The highlight of today, day three of our Tamil Nadu trip, was this temple called Thirumayam that we discovered. It’s a Vaishnava temple built into a hill, not far from chettinad, on the way to thanjavur.

And it was to thanjavur we were on our way to when we saw the Thirumayam fort and temple near the road, and decided to make a short detour and stop. In other words, later today we went to the Brihadeeshwara Temple (or “big temple” as it is known in these parts), and yet the highlight of the day remained Thirumayam.

For some of you that may not add up. So let me explain.

Over the last four years, we’ve done quite a few family road trips. Most of them have been in Karnataka. During one of the earlier ones we discovered that all of us quite like going to “ASI temples” – those that are currently maintained by the archeological survey of India.

Many of them are obscure. In some, we are the only ones around at the time we go. Some may have some worship, but many don’t since the idols have been damaged during one invasion or the other. That doesn’t matter to us.

What does is that these temples are incredibly pretty. Most have nice carvings on them – hence the archeological value. And most are old.

There was a coffee table book on Karnataka’s temple architecture I had got several years ago. We’ve planned entire itineraries based on that book.

I remember going to Tirupati around Christmas in 1991. It was so crowded and the lines were so long that I didn’t want to go back. My wife had a similar independent experience about the place whenever she first went there.

It was a similar experience in Mantralaya, or any other popular temples I’ve been to. The crowds are quite off putting. Especially if you are not of a particularly religious persuasion (and we are not religious) you start wondering what the point of jostling with such massive crowds is.

And as it got reinforced during our trip to the Brihadeeshwara this afternoon, I’m actually claustrophobic. Big crowds of people, or people walking past me and close to me, really put me off.

We entered the main temple, and the queue to see the idol stretched till the entrance. One look and we decided we’d had enough and put exit. Earlier, when we had gone to drop out shoes in the shoe stand, the absolute chaos of (lack of) organisation there meant we just left our shoes there without bothering to take a ticket for them (they were there an hour later when we returned).

Even on Thursday when we went to the Madurai Meenakshi temple, the crowds were big enough to put us off from wanting to see the idol – seeing the temple and its architecture and beautifully carved pillars was Darshana enough for us.

And so while the Brihadeeshwara was fantastic, and I’m really glad I finally saw it, our experience there was discounted by the crowd. And that made the place far inferior.

Later, we went to the similar but smaller temple at the nearby Dharasuram. We went at a time when there was no worship, but I enjoyed that much better than Brihadeeshwara, all due to the relative lack of crowds.

Crowds put us off, disorderly crowds even more so. And if that means we don’t see the main idols at several temples, so be it. Seeing the temples and the carvings and architecture is more than good enough.

At Thirumayam (picture above) we were possibly the only “tourists” (that was clear from our appearance and dressing, and our lack of proficiency in Tamil). And I was amazed to see how nice everyone around was.

One of the priests took a few minutes off his worship to explain the temple and other deities there to us. Another pilgrim (possibly a local) shared some of her Prasada (rock sugar or Kallu Sakkare) with us – unprompted.

The vibe – which can come from the lack of crowds – was incredibly friendly. And that’s been our experience in all the seemingly underrated temples with good architectural value.

The problem with supply of visitors being too high is that the attention goes down. And that makes the experience inferior. Unless of course you believe that catching a direct line of sight to the idol is going to compensate for this – which for a lot of people matters, which explains why demand sustains despite the inferior overall experience.

The Krishna principle

However much you try to protect yourself the enemy will find a way to get to you

I’ve written here a fair bit about the gods. It’s largely been about Ganesha and hanuman, though and there is very little about Krishna that I’ve written here. However an incident at today’s dinner suggested there is an important life lesson to be learnt from Krishna as well.

I was wearing my white T-shirt. Rather, I was wearing one of my two plain white Zara T-shirts. I’ve abused them both a fair bit ever since I got them. It’s inevitable that when i wear them I end up soiling them by spilling some food stuff. So far it’s not been too expensive – each time the shirts come out of the washing machine fully clean. I don’t know how long this will last.

We were having dinner at our hotel in chettinad – the generally excellent CGH earth Visalam. It was a sit down banana leaf dinner, but there were napkins provided with knives and forks (no clue what purpose the latter served!).

