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Saturday, 13 September 2014

Why I Became an Atheist - My Journey from Orthodox Hinduism to Spirituality to Atheism

Why I Became an Atheist - My Journey from Orthodox Hinduism to Spirituality to Atheism

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 13 September, 2014

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.
For other articles by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, please visit

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.



In a recent debate on Facebook, the topic of organized religion and its comparison with atheism came up. The discussion was in response to an article that reported on a study done that revealed that, based on many financial indicators over an 84-year period and 63 prior studies, atheists seemed to be more intelligent than religious people.

This generated some debate on the virtues or drawbacks of atheism relative to organized religion, with some participants arguing that they did not believe in organized religion, but held spirituality to be the ideal instead of atheism.

In response, I explained my personal journey from a traditional religious background to atheism, with a considerable stop-over in the land of spirituality, and explained what prompted me, first to abandon formal religion and take up spirituality, and then to abandon spirituality and embrace atheism. I decided to put down those thoughts in a more structured way so that it could be beneficial to more people by publishing it as an article here.

My Orthodox Religious Background

I was raised in a very orthodox religious home, and still live in it. My mother does as many pujas as they would do in a temple. In fact, she never goes to the temple. She has no time, and no need, being busy with her own pujas all the time. She follows all kinds of rules, and we have to follow quite a bit of them to humor her. Having been brought up in such a home, I was invested with the sacred thread at age 11. In the first three years after getting the thread, I used to perform the “Sandhyavandanam” ritual THRICE a day – in the morning, at lunchtime, and in the evening (luckily the school I went to was a 5 minute walk from my home, so I could come home for lunch, at which time I could quickly do the “Madhyanhe,” the afternoon ritual, before eating.) I used to listen religiously to the Vishnu Sahasranamam, the Rudram, and all the Suprabhatams at home. I used to pray every morning at our home altar before leaving for school, and always used to have vibhuti, kumkum, and chandan (sandalwood paste) on my forehead before going to school. When they used to show the Kanchi Shankaracharya on TV, I used to fold my hands in prayer. As a family, we once even hired a car and went from Mumbai to Satara to meet the great Paramacharya (as the senior pontiff of the Kanchi mutt was known) when he ventured that far up north from his base in Kanchipuram, and felt truly blessed when we were able to have a darshan of someone we considered a living embodiment of God.

And yet, today, I call myself an atheist.

So what happened?

When you start at as deeply religious a point as I have outlined above, you don’t become an atheist overnight. It is a gradual process of questioning, asking “why” each time you do something. It takes some time to start questioning, and it takes time to find the answers to your questions. The first step in the journey is the abandonment of formal religion and its attendant rituals – and even this takes time. You give up a few rituals at a time, and eventually, you give up all rituals altogether over a period of years.

Why I Gave Up Religion

There are some problems that are common to all religions, and so I will mention these first, before actually moving on to Hinduism and some of the specific issues which annoyed me about Hinduism. The interesting thing is that the common problems are less noticeable at the beginning of one’s disenchantment with religion; we are generally so used to them that we don’t think much about them. Read on to see this clearly.

I want to highlight one thing very clearly at the outset. Although I have mainly highlighted the flaws of Hinduism here, I DON’T BELIEVE OTHER RELIGIONS ARE ANY BETTER.  All religions have serious problems. I am talking about Hinduism here only because, having been born and raised as a Hindu, I have the most knowledge to talk intelligently about the problems of Hinduism, and I have experienced them firsthand. This does not mean any other religion is better. They are all bad, in my considered opinion.


The fundamental problem with ALL religions is intolerance. All religions are collections of superstitions, and the followers of one religion not only disagree with the superstitions of another, they insist that followers of all religions follow their superstitions. 

Thus, for example, when you go to Saudi Arabia, an Islamic country, you cannot eat during the day in the month of Ramadan even if you are not Muslim. Even the consumption of water is forbidden during the day in the month of Ramadan, and non-Muslims have to drink water secretly. Alcohol is forbidden in Islam for Muslims, but it is not available to non-Muslims either, unless you happen to live in a foreigner enclave. So Islam forces its beliefs on followers of other religions. 

In India, many people, including many Hindus, eat meat of all kinds, such as chicken and mutton; but Hinduism considers the cow sacred, and hence eating beef is forbidden for Hindus. As a result, orthodox Hindus try to ban the eating of beef. Again, this is an attempt to force the beliefs of one religion on followers of another religion or no religion. Some communities among Hindus, as well as followers of the Jain religion, do not eat any meat at all, as part of their religious observance. In Mumbai, several housing societies will not rent out or sell to people who are not vegetarian – because it offends the religious beliefs of OTHERS who live in that housing society. 

Catholics believe that life begins at conception, and so believe that abortion is killing a life, so they try to force their view on ALL people, including non-Catholics – by trying to ban abortion by anyone, Catholic or non-Catholic alike, in Catholic countries. As if this invasion of a person’s personal space is not bad enough, the Catholic Church also believes that one should not use condoms – and given that people do engage in pre-marital and extra-marital sex in real world, with multiple partners as well, this means that deadly sexually-transmitted diseases like AIDS spread more rapidly without condom use. 

Even Buddhists, who people generally mistakenly regard as peaceful people, have indulged in violence and persecuted Hindus and Muslims in Sri Lanka for the simple reason that these communities practice a different faith. Large-scale riots took place in Sri Lanka because Buddhist monks objected to Sri Lankan Muslims eating Halal meat according to the dictates of Islam.

Of course, even though this intolerance is present in all religions, people who live in places where their religion is a majority never notice it, and so their own rebellion against their religion is usually not on these philosophical grounds. For instance, as a Tamizh Brahmin, I was raised a vegetarian – and so a ban on beef-eating did not affect me, nor did any stipulation against eating meat. In fact, I lived in a housing society where only South Indian Brahmins and Jains lived, and since both communities were vegetarians, we never had any problems on this score. You realize these are problems only when you become a minority.

Organized Religion Means Organized Killing

More people have been killed in the name of religion than for any other cause. So many conflicts, from the medieval Crusades to conflicts between Muslims and Hindus in India to the ongoing conflict in Israel-Palestine to the Bosnian conflict of 1992-95 to the Holocaust of WWII, have been based on religious intolerance. It is hard to see anything in religion to like. Even though all religions usually talk of mercy or charity, it is usually limited to those who are within the fold of that religion. Sometimes it is even more specific. In Hinduism, for example, charity is encouraged, but only to the highest caste, that of the Brahmins.

Again, as in the case of intolerance, you don’t notice these problems if you aren’t directly affected by them. For example, being a Brahmin myself, I never saw the problem of charity being limited to Brahmins. My family hardly moved with anyone else anyway. When we did give, I never noticed that the recipients were always Brahmins. And, as for inter-religious conflicts, I happened to live in an area in Mumbai – Matunga - where there were only two dominant communities – Tamizh Brahmins and Jains. The two communities were well-suited; and diet compatibility was a big reason. Even today, South Indians enjoy Jain food and Jains enjoy eating in Udupi Restaurants. On the street that I live in Matunga, there is a “Jain-Iyer” idli/dosa batter shop that makes the best idli/dosa batter. I did not know a single Muslim family growing up, because there wasn’t any in the neighborhood. When riots happened in Mumbai, it never happened in our area. So I happily lived in la-la land. Riots happened to others.

Superstitions and Rituals

No, what led me to rebel against Hinduism were not these (very important) factors, which I grew to appreciate only later, as my study of religions deepened. My initial rebellion against Hinduism was because of the idiotic rituals, rules, and blind faith that I saw all around me and that I had to follow. Whether or not atheists are more intelligent than believers, as the article that provoked this post asserted, it is clear that RELIGIOUS BELIEF ITSELF IS A VERY UN-INTELLIGENT ACTIVITY, as you can see below. (Every religion will have its set of irrational rules and rituals; what I describe is based on what I saw, and is by no means unique to either Hinduism or our community – seek and you will find flavors in every religious denomination.)

The supreme irony is that people who will question anything and everything in all other aspects of life: “all cricket matches are fixed”; “all vegetable sellers try to cheat you on the weight”; “all politicians are corrupt”; etc., will not hesitate to bow down low before ANYONE WHO SIMPLY CLAIMS TO BE DIVINE. They will not hesitate to embrace religious doctrines that are in conflict with every principle of life they know to be true, and which are full of internal contradictions. Simply put, religion requires a suspension of skepticism and logic. 

The man who, in his daily job, works as an auditor and will not accept a single paisa as legitimate unless a bill is shown for it, and thus employs logic in its severest form, will nevertheless prostrate himself before the man who claims to be divine but has no proof of it – who only has to manifest himself in saffron robes and no questions are asked. This cannot be said in any frame of reference to be an intelligent act. The person who will not invest a single rupee in a mutual fund unless he is sure he will get the best yield and ROI on his money will nevertheless blindly believe a friend when that friend tells him that if you go and pray in this temple (and donate money, of course), your wife will conceive a child – without any proof, and based solely on rumor.

So, the willing suspension of disbelief, of skepticism, and logic that is the hallmark of religious activity cannot be said by any reasonable person to be intelligent. Essentially, RELIGION MAKES INTELLIGENT PEOPLE STUPID. They may not be intrinsically stupid, but their adoption of religion makes them temporarily so.

It is like a Ferrari being driven in Bangalore. A car that is capable of speeds of 300 km/hr can only be driven at an average speed of 30 km/hr in Bangalore because of the bad roads and traffic density. If you asked a person in Bangalore who had no idea about the glory of Ferrari and asked him what the speed of a Ferrari was, he would tell you it is 30 km/hr, not 300 km/hr, because in that environment that is all he can see. Similarly, a normally intelligent person in the presence of religion becomes stupid.

The Caste System

In addition, the evil of the caste system, which flows through Hinduism's veins, also did not make any sense to me. The caste system forces endogamy within Hinduism – Brahmins only marry Brahmins; Kshatriyas only marry Kshatriyas; and so on. But the madness does not stop with that. Tamizh Brahmins are split into the sub-castes Iyers (those who worship Shiva and Vishnu) and Iyengars (those who only worship Vishnu). We are Iyers. Among Iyers, there are the Vadama, Vaathima, Brahacharanam, and Ashtasahasram sub-sub-castes. The Vadamas (of whom I am one) considered themselves the best of the lot. Among the Vadamas, the “Vadanaattu Vadamas” were considered even better. Now the Vadamas preferred to marry only within Vadamas, but in a pinch, might condescend to marry into other sub-sects – and only in desperate situations would want to marry among the Iyengars. Never in your dreams would you marry a non-Brahmin.

