Sunday, December 30, 2012


Author:     Harivansh Rai Bachchan
Published: 1935
Publisher: Hind Pocket Books (39th Edition)
Paperback: 162 pages

Madhushala (The Tavern/ The House of Wine)  is perhaps the most popular work of the renowned poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan (better known to the masses as the father of the Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan).
If I remember correctly, I had bought a copy of this book way back in 1993 but inexplicably never got down to read it cover to cover till this month.
And when I read it I realized what I had been missing all these years.
On surface Madhushala is a collection of 135 quatrains extolling the virtues of a tavern where wines are sold. But each and every verse of this poem has a deep mystical, spiritual and philosophical thought underlying it. The poet brilliantly employs the words - madhu, madira or haala (wine), saaki (server), pyaala (cup or glass)  madhushala, madiralaya (pub/bar) - as metaphors to convey Soul's longing to be united with the Divine.
Really a gem of a collection of verses  which one needs to dive into  multiple times and enjoy its beauty !


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Sunday, December 23, 2012

7 Secrets of Shiva

Author:     Devdutt Pattanaik
Published: 2011
Publisher: Westland Ltd.
Paperback: 234 pages

I was really impressed with the author's book 7 Secrets of Vishnu which I  read last year. I have even written a summary of it in this  blog.
So I ordered for this book when one of my Flipkart coupons was about to expire.
This book intends to clarify for the readers the implicit patterns in the stories, symbols and rituals of Lord Shiva.
There are seven chapters in this book.
The first chapter,Lingeshwara's Secret - Imagination makes us human, explains the meaning of the Shiva-linga going beyond its conventional interpretation as a phallic symbol. 
The second chapter ,Bhairava's Secret- From fear comes all corruption, focuses on Shiva's violent disdain for territorial behavior amongst humans.
The third and fourth chapters - Shankara's Secret - Without empathy there is no evolution and Bholenath's Secret - Culture is a human delusion - deal with how the Goddess Shakti, Shiva's consort gets him to compassionately engage with the world.
The next two chapters - Ganesha's Secret - Food alone does not satisfy hunger and Murugan's Secret - Face fear to outgrow it -  revolves around these two son's of Shiva who, through whom he connects with the world.
The final chapter, Nataraja's Secret - Destruction is deconstruction, presents Shiva as the wise teacher who expresses wisdom through dance.

All the legends , rituals and symbols are very well interpreted, though I am not sure whether it is author's own interpretation or whether it is based on his research.
The writing style is more coherent and simpler as compared to the author's other book 7 Secrets of Vishnu.
The book has an attractively designed cover and profusely illustrated. Every alternate page has an illustration of a classic painting  or a calendar art or a temple sculpture. The illustrations are well supported by explanations in call-out bubbles which point to the exact part of the illustration being explained. See below a sample of such illustrations.
A few suggestions for the author and the publisher to be taken care of in the next edition:
  • A glossary for non-English terms used in this book.
  • An index to easily locate the interesting pieces of information.
  • A consolidated list of all the illustrations along with their sources. 
  • A hardcover version of this book with glossy illustrations in color will make this an excellent coffee table book.
I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in religious mythology, spirituality or philosophy. At just Rs. 250/- this book is a real bargain. 

Sample illustrations from this book: 

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Monday, December 17, 2012

Life of Pi

[Author: Yann Martel; Publisher: Canongate Books; Year: 2001]

Many a times I sighted  this book in bookshops, but was never interested enough to pick it up and browse through it.
Then last month I happened to see on the TV review of the movie based on this book and the interview with the film's director Ang Lee and the main cast of the movie. They all talked about the underlying philosophy of the book and also the spectacular special effects ( in 3-D) of the movie.
That sparked my interest to read the book and as well watch the movie.

I bought  this book in Kindle format (my second purchase from Amazon Kindle store). 
Pi , a sixteen year old boy from Pondicherry is shipwrecked in midst of Pacific ocean and stranded  in a life boat  with a ferocious Tiger.Yann Martel vividly narrates in first person, how Pi combats through sheer will power and resourcefulness, all the odds stacked against him. This is the main plot which forms the second part of the story.
The first part of the story is about Pi's life with his family in Pondicherry. It is here Pi, develops faith in  three religions - Hinduism, Islam & Christianity. They all help him in equipping him with the mental strength which stands him in good steed to face the ordeal in the sea.

A very inspiring read  for everyone!

P.S. - I watched the movie while I was in the midst of reading this book. The movie is technically brilliant as it manages to successfully recreate what is narrated in the second part of the book and is a Must Watch. But the philosophical musings (see some of my favorite quotes below) and sense of humor of Pi which forms such an integral part of the book gets lost in the movie.