I’ve had a complicated relationship with napkins. In nursery school I remember they would make us tuck napkins into our shirts while eating. I hated that (also a reflection of the quality of napkins we got in 1986-88). and so I started considering napkins as a downmarket thing.

And then over the course of life I found that putting the napkin on your lap was more elegant – shirts weren’t protected now but it was far less awkward. Growing up I figured the napkin could be used to signal to the waiter when you were away from the table – on the chair means you’re going to be back, and on the table meaning you were done. Etc.

Anyways so today at dinner I remembered that I’d dirtied this shirt for the last 2-3 times I had won’t it. And so I decided to protect it by wearing the napkin in the way it was taught to us in kindergarten – tucked into the front of the collar.

For readers more familiar with Greek myth than with hindu myth. Krishna has an “Achilles-like” story. It goes that his mother dipped him into a pool of liquids with immortal powers. However since his mother held him by his heels they didn’t touch the water and so remained mortal. Finally he died by a hunters stray arrow that hit his heal.

And this is the principle I’m talking about – Krishna’s mother wanted to make him immortal (especially given the looming Kamsa thread). But the part with which she held the baby remained mortal. And that caused his downfall.

So the Krishna principle says – however much you try to protect yourself (or a loved one) there will always be a vulnerability, that the enemy will exploit.

And so today I was happily enjoying my dinner, with my napkin tucked into my front collar, seemingly safe in the knowledge that my shirt was safe.

Then they served crab. As I tried to break one of its claws, it squirted some weird liquid. Which splashed right into the sleeve of my shirt!’! and so it went.

Hopefully this shirt will survive this wash as well. Tomorrow I’m going to be wearing its partner – the “mid weight” Zara T-shirt. I’m hoping I’ll be able to protect that one from culinary damage!

At the cost of one shirt stain, I’m happy I’ve managed to get an interesting concept.

Modern Ganeshas

Om Ganeshaaya Namaha

There is this theory I have heard – just that I have forgotten the source – that Ganesha was not originally part of the Hindu pantheon, but was a local god who was coopted into the fold later on. In fact, the same is said of his “brothers” Karthikeya and Ayyappa, and it is interesting that all these cooptions happened as sons of Shiva.

Back to Ganesha, the story goes that he is “vighneshwara” not because he removes obstacles (“vighnas”) but because he is the “obstacle god” (direct translation of vighneshwara). The full funda is – the locals who had Ganesha as their god allowed him to become part of the Hindu pantheon (and thus themselves becoming Hindus) under the express condition that he be worshipped in advance of any of the other gods in the Hindu pantheon.

Now, as even most non-practising Hindus will know, pretty much every Hindu ritual starts with a worship of Ganesha. It doesn’t matter which other god you are trying to worship, you always start with a prayer to Ganesha (unless, of course, if you are a radical Vaishnavite – in which case, Ganesha, as a son of Shiva, is taboo).

The polite explanation of this is “Ganesha is such a great god, and a remover of obstacles, you better worship him first so that the rest of your worship goes without obstacles”.

The more realist (and impolite, and controversial) explanation (again I’ve forgotten the source) is that if you started a worship without worshipping Ganesha at first, the locals who had “contributed” him to the pantheon would get pissed off and ransack your worship. And so the Ganesha worship at the beginning of every worship (and invocation ceremony) originally started as a form of blackmail, and then became part of culture. Eventually, it became lip service to Ganesha.

Earlier this year, I was watching the Australian Open. The finals ended, and it was time for the prizes. And at the beginning of the prize distribution, the announcer (Todd Woodbridge) said (paraphrasing) “we begin with a worship to the native peoples of Australia on whose lands we now stand”. It was similar to some episode of Masterchef Australia 2-3 years  back, which again started with the same “invocation”.

OK I actually found the video of Woodbridge from this year:


In this particular case, what has happened is that Australia has (finally) learnt about racism, and is now going overboard to identify all forms of overt or covert racism, past and present. The modern Ganesha-worshippers are the people whose job it is to point out every instance of overt or covert racism. If you don’t worship this Ganesha (talking about the “native peoples whose lands we stand upon”), the Ganesha-worshippers will come for you and maybe disturb the rest of your worship.

