Saturday, June 5, 2021

My key takeaways from Katha Upanishad

Investigating the “illusion of time” hypothesis is an important part of the mindfulness process and I explore it in chapter 7 of my mindfulness book. In Sanskrit and in many Indian languages the word kaal (काल) means both time and death. Hence, Katha Upanishad (or Kathopanishad) which contains a dialogue between Nachiketa, an inquisitive boy and Yama, the God of death has been of interest to me. I had read the English translations a few times. Last year, I tried to read it in Sanskrit. I used the Sanskrit online dictionaries and also listened to 30 of 47 discourses by Swami Tejomayananda of Chinmay Mission last year. Here are my key takeaways from what I have read so far and what my understanding is of these verses. I am sure, like any art form, I might find new meanings and nuances when I read it again.

1.      What is the state of the world?

Verse: 1.2.5

अविद्यायामन्तरे वर्तमानाः स्वयं धीराः पण्डितं मन्यमानाः ।
दन्द्रम्यमाणाः परियन्ति मूढा अन्धेनैव नीयमाना यथान्धाः ॥ ५ ॥ 
avidyāyāmantare vartamānāḥ svayaṃ dhīrāḥ paṇḍitaṃ manyamānāḥ |
dandramyamāṇāḥ pariyanti mūḍhā andhenaiva nīyamānā yathāndhāḥ || 5 ||

Living in the middle of ignorance and regarding themselves as intelligent and learned, the ignorant go round and round, in many crooked ways, like the blind led by the blind.


2.      Why is the world like this?

पराञ्चि खानि पराङ्पश्यति नान्तरात्मन् । (part of verse 2.1.1)
parāñci khāni parāṅpaśyati nāntarātman |

Sense organs are out-going. Therefore, one sees outside and not the atman within.

And the first line of the next verse (verse 2.1.2) 

पराचः कामाननुयन्ति बालास्ते मृत्योर्यन्ति विततस्य पाशं ।
parācaḥ kāmānanuyanti bālāste mṛtyoryanti vitatasya pāśaṃ | (verse 2.1.2) 

The ignorant pursue external objects of desire; they get into the meshes of widespread death.


3.      What is futile?

Part of the verse 2.1.2 tells what is futile:
ध्रुवमध्रुवेष्विह न प्रार्थयन्ते

dhruvamadhruveṣviha na prārthayante 

(Wise) do not wish for permanence from that which is impermanent.


4.      What to do? (1)


आवृत्तचक्षुः (āvṛttacakśuh)i.e. Turn eyes (attention) inwards (Part of verse 2.1.1)

And observe that (verse 1.3.10)

इन्द्रियेभ्यः परा ह्यर्था अर्थेभ्यश्च परं मनः ।
मनसस्तु परा बुद्धिर्बुद्धेरात्मा महान्परः ॥ १० ॥

indriyebhyaḥ parā hyarthā arthebhyaśca paraṃ manaḥ |
manasastu parā buddhirbuddherātmā mahānparaḥ || 10 ||

Meaning is superior to the sense organs, underlying tendencies or beliefs are superior to the meaning, discerning intelligence (vivek-buddhi) is superior to the beliefs and underlying essence (atman) is superior to the intelligence.

5.      What to do? (2) 

Verse 1.3.14

उत्तिष्ठत जाग्रत प्राप्य वरान्निबोधत ।
क्षुरस्य धारा निशिता दुरत्यया दुर्गं पथस्तत्कवयो वदन्ति ॥ १४ ॥
uttiṣṭhata jāgrata prāpya varānnibodhata |
kśurasya dhārā niśitā duratyayā durgaṃ pathastatkavayo vadanti || 14 ||

Arise, awake; having reached the great, learn; the edge of a razor is sharp and impassable; that path, the wise say, is hard to go by. 

My summary: Wake up, are you pursuing only external objects? Are you leading a meaningless life? Are you wishing permanence in impermanent? Turn your attention inwards and watch the subtle movement of thought. Are you reactive all the time? Is there any discernment i.e. questioning of beliefs? Be alert and watch.

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Thursday, June 3, 2021

3 types of thinking Harish Hande highlighted for social innovations

Last week, I finished co-teaching the course “From jugaad to systematic innovation” with my friend Prof. Rishikesha Krishnan at the Indian School of Development Management. In the last class, Rishi had invited Selco founder Harish Hande as a guest speaker. In a short span of half an hour, Harish managed to instill a big dose of creative energy in the class. He told us about the type of thinking he felt is required while innovating in the social sector. Here are 3 types of thinking Harish highlighted:

Holistic thinking: Harish said, “One of my biggest barriers is the ability of people to think holistically”. People tend to identify themselves with a particular discipline such as mechanical engineering, marketing, finance but nobody says, “I am a solution provider”. We get caught up in our degrees and don’t think of what it takes to bring the solution to the doorstep of the customer.

Selco has labs in Kalahandi in Odisha, Williamnagar in Meghalaya, Guwahati and Bangalore where new programs are designed. And every program design team includes an architect, an engineer, a doctor, a finance person etc. Sometimes it also includes an anthropologist and a Yakshagana artist. They have to answer the question, “Is the solution affordable in the long run?” A solution that is low-cost today could be unaffordable in the long run. For example, a solar-powered sewing machine may enable a woman to produce 8 shirts a day instead of 2. However, if she is not able to find a market for her products then we end up creating technology debt. Hence, program design teams are encouraged to spend more time exploring the problem and think long term before they think of solutions.

Cheat thinking: How do we cheat from other processes? That is, how do we copy the seed of an idea from other working examples? Harish illustrated this idea with the mid-day meal scheme. A mid-day meal attracts kids to school in order to get nourished. In a similar way, could kids be attracted to school in order to get portable batteries charged so that their houses get lighting at night? With this observation Selco’s “Light for education” program was born where a school becomes a hub for the solar infrastructure in the village, a go-to place to charge your batteries. If American Express comes up with a new financial product, could one see if there is a seed of an idea there that can be adopted? Or could we borrow something from the vocational curriculum in German schools? What Harish calls cheat thinking is similar to what I call metaphoric thinking, a solution-centric approach to problem-solving.

Open-source thinking:  A question was asked, “How do you see the role of competition in the development sector when it comes to innovation?” Harish said, “Social sector promotes collaboration on paper. But it is the worst collaborator. Competition in the social sector is much more cut-throat than in the private sector.” He added, “The aim of many of the non-profits should be to kill themselves, not to grow.” He felt we need open source thinkers whose end goal is how many people will get benefitted rather than how do I keep it to myself. There is hero-worship in the sector where people are recognized by the awards they amass. “Collaboration is far away,” Harish said. He hoped that program design with holistic thinking would promote collaboration from early stages.

It was a privilege to listen to Harish and thanks to Rishi for making this event happen.