Imagine the conflict in any educated mind that goes to school and reads about Martin Luther King’s great speech where he says that he hopes to see a world one day where people are judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” and then come home to see that marriages are arranged with character as a last consideration, only after all caste matches are first sorted out. Sure, King talked about color, and caste is not the same as race, but essentially, it amounts to the same thing – a form of discrimination based on birth and not character.

One of the earliest experiences with caste discrimination that I experienced was when I used to go for haircuts. In those days, barbers came from a special low caste in Hinduism that exclusively used to conduct this “lowly” profession, as it was seen then. So, when I used to visit a barber for a haircut (and my father would be waiting for me OUTSIDE the barber shop), I’d have to go straight to the bathroom for a shower as soon as I got home. Not only that, my clothes would have to be washed immediately as well because all of these had been fouled by contact with the barber. People will try to present arguments of hygiene on this – how this is done so that hair doesn’t come in your food, etc. – but if you saw the level of paranoia – “don’t touch anything as you come inside the house!!!” – you’d know this was way more than concerns about hygiene.

Similarly, I was told to be careful when leaving the home for school in the morning not to accidentally brush the sweeper who was sweeping the compound – and again, I am sure hygiene was only part of the problem. The fact is that most sweepers came from the low castes.

It was weird indeed to go to school and read in my textbooks about the evil of the caste system, and yet to see it manifested daily in my life.


In addition to caste restrictions, Hindu marriages are complicated by the use of this absurd pseudo-science called astrology. People look at the arrangement of stars in the sky at the time someone was born and decide that they can predict his or her future. There are countless charlatans (astrologers) all over India who claim to be able to tell whether a boy and a girl will have a good life together after marriage simply by looking at the positions of the stars in the sky at the time the boy and the girl at the time of their birth. 

In addition, some people are considered unlucky without reference to the birth constellations (also known as “horoscope”) of their prospective partner. One common problem for Hindus all over India is the “Manglik” problem. If a person is born with the planet Mars (“Mangal” in Hindi) in the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 7th, 8th, or 12th “house” of the “ascendant chart” of that person’s horoscope, he or she is considered unfortunate and will have a hard time finding a mate, unless the other person is also manglik. So a person might be brilliant, witty, beautiful, smart, and educated – but she will not be able to find a husband in the arranged marriage route if she is Manglik (known in Tamizh as “Chevvai dosham.”) 

There are other idiotic astrology-based problems too – a girl born in the Moola nakshatra (constellation) is considered unlucky, as well as a girl born in the Pooradam nakshatra – there is a saying that “Pooraadatthukku nool aadaathu” – which translates to “The girl born in Pooradam won’t have a thread for long” – the thread, of course, referring to the “Mangalsutra” that the husband ties around the wife’s neck as a symbol of their union during the marriage rituals. The implication is that the girl born in Pooradam is unlucky for her husband and he will die soon afterwards if he marries the girl. Similarly, a girl born in Ashlesha nakshatra is considered dangerous for the life of the mother-in-law – so boys whose mothers are still alive will not marry girls who are born in the Ashlesha nakshatra. This is just a superficial description of the idiocy accompanying astrology – the rot goes several layers deep.

Auspicious and Inauspicious Times for Doing Things

If you want to go out of the home for some important business, you can’t just leave the house when you please; you have to note the time and make sure you do not leave during “Rahu kalam” or “Yama gandam” – “inauspicious periods” that can be at different times on different days of the week. When there is an eclipse, you are not supposed to cook food because it is considered impure. Pregnant women are not supposed to go outdoors during eclipses because it is supposed to be able to cause miscarriages. You cannot cut nails except on Thursdays and Sundays. If someone dies, you cannot call them to express your condolences except on a Thursday or a Sunday, unless it happens to be during the first 10 days after the death. And on and on and on like this.

One particular event helped a lot in my shaking off absurd and superstitious beliefs that I had learned as a Hindu. I remember that when I first went to the US, I had picked a date that would be very convenient for me to join the University of Utah that had admitted me to an MS program. That date would have given me plenty of time to find an apartment and also enjoy the University’s new student orientation program. However, this was vetoed by my mother, who told me that the almanac (“panchangam”) told her that my choice of date was inauspicious, and so she picked a date one week later, which left me with very little time to do what I needed to do before school started – find an apartment, etc. Furthermore, the supposedly “auspicious” date ended up being extremely inauspicious:

1.       TWA, the airline that got me from London to Chicago, was delayed getting in.
2.      I missed my connecting flight to Salt Lake City – the last flight of the evening.
3.      TWA palmed me off to a United Airlines flight, which I had no hope of making and which I subsequently missed.
4.      As a result, neither airline considered itself responsible for my being stranded.
5.      Not knowing anything about Chicago, and not wanting to spend $100 out of my limited $800 that I had brought from India for a hotel room – the $800 had to last me my first month before my scholarship money kicked in - I spent the night in the airport lounge at O’Hare.
6.      It was extremely uncomfortable, though I tried to sleep on three chairs.
7.      I was worried about crime, since I had heard a lot about Chicago, and could only sleep after a police officer assured me I had nothing to worry about inside the airport.
8.     The airline lost my luggage in this mess, and I only got it a day later.
9.      The two friends from IIT, who had urged me to join them a week earlier, had found an apartment and resented me for not helping with the effort of finding one, and refused to accept me as a roommate, told me I was on my own in finding a roommate and a place to live. They summarily kicked me out and refused to even entertain me for a night. I had to go knocking on other people’s homes to find a place to stay the night.
10.  Consequently, I missed most of the fun orientation program that the International Students Association had organized for new students.

Oh, but I did leave on an “auspicious” day!!!

The Idiocy of Prayer

One of the enduring aspects of religion is prayer. As a child, I was taught to pray at the family altar before an exam, so that God would help me get good marks in the exam. Every time there was adversity, we were told, pray to God, he will help you with your problems. 

There was never any clarity on the logic behind this guidance. We used to pray for the Indian cricket team to win its match. No one asked the question of what happens if the supporters of the opposite team also pray to their God. Who wins then? Whose God is stronger? What if I am rooting for the Mumbai Indians in the IPL, who are playing the Chennai Super Kings in the final? Given that the majority of Indians are Hindu, you can imagine that a lot of Hindus will pray to Hindu Gods to help the Mumbai team win, while a lot of Hindus will pray to the same Hindu Gods to help the Chennai team win. So who wins? Can you out-pray the other? Is it a number game? IS GOD SO CHEAP???

Prayer also takes away the motivation for a person to take responsibility for things. You spend the whole week playing carrom with your friends in the hostel, and then pray before the exam that God will help you pass? What kind of logic is this? And why do parents teach these kinds of corrosive morals to their children? I was very disillusioned with the concept of prayer.

Exploitation by the Clergy

Exploitation by the clergy occurs in every religion, and Hinduism is no exception. In fact, according to the caste system, the clergy belongs to the highest caste of the Brahmins, which means that, according to Hindu scriptures, the best treatment is supposed to be reserved for the Brahmins. Anyone who reads Hindu scriptures will immediately realize that these have been written by Brahmins for the benefit of Brahmins. It is mentioned that the greatest sin in life is to kill a Brahmin; that one acquires great merit in the afterlife by donating generously to Brahmins. Donations of gold, land, and cows are particularly encouraged. It is considered a sin to turn away any Brahmin who comes to your home and asks for food (though it is not a sin to turn away people of any other caste). The priests have learned to exploit this fully. Consider the example of funerary rites.

When my father died, I had to perform his last rites. But I quickly realized they were not “last” rites. The priests have created an elaborate cock-and-bull story about what happens to the soul after death that is designed to maximize profits for the clergy. Here is how that works.

They explain that after death, the soul starts on its journey to the netherworld, the abode of Yama. This is a long journey and so the soul needs to be properly prepared for it. It needs slippers for the journey, an umbrella in case of rain, food for the journey, etc., and so you have to give gifts of these things to Brahmins, who are the proxy for the soul. In addition, there is supposed to be a scary river that the soul has to cross to reach Yama’s abode – the river Vaitarani. This river is populated by wild beasts which will tear up the soul and cause great pain to it. But, not to worry, there are boats to cross the river with. BUT – these boats are ONLY AVAILABLE to those who have made the gift of a cow to a Brahmin. In cities, we don’t have cows to give, so the Brahmin priest will kindly agree to the monetary equivalent of a cow in gold.

But once you have made all these gifts for the well-being of the soul, don’t think it is over. Every month you have to perform a ceremony for the benefit of the soul, and every month you have to give gifts to the Brahmins – otherwise your father’s soul may be damned. And, at the end of one year after his death, I again had to do a major ceremony, and again give lots of gifts to the priest and other Brahmins. When asked, they gave the same cock-and-bull story of the river Vaitarani. I told them that I thought he crossed it last year? They had no answer. I went along for my mother’s satisfaction.

What is even more ridiculous is that you have to keep performing ceremonies every month at amavasya (new moon) and then every year to make sure your father’s soul is at peace. And it is not just my father’s soul. I offer prayers for the benefit of my grandfather’s soul, and my great-grandfather’s soul as well. The whole system is geared to maximize profits for priests and have a steady source of income for them.

What I could not understand is how illogical the whole system is. The idea that a person’s soul needs his son to do rituals for him in order to be saved from hell is idiotic. What this implies is that even if a person was an outstanding person during his life, even if he was a devout Hindu, followed all the rituals and paid his respects and dues to every priest and temple, and followed all the rules of Hinduism faithfully, and if he was a genuinely nice and kind person to boot, he could not be guaranteed safety in the afterlife. His plight in the afterlife depended on what his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren did for them. Now, I can probably influence my son to be a good Hindu and follow traditions; my ability to influence my grandson is even more limited; and my great-grandson I might never even see. How can I ensure safety for my soul in the afterlife?

It seemed completely illogical and unfair that a person should be penalized for the faults of others, but that is the system that the priests have created in Hinduism, and hundreds of millions follow these rules without any second thought. If that is not stupidity, I don’t know what is. It is like saying that even if you did an excellent job in your office, others in another office did not, so you will get a pay cut instead of a raise. Utterly idiotic, and clearly designed by Brahmin priests to exploit people. Yet, Hindus, all over India, continue to perform rituals for the souls of their forefathers every amavasya and every year, all through their lives, without once wondering if it makes any sense or not. Such is the hold of the clergy on the masses.


After pondering all these problems for a long time, I decided that organized religion had no basis in reality and had to be discarded. The question facing me then was: given that organized religion is wrong and evil, is God also an illusion or does a God exist?

Even though I was disillusioned with Hinduism, and could not find anything to commend themselves in other religions of the world, such as Christianity or Islam, I could not completely let go of the idea that there was a supreme force in the world, a God, in the universe.

