My Gita: Devdutt Pattanaik

27318490When a book starts with, “this is my version or interpretation of a classic text,” there’s little that you can say about it.

My Gita is a broad and encompassing interpretation of The Bhagvad Gita, including Hindu philosophy, a bit of comparative study of religions, history, and social structure. It is a non-linear book, so to speak, in that it does not follow the sequence of the chapters as outlined in The Bhagvad Gita. Devdutt Pattanaik, creates his own sequence, for good reason — telling a story (which he usually does).

If you have studied The Bhagvad Gita before, there will be instances, where you may cringe a bit; but you remind yourself, it is his take. If you know little about The Bhagvad Gita, this is a good read to gain a broad context of the book, contemporary life & times, and an idea of the philosophy that is now commonly called Hinduism.

The only risk, I felt, as I read through this easy read, is that if the reader was left with an impression that he or she has a full understanding of The Bhagvad Gita, after reading My Gita. For obvious reasons, there is simplification, and The Bhagvad Gita is much more than what you will read in this book. Perhaps the author should have stressed, at the end of the book, for the reader to read (not just a list of suggested reading) the original text.

Do read, but do not stop your study, with this book.

The Lessons of History; Will & Ariel Durant

6940427This is the right book to read, to get a context of history. For an amateur historian like me, it provides the appropriate context to understand history beyond the chronology of events and people. The Lessons of History, by Will & Ariel Durant is a collection of twelve essays of history in different contexts. Race, earth, religion, war, economics, and such. Each essay looks at the role and impact of these contexts in history, in a relatively simple way, which, however, is not simplistic or reductionist. It has in it some very thought-provoking quotes (which I think I will be quoting for a long time now) which are quite relevant in today’s times. In fact, the entire book, written in 1968, is relevant even now. If you like philosophy of history, this is a definite read.

The History Manifesto; David Armitage, Jo Guldi

23218890Generally a good read, if you don’t mind the academic style. The theme is compelling, for sure, however, the book is too broad-based for my liking. Perhaps that’s the message of the book, come to think of it.

I can’t say I thoroughly enjoyed the book, yet I cannot say I disliked it either.

As an amateur history enthusiast, there are many parts of the book that fail to leave an impression. Also, the repeated references to climate change were uninteresting.

In fact, if you do not want to go through the book, read the introduction — it provides a very good overview of what the book is all about, and should satisfy an amateur’s understanding of the three approaches that the book talks of.

In conclusion, I think this books is written for a very specific audience; and it’s not me.

Courage: The Joy of Living Dangerously; Osho

96999It is quintessential Osho.

Like some of the other books in the series, it’s a call to discover all that’s forgotten while we go about living our lives the way we have learnt to, or have been told to. Like many such similar books, it sounds wonderfully real and true, while we ponder the practicality of it all. And such cynicism is ironical, after having read the book.

Osho talks of courage – the opposite of fear. And elsewhere he talks of fear as the absence of love. Somewhere, in my head, courage becomes love and love becomes courage.

Like other books in the series, the tone in  Courage: The Joy of Living Dangerously is conversational, I believe the entire series has been adapted from his talks, and little has been done to adapt it to ‘book form’. That’s special about this series.

There are no specific “how-tos” in the book, so if you are looking for something on those lines, you will be disappointed, though, at the end of the book, there is a list of a few techniques of mediation. All through the book, you will find something that will ask of you, a personal reflection; something like:

In the hands of the heart the intellect becomes intelligent. It is a transformation, a total transformation of energy. Then the person does not become an intellectual, he simply becomes wise.

or,

[…] brave people are nothing but cowards upside down.

Interspersed with anecdotes and jokes, Osho makes a good case for living a life that way we really want to but we are either unaware of the fact or have no idea how. There’s call to action, a teasing sarcasm, generous humour, and a seriousness of simplicity. The ideas may come across as radical even, at times, yet it is enjoyable read, if this kind of subject is interesting for you.

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s ‘Strategic Agnosticism’; Wolf, Siegfried O.

The Internet is a funny place. One minute you are listening to wonderful music, searching lyrics, translations and such and the next minute, you are reading an article on “Strategic Agnosticism.”