Ultimately, like the original Ganesha worship, this has turned into lip service.

“Modern Ganeshas” are not restricted to Australia. I just read this hilarious tweet (new Twitter rules means I have to copy paste here):

Have been on college tours in the Northeast. Every admissions officer and student volunteer starts with (1) a declaration of their pronouns, and (2) an acknowledgement of the stolen native lands their college is placed upon.

This is similar modern Ganesha worship, but practiced in the US. Lip service paid so that the “modern Ganesha worshippers” don’t come and disturb your worship.

When Colin Kaepernick knelt down during the playing of the (US) national anthem, he made a powerful statement. But then, when people started randomly taking the knee at the beginning of events (especially immediately after George Floyd’s murder), it turned into “modern Ganesha worship” (lip service so that the worthies don’t get offended).

And no political “wing” or party has a monopoly on modern Ganesha worship. In some places, ceremonies routinely start with praise being conferred on some “dear leader”. Literal Ganesha worship can also help in modern times, since that still has its guardians. You can include recitals of (whichever nation’s) national anthems, or readings from the constitution into this list.

The less memetically fit of these worships will fade away (or burn out, in case of a change in government). The more memetically fit of these worships will remain, but over a period of time turn into Ganesha worship – a token done out of habit and practice rather than due to fear of any contemporary reprisal.

The Fragile Charioteer

A few days back, I was thinking of an interesting counterfactual in the Mahabharata. As most people know, the story goes that Arjuna went to battle with his charioteer Krishna, and got jitters looking at all his relatives and elders on the other side, and almost lost the will to fight.

And then Krishna recited to him the Bhagavad Gita, which inspired Arjuna to get back to battle, and with Krishna’s expert charioteering (and occasional advice), Arjuna led the Pandavas to (an ultimately pyrrhic) victory in the war.

A long time back I had introduced my blog readers to the “army of monkeys” framework. In that I had contrasted the war in Ramayana (a seemingly straightforward war fought against a foreign king who had kidnapped the hero’s wife) to the war in the Mahabharata (a more complex war fought between cousins).

Given that the Ramayana war was largely straightforward, with the only trickery being in the form of special weapons, going to war with an army of monkeys was a logical choice. Generals on both sides apart, the army of monkeys helped defeat the Lankan army, and the war (and Sita) was won.

The Mahabharata war was more complex, with lots of “mental trickery” (one of which almost led Arjuna to quit the war) and deception from both sides. While LOTS of soldiers died (the story goes that almost all the Kshatriyas in India died in the war), the war was ultimately won in the mind.

In that sense, the Pandavas’ choice of choosing a clever but non-combatant Krishna rather than his entire army (which fought on the side of the Kauravas) turned out to be prescient.

When I wrote the original post on this topic, I was a consultant, and had gotten mildly annoyed at a prospective client deciding to engage an army rather than my trickery for a problem they were facing. Now, I’m part of a company, and I’m recruiting heavily for my team, and I sometimes look at this question from the other side.

One advantage of an uncorrelated army of monkeys is that not all of them will run away together. Yes, some might run away from time to time, but you keep getting new monkeys, and on a consistent basis you have an army.

On the other hand, if you decide to go with a “clever charioteer”, you run the risk that the charioteer might choose to run away one day. And the problem with clever charioteers is that no two of them are alike, and if one runs away, he is not easy to replace (you might have to buy a new chariot to suit the new charioteer).

Maybe that’s one reason why some companies choose to hire armies of monkeys rather than charioteers?

Then again, I think it depends upon the problem at hand. If the “war” (set of business problems) to be fought is more or less straightforward, an army of monkeys is a superior choice. However, if you are defining the terrain rather than just navigating it, a clever charioteer, however short-lived he might be, might just be a superior choice.

It was this thought of fleeing charioteers that made me think of the counterfactual with which I begin this post. What do you think about this?

PS: I had thought about this post a month or two back, but it is only today that I’m actually getting down to writing it. It is strictly a coincidence that today also happens to be Sri Krishna Janmashtami.

Enjoy your chakli!

Losing My Religion

In terms of religion, I had a bit of a strange upbringing. My father was a rationalist, bordering on atheist. My mother was insanely religious, even following a godman. And no – I never once saw them fight about this.