Some of my favorite quotes from the book:
(Thanks to Kindle, I did not have to type them at all. Just did a cut and paste from the shared online notes)
  • Reason is my prophet and it tells me that as a watch stops, so we die. It’s the end. If the watch doesn’t work properly, it must be fixed here and now by us. One day we will take hold of the means of production and there will be justice on earth.
  • To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.
  • Escaped zoo animals are not dangerous absconding criminals but simply wild creatures seeking to fit in.
  • Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims. 
  • Every element lived in harmonious relation with its neighbor, and all was kith and kin. I knelt a mortal; I rose an immortal. I felt like the center of a small circle coinciding with the center of a much larger one. Atman met Allah. 
  • There are always those who take it upon themselves to defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless.
  • These people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart. 
  • Technology helps and good ideas spread—these are two laws of nature. If you don’t let technology help you, if you resist good ideas, you condemn yourself to dinosaurhood!
  • Why do people move? What makes them uproot and leave everything they’ve known for a great unknown beyond the horizon? Why climb this Mount Everest of formalities that makes you feel like a beggar? Why enter this jungle of foreignness where everything is new, strange and difficult? The answer is the same the world over: people move in the hope of a better life.
  • People move because of the wear and tear of anxiety. Because of the gnawing feeling that no matter how hard they work their efforts will yield nothing, that what they build up in one year will be torn down in one day by others. Because of the impression that the future is blocked up, that they might do all right but not their children. Because of the feeling that nothing will change, that happiness and prosperity are possible only somewhere else.
  • Things didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to, but what can you do? You must take life the way it comes at you and make the best of it. 
  • When your own life is threatened, your sense of empathy is blunted by a terrible, selfish hunger for survival.
  • You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better. We see that in sports all the time, don’t we? 
  • Oncoming death is terrible enough, but worse still is oncoming death with time to spare, time in which all the happiness that was yours and all the happiness that might have been yours becomes clear to you.
  • Some of us give up on life with only a resigned sigh. Others fight a little, then lose hope. Still others—and I am one of those—never give up. We fight and fight and fight. We fight no matter the cost of battle, the losses we take, the improbability of success. We fight to the very end. It’s not a question of courage. It’s something constitutional, an inability to let go. It may be nothing more than life-hungry stupidity.
  • I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life.
  • You dismiss your last allies: hope and trust. There, you’ve defeated yourself. Fear, which is but an impression, has triumphed over you.
  • You must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.
  • Survival had to start with me. In my experience, a castaway’s worst mistake is to hope too much and do too little. Survival starts by paying attention to what is close at hand and immediate. To look out with idle hope is tantamount to dreaming one’s life away.
  • There’s nothing like extreme need to give you resolve.
  • Time is an illusion that only makes us pant. I survived because I forgot even the very notion of time.
  • What was the point of plotting a course if I could not act on it?
  • I cannot think of a better way to spread the faith. No thundering from a pulpit, no condemnation from bad churches, no peer pressure, just a book of scripture quietly waiting to say hello, as gentle and powerful as a little girl’s kiss on your cheek. 
  • Faith in God is an opening up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love—but sometimes it was so hard to love.
  • The worst pair of opposites is boredom and terror. Sometimes your life is a pendulum swing from one to the other.
  • Only death consistently excites your emotions, whether contemplating it when life is safe and stale, or fleeing it when life is threatened and precious.
  • Life on a lifeboat isn’t much of a life. It is like an end game in chess, a game with few pieces. The elements couldn’t be more simple, nor the stakes higher. Physically it is extraordinarily arduous, and morally it is killing. You must make adjustments if you want to survive. Much becomes expendable. You get your happiness where you can. You reach a point where you’re at the bottom of hell, yet you have your arms crossed and a smile on your face, and you feel you’re the luckiest person on earth. Why? Because at your feet you have a tiny dead fish.
  • It was an awe-inspiring spectacle to sit in a tree and see giant waves charging the island, seemingly preparing to ride up the ridge and unleash bedlam and chaos—only to see each one melt away as if it had come upon quicksand. In this respect, the island was Gandhian: it resisted by not resisting.
  • High calls low and low calls high. I tell you, if you were in such dire straits as I was, you too would elevate your thoughts. The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar.
  • It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse.
  • Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer.
  • Reason is excellent for getting food, clothing and shelter. Reason is the very best tool kit. Nothing beats reason for keeping tigers away. But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater.
  • The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?

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Monday, December 10, 2012

Ashoka - The Search for India's Lost Emperor

[Author: Charles Allen; Publisher:Little Brown; Hardback482 pages ]

Ashoka , also known as Ashoka the Great, was an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty who ruled over almost the entire  Indian subcontinent from  269 BCE to 232 BCE. He was a pioneer in forging India into a single nation welfare state, espousing the concept of non-violence and the spread of Buddhism in Asia.
Every Indian knows about his symbols - the Ashok Chakra which adorns the Indian national flag and the Lion Capital which is India's national emblem.
It  came as a surprise to me as I read this book tha, Ashoka was all but forgotten for  nearly two thousand years after his reign ended.
From the late 18th century onwards monuments and rock edicts of Ashokan era began to be discovered. 

In this fascinating book, the author narrates the story  of reconstruction of India's lost Ashokan history through diligent and painstaking  efforts of British archaeologists, Oriental scholars and their associates
It is  profusely illustrated with photographs  and sketches dating back to the timewhen these works were in progress.
An account of the life and times of Ashoka put together based on the evidences uncovered through archaeological findings and research is given at the end of the book.

There is also an appendix consisting of translated versions of the Ashoka's edicts inscribed on  pillars and rocks which shows how unique and far-sighted his views and principles were.

A very well written book, which could have been made even better if the author had provided a timeline chart of all the discoveries made. There are far too many mentions of names ,places and artifacts which made it difficult for me recall the previously discussed material while I was reading this book.

A must read for all history lovers ! 

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