This is when, in my mind, you enter the halfway home between religiousness and atheism known as spirituality. Having rejected all the rituals and superstitions of religion, I reached a phase where I acknowledged the existence of a superior power, a unifying force if you will, in the universe, that I would regard as a God. This made me a member of the group of people in this world who are known as “spiritual, but not religious.”

This God, I felt, was not a vindictive or a demanding God, was not a God who needed stupid rituals to make Him happy, but a kind, just, and loving God, who loved everyone without discrimination. I drew sustenance from the idea that this God would take care of me, would be someone I could talk to privately in times of trouble and ask for help during trying times. He or She was a friend at all times. It was a comforting illusion, but a necessary one. You cannot abandon everything in one go.

I was in this halfway house for a few years, until I again picked up the courage to question things. Some things became clearer in this interim period. Chiefly, I grew to have a greater sense of responsibility. No more coconuts to break to pass an exam. I started believing that this fair, just God above would watch me, help me along as I did good things ("God helps those who help themselves"), and would obviously hold me to account for bad things. It was an honor system, and I was expected to be fair and good by my buddy above.

But then I went through another transformation that caused me to abandon spirituality and become an atheist. Two main questions contributed to the end even of this faith:

1. Is there a point to prayer? (and if there isn’t, that ends the personal relationship)
2. Why do bad things happen to good people?

The Pointlessness of Prayer for a Spiritual Person

During my years in the halfway house called spirituality, I realized that my ideal of God had to be a great being – greater than the noblest person on earth, and someone who would not be partial among His/Her creations. Thus, I realized that there is no point in asking for anything from God; that prayer is pointless. If God is a fair being, then He/She will give you good things if you deserve them, and will punish you if you have been bad. No point in praying at all. (After all, "He knows if you've been naughty or nice.")

Some people say that they don’t pray for things, only for courage to face the world, but even that is something. If God feels you need and deserve to have courage to face things, He will give it to you without asking. If He thinks you need a job, he will give you one. If He thinks you need a child, He will bless you with one. It’s like parents with children. Do you, as a parent, ever wait for a baby to ask what she wants? No, you try to figure out what the baby needs and give it to her. If God is the Great Father or Mother above, surely He will have a better and stronger feeling of affection towards His children than human parents will have? So why pray?

Secondly, on the issue of this personal relationship, does it even matter if I acknowledge God? If I am God’s child, I expect God to be the ideal father or mother. An ideal father does not care that his child grows up “respecting” him. I know I don’t give a damn about that with my baby. All I want is for her to be successful in life and to have all the tools to face life. I don’t expect her to take care of me in my old age, and I don’t expect her to show me respect if I am in the wrong. She needs to learn to respect people for what they are worth, not their age alone.

If I, as a mere human, can think in this way, I thought, why should I think God, whom I consider the wisest and most mature being in the Universe, wants me to acknowledge His existence and honor Him or Her with prayer or worship, especially when I cannot see Him or Her at all? Why should an omnipotent person even care? Human parents often care because they are insecure. God has no insecurities! So I concluded that there is no point in praying to God. Being a good person was enough.

Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

The second point is why bad things happen to good people, and this leads to a negative conclusion on the existence of God. If God is a fair and just supreme being, why does He punish good people with suffering? This has been argued very eloquently by Arun Shourie in his book “Does he know a mother’s heart?” in which he talks touchingly of his son’s cerebral palsy. This is a great book, and I highly recommend it. Shourie talks of struggling to understand how to reconcile belief in a God who could inflict so much suffering on a baby, a person who has done nothing wrong in life at all…after all, this affected his son as a newborn baby.

Now, the only major religion that attempts to answer this question in any meaningful way is Hinduism, because the other major religions do not believe in reincarnation. If the baby has no past, no previous birth, it cannot have done anything bad for which it is being punished in this way. So other religions have no explanation for a baby’s suffering. However, Hinduism will tell you that the child suffers because in a previous birth he has done bad things.

But I have a fundamental problem with the reincarnation theory and the idea of karma that I cannot resolve.

Punishment works only when you understand why you are being punished. The whole system of criminal justice operates in this way. You steal, and are jailed for it. In jail, the idea is that you realize your mistake and you repent, and vow not to do it again so that you are not jailed again and don't have to suffer again.

But what if, when you leave jail, they erase your memory of jail? How will the jail experience reform you? So the theory of karma through reincarnation is meaningless to me because unless I have a memory of what I did wrong in the past life, I cannot do things better. If I did bad things in birth 1, then got punished in birth 2, then got a third chance in birth 3, and was able to remember births 1 and 2, that makes sense, because now I know cause and effect, and I can become a better person by not repeating the bad things I did in birth 1. But without that knowledge, I am no better. It is like tossing a coin a 1000 times – each time you toss it, the possibility of getting a heads is only 50%, regardless of how many times you have seen tails in the past, because the coin has no memory.

In addition, when you look at the magnitude of evil in the world, with mass murderers like Hitler, Stalin (who alone was responsible for the deaths of some 50 million people), Mao, Pol Pot, Suharto, and Pinochet, just to name a few – and most of their victims were innocent, many of them women and children – you have to ask: if there is a God up there, what’s He doing? If God is omnipotent and omniscient, why did he create evil men like this, who had the capacity to do so much harm to others? He could have created a better world with better people! Why did He make so many people suffer mindlessly? Is God a sadist? What kind of Heavenly Father watches on as Hutu or Tutsi tribesmen take babies from their mothers’ arms and smash their heads and watch them die? What kind of God watches on as thugs enter a home and rip apart a woman’s womb, tear out the baby within, spear it and parade it around? What harm did those babies ever do to anyone? When one looks at the scale of evil in this world, it is impossible to believe that a God could exist.

So I discarded the concept of a God because bad things happen to good people for no reason - and a just and fair God, if He existed, would never allow this to happen. And that is when I became an atheist.

Of course, there still is the possibility that there is a God and he deliberately allows bad things to happen to good people. That God is not benevolent but malevolent. It would not be the first time if I were to postulate such a theory. The gods of the Greeks and Romans were very much like that – petty, lecherous, jealous, easy to anger, vengeful, and capricious. It is possible that the reason that bad things happen to good people is that God simply is malevolent. And I have decided that if God, indeed, is malevolent, contrary to all expectation, and this Universe is a miserable place run by a malevolent tyrant up there, then I do not care to acknowledge him/her. For me, the only God worth acknowledging is a fair, just, God, and if a horrible God does run the Universe, then I'm willing to burn in oil in an afterlife as a "conscientious objector" for refusing to acknowledge him (lower case intentional.)

In India, I often used to hear people (I’m sure such arguments are used worldwide) saying, when bad things happen to good people, that “God is just testing their faith.” WHY??? Why does this omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent Heavenly Father/Mother up there need to test his devotees all the time? Is he so insecure??

I spent a lot of time (years) as a spiritual person before eventually rejecting spirituality as well. I thought, read, discussed, and argued all those years. I know that cutting that last link with the idea of a supreme force that pervades the Universe is not easy – it was not easy for me, but I saw no way out - so I don’t judge those who cannot do it. I am happy enough if they treat everyone well and without prejudice, and I respect their choices. I would apply the same logic to the religious nuts as well, but unfortunately their choices affect me. They do not believe in living and letting others live.

During those long years in the halfway house, I often asked people why they believed in God. One of the most influential people in my life, who I admire and respect tremendously, and who is still a good friend, told me that he believes in a God because of how miraculously things work together. I told him he had a point. For a long time I had no answer to that. But then it struck me – we only praise a God for how wonderful things are in this world; we don’t blame him for all the ills in the world! This kind of selective praise is not right. It is like those footballers who look up to the sky and perform the cross sign on their hearts after they score a goal; but they don’t look at the sky and curse the Lord when the goalie parries their attempt. When those Tutsi babies’ heads are smashed against rocks by laughing pathological tribesmen, nobody curses God above. It is very selective – and illogical.

I think people who are involved with organized religion suspend their intelligence and are therefore temporarily stupid. Spiritual people, I think, are on a continuum, and perhaps they have not thought deeply about certain things. I don’t think they are stupid, because the distinction that separates spiritual people from atheists is actually thin, and I believe that if spiritualists think through things long enough (using the same logical process that led them to reject rituals) they will become atheists.

What I Believe Today – The Atheist Code of Life

I thought a bit about writing this last section because it will appear to some that I am talking like a guru, which I did not want to do. However, I felt it necessary to outline the philosophy of an atheist, because many people cannot believe that it is possible to have a structure to life without religion or spirituality. I am writing this section to show how, being an atheist, one can live a strong, reasoned, balanced, and highly satisfying life.

Life has become much simpler and less contradictory for me since I became an atheist. The core belief that I have is very simple: I am an organic, sentient, thinking life form who has somehow been born in this world – just like ants, birds, crocodiles, pigs, and cats. Having been born, I have two choices: I can either live until I die naturally, or commit suicide. I reject suicide because I know, from personal experience, that life has much to offer. I enjoy a lot of things that I can experience in this world – food, music, literature, the company of loved ones, intellectual conversation, the beauty of nature, and many more things. So the question is: how do I live the limited period that I have left to live? And the answer is: by being as happy as possible.

But, to understand this, one must understand what happiness is. Only experience – and it is a great teacher – can teach someone how to be happy. To understand this, however, maybe one first needs to understand how happiness is NOT obtained.

Happiness is not obtained by the accumulation of material things – and one does not need a religious guru to tell you this. It comes from sheer experience. Anyone who has spent enough time accumulating things knows naturally that it is not the key to happiness. Money is one of those things people love to accumulate. Money is important to have, but it is not the most important thing in life. It is important to have enough money for your daily needs, for a comfortable roof over your head, for all your medical needs, for the education of your children, for some luxuries, such as travel, and for a secure retirement so that you won’t be begging on the street. Beyond that, money doesn’t help a lot.

Happiness is not obtained by great achievement. Achievement happens by chance when one is deeply engaged with all his or her heart and mind in something. One cannot go seeking achievement –  for, if one does that, he will be like the proverbial cat who was trying to catch his own tail because he had heard that a tail was a cat’s most important possession. Needless to say, he never caught it; but he realized that as soon as he left the tail well alone, it quietly followed him wherever he went. Still, as in the case of money, a reasonable level of achievement is necessary for both giving a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment in one’s chosen profession, and the resultant feeling of positive self-worth, as well as in the attainment of financial independence.