Both of them tried to impress me with their own religions. My mother tried to inculcate in me the habit of praying every morning, and looking for strange patterns (“if this flower on this photo falls, then it will be a good day” types). My father would refute most of these things saying “how can you be a student of science and still believe this stuff?”. I suppose I consumed a lot of coffy bite when I was a kid.

In any case, with a combination of influences, both internal and external, in my early youth I was this strange concoction of “not religious but superstitious”. I had both a “lucky shirt” and a “lucky pen”. Back in class 12, I had convinced myself that “Wednesdays are a particularly bad day for me”.

I really don’t know if this has anything to do with my upbringing, but I would see patterns everywhere. I would draw correlations between random unconnected things, and assume causality. I staunchly refused to admit that I was religious, but allowed for strange patterns and correlations nevertheless.

When I had five minor car accidents during the course of 2007 (it wasn’t a great year for me, and I was quite messed up), I believed (or maybe was made to believe) that it was “my car’s way of protecting me” (I wasn’t hurt in any of those, though the car took a lot of beatings and scratchings). I had come to believe that a particular job didn’t go well because on the first day of work, I had splashed water on a kid on my way back by driving fast through a puddle.

The general discourse nowadays is that religion improves people’s mental health. That it helps people see meaning and purpose in their lives, and live through tragedies and other kinds of unhappiness. A common discourse on the right, on social media, is that it is the lack of religion that has led to the mental health epidemic that we have been going through for a while.

The way I see it, based on my own experience, this is completely backward. The basic thing about religion, at least based on my mixed upbringing, is “random correlations”. A lot of religion can be explained as “you do this, God will be happy with you and give you that”. Or that something was just “meant to be”, maybe based on actions in one’s past lives.

Religion is about “being a good person” and “karma”, and that all your mistakes will necessarily get punished, if not in this life in the next. The long period over which karma operates significantly increases the scope of random correlations that you can draw from life.

First of all I’m good at pattern recognition (something that has immensely helped me in my academics and careers). The downside of being good at pattern recognition is that there can be LOTS of false positives in patterns that you recognise. And when you recognise patterns that don’t really exist, you learn the wrong things, and after that live life the wrong way. And I think that was happening to me for a very very long time.

And so came the lucky shirts, the lucky pens, the precise order in which I would check websites at work every morning and many other things that were actually damaging to life, especially mental health. The pattern recognition was making me miserable, and the religion and superstition that I had come to believe in gave credence to these patterns, and (with the benefit of hindsight) made me more miserable.

In 2012, after having burnt out for the third time in six years, I began to see a psychiatrist and take antidepressants. It was the same time when I had started my “portfolio life”, and one of the items in that portfolio was volunteering with the Takshashila Institution, where I was asked to teach a class on logical fallacies.

That’s possibly a funny trigger, but hours of lecturing about “correlation not implying causation” meant that I started finally seeing the random correlations that I had formed in my own head. And one by one, I started dismantling them. There were no lucky days any more. There wasn’t that much karma any more. I started feeling less worried about things I wanted to say. I started realising that being “good” is good for its own merits, and not because some karma recommends that you should be good.

And I started feeling happier. Over the course of time, it seemed like a big load had been taken off my head. And so, whenever I see discourse on social media (and in books) that religion makes people happier, I fail to understand it.

In January 2014, I met an old friend for dinner. While walking back to the parking lot, he casually asked me what my views on religion were. I thought for a minute and said, “well, I firmly believe that correlation does not imply causation. And this means I can’t be religious”. That’s when I became convinced that I had lost my religion, and had become happier for it. And I continue to be happy because I’m not religious.

Dog breeds and caste

On Sunday I took a very long walk with a very old friend. We talked about several things during the course of the two hour conversation, including dogs.

We passed by a couple of dogs that seemed rather friendly and were tugging at their leashes to come and greet this friend. Now, this guy is an animal lover and photographer, and spent the next twenty minutes educating me about dog breeds, and about why “indie” dogs are great.

Now I don’t know if it is a coincidence that at around the same time we were taking our walk, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on his radio show Mann Ki Baat extolling the virtues of Indian dog breeds.