How I stumbled upon this article is another story, but that I did stumble upon is what’s interesting. Most of Veer Savarkar’s writing is in, what I call, difficult Marathi, which means that it is almost impossible for me to read it in good time and understand it without having to reach for a dictionary every third sentence. This relatively short paper (20 pages) was a good overview of his philosophical leanings. It is worth a read, if social and political philosophy interests you, and if you would consider getting to know this thinking in an objective way.

Download the PDF from the The Heidelberg Document Repository [PDF 1 MB]

 

Haroun and the Sea of Stories; Salman Rushdie

I do not remember the last time I was grinning, smiling, excited, and as eager to know what happens next – as I was – when I was reading Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. For a while now, and age probably has got something to do with it – I have ceased to call things – life-changing. Perhaps, as we go along in our life and get to know that lesser life remains, perhaps there is less of life to change.

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For two days, I lived an experience similar to that when I used to read story-books, a long time ago. That experience has a few determining qualities:

First, it creates heart-wrenching curiosity to know what happens next. There is excitement due to the dark shroud of dread, fused with a bright tube of hope. You feel all the emotions that the author wants you to feel. There is a sense of freedom in those slavish moment.

Second, the experience allows you to allow yourself to allow irrationality that we have absorbed from this world. And after we have allowed this willing suspension of disbelief, the fantastical journey becomes your own and you travel beside every character as you do with people in your everyday commute.

Finally,  it remains with you. Stories told well have a lasting impact on you. Think about the grandmother-generalisation, if you will. Her stories are the ones that have remained with you for ever. Grandparents in general and grandmothers in specific are prone to developing skills of good story-telling.

This is the first book by Salman Rushdie that I have ever read, and like most others, I know more about his infamous book and the surrounding controversies than anything else. If you have been following my reviews for a while, I usually refrain from superlatives, but this is the work of a genius.

Potential Spoilers Ahead

The story runs at three levels. In order that they were revealed to me: The first one and the most enjoyable is the story itself – the vents, the characters and their lives and accidents. Below it, not very well camouflaged is, a political and social level, which an adult will want to uncover. The partially concealed metaphors make you want to probe within the store of your mind about relationships, meanings and linkages. The last one, is philosophical. This is a layer that can be said to be common in almost every book, because of the subtle nature of philosophy and its ability to be found almost anywhere. Yet, in this book, it stands strong. It is forceful and has an enduring after-taste.

The meat of it, however, is still in the story and the adventure. It is fully fantastical, curiously exaggerated , and a challenge to your imagination at all times. The language is young and flows like child-like curiosity and mischief.

It is not, as I have now stopped calling things – life-changing – but it is definitely a book that may allow you to change your perspectives about some things in life.

In the worst case, it is a beautiful story – and this is such a wonderful worst case to have!

The Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing; Philippe L. Gross, S. I. Shapiro

I chose this book because of a post I read, while surfing for something about psychology and photography. (Don’t ask me why, I now, don’t remember). But I am glad, I did. It is good book, and probably deserves more than the three stars I have given it.

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The Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing is a book that may get easily misinterpreted as a book about photography technique. It does talk of camera work, method, and techniques. But it is not a book that teaches you photography. At all; if you ask me. The book provides a context to being a photographer in a Taoistic framework, if you will. The book is replete with references and quotes from famous photographers who have found the zen-like state as they took their photographs.

It is essentially a philosophy book, in the context of photography. And an important one, I would think, as more and more of photographic work becomes slave to micro and meta definition. While understanding the science and the technology of photograph is important (and the book makes a small case for it), photographers have an urgent need to get out of the rut of classification and belonging – as more and more photographs start looking the same, there are few that pierce your heart and ooze out emotion, the way they should. Of course, with so many photographs being clicked in the world – finding such photos has become very difficult indeed. But if you do understand this philosophy and are able to import it in your ‘act of photography’, you may find your self discovering things about your art – especially, if you feel stagnated in your work.