Happiness is not obtained by indulgence. This is not necessarily a separate point from the accumulation of material goods, because it shares the same basis – that indulgence never satisfies - but I am stating it separately for clarity. Just as having a billion dollars is not going to make someone happier than having a million dollars, indulging oneself excessively does not satisfy either. Some people go to excesses of alcohol, drugs, or sex in order to feel satiated; and the truth is, they never satiate. Again, you don’t need a religious teacher to tell you this; plain real-life experience will tell you. Try getting drunk three days in a row and then the fourth day you will ask: “why on earth am I doing this? Is it worth it? Is it really giving me anything in return?” All it requires is a capacity to introspect.

What does yield happiness is the balanced exploration of life and all it has to offer, in the fullest sense. Food and drink can make a person happy, in moderation; sufficient money can keep a person comfortable and able to experience more of what life has to offer (say, a vacation in Hawaii; a trip to the Lord’s Cricket stadium in England to watch a cricket match; watching the World Cup football final; attending an opera at La Scala in Milan or the Royal Opera House in London; or a trek to the Everest base camp, as examples); a feeling that one has done justice to his or her job can make one feel happy about going to work every day; intellectual and physical exploration of the infinite diversity and richness in this world, from art to music to literature to sports to technology, can fill one with wonder and satisfaction; and meaningful relationships with family and friends make one feel valued and loved in life. For, ultimately, man is a social animal, and so the feeling of being loved and respected by his fellow-humans is one of the most satisfying and enriching experiences in life. Note that in none of these statements did I need to invoke a God. I have learned all of these purely from analyzing my own life.

The bottom line is that one does not need religion to understand the truths of life and of the human condition. If one is willing to logically analyze one’s own personality and experiences and understand what worked and what did not work, one can be happy.

In life, things go wrong many a time too. People suffer from problems that they have no solution to. I find it much more liberating to say that I have simply been unlucky when bad things happen to me when that happens, rather than imagine that this is due to a God punishing me for something that I have done at some other time or some other birth. It is much like Occam’s razor – the theory with the fewest assumptions that can explain an event comprehensively is the best theory.

This is assuming, of course, that other causes, such as bad personal behavior or negligence is ruled out. For example, if you have been smoking and drinking all your life, having cardiac problems is neither bad luck nor providence. It is to be expected as the body’s natural reaction to abuse. Or, if you have always ignored your spouse’s feelings, yearnings, and desires, and one day she decides to leave you, this is neither the work of a God nor is it bad luck – it is the result of your being stupid enough to ignore a loved one. One of the strengths of being an atheist is that one takes personal responsibility for one’s actions.

What one also needs is a code of morality to live by. I discuss this under a separate heading because morality is the one aspect for which atheism has received the most criticism by proponents of religion.

Atheism and Morality

Everyone needs a moral code to live by. Without a moral code, we are adrift in the world; we do not know what to do at any point of time. Is it okay to steal? To kill? To swindle? To lie? To harm? Should I tell the truth in a given situation or should I lie? Should I protect a friend who committed a crime or should I expose him? Life offers so many moral dilemmas that one can never find suitable answers to unless he or she has a code to live by.

One of the criticisms that religion has made on atheism is that religious people feel an urge to be “good” because of the fear of a God, whereas atheists fear no such supernatural power, and so are not bound by any moral code.

There are two counters to this – one that talks of the hollowness of the position of religion and another that talks of what an atheist’s moral code should be.

Firstly, on the presumed hold of religion on people’s morals and its constraint on them to be good, keep in mind that the majority of the people in this world are still religious or spiritual. Atheists are a small minority. Yet so many serious crimes are being committed daily – by fairly religious or spiritual people. Also, as I mentioned earlier, so many conflicts throughout history that have been the cause of so much bloodshed have been attributed to religion. Sometimes, it is the people who commit the gravest crimes who donate the most money to temples and churches. That debunks the idea that religion somehow preserves morality.

Secondly, as an atheist, I have only one moral rule in life, and that is the golden rule. Every good principle of life reduces to that rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It does not require any complicated understanding of supernatural beings, and is something every child can relate to - fairness. If you wouldn't like someone to steal your toy, you don't do the same to them. If you wouldn't want someone to be mean to you and exclude you from a group, you don't do the same thing to others. If you would not like someone to murder your loved ones, you don’t do the same thing to others. If you wouldn’t want others to cheat you of something, then you don’t cheat others of what is due to them – and that includes money, credit, or work (as in the work you owe your organization for the salary they pay you – cheating at work is also a violation of the golden rule.)

If everyone believed in this rule, everyone would be a good person and we would need nothing else. This rule is one of the fundamental, early discoveries of humankind, and has been shown to be extant as far back as 2000 BC, well before the advent of any of the world’s modern religions. (It was NOT originally developed by Christianity even though it finds a mention in the bible; it existed long before Jesus.) It is central to the idea of human existence and social interaction – without it, there can be no trust, and hence no meaningful interaction between humans.

A religious follower may ask how I propose to teach people to adopt the golden rule as a principle of life and thus preserve morality in life. He may argue that religious scriptures, such as the Bible or the Bhagawad Gita, tell followers of religion what moral codes to obey; how do I propose to have atheists adopt this code? Well, consider that people do not read religious scripture automatically. Often, parents take their children to a church and someone preaches these lessons to young, impressionable children; or they tell stories to children to illustrate the importance of morals in life. In the same way, each person who is an atheist, can teach his children about the golden rule. It should be much easier for people to learn – when you go to a hotel and open the bedside drawer, instead of finding a bulky Gideon bible to read, all you will see is one line that says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Children learn morals from their parents and teachers; and if parents and teachers exemplify the behavior outlined in the golden rule, one need not worry about the morality of a future atheist society.

The golden rule as a moral code for all humanity will be at least as successful, if not much more so, than any of the religious morals that have caused so much death, suffering, and destruction in the millennia of human history. The golden rule is the only true moral code to live life by, because not living by it will break the fabric of society.

It is important to note that the golden rule operates at a higher plane of morality than any religious moral code, for most religions have violated the golden rule. For example, when Islam was founded, it exhorted its followers to convert people to Islam by the sword. Millions converted under the threat of being executed; those who resisted were killed. Would Muslims have liked to be converted to another religion by the sword? Decidedly not. Similarly, Christianity, during the Inquisition, forcibly converted many people from their religions to Christianity on the penalty of death. Would Christians liked to have had the same happen to them? Decidedly not. Today we recognize that the Inquisition was immoral and wrong; but this immorality would not have happened if they had followed the golden rule of morality.

Concluding Thoughts

I have shared with you my journey from a highly religious, suffocating background, through the halfway house known as spirituality, to the liberated world of atheism.

I hope this will help those who are themselves wondering what it is like to be free of superstition, dogma, and darkness, and how one can live a more fulfilled life with fewer moral dilemmas. I hope it will help people understand how one can be an atheist and still live a highly moral, fulfilling, meaningful, and happy life.

Experience has shown that the majority of humankind feels a need for organized religion. A major reason for this is that most people in the world do not think critically about anything. I do not entertain, therefore, any foolish hope that the majority of humankind will reject religion and adopt atheism as a way of life any time soon.

However, for those who do so, I hope my experience can serve as a resource and perhaps answer some questions those seekers of a better life may have.

Religion started as an infantile reaction to natural phenomena by primitive humans who did not understand how the universe worked. To explain phenomena that frightened them, they needed to invent a supernatural being, a God, as responsible for the world and what happened inside it. In the millennia since humans first started thinking, science has swept away many of the superstitions that were invented to explain nature. For a long time, humans believed that a God was needed to explain creation and life. Science has obviated all of these attributes of such a God, and today the only real question is whether God makes sense from a moral viewpoint. The impact of modern physics and the theory of evolution on the foundations of religious belief is well-known and so I have not spent any time discussing this aspect in this document.

I have focused on the moral arguments on why some people feel a God is needed, and shown that one does not need a God; indeed, that the existence of a God, with the attributes that are traditionally ascribed to such an entity, is contradicted by what we observe in life. I have shown that if indeed there exists a God, then He or She must be an immoral and malevolent being. That being unacceptable to most people, it can only be concluded that there is no God.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

These Are a Few of My Favorite Books

These Are a Few of My Favorite Books

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 04 September, 2014

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.
For other articles by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, please visit

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article. 

A good friend has honored me by asking me to participate in the “Ten Books Challenge,” also known as the “Book Bucket Challenge,” a title derived from the “Ice Bucket Challenge” that went viral on social media to raise awareness for ALS. Even though the Ice Bucket Challenge was just a fad for many, enough people were moved to contribute money to the ALS society. The Ten Books Challenge has no such do-gooder motive underlying it – the motive is purely that of intellectual pleasure; as a result, I will not have the smug satisfaction of having solved a pressing medical problem like ALS by writing this article, but I sure hope I will give you some intellectual satisfaction and, perhaps, some good books to read to boot.

The basic idea of the Ten Books Challenge is for you to name the ten books that have mattered the most in your life, had the greatest influence on you, or gave you the greatest enjoyment. After you have named your list, you are expected to nominate (challenge) others to name their ten best books – and in this way more and more people get to know about all the great books that are out there to read and enjoy.

So, here's my list. Before that, I want to mention a couple of ground rules that my friend laid down and I agreed to. One was that you should only list books you have completely read, not those you have read just a chapter or two of. This does eliminate some great books from my final list, though I refuse to be defeated – I will mention here which those books are that I could not put down in the final 10 but which, I am sure, if I had finished reading them, would belong in that list. Fortunately for me, many others have mentioned some of the books that I have not fully read, so I don’t need to worry. I will only mention here a couple that deserve special attention.

Among the books that I have not yet fully read but that I think are magnificent reads, Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” occupies pride of place. Since I have only read 1/4th of this massive and magnificent treatise, I cannot include it in my list, but it would be a crime if I did not say a few words about the magnificence and eloquence of this masterpiece.

We must understand that Gibbon was not the first person to write about the Roman Empire. So many had written before him - people like Plutarch and Suetonius. What makes Gibbon so engaging in a book that is so huge and so vast in scope that it can tax the most patient of interested readers is his style. Gibbon actually writes in a very idiosyncratic way, giving full rein to his opinions about, say, what Plutarch said, what Suetonius said, why we may or may not rely fully upon them, or what we should make of the early Christians, or where the Romans failed or where Constantine could have done better. One may think a historian ought not to inject his personal opinions on these matters, but interestingly, the book reads so much better because of these! Even though I would disagree with his strongly-stated position on the superiority of Christian culture to everything else on the planet, his strong advocacy of his position actually adds to the enjoyment rather than detracts from it.

Another book that I cannot include in the list for my incomplete reading of it is KA Nilakanta Sastri's awe-inspiring History of South India. ANY history of South India cannot but reference this amazing work; so thorough is his study. Sadly, I have only read it in pieces so far.