“Their purpose is to make Indian breeds better and more useful. Next time when you think of keeping a dog then you must bring one of the Indian breed dogs home. When self-reliant India is becoming the mantra of the masses then no area should be left behind,” Modi said in his monthly Mann Ki Baat address.

In any case, the reason indie dogs are preferable to pure breeds is that the latter go through a whole load of inbreeding. You must be aware of this common “doubt” about the Old Testament – Adam and Eve had two sons Abel and Cain. Cain killed Abel. How did Cain then propagate his genes?

If you believe in evolution, this isn’t much of a joke – it can be simply assumed that Cain found a near-human species to propagate his genes with. If you don’t, there is a bit of a, er, problem.

In any case, the way dog breeds are created (over several generations) is that dogs that possess certain traits (over and above their friendliness to humans – which is what makes them dogs and not wolves) are interbred. This desirable trait gets a wee bit stronger. In the next generation, another pair of dogs that have this wee bit extra of this desirable trait get interbred. And the process continues.

Now, it’s likely that if you take a boy dog and a girl dog who both have a high degree of this desirable trait, they share a fair bit of their ancestry. So within a few generations of starting the breed, you will have a fair degree of interbreeding.

It’s a bit like the royals of the Middle Ages – thanks to their insistence on preserving their blue blood, they only wanted to marry other royals. Soon, they ran out of royals to marry, unless they married their aunts and cousins and nieces that is. And that’s precisely what they did.

And so you had emperors such as Charles II of Spain who “was so ugly he scared his own wife”.

Charles II of Spain could barely walk because his legs could not support his weight. He fell several times. Marie died in 1689 without producing an heir for Charles II. The Spanish monarch was depressed after his first wife died.

Depression was a common trait among the Habsburgs. So was gout, dropsy, and epilepsy. The lower jaw was the kicker, though, as it made Charles II seem stunted. His ministers and advisers suggested the next move in Charles II of Spain’s reign: to marry a second wife.

He was apparently the descendant of “16 generations of Habsburg inbreeding”. Now you know why pugs have spinal problems, and why ____ (forget the breed, my friend mentioned on Sunday) have heart issues. Inbreeding, apart from selecting for the desirable traits, also unwittingly selects for some undesirable traits.

In any case, dog breeds are created when dogs with some desirable traits are forcibly mated with other dogs with similar desirable traits by some “higher power” (the human master). In some ways, you can think of dog breeding as similar to arranged marriage – rather than letting street dogs bonk whoever they want, dog mates are carefully arranged in the breeding process.

Now, “being forced to mate with someone desirable by a higher power” – what does that remind you of? Isn’t it like traditional Indian arranged marriage (the sort where you don’t even see your spouse until the time of marriage)? And what do you get when a “higher power” forces arranged marriage upon you for a large number of generations? The caste system, of course.

The basic feature of the Indian caste system, you might remember, is endogamy – caste rules largely meant that Indians married within their own caste. In fact there is research that has shown that for some 2000 years or so a large number of Indians have mostly married within their own caste.

Now, you can think of this as some Lamarckian quest to create the perfect breeds for humans for each profession (remember that castes started off as job divisions). So if two blacksmiths marry, their offspring will be a better blacksmith. And by thus marrying within the blacksmith community, over a few generations, they will create the “perfect breed of blacksmith” (this applies to all other professions, of course).

Of course, given that a large part of the skill that goes in being good a profession is learned rather than inherited, this inbreeding hasn’t done much to create the perfect breed of human for any particular job. Instead, what it has done is to saddle us with lifestyle diseases.

Having written nearly 900 words, I realise that I’m not alone in comparing dog breeds to caste, or Hinduism. Aadisht Khanna, my friend from business school, had written a blogpost to the same effect a few years ago. That’s enjoyable as well. Read it.


Looking for porn in Ikkeri

A long time back I’d gone to Sringeri, and tried to use insights from Tyler Cowen’s Discover Your Inner Economist, which I had then just read. Cowen had written that the way to get interested in things you’re not normally interested about is in engaging in side bets.

So if you’re watching a game where you don’t know which team to root for (which makes it less interesting), you place a bet. When you go to an art gallery, think about which painting you would want to steal (if given a choice).

