005

Stepping out

Where would we be today if our ancestors, and in turn their ancestors, did not survive the Ice Ages or their predators? In fact, not only did they survive, they actually prospered, bringing in cultural developments over thousands of years.

We may have evolved from primates and other apes, but the most fascinating differentiating aspect of the human race has been our ability to adapt to environmental changes and move on to build civilisations. Obviously, this didn’t happen overnight, but took tens of thousands of years. You can find out more about this part of our history by reading a charming book, “After The Ice: A Global Human History, 20000-5000 BC,” by Professor Steven Mithen of The University of Reading.

In “After The Ice”, Prof Mithen takes us through 15,000 years of human history in a magical time-travel. He creates a time-traveller, John Lubbock, who goes around the globe, observing, exploring and recording human history. Prof Mithen blends in Lubbock’s explorations with his own explanations based on archaeological, anthropological and scientific facts… giving us an engaging account of how humans evolved from hunter-gatherers to farmers to domesticators of animals to village builders… resulting in urban civilisations of today.

It’s a make-believe world, and “After The Ice” almost reads like a novel, but Prof Mithen’s supporting facts make this a compelling work of non-fiction. You can read a review of this book on American Scientist Online. Or better still, if you’re curious, why not read an account of our ancestors’ migration from Africa in Steven Mithen’s own words in “Stepping Out” (PDF version)?

03 June 2005

Life, the universe, and our place in it

“The essence of life is what sages and poets throughout the ages have called the breath of life.” That’s Fritjof Capra’s response to the question, ‘what is the nature of life?’ in an interview with Patricia Hemminger for Science & Spirit.

Prof Capra, an eminent physicist and systems theorist, author and founder of the Center for Ecoliteracy, believes we need to look at the universe and life from a holistic point of view, rather than proposing traditional mechanistic models in an attempt to quantify everything. While talking about the natural environment – what he calls ‘the web of life’ – he suggests that, to understand life, we need to see it from an ecological perspective.

Explaining the basic fact that no living organism can exist in isolation, he feels “we need to focus on processes and we need to focus on relationships between the components of living organisms to capture the essence of life.” In his vision, human beings are actually a part of a larger living system.

Prof Capra’s vision is greatly influenced by the Gaia Theory, which proposes that the Earth itself is a single self-regulating biological entity. Of course, the scientific community is not entirely convinced about this, and many scientists argue that the Gaia Theory is more mystical than scientific in nature.

Whatever be the controversy, some things seem to be clear: that life and the physical environment significantly influence one another. And, “as far as humans are concerned we are, biologically speaking, animals and we evolved from the other mammals through primates and the great apes. And so we are part of a whole chain of evolution and the whole web of life.”

02 June 2005

Spirituality and science

What happens if we conduct research in spirituality while applying the scientific method? Can we find a model of spirituality which agrees with science? Can scientific inquiry lead us to the same transcendent knowledge that the world’s spiritual traditions speak of?

In a wonderful and thought-provoking article,
“Advaita and Science”, Dr Nitin Trasi introduces us to the doctrine of advaita and says: “Interestingly, we can. Not only that, if we delve a little further, we will find that all the mystics and sages have been pointing to this very same philosophy from time immemorial.”

However, eminent economist E F Schumacher may have believed otherwise. In an interview to Fritjof Capra, physicist and author of books like The Tao of Physics and Uncommon Wisdom, Prof Schumacher said: “We have to be very careful to avoid head-on confrontation… I don't believe at all that physics can help us in solving our problems today.”

Fritjof Capra met E F Schumacher in 1977 (shortly before Schumacher’s death) and narrated the essence of this meeting in his book Uncommon Wisdom. Today, thanks to “What Is Enlightenment” magazine, you can read an account of this interview – also wonderful and thought-provoking – in
“Encounter at the Edge of the New Paradigm.”

01 June 2005

A striking new picture of "reality"

In spirituality, there are many points of view offering meaningful explanations of “reality” to the common man. Some of these explanations cross over into the realm of science, as science itself has had to cross over into spirituality whenever it has tried to expand its boundaries.

The truth of the matter seems to be that, there is a connection; but no one knows for sure when, where, why or how it happens. In an article going back almost ten years, “Science & Spirituality: Bridging The Gap”, Shahriar Shahriari presents a lucid discussion on this subject, bringing together science, the supernatural, and spirituality.

Mr Shahriari’s point of view is based on the theory of “the holographic nature of reality”, which really is the result of the combined work done by London physicist David Bohm and Stanford neurophysiologist Karl Pribram. Apparently, after much scientific investigation, both Bohm and Pribram have arrived at the conclusion that the universe is more like a hologram, where every part (of the hologram) contains all the information processed by the whole. They feel “the whole contained in every part” nature of the hologram provides us with an entirely new way of understanding organisation and order. In fact, this understanding may help us solve some mysteries that have never before been explainable by science – and even establish the paranormal as a part of nature.

In a fascinating (but somewhat lengthy) article, “Spirituality and Science: The Holographic Universe”, Michael Talbot narrates the story of Bohm and Pribram: “The most mind-boggling aspect of Pribram’s holographic model of the brain is what happens when it is put together with Bohm’s theory. For if the concreteness of the world is but a secondary reality and what is ‘there’ is actually a holographic blur of frequencies, and if the brain is also a hologram and only selects some of the frequencies out of this blur and mathematically transforms them into sensory perceptions, what becomes of objective reality? Put quite simply, it ceases to exist.”

Connecting the holographic theory to spirituality, Mr Talbot explains, “As the religions of the East have long upheld, the material world is maya, an illusion, and although we may think we are physical beings moving through a physical world, this too is an illusion. We are really ‘receivers’ floating through a kaleidoscopic sea of frequency, and what we extract from this sea and transmorgify into physical reality is but one channel from many extracted out of the super hologram.”

This striking new picture of reality, the synthesis of Bohm’s and Pribram's views, has come to be called the holographic paradigm.