The second ground rule that my friend laid down was that it would not be enough for you to simply name your most important books – you also had to say something about them, so that the reader would understand what made that book so special for you – and, as a consequence, motivate him or her to read that book. After all, book awareness is the main motivation for this challenge. It is this second ground rule that was the reason for this article; for, once I started writing why I liked these books, my response became too long for a facebook comment, and so had to be captured in a blog article.

A list of just 10 books is very difficult to come up with; there are so many great books out there. What I have included has been partly been influenced by what others have included in their lists. This is one reason why I feel comfortable omitting both Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins from my list.

Without further ado, then, let me begin my list.

The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead is one of the seminal books of modern literature; a book that actually touches many different themes with amazing precision and succinctness. Rand actually intended it to be a message about the importance of the individual and of capitalism, and as a prelude to her more comprehensive defense of capitalism and rant against communism that was the unwieldy, sloppily written, and boring Atlas Shrugged, but the Fountainhead was much more than just a novel about individualism and capitalism. 

For me, the most powerful message in the Fountainhead was the emphasis on integrity and what it means to have integrity - in an intellectual, an artistic sense. I understood for the first time after reading this that integrity doesn't simply mean honesty - in the sense that you don't cheat someone of their money or steal things at work ... that it has to do with having a consistent worldview in whatever you do. 

The writing in the Fountainhead is first-rate; the dialogues are electric. Some you have to read a few times before you fully get the different angles. Delightful. Here is an example (I have excerpted parts of this long dialogue from the book, with omitted portion notated by ellipses):

Ike slammed his manuscript shut and took a long swig of air. His voice was hoarse after two hours of reading aloud and he had read the climax of his play on a single long breath…

Lois Cook, hostess, raised her arms, twisting them, stretching, and said: “Jesus, Ike, it’s awful.”

“This is a great play,” said a voice. The voice was slow, nasal, and bored. It had spoken for the first time that evening, and they all turned to Jules Fougler…He was an eminent drama critic.

“This is a great play.”
“Why?” asked Lancelot Clokey.
“Because I say so,” said Jules Fougler.
“Is that a gag, Jules?” asked Lois Cook.
“I never gag,” said Jules Fougler. “It is  vulgar.”
“Send me a coupla seats to the opening,” sneered Lancelot Clokey.
“Eighty-eight for two seats to the opening,” said Jules Fougler. “It will be the biggest hit of the season.”

“All right, Jules,” said Lancelot Clokey, “it’s all very witty and smart and you’re sophisticated and brilliant as all get-out – but what do you actually want to praise that crap for?”
“Because it is – as you put it – crap.”
“You’re not logical, Lance,” said Ike. “Not in the cosmic sense you aren’t. To write a good play and to have it praised is nothing. Anybody can do that. Anybody with talent – and talent is only a glandular accident. But to write a piece of crap and have it praised – well, you match that.”

“Ike has stated his reasons,” Fougler continued. “And mine. And also yours, Lance. Examine my case, if you wish. What achievement is there for a critic in praising a good play? None whatever. The critic is then nothing but a kind of glorified messenger boy between author and public. What’s there in that for me? I’m sick of it. I have a right to wish to impress my own personality upon people. Otherwise I shall become frustrated – and I do not believe in frustration. But if a critic is able to put over a perfectly worthless play – ah, you do perceive the difference! Therefore, I shall make a hit out of – what’s the name of your play, Ike?”
“No skin off your ass,” said Ike.
“I beg your pardon?”
“That’s the title.”
“Oh, I see. Therefore, I shall make a hit out of No Skin Off Your Ass.”

The Mahabharata, by Veda Vyasa, Translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli

The Mahabharata is probably the most interesting epic ever written, with an amazingly complex plot that makes things like the Greek classics of Homer look weak in comparison. Even though the book arises from Hinduism, the story is far less religious and far more secular than one might think. It is first and foremost a lesson in ordinary morality, or dharma, that one learns by observing the actions of different characters. The Mahabharata is, in my view, superior to the Ramayana, the other major Hindu epic, because characters in the Mahabharata have a lot more shades to them. It is even hard to tell who the good guys are and who the bad ones are. No one comes out clean - even Krishna, allegedly a god, does some fairly dishonorable things. The great thing about the Mahabharata is that most things are in grey. Was Kunti right in discarding Karna? Was Arjuna correct in killing Bhishma and Karna in unfair ways? Was Duryodhana himself all evil or was he a wronged inheritor of a kingdom? I have been fascinated by these questions all my life, and have written about them in many blog and quora articles just in the last year or so - and rest assured I will write a lot more. Nothing is clear-cut in this epic. But discussing and understanding what is described there can help rectify your inner moral compass.

One of the highlights of good literature is that it recognizes that nothing is black and white. In a good work of fiction one sees flaws of the hero in addition to his virtues, and virtues of the villain in addition to his flaws. So it is with the Mahabharata. One prime example of this is Duryodhana’s final speech to the Pandavas, in which he makes a reasonable claim that, although vanquished, he is better off than the Pandavas. Take a look at this passage which highlights how the Kauravas were vanquished unfairly, and how Krishna rationalizes the means by the ends:

"'Duryodhana said, "I have studied, made presents according to the ordinance, governed the wide Earth with her seas, and stood over the heads of my foes! Who is there so fortunate as myself! That end again which is courted by Kshatriyas observant of the duties of their own order, death in battle, hath become mine. Who, therefore, is so fortunate as myself? Human enjoyments such as were worthy of the very gods and such as could with difficulty be obtained by other kings, had been mine. Prosperity of the very highest kind had been attained by me! Who then is so fortunate as myself? With all my well-wishers, and my younger brothers, I am going to heaven, O thou of unfading glory! As regards yourselves, with your purposes unachieved and torn by grief, live ye in this unhappy world!"'

"Sanjaya continued, 'Upon the conclusion of these words of the intelligent king of the Kurus, a thick shower of fragrant flowers fell from the sky. The Gandharvas played upon many charming musical instruments. The Apsaras in a chorus sang the glory of king Duryodhana. The Siddhas uttered loud sound to the effect, "Praise be to king Duryodhana!" Fragrant and delicious breezes mildly blew on every side. All the quarters became clear and the firmament looked blue as the lapis lazuli.

Beholding these exceedingly wonderful things and this worship offered to Duryodhana, the Pandavas headed by Vasudeva became ashamed. Hearing (invisible beings cry out) that Bhishma and Drona and Karna and Bhurishrava were slain unrighteously, they became afflicted with grief and wept in sorrow.

Beholding the Pandavas filled with anxiety and grief, Krishna addressed them in a voice deep as that of the clouds or the drum, saying, "All of them were great car-warriors and exceedingly quick in the use of weapons! If ye had put forth all your prowess, even then ye could never have slain them in battle by fighting fairly! King Duryodhana also could never be slain in a fair encounter! The same is the case with all those mighty car-warriors headed by Bhishma! From desire of doing good to you, I repeatedly applied my powers of illusion and caused them to be slain by diverse means in battle. If I had not adopted such deceitful ways in battle, victory would never have been yours, nor kingdom, nor wealth! Those four were very high-souled warriors and regarded as Atirathas in the world. The very Regents of the Earth could not slay them in fair fight! Similarly, the son of Dhritarashtra, though fatigued when armed with the mace, could not be slain in fair fight by Yama himself armed with his bludgeon! You should not take it to heart that this foe of yours hath been slain deceitfully. When the number of one's foes becomes great, then destruction should be effected by contrivances and means. The gods themselves, in slaying the Asuras, have trod the same way. That way, therefore, that hath been trod by the gods, may be trod by all. We have been crowned with success. It is evening. We had better depart to our tents. Let us all, ye kings, take rest with our steeds and elephants and cars."

Hitler and Stalin – Parallel Lives, by Alan Bullock

This is an incredible journey through late 19th and early-to-mid-20th century politics, focusing on the two people who irreversibly changed the world as it existed after the First World War. The story of the two pivotal personalities who were responsible for the post-WWII world is fascinating, if not for anything else, simply for the fact that it ended the supremacy of the colonial powers Britain and France, and ensured the rise of the USA and the Soviet Union as superpowers.

This book is the product of a lifetime of study by the author. Bullock published his study of Hitler, titled, “Hitler: A Study in Tyranny,” in 1952, fairly soon after the end of the Second World War. In spite of the book being published so soon after the war, it survived the test of time. Hitler and Stalin – Parallel Lives was a book that was written after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with new sources from behind the Iron Curtain finally in view. I vividly remember how, as a student at the University of Utah in December 1991, after reading many WWII books that the library had, I found that this book was due to come out sometime in January 1992, and that the library had pre-ordered a copy. The librarian told me that I could put in a request for the book right then, and I would be notified when the brand-new book finally made it to the library…that’s precisely what I did, and I wasn’t disappointed. More than 10 years later, I bought my own copy.

This book looks at the parallels between Hitler, as the absolute leader of the Nazi party, and someone who tried to create the ethos of a German “volk,” with henchmen like Himmler and Goebbels; and Stalin, as the absolute leader, the “General Secretary” of the Soviet Union and the unquestioned master of the Communist Party, who tried to perpetuate the myth of the Russian “vozhd,” with henchmen like Lavrenti Beria; the different ways by which they acquired and held on to power; and how they each attemped to create their “new order” in the lands they conquered. It looks at the parallel between Hitler’s early diffidence, during which he allowed his generals more flexibility, and his later rigidity after his earlier successes, when he would listen to no one but himself in spite of defeat after defeat; and Stalin’s early rigidity and distrust of his generals, his repeated losses that led him to understand that he needed to trust the professionals if he wanted to win, and the ensuing successes; the way they exercised control within their parties; and the mistakes made by both men when they insisted on “absolute victory” and “no retreat.”

While the book draws parallels between the two dictators whenever possible, it also does a good job of contrasting the two leaders and their progress. For instance, it documents clearly the rise of Hitler after 1923 and the Beer Hall Putsch, the way he manipulated all the politicians in Germany, including the venerated President Hindenburg; the way he double-crossed his deputy Rohm in exchange for the army; his suppression of the Jews, Communists, and Labor Unions in his relentless drive for supremacy in Germany; his hesitant steps against Poland as he was worried about France invading his rear; and his insane obsession with eliminating the USSR. And, similarly, it discusses Stalin’s rise as a lieutenant of Lenin, his usurpation of power while Lenin was incapacitated, his ruthless elimination of rivals such as Kirov, Bukharin, Ordhzonikidze, and Trotsky; his suppression of ethnic minorities such as the Georgians and the Tatars; the brutal land reforms that he executed, both under Lenin and later, which resulted in the deaths of millions of “kulaks” (middle-class landowners); the deep suspicion with which he regarded the military, which resulted in the elimination of 80% of the generals; and the gradual way in which he started letting go in military decisions and yielding to professional advice that ultimately allowed the Soviets to win the war. Another contrast was the fact that Hitler was a highly public figure who achieved things based on his charisma, whereas Stalin was a shadowy figure who operated through the bureaucracy which he manipulated, and Bullock brings this contrast out very well.