And a corollary is that when you visit a medieval Indian temple, you get yourself interested in the sculptures by looking for porn in them. At Sringeri I hadn’t had that much luck. Either I was bad at spotting figures (no pun intended) back in 2008, or the temple there is simply too “sanskari”, but I had completely failed to find porn there.

Last week, we did a family road trip through West-Central Karnataka. We went close to Sringeri but didn’t actually go there. Instead, we visited seven (I think) other medieval temples in that region, most of them off the beaten tourist track.

All seven temples (IIRC) are under control of the Archeological Survey of India, though all of them also see daily prayers (basically, the idols haven’t been destroyed). In many of them, we were the only people at the temple at the time of visit. We didn’t spend too long in each temple (30-45 minutes at max), and they weren’t particularly close to each other, so it was a real “road trip” that way (most time being spent in the car).

In any case, we were in luck at the Aghoreshwara Temple in Ikkeri.

It was the wife (who, you might remember, is a relationship guru) who first noticed this. “Is this guy shagging?”, she asked, looking at a sculpture on the side of the temple. “Oh wow! This woman is touching herself”, she went on.

We only looked closely at one side of the temple (we had gone in the afternoon and the floor on the other side of the temple was too hot so we didn’t spend much time there), but there was plenty of “good stuff”.

One series of people touching the penis of the guy in front. One person tugging at the penises of two people at the same time. Women sprawled out in an inviting manner. People getting anal. Interesting “positions”. The sculptor surely had superb imagination.

The wife diligently documented a lot of things we saw and put them on Instagram. You can check the stuff out here.


Most of our temple visits on the trip came after this one, and so we kept our eyes out for “interesting stuff” there. Unfortunately we didn’t come by much stuff. Some of the temples we visited later on (like the one in Banavasi) were much older. Other temples didn’t have that much sculpture around the outside walls (which is where this kind of stuff usually goes).

Nevertheless, this “discovery” early on in our trip made all our subsequent temple visits that much more interesting.

WhatsApp Profiles and Wandering Spirits

As the more perceptive of you might know, the wife runs this matrimonial advisory business. As a way of developing her business, she also accepts profiles from people looking to get married, and matches them with her clients in case she thinks there is a match.

So her aunts, aunts of aunts, aunts’ friends, aunts’ nieces’s friends, and aunt’s friends’ friends’ friends keep sending her profiles of people looking to get married. The usual means of communication for all this is WhatsApp.

The trigger for this post was this one profile she received via WhatsApp. Quickly, her marriage broking instincts decreed that this girl is going to be a good match for one of her clients. And she instantly decided to set them up. The girl’s profile was quickly forwarded (via WhatsApp) to the client boy, who quickly approved of her. All that remained to set them up was the small matter of contacting the girl and seeking her approval.

And that’s proving to be easier said than done. For while it has been established that the girl’s profile is legitimate, she has been incredibly hard to track down. The first point of contact was the aunt who had forwarded her profile. She redirected to another uncle. That uncle got contacted, and after asking a zillion questions of who the prospective boy is, and how much he earns, and what sub-sub-caste he belongs to, he directed my wife to yet another uncle. “It’s his daughter only”, the first uncle said.

So the wife contacted this yet another uncle, who interrogated more throughly, and said that the girl is not his daughter but his niece. As things stand now, he is supposed to “get back” with the girl’s contact details.

As the wife was regaling me with her sob stories of this failed match last night, I couldn’t help but observe that these matrimonial profiles that “float around” on WhatsApp are similar to “pretas”, wandering spirits of the dead (according to Hindu tradition), who wander around and haunt people around them.

The received wisdom when it comes to people who are dead is that you need to give them a decent cremation and then do the required set of rituals so that the preta gets turned into a piNDa and only visits once a year in the form of a crow. In the absence of performance of such rituals, the preta remains a preta and will return to haunt you.

The problem with floating around profiles on WhatsApp, rather than decently using a matrimonial app (such as Tinder), is that there is no “expiry” or “decent cremation”. Even once the person in question has gotten taken, there is nothing preventing the network from pulling down the profile and marking it as taken. It takes significant effort to purge the profile from the network.

Sometimes it amazes me that people can be so nonchalant about privacy and float their profiles (a sort of combination of Facebook and Twitter profiles) on WhatsApp, where you don’t know where they’ll end up. And then there is this “expiry problem”.