The book itself has a very interesting and varying showcase of work from some of the greats, which makes it an interesting read as visual context to the words is woven well. Some of the sections are repetitive – and I have now resigned to this form of writing by most contemporary writers of the non-fiction genre. It seems that constant reminders of the theme of the book is the new template and technique of the modern non-fiction.

If you would like to understand the mind and state of a good photographer, this is a very good book. If you expect tips and techniques to take good photographs, this is not a very good book. If you are willing to keep an open mind and be with the book and yourself, you might discover some interesting secrets about the art you love so much.

Educational philosophies of Swami Vivekananda and John Dewey; D. Vijaya Bharathy

While the subject matter of the book is quite interesting, the presentation and the format of the philosophies, leave much to be desired. For one, the book has apparently not been copy-edited. Spelling mistakes and bad sentence construction abound. Most sections are toxic repetitions, for no apparent purpose.

Since this is a comparative study, you would expect some level of academic and analytical exposition of various attributes of the the philosophies of these two great thinkers of education. The last section, where the comparison is done, is done at a very objective, almost binary level. To someone, who may have an objective-type question paper to answer, this may serve as a good textbook, but for someone trying to understand, internalise and look for a critique of these two thinkers, there’s nothing in the book.

It is doubly unfortunate that while there is a significant body of content that can come from Indian academia —  it is lacking, and; that whatever literature we may find in these subjects is way below quality in content as well as presentation. I do not recommend this book to any serious reader — you are better off reading their biographies and philosophies separately and comparing them yourselves.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable; Nassim Nicholas Taleb

A fine book. It took three failed starts before I finally got in the groove and completed the book. This, for me was a classical case of “you don’t go the books, the books come to you” and similar esotericism.

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One problem, about this book, and I wonder how NN Taleb agreed, was its classification as a book on economics. The range of the domains that this book wanders through are many: sociology, history, philosophy, epistemology, science, mathematics, psychology and of course, economics.

The initial pages are a bit daunting for the casual reader, and unless you tune in to the ideas and become more accepting of the author’s arrogance and his personal brand of humour, you may find it difficult to move ahead. And speaking of arrogance, while this book is all about the uncertainty around us, I cannot but think of a quote from Richard Bach’s The Bridge Across Forever: “…but arrogance came from certainty.

But as you go through the book, it becomes obvious that this book does not have a “universal appeal”, like some of the other books in the here’s-something-you-never-thought-of genre. It’s not ‘pop’, so to speak. If you read the full book, you may even understand why. I wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone. It requires a certain temperament to get past the first thirty pages and then maintain that sensitivity throughout the time that you read it. In short, you should be willing to allow most of the things that you know, to be broken down (even, if later, you don’t agree with the author).

It might even be the case, that all that you quietly held as true, finds expressive form, after you read the book.

You never know.

Hegel: A Very Short Introduction; Peter Singer

It all really started because of my interest in the works of John Dewey. In various articles and books, there was continuing reference to Hegel’s works and Hegelian thought. A quick look at the Wikipedia entry left me lost more than before and unable to capture the essence of his philosophy, and with full awareness that I would probably leave the book half-read, I picked up this very short introduction by Peter Singer.

Though short, I must say that it was as unputdownable as any racy fiction I used to read in college or school. That’s beyond a compliment for a book on philosophy, attempting to describe the gist of the works of a philosopher who has a strong reputation for being obscure and unintelligible.

Peter Singer has done a fabulous job.

Hegel: A Very Short Introduction, by Peter Singer is a very simple book to read, given you have some interest and background in philosophy. Having said that, this is a book, almost anybody can pick up and make sense. Peter Singer employs the right devices to simplify and distil the essence of Hegel’s philosophy in mere 152 pages. He does not impose his interpretations at any time, and for when you feel he does, he ends a section with a good exposition of both sides of the story. It is not over-simplified, which is just right, because that would amount to a significant dilution in comprehending Hegel’s thought. This book allows you to imagine the breadth and he depth of Hegelian philosophy, and importantly for me — encountering that word anywhere, I have a clear map of what Hegelian thought would mean.

I would love to get into some recurring thoughts I have had about Hegel himself, but I shall reserve them for a different post, elsewhere.