This is a masterpiece in the realm of political biography, supplemented by many interesting photographs.

The New Emperors: China in the Era of Mao and Deng, by Harrison Salisbury

This is the book that first taught me about the Cultural Revolution in China. I had never read much about Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping until I read this book. It is a gripping, first-hand account, by an American journalist, of that period of China’s history when Mao and Deng ruled, based in large part on first-hand accounts from survivors of that period and from testimony that was uncovered during the trial of the Gang of Four. You learn about Daqing and Dazhai, the pride of Maoist industry (oil) and agriculture, respectively, as well as the giants of China’s 1949 revolution – people like Peng Dehuai, Liu Xiaoqi, He Long, Zhu De, Lin Biao, and others.

The book clearly shows how the “cultural revolution” was a cynical attempt by Mao to wipe out all possible opposition to him in the wake of the failure of the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s collectivization programme; how it completely ruined China; and how Deng Xiaoping brought back China from the abyss into the prosperity in which it lives today. It talks about the infamous Red Guards, the youth brigade that Mao had do all his dirty work for him during the cultural revolution, including the torture of those suspected to be “enemies of the state”; the various tortures that were routinely conducted by these mobs, including making people lie in the “airplane position” for hours, the endless beatings, the immersion in fermenting pools of human excrement; and how Deng Xiaoping skillfully stopped the destruction of China, quietly put the leaders of the cultural revolution behind bars after Mao’s death, and brought prosperity to the land. This is a story of an entire lost generation.

This book brings alive the inner politics of the China of the Mao era; the palace of Zhongnanhai; Jiang Qing and the Gang in the Cultural Revolution; the horrible persecution and deaths of Liu Shaoqi, Peng Dehuai, and many senior leaders during Mao’s paranoid years; how the pragmatist, Deng Xiaoping, survived the toughest purges of Mao because he was “a man who could get things done”; Deng’s famous “One nation, two systems theory; how he changed and liberalized China’s economy even as it was in the grip of Communist madness; and how he ultimately took the steps that have today made it a world superpower.

The sweep of this book is breathtaking, and China comes alive through the years in the pages of this book even if you have never visited it. Salisbury often focuses on individual stories in telling the bigger story, and the human element is never far away in his retelling of the story. I doubt if there has been a better portrait of Mao Zedong than the one that Salisbury has sketched. There are also many photographs that help us to relate with the principals.

When I was living in the US, I sometimes met Chinese friends and used to discuss politics with them. They were amazed that I knew so much about Chinese history and politics and that I could converse with them so accurately about Mao, Deng, and the cultural revolution. The achievement is not mine; it is that of Salisbury, who was a veteran journalist for the New York Times, at one time chief of its Moscow bureau, and who also reported from China during the Tiananmen Square crisis in 1989.

The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince is often called a children’s book. While children can relate to it, it has the unique distinction of being a book that can appeal to people of all ages. It has something to offer everyone, because the messages in the book are highly layered. This is a deeply philosophical book for the adult reader, and its import cannot be understood in one sitting. It is a very small book, and you could easily finish reading it in one afternoon. But it is a book that should keep you thinking all your life.

The story of the Little Prince is a fantasy, and it revolves around a pilot whose aircraft has crashed in the Sahara desert, and who, while trying to repair his plane, meets a little prince from another planet. The prince has travelled to various planets on the journey from his home planet to Earth. The pilot has various conversations with the little prince that help him (and us) understand what is important in life.

The book is written and illustrated by de Saint-Exupéry. The illustrations are beautiful, even though they are simple pencil sketches, and the story is exquisitely beautiful in how it explains ideas. In my humble opinion, if you can fully understand The Little Prince, you will understand life. One can write a doctoral thesis on this book.

Take this passage as a representative example of the power of this book. One of the planets the prince has visited is a small planet and only has a king as its resident. The king is lonely and wishes to have a subject to give him someone to rule over.

The little prince looked everywhere to find a place to sit down; but the entire planet was crammed and obstructed by the king’s magnificent ermine robe. So he remained standing upright, and, since he was tired, he yawned.

“It is contrary to etiquette to yawn in the presence of a king,” the monarch said to him. “I forbid you to do so.”

“I can’t help it. I can’t stop myself,” replied the little prince, thoroughly embarrassed. “I have come on a long journey, and I have had no sleep…”

“Ah, then,” the king said. “I order you to yawn. It is years since I have seen anyone yawning. Yawns, to me, are objects of curiosity. Come, now! Yawn again! It is an order.”

“That frightens me … I cannot, any more …” murmured the little prince, now completely abashed.

“Hum! Hum!” replied the king. “Then I – I order you sometimes to yawn and sometimes to – 

He sputtered a little, and seemed vexed.

For what the king fundamentally insisted upon was that his authority should be respected. He tolerated no disobedience. He was an absolute monarch. But, because he was a very good man, he made his orders reasonable.

“If I ordered a general,” he would say, by way of example, “if I ordered a general to change himself into a sea bird, and if the general did not obey me, that would not be the fault of the general. It would be my fault.”

“May I sit down?” came now a timid inquiry from the little prince.

“I order you to do so,” the king answered him, and majestically gathered in a fold of his ermine mantle.

How many people in your life can you relate to in this story? How many at your job? How many lessons can you extract from this story?

A History of the Sikhs – in Two Volumes, by Khushwant Singh

This is a book of great scholarship by the late Sardar. It traces the history of the Sikhs right from the time of Nanak to that of Barnala and Rajiv Gandhi. It talks about how the Sikh faith was started; about the ten gurus starting with Nanak and ending with Gobind Singh; about the struggles of Banda Bahadur; about how they were persecuted by the Mughals; about their struggles with the Afghan rulers like Dost Mohammed and Shah Shuja; about the great massacre called the “ghallu ghara” that occurred when Ahmad Shah Abdali of Afghanistan attacked (which was the first time that the Golden Temple had been desecrated); about how they actually prospered under the repeated invasions of Abdali, who could never defeat them completely but curtailed the power of the Marathas; about the politics of Mir Mannu, the Mughal governor of the Punjab; about how they reached their zenith under the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh; about how they disintegrated in the power struggle that ensued after the death of Ranjit Singh and lost to the British in the two Anglo-Sikh wars; about how the Sikhs were marginalized in the freedom struggle; about how the biggest losers of the partition of the Punjab in 1947 were not the Hindus or the Muslims, but the Sikhs; about how the Sikhs agitated for a Punjabi Suba, a Sikh homeland, after independence; about how the state of Punjab was formed; about the Anandpur Sahib resolution; about the agitations of Sant Harchand Singh Longowal and Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale; about Operation Bluestar and the storming of the Golden Temple; about the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi and the subsequent blood-letting in Delhi and other parts of north India against the Sikhs; and about how the Sikhs have continued since then.

Volume 1 covers the period from the start of the Sikh faith and until the death of Ranjit Singh; and Volume 2 starts with the disintegration of Ranjit Singh’s empire and ends with the aftermath of the Punjab accord. No facet of Sikh life is left out in this magnificent and incredibly ambitious work, for it covers not only military history, but also social, religious, and cultural aspects in great detail – Sahaj and Keshadhari Sikhs, Namdharis, Radha Soamis, Nirankaris, Kukas, the impact of Swami Dayananda Saraswati and the Arya Samaj, and so on; revolutionary movements like the Ghadr party; the impact of the green revolution and of the revival of Punjabi agriculture; the structure of land ownership and land reform; and so many more aspects that I cannot discuss all of them. It is well worth buying to learn about this great tradition and its history.

The book is also so well-written that I can read it again and again. Khushwant Singh writes with authority and empathy, with logic and clarity. One of my favorite parts in Volume II was the anti-Sikh riots following the death of Mrs. Gandhi. This is one of the best accounts of what happened, if you really want to know about it.

Panchatantra – Translated from the Sanskrit by Arthur W. Ryder

This has been a favorite of mine ever since I first picked up a copy from the used book shops on the footpaths surrounding Kings Circle (Maheshwari Udyan now) in Mumbai, almost 30 years ago. My first interest in the Panchatantra came, of course, by way of Amar Chitra Katha comics, in which selected tales from the entire collection were illustrated. Then I took up Sanskrit as a subject in school in Standards IX and X. One of the stories in the Sanskrit textbook was the story of the Monkey and the Crocodile. The monkey’s name in Sanskrit is “rakta-mukha,” which means “blood-face,” and the crocodile’s name is “karuda-mukha,” which means “ugly face.” I was fascinated by the way the story was told. This actually happens to be the opening of the fourth of the five books that constitute the Panchatantra. The Panchatantra is comprised of 5 books, titled “The Loss of Friends,” “The Winning of Friends,” “Crows and Owls,” “Loss of Gains,” and “Ill-Considered Action.” As the Panchatantra itself says, these five books were composed by one Vishnusharman, an 80-year old Brahmin, who was asked by the king of the kingdom called Maidens’ Delight. It was ruled by a king called Immortal Power, who had three sons: Rich-Power, Fierce-Power, and Endless-Power, and they were all supreme blockheads. So the king wanted someone to make them wise in the art of living, and this Vishnusharman took up the challenge, saying that “If I fail to make your sons, in six months time, incomparable masters of the art of intelligent living, then His Majesty is at liberty to show me His Majestic bare bottom.” Why the majestic bare bottom was such an insult is not clear, but the story goes that Vishnusharman made them learn these five books and understand their morals, and delivered on his promise.

One of the delightful things about this book is that as in the original Sanskrit, the book is in verse. The book was written sometime in 1930 by Arthur W. Ryder (translated), and he has really kept the meter of Sanskrit in mind. Consider this example:

Those who seek, through treason, friends;
Seek, through humbug, righteous ends;
Property by wronging neighbors;
Learning’s wealth by easy labors;
Woman’s love by cruel pride –
These are fools, self-stultified.

Or this one, to illustrate the importance of vigor in life:

As frogs will find a drinking-hole,
Or birds a brimming lake,
So friends and money seek a man
Whose vigor does not break.

Or this, on kingship and counselors:

No king should ever delegate
To one sole man the powers of state;
For folly seizes him, then pride,
Whereat he grows dissatisfied
With service; thus impatient grown,
He longs to rule the realm alone;
And such impatient longings bring
Him into plots to kill his king.