WhatsApp is soon going to turn us all into pretas. PiNDa only!

Cults and kaLsanyasis

I’ve long maintained that religion is a meme. And religions as we know it today have evolved over the last few hundred years (or millenia), though a combination of replication, crossover and mutation. I’ve argued that fun practices are necessary for religions to maintain their memetic fitness, and that people (at the margin) will choose to celebrate festivals that are more fun, and festivals need to be more fun to improve memetic fitness.

Today I came across this old article in the New York Times (possible paywall) about how the decline of cults is a problem. One of the arguments that the author Ross Douthat makes is that cults keep religions fresh, and help them continuously evolve. Yes, cults can be destructive and dangerous and could even kill, but in case they are not and they “survive”, they could even go mainstream.

He gives the examples of Mormonism in the 1900s in the United States, or Jesuits and Franciscans even earlier, as cults that over the period of time became mainstream in terms of religion.

Based on the religion-as-meme framework, you can think of cults as mutations in the religious meme code. Cults keep large parts of their “parent religion” and then experiment with important differences. If these differences prove to be popular (and not dangerous), the cults will prosper, giving rise to a new strand of the religion. Sometimes that can lead to a new religion itself.

While the article linked above is US-centric, and from 2014, India in 2020 has no shortage of cults. A number of cult leaders, such as Paramahamsa Nithyananda and Jaggi Vasudev, have become memes in themselves (apart from their respective cults trying out mutations in the Hindu meme code). Some others, such as Gurmeeet Ram Rahim Singh Insaan and Asaram Bapu have been found to be dangerous and put in jail – it’s likely that their cults’ memes aren’t too fit.

And as these cults come and go, mainstream Hinduism sometimes copy from them, sometimes in a good way and sometimes not. And what the cults ensure (not willingly) is that the religion itself remains fresh, and as the religion remains fresh, more people will be inclined to follow it.

So while at the level of the individual (think of the victims of (sexual and other) harassment that is rather common in some cults) the cults may not be a great thing, at the systemic level, they make sense.

And the more we make fun of Nithyananda and the more we forward his funny videos on WhatsApp, the more the next “religious entrepreneur” will be inclined to make it big.

Ramayana and Weight Training

There are several interpretations of the Ramayana. As AK Ramanujan compiled, there are more than “three hundred ramayanas“. In some versions, Ravana is Sita’s father. In others, he is her brother. Yet others have been written from Sita’s point of view. And some from Hanumantha’s. And some from Ravanas.

In fact, the Ramayana (contrary to the sanitised Ramanand Sagar version we were fed by Doordarshan) is a fascinating enough epic that there can be millions of interpretations of the story. So let me add mine.

In my opinion, the Ramayana is a shining example of the virtues of Strength Training, especially barbell training. I’ll illustrate this with two key episodes from the epic.

The first is Sita’s swayamvara, where Rama beats off all competition to be able to marry Sita. The test is rather simple. There is a rather heavy bow that the suitors should lift and then string. My interpretation is that most other suitors who had come to the swayamvara were “convenational gymmers” who spent hours every week honing their biceps and triceps and ignoring training their large muscles.

Basically, like most “gym rats” you see at most conventional gyms, these suitors focussed on the lifts that made them look good rather than those that gave them real strength. Rama, on the other hand, practiced simple barbell lifts, and was especially adept at the deadlift. So after all the shower-offs had failed, Rama walked up and deadlifted the bow (the weight was such that no other lift was possible) and strung it. And married Sita.

The other episode comes much later in the epic, when the scene of action has shifted to Sri Lanka. Angada, the monkey prince, has gone to Ravana’s court in the form of an advance party to negotiate Sita’s release before Rama declared war on Lanka. Ravana insulted him, and so Angada refused to budge until he had had an audience. Various members of Ravana’s court tried to physically dislodge him (as Angada had challenged them to do so), but Angada remained firm, with his feet firmly planted in the ground.

Clearly, Angada did squats, and members of Ravana’s army who fooled themselves into strength by solely concentrating on the arms didn’t realise that someone (who squatted) could have such heavy and firm feet. And so they failed to dislodge him.

Now to find episodes from the epic that show the virtues of the press and the bench press.