Or this, on the virtues of alliance with the strong:

Who is there whom a friendly state
With great folk does not elevate?
The raindrop, hiding in a curl
Of lotus-petal, shines like pearl.

And I will end with this quote, which would apply to all Indians who leave India to settle abroad:

The man whose mind is money mad
From all his kinsmen flees;
He hastens from his mother dear;
He breaks his promises;
He even goes to foreign lands
Which he would not elect
And leaves his native country. Well,
What else do you expect?

The book is written in a “story-within-a-story” format, and these can go several layers deep. A thoroughly enjoyable experience, I recommend this book to one and all, and to people of all ages and cultures.

The Annihilation of Caste, by Dr. BR Ambedkar

To my mind, Dr. Ambedkar was the greatest modern Indian intellectual, towering over all other Independence-era Indian intellectuals. His enormous accomplishments and literary achievements are extraordinary on their own; but, coupled with the knowledge that they were gained while fighting almost insurmountable barriers, leaves me with no doubt that he was the greatest Indian of the last 150 years.

Dr. Ambedkar was born into the untouchable caste of Mahars, and it was an incredible achievement for him to even learn to read and write. But he went far beyond that, going to England and America and getting doctorate degrees at great Universities like Columbia University and the London School of Economics.

He was a bitter critic of the caste system, having personally experienced the inherent injustices in it. For a long time he tried to reform it, personally leading agitations to open temples to untouchables and remove restrictions on untouchables that prevented them from using common facilities such as wells. But after a long struggle, he realized it was no use, that Hinduism would never change itself to adapt itself to modern times, and casteism would live in the minds of Hindus as long as Hinduism lived. He was invited to address a meeting of the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal (Society to end caste discrimination), for which he composed a speech titled “The Annihilation of Caste.” In this speech he highlighted the injustices of the caste system, talked about how Hinduism was incapable of change, and in the end announced his decision to leave the fold of Hinduism. The Mandal thought this was too extreme for their audience, and essentially withdrew the invitation to Dr. Ambedkar to address them. Hence, Dr. Ambedkar decided to publish the undelivered speech on his own.

I personally feel this speech is the most thorough critical look at Hinduism, and when you read this work, you get a sense of the enormous intelligence of Dr. Ambedkar. I dare anyone to come up with a counter to ANY of his arguments. It is BRILLIANTLY argued. I was left in awe when I finished reading this. This is the work of a man of profound clarity and vision. He has also clearly studied the Hindu scriptures very well, and is very well acquainted with them. Very few can see so far and look so deep. Let me list the different headings of the different sections of his speech, so the reader gets an idea of the development of his essay:

1.       Introduction: Why I am an unlikely president for this conference
2.      Why social reform is necessary for political reform
3.      Why social reform is necessary for economic reform
4.      Caste is not just a division of labor, it is a division of laborers
5.      Caste cannot preserve a non-existent “racial purity”
6.      Caste prevents Hindus from forming a real society or nation
7.      The worst feature of the caste system is an anti-social spirit
8.     Caste prevents the uplift and incorporation of the aboriginal tribes
9.      The higher castes have conspired to keep the lower castes down
10.  Caste prevents Hinduism from being a missionary religion
11.   Caste deprives Hindus of mutual help, trust, and fellow-feeling
12.  Caste is a powerful weapon for preventing all reform
13.  Caste destroys public spirit, public opinion, and public charity
14.  My ideal: A society based on liberty, equality, and fraternity
15.   The Arya Samajists’ “Chaturvarnya” retains the old bad caste labels
16.  “Chaturvarnya” would face impossible difficulties in practice
17.   “Chaturvarnya” would be the most vicious system for the Shudras
18.  “Chaturvarnya” is nothing new; it is as old as the Vedas
19.   Caste among Hindus is not the same as “caste” among non-Hindus
20.  The real key to destroying caste is rejection of the Shastras
21.   Internal reform of the caste system is virtually impossible
22.  No reformers, and no appeals to reason, have so far succeeded
23.  Destroying caste would not destroy the true principles of religion
24.  A true priesthood should be based on qualification, not heredity
25.   If Hindu society is to progress, its traditions must be able to evolve
26.  The struggle is yours; I have decided to leave the Hindu fold

The amazing thing about these headings is that they are so neatly and logically structured, that the conclusion of one inevitably leads to the beginning of the next – so much so that by the end, when you are done reading it, you get the distinct feeling that the author completely nailed the argument – crossed every t and dotted every i. The available pdf version on the internet (courtesy Columbia University) also contains a rejoinder to Babasaheb’s speech by Mahatma Gandhi, and Ambedkar’s response to the Mahatma’s rejoinder.

I will illustrate the precision of Dr. Ambedkar’s language and the severity of his logic by quoting a passage from his treatise. This is from the start of the section titled “Chaturvarnya would be the most vicious system for the Shudras”:

[1:] Assuming that Chaturvarnya is practicable, I contend that it is the most vicious system. That the Brahmins should cultivate knowledge, that the Kshatriya should bear arms, that the Vaishya should trade, and that the Shudra should serve, sounds as though it was a system of division of labour. Whether the theory was intended to state that the Shudra need not, or whether it was intended to lay down that he must not, is an interesting question. The defenders of Chaturvarnya give it the first meaning. They say, why need the Shudra trouble to acquire wealth, when the three [higher] Varnas are there to support him? Why need the Shudra bother to take to education, when there is the Brahmin to whom he can go when the occasion for reading or writing arises? Why need the Shudra worry to arm himself, when there is the Kshatriya to protect him? The theory of Chaturvarnya, understood in this sense, may be said to look upon the Shudra as the ward and the three [higher] Varnas as his guardians. Thus interpreted, it is a simple, elevating, and alluring theory.

[2:] Assuming this to be the correct view of the underlying conception of Chaturvarnya, it seems to me that the system is neither fool-proof nor knave-proof. What is to happen if the Brahmins, Vaishyas, and Kshatriyas fail to pursue knowledge, to engage in economic enterprise, and to be efficient soldiers, which are their respective functions? Contrarywise, suppose that they discharge their functions, but flout their duty to the Shudra or to one another; what is to happen to the Shudra if the three classes refuse to support him on fair terms, or combine to keep him down? Who is to safeguard the interests of the Shudra—or for that matter, those of the Vaishya and Kshatriya—when the person who is trying to take advantage of his ignorance is the Brahmin? Who is to defend the liberty of the Shudra—and for that matter, of the Brahmin and the Vaishya—when the person who is robbing him of it is the Kshatriya?

[3:] Inter-dependence of one class on another class is inevitable. Even dependence of one class upon another may sometimes become allowable. But why make one person depend upon another in the matter of his vital needs? Education, everyone must have. Means of defence, everyone must have. These are the paramount requirements of every man for his self-preservation. How can the fact that his neighbour is educated and armed help a man who is uneducated and disarmed? The whole theory is absurd. These are the questions which the defenders of Chaturvarnya do not seem to be troubled about. But they are very pertinent questions. Assuming that in their conception of Chaturvarnya the relationship between the different classes is that of ward and guardian, and that this is the real conception underlying Chaturvarnya, it must be admitted that it makes no provision to safeguard the interests of the ward from the misdeeds of the guardian.

[4:] Whether or not the relationship of guardian and ward was the real underlying conception on which Chaturvarnya was based, there is no doubt that in practice the relation was that of master and servants. The three classes, Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas, although not very happy in their mutual relationship, managed to work by compromise. The Brahmin flattered the Kshatriya, and both let the Vaishya live in order to be able to live upon him. But the three agreed to beat down the Shudra. He was not allowed to acquire wealth, lest he should be independent of the three [higher] Varnas. He was prohibited from acquiring knowledge, lest he should keep a steady vigil regarding his interests. He was prohibited from bearing arms, lest he should have the means to rebel against their authority. That this is how the Shudras were treated by the Tryavarnikas is evidenced by the Laws of Manu. There is no code of laws more infamous regarding social rights than the Laws of Manu. Any instance from anywhere of social injustice must pale before it.

A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth

For sheer pleasure, if you wish to be transported to another day and age, and you have time to kill, I can recommend nothing better than this wonderful yarn by Vikram Seth. The story is set in north India in the 1950s, just after independence, and revolves around Lata Mehra, a young woman for whom a suitable groom is desired for marriage. Lata’s life, and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s attempts to find the ideal mate for Lata, are the subject of this vast tome, with plenty of side alleys in which Vikram Seth weaves magic around the accompanying cast. If there is one book I’d want to curl up with and just chill, this would be it. Seth is an amazing storyteller.

The story has a few prominent families: the Mehras, among whom Lata and Mrs. Rupa Mehra have already been discussed, but also include Lata’s siblings – her elder sister Savita, her elder brother Arun, and her other brother Varun; the Kapoors, who are related to the Mehras through Lata’s elder sister Savita, who is married to Pran Kapoor; and the Chatterjees, who are related to the Mehras through Meenakshi Chatterjee, who is married to Arun Mehra. Meenakshi’s father is Justice Chatterjee, and the others in her family are Mrs. Chatterjee and her siblings, Amit, Dipankar, Kakoli, and Tapan. The Chatterjee family is probably the best fleshed-out family in the book. There is also the family of the Nawab of Baitar in the story, a close friend of Mr. Mahesh Kapoor, Pran’s father – the Khansahib and his children, Imtiaz, Firoz, and Zainab. The story is set in the fictional town of Brahmpur, located somewhere on the Ganga between Benares and Patna, and in which Pran Kapoor is an English professor who quotes Joyce, while his brother, Maan Kapoor, is a jobless rake and easily the most colorful character in the story. They also have a sister, Veena, who is married, and their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Mahesh Kapoor, are well-known in the town as respectable, well-off citizens. Maan likes to frequent a brothel run by a bai (courtesan) named Saeeda Begum and enjoys Saeeda’s company. His close friend is the son of the nawab, Firoz, who has a crush on Saeeda’s sister Tasneem. There is also a side story involving the sarangi player for Saeeda begum, Ishaq Khan, who decides one day that he will give up playing the sarangi to focus on vocal music, and learn from the great Ustad Majeed Khan, who initially dislikes him because of a quarrel that involves the Muslim caste system, but gradually finds out that Ishaq is that perfect disciple he has been seeking all his life, to whom he can impart all his art.

Lata has three main suitors: Kabir Durrani, from her college, a college cricket player; Amit Chatterjee, a poet of renown; and Haresh Khanna, who works for Praha, a Czech shoe company clearly modeled after Bata. Which of these will she pick? Kabir is clearly a strong favorite, one would think, because he is a college sweetheart; Amit is a recognized poet and very romantic but his head is always in the clouds.  Haresh is very practical and has a stable job with Praha, but seems very boring – all he can talk about is shoes and his job. His only qualification is that he adores Lata.

Seth’s strength is his ability to describe things vividly, and one feels actually transported to Brahmpur as one reads the novel. The relationship between the Ustad and the shagird (teacher and disciple), the relationship between Maan and Saeeda, the dynamics and banter in the entire Chatterjee family – all these are sketched in exquisite detail. Lata’s dilemma as she has to choose between her three suitors is quite evident, and suffice it to say that the ending surprised many.

Some of the characterizations showed incredible skill, sensitivity, and understanding. The relationship between the Ustad and Ishaq showed a keen awareness of the social structure of Muslim musicians in North India. There is a passage where Seth describes a concert that the Ustad is giving – a concert that appears to be the perfect musical performance – as the audience is one with music. It is stirring.

Above all, an author has succeeded when the reader CARES about what happens to the characters, and Seth succeeds beyond belief in this aspect. We care about what happens with Maan – we love his rakish self but hope things turn out well for him; we wonder what will happen to Firoz and Tasneem; we keep rooting for one person or another as Lata’s ideal suitor; and when the ending is different from what we imagined, we are upset!

This book is a triumph of fiction. At over 1500 pages, it is long, but while re-reading it, it sometimes seems that it is not long enough, for one could read it over and over again. I have probably read it fully twice at least. Most of what I have written above is from memory – a friend borrowed my copy more than 10 years ago and never returned it.

American Caesar – Douglas MacArthur, by William Manchester

It must be clear to the reader by now that I have a fondness for military history and biographies, for this is the third biographical book I have listed, after Hitler and Stalin and The New Emperors. I was hoping to avoid this, and instead talk about Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth instead, but I realized I was pathetically informed on the topic, even though I had read and understood that one book, to write a review of it. I could mention it in a list of favorite books, but I am not well-equipped to write a review of it. I need to read a lot more on the subject before I can talk intelligently about evolution. If I make another list in a few years, I hope to include it. So I decided to go back to an area that I can write about with more authority: history.

MacArthur has long been a fascination for me. I saw the movie version starring Gregory Peck before I read this book, and for a long time I had watched programs on the History Channel talking about the Korean War and the famous Inchon landings, and about Truman firing MacArthur for insubordination. This was, after all, the man who took charge of South Korea after the North Koreans invaded in 1950, found a country unprepared for the aggression of the North Koreans (supported by the Chinese), and found himself in an unenviable position – the entire American garrison confined to the perimeter of Pusan and gradually being choked by the North Koreans. In such a circumstance, the stroke of genius that MacArthur had, in planning and executing an audacious amphibious landing on Inchon, on the OTHER SIDE of the Korean peninsula, to choke off and encircle the North Koreans, should and will be remembered as one of the greatest military achievements in modern warfare. Unfortunately, the victory went to MacArthur’s head, and he kept moving northward and into North Korea, until he reached the Yalu river. The Chinese would never accept American soldiers on their border; and this provoked Mao to send a million troops across the border, sending MacArthur and the outnumbered American army scurrying back in an inglorious retreat. But the retreat, which was caused by MacArthur’s vanity and unwillingness to heed intelligence reports, does not take away from the brilliance of Inchon. Eventually, of course, he was fired for insubordination by Truman (because he advocated the use of nuclear bombs on China in spite of warnings by Truman not to do so – Truman worried that such actions would trigger a third World War) and replaced by Matthew Ridgway, who stopped the retreat and established the stalemate along the 38th parallel that continues to this day.

So I had always wanted to read in detail about him – in as unbiased a manner as possible. I also remember having discussions about him with a Chinese lab-mate of mine at Utah, and learned that the Chinese had a negative opinion of him, no doubt because they, in essence, “defeated him” when he over-reached in the Korean War. My friend also pointed to Corregidor, where MacArthur had to flee the island to safety aboard a submarine that took him to Australia in 1941 in the face of the advancing Japanese during WWII, as evidence that he was over-hyped by Americans. The American debacle in the Philippines was, as in Korea later, because of MacArthur’s fatal weakness – an inordinate self-belief and an unwillingness to believe intelligence reports he didn’t like. However, in the four years that ensued, MacArthur largely redeemed himself for his failure in the Philippines, and kept his promise to return to the Philippines in the now-legendary island-hopping campaign – although, in my view, this was only partly his achievement. He probably could never have achieved this without the great successes of the American navy in battles like Coral Sea and Midway. But while the Pacific War in WWII was a combined effort of the army, navy, and air force, this should not take away from MacArthur’s immense contributions in the war.

Manchester explains in the introduction why he compares MacArthur to Caesar:

Most of all, MacArthur was like Julius Caesar: bold, aloof, austere, egotistical, willful. The two generals surrounded themselves with servile aides-de-camp; remained long abroad, one as proconsul and the other as shogun, leading captive peoples in unparalleled growth; loved history; were fiercely grandiose and spectacularly fearless; and reigned as benevolent autocrats.

Manchester’s account of MacArthur is not hagiographical, and that is why it shines. Manchester talks at length, for instance, about MacArthur’s devotion to his mother, a devotion that ruined his own first marriage, and talks of her huge role in making him who he became – she was responsible for the great ambition that MacArthur possessed; he talks about MacArthur’s fondness for sycophancy; his pettiness at times; his paranoia about everyone, ranging from George Marshall, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the generals of Europe to Truman; his vanity, strutting, and peacockery; and his insatiable need for reverence. But he holds that these cannot be held to overshadow the man’s great abilities in warfare, his incredible intelligence, and his remarkable accomplishments, both as wartime general and as peacetime administrator.

But reverence MacArthur could command; love he could not. He tried politics after he was fired by Truman, but was unsuccessful, unlike Eisenhower. Manchester describes the comparison between the two generals thus:

His contemporaries then were far more impressed by his former aide, Eisenhower, with his friendly nickname, his infectious grin, and his filling-station-attendant’s tunic. Ike asked to be liked, and he was; MacArthur demanded that he be revered; and he wasn’t. He had no diminutive. Even his wife addressed him as “General.” Paul V. McNutt, US High Commissioner to the Philippines in the 1930s, said, “I wouldn’t hesitate to call President Quezon ‘Manuel,’ but I never called the General ‘Doug.’”

Had anyone done so, the response would doubtless have been arctic. An officer who was a cadet when he was superintendent of West Point remembers: “He’s the only man in the world who could walk into a room full of drunks and all would be stone-sober within five minutes.” But only levelers will think this pejorative. John Gunther’s chief impression was of his “loftiness and sense of justice. He is that rare thing in the modern world, a genuinely high person.”

Most people in the world, and that included me, are aware of MacArthur only because of his exploits in the Pacific War and in Korea. So this book was a revelation for me, as I realized that the Pacific War in WWII began when MacArthur was already in retirement – that, by the time the war began, MacArthur was the Military Advisor to the Philippine Government, having retired from the US Army as a five-star general, as the highest-ranking officer of the Army – the Chief of Staff of the US Army – after a brilliant career which included getting the Distinguished Service Cross twice and the Silver Star seven times for his achievements during WWI, and after having been nominated twice in his career for the medal of honor. So his achievements in both WWII and Korea happened after he came out of retirement. It is doubtful if we will ever again encounter such a glorious career for a military man. As Manchester says in his introduction,

Unquestionably he was the most gifted man-at-arms this nation has produced. He was also extraordinarily brave. His twenty-two medals – thirteen of them for heroism – probably exceeded those of any other figure in American history.

This is a remarkable book about a great general, and an absolute page-turner. I still remember vividly the section where Manchester talks about how MacArthur convinced the Pentagon to back him in his proposed amphibious plan to land at Inchon, and I will conclude this review with that. Manchester reports that the Pentagon sent a team including a senior general and a senior admiral to dissuade MacArthur from what they thought was a very risky plan. MacArthur held a conference with the visitors and his aides in his palace in Japan, during which he first heard the two men out and then presented his vision. The audience included MacArthur’s chief of staff, Ned Almond, Rear Admiral James Doyle, and Rear Admiral Forrest P. Sherman. Manchester writes, in a passage that shows the towering power of personality the General must have had:

Finally, after nine critics had completed an eighty-minute presentation, MacArthur rose. Afterward he wrote: “I waited a moment or so to collect my thoughts. I could feel the tension rising in the room. Almond shifted uneasily in his chair. If ever a silence was pregnant, this one was. I could almost hear my father’s voice telling me as he had so many years before, ‘Doug, councils of war breed timidity and defeatism.’”

Of the thirty-minute performance which followed, Doyle said, “If MacArthur had gone on stage, you never would have heard of John Barrymore.” The General began by telling them that “the very arguments you have made as to the impracticabilities involved” confirmed his faith in the plan, “for the enemy commander will reason that no one would be so brash as to make such an attempt.” Surprise, he said, “is the most vital element for success in war.”

The amphibious landing, he said, “is the most powerful tool we have.” To employ it properly, “We must strike hard and deep.” Inchon’s hurdles were real, “but they are not insuperable.” He said, “My confidence in the Navy is complete, and in fact I seem to have more confidence in the Navy than the Navy has in itself.” Looking at Sherman, he said: “The Navy has never let me down in the past, and it will not let me down this time.”

He paused dramatically. Then: “Are you content to let our troops stay in that bloody perimeter like beef cattle in the slaughterhouse? Who will take the responsibility for such a tragedy? Certainly, I will not.”

By pouncing on Inchon and then Seoul, he said, he would “cut the enemy’s supply line and seal off the entire southern peninsula … by seizing Seoul I would completely paralyze the enemy’s supply system – coming and going. This in turn will paralyze the fighting power of the troops that now face Walker. Without munitions and food they will soon be helpless and disorganized, and can easily be overpowered by our smaller but well-supplied forces.”

Pointing to Inchon on the wall map, he said, “Gentlemen, this is our anvil, and Johnnie Walker can smash against it from the south.” If he was wrong about the landing, “I will be there personally and will immediately withdraw our forces.” Doyle, stirred, spoke up: “No, General, we don’t know how to do that. Once we start ashore we’ll keep going.” MacArthur had reached them. When another man pointed out that enemy batteries could command the dead-end channel, Sherman, intractable till then, sniffed and said, “I wouldn’t hesitate to take a ship in there.” The General snapped: “Spoken like a Farragut!”  He concluded in a hushed voice: “I can almost hear the ticking of the hand of destiny. We must act now or we will die…Inchon will succeed. And it will save 100,000 lives.”

It was almost a minute before his audience shifted in their chairs. Then Sherman said: “Thank you. A great voice in a great cause.” The admiral told Shepard that he thought the General had been “spellbinding,” and he said to another officer, “I’m going to back the Inchon operation. I think it’s sound.”